My mother raised me to raise my voice. She raised me to believe that my voice mattered. That speaking up when I saw injustice was a part of my civic duty. To not take my position of power within my white privilege for granted but to recognize it and share it with others.
My teachers taught me I was different.
That I was too loud. Too opinionated. Too much.
That I was the bad child to be avoided.
That I needed to learn how to tone it down.
Lower my voice.
Let others speak before I added my voice.
If it wasn’t for my mother’s insistence that my voice mattered, I would have been a silent child.
A silent adult.
As I see students speak up in the aftermath of yet another horrific school shooting, I cannot help but be proud. This is why I teach the way I do. This is why I believe that what we do matters.
When we create learning communities that thrive on discussion. That thrives on student voice. That tell those we teach to speak up rather than to stay silent, this is when we are truly changing the future of this world.
So what can we as teachers do to encourage student voice? How can we make sure the very children we teach know that their voice is needed for a better future?
Let them speak.
While it sounds so simple for many of us, it is not. Afterall, faced with curriculum deadlines, content standards, and all of the things we need to do, there are times that we forget that teaching is not meant to be a performance of one, but a chorus of many. In fact, research indicates that teachers speak more than 60-75 % of the time. That leaves very little time for those we teach to find their own voice. So monitor your own. Ask a question and step back or better yet, ask the students to ask the questions and guide them along the way. This doesn’t start as they get older, this starts as they enter school.
Teach them to question.
Questioning is one of the single most powerful skills we can pass on to students. And yes that also means questioning us. Provide opportunities for them to question what they see, let them know that they should be questioning what they are learning, and show them through example that it is fine to question you, the authority in the room. I would rather have students who dare to speak than those who remain silent. We discuss how to question authority with respect, but also that you should fight for what you believe in.
Make room for debate.
I know it is scary at times to be a teacher in a heated political climate, at times, I feel like whatever I say feels like a loaded question, and yet, we must find ways to bring hard topics into our classrooms and then step aside. I tell my students that I am not here to shape their opinion, I am here to give them an opportunity to shape their own. They know our discussions are not about what I want them to believe but instead about them coming up with something to believe in and then fact-checking it. It is not enough to have an opinion, you must realize where it stems from.
Ask, “Now what?”
My wise friend, Dana Stachowiak, taught me to always ask, “Now what?” when I believe in something. She reminds me that forming an opinion is not the point, but doing something about it and continuing to question is. So when students write persuasive essays, when students discuss, when students uncover new information, ask them, “Now what?” What do you plan on doing with the information? What else do you need to learn? What can you do with this belief that you have?
Show them change.
I survey my students throughout the year about how I can be a better teacher. It is one of the best things I do. And yes, there are criticisms every single time I read the surveys, things I could do better. Things they would like to see me improve. And so I try when I can and we discuss the changes needed for the experience to be better for all of us, me included. When students see an adult, who does not have to listen to their voice because let’s face it nothing says we have to, actually listen to them and implement change because of them, they see the power of having a voice in the first place. This is vital for them to believe that they can be changemakers.
Support don’t punish.
I have been appalled at the districts that are telling students they will be suspended if they protest. Have we forgotten that this very nation was founded on the notion of protest and speaking up when we saw a wrong? Why we would tell students, who we teach about inequality, about courage, about sacrifice, that they cannot exercise their right to free speech, blows my mind. So instead of saying no, find a way to support. Show them where they can go to protest, show them how to do it safely. Step up as leaders of this future generation rather than the oppressive older generation, a cliché that has been held on to for too many years.
Create deeper learning opportunities for all.
Last weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to read the final draft of Sara Ahmed’s book Being the Change, a book being released on March 29th by Heinemann. Sara’s book ignited my already present fire to create further opportunities for students to dissect their own identity, to push their own knowledge boundaries, and find a way to bring the world in as part of our curriculum. This book is a game changer and provides a blueprint for us to do more with what we already do. Centering on student identity and not the teacher’s this book gives us the needed tools to create classrooms that are focused on social comprehension without dictating a political path. I am thankful that this book will be out in the world soon for all of us.
Don’t forget our purpose.
Education is to better our world, not to create better test takers. Education is to create a new generation of literate adults who question the world around them, who uncover information, who seek to right the wrongs of this world. To help children become complex thinkers and problem solvers, who strive to make this world a better place not just for themselves but for a society as a whole. That is not a political sentiment, but a humanitarian one. We must continue to do better. We are teachers of the children who will write the history of this world, so what type of history would we like them to create? One that echoes the dystopian novels that sit in our classrooms, or one that continues to focus on better for all?
For the past weeks, my students have looked to me and the other adults in our building for answers more than ever before. I have been asked how I will keep them safe, what our plan is in case the unthinkable happens, how I feel about what is going on in the world. I have done the best I can to share my own thoughts without scaring them, without forcing my opinion on them. And yet, I keep thinking about all of the things we already do; how our job as educators was never to be the sole voice in the classroom, but instead to help our students raise theirs. So how do I plan on keeping them safe, by making sure that they know they can change the world.
If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017. This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block. If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students. Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.