Speak Up: Using Student Voice to Transform the Classroom
If you talk to Evelyn Rebollar’s students, many will tell you how they struggled academically before entering her classroom. As transfer students, many of them enroll at Bronx Arena after struggling to find success in traditional classroom environments. In her essay, Rebollar describes the unique blend of community and rigor that has helped 100 percent of her recent students pass the New York State English Regents exam—and grow emotionally along the way.
As students wrap up an exit slip for a lesson on figurative language, Alex stirs in her seat. “That wasn’t your best lesson,” she says. “I think we would’ve done better if we had an idea of what the finalized product looked like, like we have in the past.”
There is trepidation in her voice, but what Alex doesn’t realize is that her willingness to criticize my instruction marks one of my proudest moments as her teacher. It is the culmination of a formalized structure of student feedback and peer review that has become ingrained in the culture of my classroom.
It has taken my students time to get here—to become accustomed to critiquing our lessons. As transfer students, they often have a history of refusing to conform to authority. They enter my classroom poised to continue the age-old battle between authoritative teacher and inquisitive student. But they want to learn. They crave it.
When I first started teaching, I sought to emulate teachers who seemed to have effortless command of the students’ respect. I tried to get my students to follow all of my directions without question. What ensued was usually a poorly choreographed tango between the student and me, with the rest of the classroom as our audience. My approach had to change if I was going to reach every single student.
I tried to feel with the heart of a student. To figure out how to do this, I considered why more than anyone in my life, I trusted my principal, Ty Cesene, to allow me to grow as an educator and staff member. I asked myself, What are some practices that Ty implements to invest the whole staff and make us feel good about working here? I wanted to use those same strategies to create a sense of community in my classroom.
My thoughts turned to the portion of our staff meetings when whole-school and individual classroom data is distributed for staff to analyze. It had always been the time when I was most engaged because it directly affected the way the school performed. I wanted my students to feel the same sense of being an integral part of the classroom community, and I decided to extend these staff meeting structures to my students.
We call them Arena 3 meetings, named after our classroom number. The purpose of an Arena 3 meeting is two-fold. First, the goal is to give students a safe space to vent frustrations and make suggestions for future practices. The second goal is to involve students in analyzing data on Arena 3’s performance as a class and in comparison to the rest of the school.
We nearly fumble our first attempt.
The students and I sit in a circle along with Nicole, their assigned advocate counselor as additional social-emotional support in the room. The projector is ready with a Google Slides presentation. An inquisitive Marvin asks, “Why are we doing this?” Lesli sighs. But when they see the bar graph depicting Arena 3’s attendance in comparison to the other classes in the school, my students fall silent for a second. While their attendance isn’t terrible compared to other classrooms, it isn’t the best in the school, either. And it certainly isn’t what it could be.
Soon the silence is broken by a cacophony of analysis:
“Be honest, we’re not doing that bad, miss,” Chassan notes. “I feel like if more students were enrolled in the class, our attendance would be higher.” Although Chassan’s observation might be inaccurate, I note that he is at least exercising a growth mindset—a skill the students and I work diligently to master.
“Yeah,” Joseph interrupts, “but it’s a percentage, so it doesn’t matter how many students are in the classroom. The numbers are based on the students enrolled, so it levels out.”
Christian waits for the chatter to settle before stating, “I don’t know. I think this school is different from last year. That’s why people aren’t coming.” His input spurs a discussion about changes in the new school year and the ways they affect attendance in our classroom.
Our first meeting lacks structure, but students are engaged; they are all struggling, and in many ways succeeding, at applying a narrative to data—an English language arts skill that is paramount to critical thinking. They exchange hypotheses and challenge one another. Within that half hour, I don’t have to mitigate behavioral issues at all, and as they speak, I realize that the key to effective classroom management is engaging curriculum. Students don’t misbehave when they’re challenged and interested.
For the first time, I’ve positioned myself as an additional resource in the classroom, rather than the authority of knowledge—and even if it’s not perfect, it’s liberating.
It is a valiant first attempt at elevating the voices of my students. For the first time, I’ve positioned myself as an additional resource in the classroom, rather than the authority of knowledge—and even if it’s not perfect, it’s liberating. We end the meeting with an exit slip that requires the students to provide one actionable step they can take to improve attendance and one suggestion for me to support their attendance goals.
Eventually, I start to welcome criticism of my lessons, and invite students to shed light on concepts with which other students struggle. Identifying those struggling students becomes easier because of the Arena 3 meetings. My students see that I become better at managing my time after they criticize my tendency to double-book student conferences. They become more comfortable asking for support with assignments because I adjust lessons according to their feedback during the meetings. Watching me admit to my mistakes and take steps to improve upon my practice results in continuous positive and constructive feedback. My classroom gradually transforms—not just for the students, but also for me—into an environment of constant revision through praise, criticism, and respect for those who embrace failure.
In a more recent meeting, the topic of discussion is classroom structures.
“I’m tired of you always making new rules,” Chuk complains.
“Facts,” Lesli agrees. “You can’t come to us in the middle of the year, trying to make new consequences. You want to charge us money for cursing and take our phones when we don’t complete our daily work requirement.”
It is uncomfortable to hear, but the nods around the circle tell me I’ve violated their sense of equality in my recent practices.
“Okay, Chuk,” I respond, “I hear you. I’ll address the complaints one at a time. Firstly, the swear jar was your idea, and honestly, it’s been really effective in getting you guys to monitor your cursing. Last month, you owed me $25. This month you only owe me $10. I’d like to keep the jar if that’s okay with you all.”
After a vote to keep it, I continue: “To the second issue then, and maybe we can solve it together: the data shows that Arena 3 is slipping in credits earned for the month of January. What does that show about us?”
“We’re not meeting our daily minimum work requirements,” Jasmine concludes.
“So how can we tackle the issue of having created a weekly work completion plan and not meeting the requirements? You don’t have to answer right away. Take a minute and let’s brainstorm why we are not on-task and how we can get back on it.”
Aditi suggests, “Wait, what happened to you calling our parents? Do you not do that anymore?”
“We do call parents, but I have been very busy lately with the Senior Portfolio class and haven’t been able to make time for it. That is solely my fault, and if you all felt that calling home supported your getting work done, I will make that a priority. Sorry I haven’t been on it in a while.” Then I ask, “How about some incentives?”
By the end of the meeting, I’ve agreed to monthly Arena 3 awards, and my students have agreed to create individualized digital monthly work completion plans with me.
It may seem as though these meetings are merely housekeeping procedures, but in those 30 minutes, students engage in drawing evidence-based conclusions, problem-solving, accountable talk, building off of one another’s ideas, and respecting each other’s opinions—skills that are currently assessed in any sound academic framework. Often, as teachers, we place so much emphasis on students’ academic growth that we forget that their socio-emotional growth is essential for that academic excellence to occur. To support student success across the grade levels, we need to encourage effective ways for them to express their honest feelings.
In our Arena 3 meetings, the students have taught me how much more pleasurable teaching is when the work is not only on my shoulders but on theirs as well. My criticizing student, Alex, is a welcome reminder that my students can, and always have been, capable of thinking for—and teaching—themselves. Where before, Alex may have been nervous to share her suggestions, now at the end of her lessons she sits confidently in her chair, makes eye contact with her peers and prompts, “Let’s go around the table for some constructive feedback.”
Ms. Rebollar checks in with her students.
Ms. Rebollar and her students hold an Arena 3 meeting.
Ms. Rebollar's students can see there's room for improvement when looking at attendance data.
Students discuss an idea during an Arena 3 meeting.
A few Arena 3 ground rules.
March 28, 2016
Gold Standard PBL: Student Voice & Choice
Like a lot of things about PBL, student voice and choice sounds simple on the surface but has deeper layers if you drill down. I was led to consider some new aspects of this Essential Project Design Element in a recent hangout discussion with some of our deep-thinking National Faculty members, Jennifer Klein, Kristyn Kamps, and Mike Kaechele.
Why provide opportunities for students to have voice and choice in PBL? It’s often noted that being able to make choices is motivating for students. It makes them less passive, more active. But for some kids, we agreed, voice and choice in a project is really a “make or break” element. Without it, a project can feel like just another assignment given by the teacher – except longer and harder. “We have to stop doing school to kids,” Mike said. “Make it more about what they care about.” Kristyn added that many 7th and 8th grade students know that what they do before high school “doesn’t count.” But at that age they also feel like they’re “ready to contribute, so if they’re not allowed that chance, they can shut down very quickly.”
Another layer was added by Jennifer, who said, “It’s a 21st century imperative.” She explained that, to meet the challenges facing the world today and in the future, we‘re going to need leaders and problem-solvers who will take initiative. Schools can help create these citizens by letting kids explore what matters to them – when given voice and choice in PBL – and teaching them how to tackle real-world problems.
You can watch the recorded hangout to hear more about how student voice and choice played out in the projects described by our National Faculty members, but here are some of the best practices and tips they shared:
- Consider the purpose of giving students voice and choice; why are you offering it? Would it be done in a comparable real-world project? Don’t offer it just because they ask or it’s what you think you’re “supposed to do” in PBL.
- Voice and choice should be limited at times, just like in the real world, where we often work under constraints. For example, adults can’t always choose their own work groups. Or think of an architect who is constrained by budgets, building codes, location, and client preferences.
- Too much choice can be paralyzing for students, so provide scaffolding. Especially for students who are new to PBL, some structure is needed, and you can always given them more freedom. For example, instead of allowing totally wide-open choice of products in a project, have them pick from a list.
- Create a list of product options with students, so they won’t feel like they’re being over-directed by the teacher. And as Jennifer noted, the divergent thinkers in your class will come up with 15 options you had not thought of! (Mike said he sometimes tells students what they can’t do – e.g., “no slide presentations” if they’ve become too common.)
- Find out what your students are interested in; conduct a survey or inventory at the beginning of the year.
- If you’re new to PBL, create opportunities for voice and choice before you launch projects, too. This allows students to understand what it means to have voice and choice and learn how to exercise it – and helps build a culture conducive to PBL. These “practice runs” also allow teachers to experience what it’s like (if they haven’t done so in the past) to give up some control over the classroom.
The content coverage issue
We acknowledged another challenge when it comes to voice and choice, especially at the secondary level where, as Jennifer put it, “content trumps everything.” Teachers might worry that if student teams choose a certain aspect of a topic, they will miss other aspects, and potentially be “missing” a key piece of knowledge. This gets more into the pedagogical weeds than we had time for, but it is to some extent an issue of what do students really need to learn; how much content do teachers really have to “cover”? (The answer usually is, “less than we used to think.”) We mentioned that this challenge can be addressed by proper project design and scaffolding – e.g., the requirements for products, peer feedback systems, jigsawed group work, and guidance for students to help them make good choices.
Voice is distinct from choice
One other point came up that I think bears repeating: providing opportunities for hearing student voice goes beyond just giving them choices. Mike gave the example of the MyParty Election project, in which students create their own political parties and it is key that they make their own opinions heard. I also thought of the Resilience Café project from PBLU.org, where students write and perform spoken word poetry about their own identities, lives, and communities.
Another opportunity to hear student voice is at the end of a project, by asking them to reflect on the project itself – how it was designed, taught, carried out, what was learned, and so on. This might not always be consistently good news for the teacher, but Mike pointed out an important reminder: if you give students a voice, you have to be willing to listen. (If not, he says, “they’ll call BS on you!”)
In conclusion, our guests gave some words of encouragement. Jennifer reiterated that we don’t need more repetition of what’s been done in the past; we need “classrooms that foster independent thinking.” Kristyn said that with voice and choice, “a child who’s totally disconnected in class may suddenly wake up and surprise you.” Mike offered, “When it comes to voice and choice, go for it – you won’t lose control of everything. Take the leap and the reward will pay off. You’ll see students do things they’ll never do in the classroom you’re controlling.”
I think each of those comments is Twitter-worthy – see you there!
Do you have questions, tips, or stories to tell about student voice and choice in PBL? Please make a comment below.