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What We Mean by “Student Voice”

Like most human beings who communicate with other human beings, I have verbal/written tics. My speech and writing is often peppered with phrases like:

  • my hunch is
  • I suspect
  • I wonder
  • it’s likely that
  • patterns suggest
  • invite
  • consider
And make no mistake, it’s not a fear of sharing my opinion, some shrinking violet syndrome, or passive aggressiveness. Rather, I’m working as hard as I can to engage in thoughtful discourse. I often fail. Miserably and in grand, ranty-fashion but, like most, I’m a work in progress. My speech pattern stems from an unwillingness to accept generalities or assume that an anecdote represents the whole. It will likely come as no surprise that I’m agnostic but then again, I’m a registered Democrat. See? #Fail.

Claim: Policymakers must listen to students if they want to help schools get better faster.
Multiple texts expand on and support this idea:
  • Source of claim
  • Alex Wiggins wrote about shadowing a student
  • Students have tried to change the law to get their voices heard.
Counterclaim: Students are as fallible as adults and their voices needed to be treated as such. 
This is an example of student voice near where I live. Pictures from WKBW:
In South Carolina, a white school security officer handled a black child so roughly, she was injured. The officer was fired. White and students of color protested his firing by walking out of school. Add to the challenge of these claims and counterclaims is the tension that we tend to listen to voices that say things we agree with (AKA confirmation bias.) A favorite data point of those in my district who wanted to keep the old mascot was a poll of the student population that said 95% of students were against changing the name. Listen to the students! they said. It’s their school! They know what the want! Except what they wanted was to keep a name that is a racial slur.
A few weeks ago, I listened as a young woman receive praise for her testimony at a recent Common Core hearing in which she presented multiple pieces of misinformation about how Regents exams are graded. After the hearing, she was surrounded by adults wearing STOP COMMON CORE and was told how brave, and truthful, she was. When it comes to the students in my district, I practice a fair amount of adultism. I look at those young faces holding those protest signs and I think, “oh… babies. You sweet children. You’ve so much to learn.” But then, I read the words of Kiana Hernandez on testing and I think, “From the mouth of babes! You go, sweet child, you!”
It seems fairly obvious to me that the first group of students is wrong and misguided. Given that, are there are other things students might be advocating for that are also misguided? This is the question that I tend to circle back to when I see people advocating for completely student-directed, self-guided curriculum. That’s what I wondered as I watched that girl get praised by adults who agreed with the factually inaccurate thing she said.
My hunch is that it’s not so much about student voice as it is about lifting the voices that are often shouted over. My fear is that we elevate those voices we agree with and continue to ignore the younger voices speaking about their lived experiences. My hope is we adults are listening carefully to what students are saying, not just listening to see if we can use their words to further a particular claim.
Rusul Alrubail  wrote a great post on how blogging for self-reflection is over-rated. “It’s time,” she says, “To make [blogging] a tool for empowerment and advocacy.” I suspect the same holds true for elevated student voice and student advocacy. If the things students are saying or asking for isn’t about empowering those who are disempowered or advocating for equity and equality, perhaps the goal should be education, rather than elevating.
Recommended reading: This piece by Melinda Anderson explores recent patterns in student activism, primarily by students of color, that seems like the student voices we’d want to elevate – and learn from.
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