3 Entry Points for Empowering Students
What It Looks Like in Practice
Student empowerment, voice & agency are the highest marks that can be achieved on most educator rubrics when it comes to formal teacher evaluations. Classrooms that are student-centered and thriving embody a culture of student directed learning, student management, resilience and empowerment. To some teachers, this comes naturally while to others it may feel like treason. While leading professional development across the nation, we have discovered that many teachers are frightened by the misconception that student voice equals a Lord of the Flies hostile takeover that relinquishes all power. Student voice is still taboo in schools and districts nationwide for that very reason. There is a fear of failing and losing control. When lessons or learning are floundering in a classroom environment, it seems frightening to give students’ even more power when students already seem disengaged and even unreceptive to learning. So how can educators effectively leverage student voice and agency to create thriving environments where students are the drivers of innovation, relevance, & creativity of learning?
Entry Point #1: Spend Time on Their Turf
When students are in our classrooms, they may feel that they are on our turf and our terms. We may give opportunities for students to complete anonymous surveys, add sticky notes to a brainstorming chart or crowd source a Google Doc for gathering information. When they are on our turf they are in our formal world of standards, timelines, grading, expectations and content. When we venture out onto their turf, we are declaring our submission to their terms within their ecosystems. Visiting students in the cafeteria, at recess, or even before school while walking in together are all “off the clock” opportunities to connect to our students’ worlds. During our 75 hours of turf ecosystem experiences (mostly on voluntary playground or lunch duty), we discovered three perceptual types of plotlines that students seemed to offer up to us:
1. What children think about their school and their educational experiences.
2. What adults think about their school and instructional or leadership experiences.
3. What adults think their students think about their school and educational experiences.
How many times have we, as educators, thought about our students’ perceptions of our classrooms? How will we know what to change for them if we don’t ever ask them? This is the entry point for the Let Them Speak! Project.
Entry Point #2: Create a Social Contract
A connected risk-taking classroom begins with a social contract. Authentically connecting in any formal setting, such as school, requires intentionality, a common language and common co-constructed guidelines for an environment rooted in happiness agency and authentic purpose-driven motivation for learning. Empowering students begins with really empowering students. In the book, Discipline with Dignity, Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler share the keys to developing an effective social contract. Capturing Kids Hearts, a professional development experience created by Flip Flippen, focuses on developing self-managing, high performing classrooms through the co-creation of a social contract. They suggest four driving questions for inviting a mutual agreement of values, rules and consequences:
· How do you want to be treated by me, the teacher?
· How do you want to be treated by each other?
· How do you think I want to be treated by you?
· How do you want to be treated when there is conflict?
Asking students these questions and charting their responses on a poster makes their needs visible and clear and having students sign their names on the poster formalizes their commitment. Before we can ever begin to formally dialogue with students in our classrooms regarding curriculum, policies or the environment of our schools, we must first establish a culture that is accepting of differences, conflict, vulnerability and honesty. Establishing a framework for how we interact with one another is the foundation of trust.
Entry Point #3: Elicit Authentic Feedback and Adapt to Students’ Social Needs
Spending time on student turf ecosystems initializes empowerment by simply listening and displaying understanding and empathy. Time with students on their terms builds relationships that can transcend into positive community impact. When you hear that zinger or stinger from a student while visiting the playground or cafeteria, what do you do with that information? Do you adapt your adult behavior to meet their needs or do you become offended by your students’ real truths? These simple reflective steps have the power to transform your classroom, grade level, or school:
Acknowledge and state the newly learned social need.
Reference the social contract and promises to each other while talking through a challenge or disagreement.
Elicit ideas from students to overcome or change classroom practices to meet their social needs.
Chart out the old practice and the newly agreed upon classroom practice.
Follow-through with the commitment and check in periodically to see if the new practice is working.
Believe that adults and students share the same classroom and school experiences and that each of us wants what is best for teaching and learning to thrive.
What advantages does this create—and what challenges? How might this emphasis on adapting adult behavior to meet the needs of students, transform traditional curriculum and instructional frameworks to develop students as leaders and innovators? There are a myriad of topics that could possibly arise including the role of technology in shifting instructional paradigms, student activism, problem-solving skills, homework, independent work versus group work, and student choice within the curriculum.
In Marzano’s High Reliability Schools, the highest mark to reach is personalized competency based education. Educators looking to reach this level of mastery in teaching cannot attain this without high adaptable engagement with student agency.