Amplifying Student Voice for Excellence with Equity

Picture of John KrownappleJohn Krownapple, the coordinator for Cultural Proficiency, first joined the HCPSS community as an Oakland Mills High School student. He has worked in the HCPSS for 20 years, previously in roles including an elementary teacher, Social Studies/English Language Arts resource teacher and professional development facilitator. In his current role, he coordinates systemwide efforts to support schools working toward excellence with equity through professional learning and organizational development. Here Krownapple blogs about partnering with students in the process to ensure inclusion and equity.

In the below video, recent graduate Esther Lawson-John advocates for educators to tap into the power of Student Voice as a means of improving schools for all students. If you are new to the concept of Student Voice, you might be wondering: What exactly is it? How does it work? What are its benefits? If you’re familiar with the concept, you might be asking: How can we amplify Student Voice in ways that help us work together to shape inclusive, equitable and democratic communities, schools and classrooms? Let’s explore these questions.

Over the past few years, Student Voice has emerged as a popular term in conversations about excellence in education. A quick Google search will show school districts around the world heralding Student Voice as a pillar of school reform. However, it is not a new concept. As far back as 1916, educational reformer John Dewey wrote about Student Voice as a necessary part of the educational process in a democracy.

It’s helpful to think about “voice” as expression. Educators, parents and adults can’t “give” students a voice; students already have a voice. The question is: Are we listening? Or do we tacitly believe some variation of the old dictum that “children (or in this case, students) should be seen and not heard”?

To join the movement to amplify Student Voice, we can adjust our thinking and realize that students have something valuable to say, and that by sharing their experiences, these young adults-in-training can help us become more effective educators. As adults, we can use our power to issue invitations and listen. In these ways, we can “turn up the volume.” We can choose to amplify Student Voice. We can choose to listen and learn.

Now, let’s consider “voice” metaphorically. If voice is power, then Student Voice represents educators and students sharing power. It represents student choice and involvement in decisions that affect their experience within the classroom. It represents democracy in our schools. It represents the choice of teachers and administrators to lead with students.

Research over the past decade has clearly linked Student Voice to academic motivation and achievement. Students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn than students who do not believe they have a voice, according to the 2016 School Voice Report developed by the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations (QISA). QISA research also suggests that students who feel they have voice are more likely to experience self-worth, engagement and purpose.

In June, the HCPSS held a two-day Cultural Proficiency professional learning conference with the theme “Student Voice: An Instrument for Inclusion and Equity.” The event featured keynote presentations and breakout sessions that highlighted promising practices across the district and facilitated discussions about how to turn up the volume when it comes to Student Voice.

During many sessions, students led professional learning alongside their teachers. Lawson-John co-led a keynote presentation with HCPSS Leadership Development Coordinator Charlene Allen. Both educators and students in attendance responded enthusiastically to Lawson-John’s presentation. “Give that student a TED Talk,” tweeted one audience member.

It may be possible for us, adults to use our power to give her a TED Talk or a similar platform, but nobody can give Lawson-John a voice. She already has one. And what an incredibly powerful voice it is, especially when amplified.

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