Recently, a couple of posts over on The Innovative Educator have focused on the need for students to have a voice, and how that voice is largely ignored when it comes to just about anything in the school system. The posts themselves employ a rather melodramatic tone, using words such as discrimination and oppression to make a villain out of the “system,” almost going out of the way at times to paint the public school system as some sort of Orwellian nightmare (though, in all honesty, Kafkaesque would be more appropriate). It’s the kind of rhetoric that gets people reading despite what facts may or may not be valid in the actual content.
Commentary about hyperbolic metaphors aside, there is a valid point in her hand-wringing. Students are under-represented in the national discussion about education, even less than teachers. I’ve read too many articles and books about the theory of instruction that discount the variable the student brings to the actual practice too instruction; furthermore, there are way too many school policies created that pay lip service to students in the name of “protecting” them but seriously make you wonder if the people making those policies really had the students best interests in mind.
So, that being said, if students are lacking a clear voice in the educational discourse, how can they get that voice? And how can they use that voice without sounding like they’re whiny kids throwing a temper tantrum?
The quick and easy answer to both of those problems is what students themselves often think of when they are, as a group, upset about something: petition and protest. Both are fine ideas, but in the long run I often wonder if they are effective. Getting enough of your peers to mindlessly sign a petition might get it into the hands of building administration and organizing a class walkout (always a favorite, even back to my days in junior high school) might get their attention. However, sometimes you don’t become known as the person who helped Donna Martin graduate; you wind up being the cause of 50 new truancy cases.
That’s not to say that students shouldn’t organize and/or protest. It’s just that if you are a student who wants to do so, you have to be savvy about your audience and the world in which they exist. Is a board of education going to see you as a voice worth listening to or are they going to just think you’re throwing a tantrum? What gets through to them? Furthermore, what role do teachers play in this equation? Well, we can, as teachers, show them how to be effective …
… by helping them be more thorough and specific. I have an assignment I do every year when we practice formal letter writing (aka the business letter). I ask my students what school rule they would change and when they identify it, I go right to playing Devil’s Advocate. I ask why. I ask what their solutions would be … and I try to poke holes in as many arguments as they possibly can come up with.
I’m not trying to strangle or oppress their voices by doing this, btw, but it’s a way to help develop them. To refine them. Presenting the counter-argument and poking holes in what they have to say moves the discussion to how a specific argument with a specific solution that is as airtight as possible will get them taken more seriously. In fact, I take it a step further and tell them to assume they won’t be taken seriously and they should take advantage of that because a thorough examination of an issue or solid proposal for a solution might surprise their audience. Which is not just a skill for school.
… by helping them understand the process. About four or five years ago, when I asked the question about bad school rules, I had a student who wanted a smoker’s patio at the school. He said he knew teachers that smoked would appreciate it and he was already 18 so he could legally smoke. I told him that while I understood his logic and where he was coming from, I don’t think the school board had any say over what is essentially state law. Point being, get students to know what they can change on a local level and who they go to for what purpose. Can you change testing at your individual school by refusing to take the test? Probably not. Can you change the internet filter policy by getting a few minutes before the board with facts and figures about how social media helps students learn? Possibly. It’s important to know who makes the decisions, how those decisions are made, and how you can inject yourself into that decision-making process so that you have a say at the right time (in other words, before it’s voted on or written in stone and not after the announcement is made).
… by getting them to use the power they already have. Why is it that your average student council only seems to exist in order to plan social functions? Clearly there is more to student government than the theme to the Homecoming dance. Can’t we turn those organizations into a sort of student advocacy organization? You know, like a union or lobbyists? And what about the student press? Can’t we take the sniping toward the school that happens over social media and bring it to the student newspaper where the adults who need to see it will actually see it?
… by helping them achieve small victories. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing that the political process is long and frustrating and that the battle you fight may seem like an impossible task. Perhaps showing students that if they want change, they should start with the low-hanging fruit, they might be encouraged to go after the bigger stuff. For instance, practice in class with a policy of yours. Instead of the “let’s sit down and make our class rules together” conversation at the beginning of the year, create a lesson in persuasive expression by showing them predetermined rules and saying, “Okay, convince me to change policy x.” Then move to a school policy that the building administrators directly oversee. There’s nothing like the feeling of winning a little to help build your confidence as you start to march toward that ultimate goal.
… by truly making it their own. I know that parents’ voices can go along with student voices, but the idea that a parent has to stand up and speak for his or her high-schooler may wind up doing more harm than good. Complaining parents have just about as much of a bad rap as anyone, but more importantly, if students are taught to take the initiative when it comes to the issues facing them and actually use their own voice (and not their parents’), they will truly be empowered.
It all does come down to gaining more respect in the face of people who say they respect you but may not in the way you think they do, and while you may not win even if you’re heard, it’s better than feeling like you should keep your mouth shut. If we teach students to advocate for themselves in ways that are direct, efficient, and practical, it may go a long way to making them feel like they have a true stake in such an important part of their lives.