How Top Teachers Make Student Voice a High Priority

By Sarah Schwartz — March 11, 2020 6 min read
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Students should know that their voices can make a difference, say some of the nation’s top teachers.

That’s the message coming from winners of the Milken Educator Awards, an annual contest for the nation’s teachers, principals, and other K-12 instructional professionals.

For more than three decades, the Milken Family Foundation has recognized educators across the country with the award for excellence in teaching and leadership. Winners get a $25,000 cash prize to spend however they like. This year, 40 educators have won the award.

In recent years, Education Week has asked some of the winners to reflect on their teaching and the profession. This time, we asked about student voice and civic engagement.

Teachers in the U.S. have watched as this generation of students spurred social movements. Thousands of students rallied against gun violence in the aftermath of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida two years ago. In 2019, U.S. kids and teenagers participated in the global climate strike, walking out of school to protest climate change.

See also: Citizen Z: An Education Week Project

So we asked this year’s Milken educators: How do you promote student voice, in and outside of the classroom?

Some mentioned nurturing their students’ burgeoning advocacy, or discussing the importance of presidential elections. Others focused on how they gain students’ trust, creating a classroom environment where students feel comfortable speaking their minds.

Overall, though, the honorees stressed that students should feel like their voice has value—in school and in the world at large. Written responses from the educators have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Willever, high school social studies teacher, Ramsey High School, Ramsey, N.J.

“Promoting student voice has to begin with promoting student inquiry. My experience has taught me that if students aren’t interested in ‘the question,’ they won’t be interested in sharing their answers, beliefs, ideas, or solutions. Empowering students to ask their own questions about the world, and seek out answers to the problems that interest them, is an essential component of promoting student voice.

“A classroom environment that is driven by inquiry doesn’t shut out any voices, but invites dialogue from all participants. In a presidential election year, I want my students to ask questions like ‘Why do elections matter?’, ‘How can I make my voice heard in this election?’, and ‘Why is this political argument being made in this way?’

“This mindset can transcend the walls of the classroom. As students begin to see the value of inquiry, they are more likely to think critically about the world around them and ask the ‘why and how’ questions that drive good citizenship in a democracy.”

ImageLeslie Sullivan, high school social studies and history teacher, Palmetto Scholars Academy, North Charleston, S.C.

“Student voice is supported when we encourage students to use their voice often, and not always with the purpose of assessment.

“Students vary in their confidence in public speaking and so there need to be avenues for all students to participate and scaffolding to help to build that confidence. I teach both U.S. history and government and find that by making material relatable to areas of their life or current events, students become more confident in drawing connections and advocating.

“I have also tried to bring in people from the community, including both powerful people like Rep. Joe Cunningham, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina’s 1st congressional district, but also people they know who have used their voice to make a difference even in a small way. Students then come up with topics about which they wish to advocate.”

ImageJohnnie Marshall, assistant principal, Valdosta Early College Academy, Valdosta, Ga.

“Encouraging student voice allows scholars to take ownership of their learning by building literacy skills. Through student voice exercises, scholars express creativity, formulate their ideas and beliefs, communicate their positions, and inspire change.

“Leveraging technology, specifically iPads, has allowed our scholars to share their voice to collaborate, communicate, think critically, and create in innovative and authentic ways. From producing videos and products to demonstrate mastery of learning to creating and executing student-led programs, our teachers integrate student voice to elevate relevance and creativity.”

ImageSteven Gamache, 8th grade English/language arts teacher and middle school ELA curriculum manager and coach, Paul Habans Charter School, New Orleans, La.

“First, we do a lot of writing, and I always frame it in a way that is based on your voice—you want to be able to get your point across, have people listen to and understand you, and sometimes even change their minds. If you can lay out an argument or another piece of writing in a logical, coherent way, people will be able to follow and consider what you are saying.

“I also do discussions based on books we read using open-ended questions. Kids prepare their answers and provide evidence from the book and then come the next day to discuss. We get in a circle and take turns answering, providing supporting evidence, building on each other’s answers, and debating. Those are some of the best days.

“Outside of the classroom, one experience comes to mind. Two years ago after the Stoneman Douglas shooting in Florida, 8th graders staged a walkout where they gave speeches about gun violence. They were so interested that we coordinated with a local protest and marched through downtown, ending up at City Hall.

“There were speakers, and the crowd was really energetic. We even got our students up on stage to say a few words to the crowd! It was amazing to be out there with them—they had so much passion and energy—they led chants and were very invested in the cause. Several people came up to me and were shocked to hear that they were only in middle school. It was great to see them take on a real-world issue outside of school.”

ImageKatie McQuone, high school career and technical education teacher, Sunnyside High School, Fresno, Calif.

“I try to engage my students in civic education by creating public service announcements. As a video class, it’s important to teach my students that they have a set of skills that allow them to get information out to our world in a quick and fun way. Documenting things happening around them and studying topics that affect both themselves and their families or friends is important work.

“Over the last few years, my classes have studied human trafficking, the Armenian Genocide, and gathered stories of veterans to create PSAs and documentaries to inform and create a call to action to the public.”

ImageBrian Allman, 6th grade social studies teacher, Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School, Buckhannon, W.Va.

“The key to promoting student voice can be traced back to the establishment of a classroom culture based on mutual respect. Relationships are so important because once students know that you care and are genuinely interested in them, they are much more likely to be invested in all aspects of the classroom. Students are more engaged and realize that their voices matter. They, in turn, are more likely to contribute in amazing ways both in and out of school.

“As a social studies teacher, my hope is that my students see how important it is to use their voice and be engaged in the world around them. It’s a critical component of any strong democracy. Fostering the voices of my students at a young age will help them grow into productive citizens who have the ability to contribute to society in extraordinary ways for the rest of their lives.”

Images courtesy of the Milken Family Foundation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.