By Cris Charbonneau
At a time in life when most of us are desperately trying to blend in, I struggled in elementary school because I stood out. A first-generation American, I was one of a handful of students that didn’t come from the same background and experiences as many of my peers. At the time, I didn’t realize that my fears in the classroom were born from feeling different.
School had me navigating the pressures of belonging in the ways that are typical to adolescence –wearing the right clothing labels or having the popular school supplies, when both were a challenge to my family’s budget. As the child of immigrants, I was also struggling with not wanting to bring my friends home because it smelled different, both my parents worked and they spoke another language. Culturally, I felt stuck in between the worlds.
Often there were times in class when I knew the answer, but I would sink down in my seat and not make eye contact for fear of being called upon. Literary texts would reference social situations that I was not familiar with, and my immigrant parents were also at a loss as to how to help me. I was outspoken and social on the playground, but in the classroom, I didn’t want to, or even feel like I could, fail in front of others for fear of not being popular or being made fun of or, worse, disappointing my parents who sacrificed so much to be here.
Teachers and their relationships with students are at the heart of personalized learning. During my transition from elementary school to junior high, I had two of the most amazing teachers that took the time to understand me, not just academically, but personally. Through that deeper engagement, they understood my concerns and worked to create a learning environment that encouraged my voice and drew out the ways I felt comfortable contributing. And overtime, their approaches to address my personal needs and abilities, strengthened my confidence and helped me to discover my unique skills and ways that I learned best.
Eight ways my teachers encouraged student voice:
- Lift up under-engaged voices. Listen to students whose voices are seldom heard, including students from minority groups, who have different cultural backgrounds, lower grades or socioeconomic status or seem quieter around their peers.
- Give kids more discussion time to explore and develop their ideas. It’s tough to formulate an opinion on something when you’re still trying to figure out what it is. Providing that time to process and discuss with others will not only deepen understanding on a topic but will also provide time to hear other’s perspectives.
- Allow for creative expression. The most powerful expression of voice is not only in thought, but in how those thoughts are shared. Give kids the opportunity to articulate their voice in the most powerful way for them – art, poetry, video, a paper, activity – that can demonstrate evidence in their learning and understanding.
- Writing in the voice of others. Encouraging students to take on the voice of others can help students to develop empathy and be open to other perspectives.
- Make lessons personally relevant. Kids have diverse backgrounds, experiences and passions. Giving students an opportunity to provide voice where they know and understand what their voice is, can help to make life connections and build confidence with familiarity.
- Reward risks and recognize those who speak up. Creating a classroom culture where students are rewarded for taking risks and showing courage can foster a more open and participatory learning environment.
- Encourage debate. Create curious learners that can formulate through research, listen to and engage in respectful discourse. Articulated arguments foster a stronger voice.
- Engage different forms of leadership. Leadership is not always demonstrated through outspoken students. Kids can demonstrate leadership by teaching and mentoring others, visual storytelling or through school/community volunteerism.