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Small Hacks to Increase Student Voice

In an average school year, students spend about 1,260 hours in school. When we step back and consider it, all this time is spent in an environment in which they have little influence on their day-to-day experiences and conditions. They often spend hours each day at desks or tables, have very limited time to interact socially with their peers, and complete work that they haven’t chosen and often see little value in. It’s no wonder that national studies suggest that student engagement in school declines precipitously as students progress through their school experience.

Picture of disengaged student checking phone in class

One possible way to re-engage students is to increase their voice, autonomy, and influence to provide agency in helping shape their educational experience. Increasing student voice can be achieved in a variety of ways – providing choice in their learning and assessment, consulting with them on policies and practices, empowering them to document their experiences, and many more. Unfortunately, some of these efforts can seem daunting for busy teachers.

At our recent School Retool workshop with teacher leaders and principals from the fifteen high schools in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, teachers shared the results from their first hack cycle. The hacks were a result of them defining an aspiration for their students, brainstorming the kinds of behaviors they wanted to elicit, exploring big ideas for deeper learning, and considering levers that they could use to implement them in their classrooms. The fifteen teachers’ hacks spanned many aspects of deeper learning, including amplifying student voice. Today we share three hack stories to provide some insight and inspiration for you to consider how to increase student voice in your classroom or school.

Providing an Audience for Students’ Work

Lori Molodow is Chair of the Language Arts Department at Cox High School. In her Senior Advanced Placement Literature class, she wants “students to feel comfortable sharing their writing and increase their audience and influence.” Inspired by the idea of student portfolios, she seized on an opportunity from Tom Ferrebee, a friend, and William & Mary SOE alum currently teaching at Colegio Nueva Granada in Bogota, Colombia. He emailed Lori about a new New York Times Podcast contest for students in which they create podcasts from something they’ve written. Seeing this as an opportunity to increase their voice by expanding the audience for their work, she started small by asking her students to select a small portion of their college admissions application essays. They will then choose segments of their own personal narratives to develop into stand-alone stories in podcasts they create, share it with their classmates for feedback before sending it to students in Bogota. They will then be able to submit their work to the New York Times contest. Lori doesn’t have any experience in podcasting, but drawing on her bias to action, she shared, “I have no idea how to create a podcast, but I reached out to the computer resource teacher who can help me.” She hopes that this first hack, or small step, will help her to empower her students to share their work more broadly.

Helping Students Find a Vision for the Passion Projects

Kathleen Trace’s aspiration was for “All 12th-grade students will have opportunities to purposefully pursue their passions and publicly share their product in order to create ownership of their learning and inspire others.” The William & Mary graduate and current English and Journalism teacher at Salem High School has been implementing passion projects with her seniors but wasn’t satisfied with their level of ownership and investment in the process. Inspired by the School Retool model of “aspirations to behaviors,” Kathleen used a version of the School Retool posters on for a hack she called “Target Practice.” In this hack, students identified an aspiration for their passion project chose four elements from the Virginia Beach Profile of a Graduate that they wanted to focus on and created four personalized learning targets for their project. Using this, they determined what they would need to do to meet those learning targets and what artifacts they could collect that would demonstrate their learning. The students in her class worked through this process, while the rest of the 12th-grade students worked with a less structured process.

“I’m interested to see if as they develop their proposals, the students who did the hack are more focused, better laid out, and have taken more ownership than the students who didn’t do the hack.” She is currently in the process of implementing her hack and shares, “It is taking much longer than I thought it would. I initially planned for one class period and it’s taken three to set it up, teach them about learning targets, write them, etc.  I think it’s worth it though because these students already have more buy in and more direction with their projects than any year before.”

Encouraging Students to Find Meaning in their Work

Health and Physical Education teacher Bridgette Berthold is part of the iLab program team at Green Run High School. The iLab is designed with student voice at the center. One of the core beliefs of the program, generated by teachers and students is, “We take students, the things they love, and their natural abilities seriously and aim to build learning around student passions every day.” One key element of the iLab experience is the learning expeditions that the teachers create for the students. Grounded in both curriculum content and social-emotional learning, the learning expeditions include fishing, identifying trees, mentoring elementary students, and visiting historical contexts. Bridgette wanted to help make these experiences more meaningful for students by encouraging them to “take risks by setting, meeting, and exceeding their learning goals in order to gain skills to apply to real-life scenarios.” Her hack towards this aspiration involved challenging students to write their own learning goals before going on a recent learning expedition to go fishing at Stumpy Lake. After the trip, students then reflected on how these learning goals connect to their lives outside of school. Bridgette reflected, “The kids are more invested when they know that they’ll be able to use it later in life.”

What will your hack be?

I hope that these stories from Lori, Kathleen, and Bridgette inspire you to identify a small step or hack to bring student voice to the forefront in your classroom or school. This hack or first step doesn’t have to be – in fact, shouldn’t be – a major new program or initiative. Rather, the hack you identify should help move you one step closer to an aspiration you have for providing students with voice, agency, and influence in the educational experience.