Student Experience Research Network Blog

The Student Experience Research Network convened nearly three dozen researchers, students, leaders of educational organizations, and university and school district administrators and educators together with representatives of education foundations at its annual funder briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that signal to students that their voices are heard and that their perspectives matter. This is the second of three blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.

Our previous post described the importance of students feeling heard and that their perspectives matter and introduced some of the ways in which cues from the environment can shape these perceptions. Here, we illustrate how changes at the classroom and institutional level, as well as at the system level, can support students’ achievement and well-being by affirming that their voices are heard and matter.

How can we adjust classroom and institutional environments to integrate students’ voices and perspectives?

As mentioned in our previous post, part of the work that educators must do involves breaking down the walls between themselves and students, which can happen in a variety of ways.

Nathan Alexander, professor of mathematics teaching at Morehouse College, explained that one of his strategies is eating dinner with his students. “I’m usually there in the evenings and I think when I imagined what I want math education to look like, I think it’s just us removing that veil for our students and saying, I’m a human too,” he explained. “They see me eat in my office, because I want to tutor them. And I think if more educators and teachers allow students to just show up to that point, I think we start to see what culture is and that it is the norm. It’s what happens when we go home with our own families and our own loved ones. We want to really bring those into our spaces where we teach.”

Nathan called this “humanizing” education. In a humanized environment in which educators and students share power and are attuned to each other’s identities and cultures, opportunities emerge for the “co-creation” of learning experiences and knowledge.

“It’s not really common for students to be in these conversations about how to make schools better. Maybe they have a voice about a school dance, but not necessarily about transformation.”

Speakers continually circled back to the idea of co-creation, and highlighted some specific practices that can facilitate co-creation, like participatory action research and project-based learning.

Ben Kirshner, professor of education at the University of Colorado Boulder, described what a student-led research and advocacy project may look like: “Developing a six-month campaign plan, analyzing survey data about student experiences, figuring out a way to communicate a policy argument that wins over skeptics and resonates with allies. Completing a power analysis of who has decision making power in your [institution].”

Ben and other speakers emphasized that involving students in the research is not enough on its own; young people must also choose the issue to be researched and their inquiries should lead the investigation and methods.

Ben continued to describe how the impacts of this type of schoolwork can extend beyond academics: “There’s a powerful healing experience when a person comes to realize that something, an experience that they thought was just their own, maybe it was unique to them, is something that many others have also experienced. And this certainly has shown up in ethnographic work that we’ve done looking at organizing against the school to prison nexus and the ways in which young people realize that they got caught up in a system that was much bigger than them and maybe stop blaming themselves for some of these issues.”

Project-based learning is another strategy that has been shown to help develop academic and social-emotional competencies. Project-based learning can be initiated by educators or at the system level, or can be facilitated by an intermediary organization. For example, DeLeon Gray, currently a scholar in residence at Michigan State University, shared a video of students involved in his program iScholar who participated in an architectural competition to design their ideal school.

“It’s not really common for students to be in these conversations about how to make schools better,” their teacher said. “Maybe they have a voice about a school dance, but not necessarily about transformation […] It shapes who they are. It shapes their view of the world. It shapes how the world interacts with them.”

Similarly, Baltimore City Public Schools recently launched a new program called BMore Me that “infuses our social studies curriculum with critical relevance,” Christina Ross, the district’s program manager for Blueprint Initiatives, explained.

“We like to say mirrors, windows, and doors. Students have the opportunity to see themselves in their identity in the context of Baltimore. They also have the opportunity to learn more about Baltimore’s history, and the rich legacy that exists in our city, and to advocate, and use their voice within our city. And then also, the curriculum is rigorous and provides opportunities for students to strengthen skills that will open doors in their future. The projects […] build from the individual to the collective, looking at identity in our city and in our world. They each introduce a compelling question to students that then students use resources to answer.”

Importantly, these humanizing and co-construction strategies do not need to be confined to the humanities. Dan Meyer, chief academic officer at Desmos, recommended involving students in the “mathematizing” of problems, for example by showing them an image of grocery store check-out lines and asking which line will move the fastest, rather than providing a problem where they simply plug numbers into the correct equation.

“Take a problem from next week’s work and systematically cover up parts of it,” he recommended. “Cover up the numbers, cover up the initial sentence, cover up the question and ask jointly [in department meetings] what opportunities for student voice and co-construction does this allow that weren’t there before.”

How can we adjust districts and systems to integrate students’ voices?

While some of these practices can originate from individual educators and institutions, the issue also calls for more systematic changes.

Speakers offered two helpful approaches – civics education and ethnic studies – that cut across disciplines and developmental stages and can be used as an entry point for ensuring students feel heard and valued across K-12 and postsecondary education. We also heard from two districts – Chicago and Baltimore – that have created structures for student input.

On a panel about civics education, Michelle Morales, president of Woods Fund Chicago and previously the CEO of Mikva Challenge, and Jessica Vargas, a student at the University of Chicago and alumnus of Mikva Challenge, pointed out that schools are the first civic institution that most people interact with, although schools don’t typically see themselves in that way. If “that experience is not a good one, it may inform how young people engage with civic institutions throughout the rest of their life,” Michelle explained.

Research studies have demonstrated that civics education influences young people’s civic engagement and that activism can be a valuable context for learning.

For example, Jessica explained that high-quality civics education can help to infuse purpose and relevance into education by connecting students with the world outside of the walls of the school.

She said that participating in Mikva Challenge “truly changed how I saw myself in terms of, ‘if I can do this, maybe I can go to college.’ ‘If I can do this, maybe I can go to other neighborhoods throughout the city of Chicago.’ […] That’s why I mentioned the difference between schooling and education. In school, it’s very structural, the bell rings, you’d learn about the materials. But when the final bell rang and I went to my student voice committee or when I had to go downtown to do some Mikva programming, that’s where I felt like I continue my learning where I can really engage and didn’t have to sit down all the time and I could stand up and I can write on the whiteboard and there was an equal power dynamic.”

“How do we uplift both the common and the uncommon student leader?”

Of course, civics education sometimes happens out of necessity, when students become aware of an injustice and organize against it. While this may be a powerful purpose for learning, ultimately the burden of improving society should not rest on the shoulders of students.

Ben Kirshner explained, “activism can be a vehicle for wellbeing and psychological health and particularly in a context of injustice. But that can risk, I think, psychologizing this process and in other words justifying it primarily as a vehicle for young people’s learning and engagement and where the outcome is on young people. But the only reason it is good for human development is if the system is changing as well.”

Izadora McGawley and Ana De Almeida Amaral, who co-founded and taught an ethnic studies course at their high school, echoed this sentiment. “It arose out of necessity,” Izadora said. “If I could go back in time and if we could have gone to high school and already had an ethnic studies class, and not as 15-year-olds had to start teaching and designing our own ethnic studies class, that would have been the goal really. Then [we could have found] ways to build off of that.”

Ethnic studies, which is defined in the previous post, provides a second helpful framework for infusing student voice into education. Izadora described ethnic studies as, “a way of thinking, a way of being, something that exists on multiple dimensions of education, in pedagogy, in curriculum… in every single discipline that you can teach, ethnic studies exists.”

“As we learn more about ethnic studies,” she said, “what we saw is that this institution of racism, the effects that we saw in our very own school, they were not an accident. They were an endemic crisis. It was something that was built into the system, for the purpose of the erasure of culture, for the purpose of creating more bodies in order to go into industrialized positions of work.”

Acknowledging this legacy and creating space for all students to critically examine it can have powerful psychological and academic benefits. “I think the most fundamental thing that’s coming out of research is just there’s this incredible weight and power for the kinds of pedagogies that we’re discussing here,” said Thomas Dee, professor of education at Stanford University, referring to his recent studies on the large academic impacts of an ethnic studies course in San Francisco Unified School District and the African American Male Achievement Initiative in Oakland Unified School District. Prior research has also documented the benefits of these types of programs with regard to school connectedness and motivation, relationships between students and teachers and trust between families and schools.

Ethnic studies and civics education ask us to re-assess the purpose of education and the role students play in their education. Considering the benefits that these approaches carry, it is clear that centering students’ education on their voices and perspectives – both the experiences that they bring into the classroom and the visions they have for the future – can enhance learning.

What can we learn from Chicago and Baltimore?

Speakers from Chicago and Baltimore discussed their work to make district-level systems and structures more responsive to students’ voices and perspectives in their local contexts.

Tina Hike-Hubbard, chief communications and community engagement officer at Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), provided an overview of the district’s student success strategy, which has three pillars: student wholeness, literacy, and leadership.

“The student wholeness piece,” she explained, “while trauma is a tiny piece of that, it’s also about mental health. It’s also about wellness. It’s also about finding support for students to express their gifts, talents, and interests in the school program.” She continued: “Instead of building a generation, we’re now focusing our work on hearing a generation.”

Rashad Staton, the youth engagement specialist at BCPS, also made it clear that hearing a generation involves reaching out and supporting students who may not initially be inclined or well-positioned to take on a leadership role:

“How do we uplift both the common and the uncommon student leader, right? That young person that is excelling, very engaged, cares for advocacy, cares for themselves to be represented and cares to be the spokesperson or the catalyst, but also how do you engage that young person that may be distracted? They have an asset, [a] strength that needs to be pulled out and recognized.”

Rashad went on to describe the district’s Associated Student Congress, which has subcommittees focused on college and career readiness, student relationships with police in schools, and community engagement.

Student leadership roles are also central to Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) strategy, which has been a leading example for other districts looking to improve youth civic engagement and involve young people in decision-making.

Heather van Benthuysen, director of social science and civic engagement at CPS, explained that the district has in place Student Voice Committees, leadership bodies within elementary and high schools that work with administration on school-based issues and improvement; a student advisory council for the district’s CEO; and a student voice and activism fellowship committee, comprised of leaders in the student voice committees that apply to be a part of this governing body that runs intergenerational professional development.

“For example,” said Heather, “we have a [professional learning session] we’ve called Power Palooza, where students are leading workshops on oppression or anti-racist practices for teachers. […] That group also does workshops with central office staff, so that the office of health or college and career readiness will come in and talk about their strategic plans and get student feedback from this group of students. That infrastructure has been really key.”

How does the district hold itself accountable in this work? In large part through strong leadership from the top. “The one thing that you would be able to knock on any office door in our district and people would say, ‘heck yeah,’ is student voice. Because first and foremost, our CEO, Dr. Janice Jackson, has been a tremendous champion of that work,” Heather explained.

CPS is also partnered with the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research to gather data from students and teachers about their experiences and report back to schools. The district provides examples and rubrics aligned with nine different options for school-based civic engagement. In Baltimore, students are involved in developing and administering assessments themselves, including a school police report card, which was later adopted into school board policy. Both districts emphasized the role of intermediary organizations in supporting their work.

In California, Ana and Izadora were part of another accountability structure. “A structure that was integrated into the High Tech High system that we felt was really representative of student voice was the hiring process. When new teachers were to be hired at High Tech High, they had to go through a multiple- round application and their interview consisted of teaching a sample class in front of students. And at the end, all the students would write a reflection how they felt about this educator and if they felt they would belong into our High Tech High environment, what they like, what they dislike. And then the educator was also put through a student interview.”

Beyond creating structures for incorporating students’ perspectives, speakers highlighted the need to create supportive conditions in which those structures work effectively. Christine Rodriguez, for example, who served on the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline in New York City while in high school, said, “whenever I had the opportunity to testify in city hall, I would have to miss some portion of my school in order to be there. And [we’d have] to wait for everybody to speak and then the young people can speak. […] The idea of having young people at the table is good, but [we need] to actually meet young people where they’re at.”

While Jessica Vargas described feeling “intense pressure” as the sole student representative on her local school council in Chicago, she also described how adults supported her: “They always allocated a good 15 minutes, 20 minutes for me to come with whatever the student voice committee wanted to say, whatever the students want to say. […] When a person in the council was trying to be like, ‘Oh well you’re 17. What do you know?’ Instead of me having to advocate for myself there was an adult ally that was able to like, ‘Hey, she’s 17 but look how much she’s doing.’ In terms of challenging the adultism that Michelle talked about earlier, it’s hard to always have to advocate for myself and always be working against the biases that people have. But when they were able to advocate for me, that powerful allyship, I cannot emphasize how important that was for me to focus on the work that I wanted to do.”

Together, our speakers demonstrated that there are copious entry points and strategies for supporting students’ perceptions of mattering and being heard. They do, however, require skill- and relationship-building on the part of educators and administrators to implement effectively. Our final post in the series describes the supports needed to do this work.

Read the next post in the series >>>

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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