Student Voice: What Exactly Does It Mean?

Student Voice. What exactly does this mean? It is a phrase heard and spoken quite a bit lately, and yet not enough students and adults grasp what it really means. How do we go about defining and bringing to light what student voice is and isn’t? We go straight to the source – the students. We asked students to submit a short video sharing what Student Voice means to them, and we strongly encourage you to check out their answers.

If this is what students are looking for in their own education, we as educators must embrace their voices to help play an active role in their learning. So often schools have attempted to implement student voice opportunities, but we have missed the crucial ingredients. According to student Jordan Bayles, a vital piece to the idea of student voice is actually giving them a voice and not just making pretty of what it means.

“After ‘representing my school’ by hanging up posters and missing out on my lunch time, I decided that student council was not really my thing. So I stayed away from the idea of student representation for a long while, as I felt that it…  rarely actually resulted in any monumental changes,” Bayles continues.

How do schools develop opportunities for students to utilize their voices and feel like they can make an impact on their own learning? At Bettendorf Schools we have made a serious effort to allow all of these things to happen. The key to making this happen lies with educators and administrators willing to give students a chance to play a role in their education and students willing to provide their time and energy in making positive changes to the culture of education. The key ingredients are students. The adults simply help build the base foundation and a place for students to build the tools and culture needed for the optimal learning experience.

At Bettendorf Middle School, we have a group of students who operate a Student Voice group called Iowa High Five. Five girls created this group as part of a project created for a class project called #BettPassion. Laurel Braaten was one of the five girls who launched this idea, and is very honest when she shares her story:

“Growing up, I was always that girl who spoke out in class and had a tendency to tell my teachers a better way to accomplish their goal. I was never without an opinion when it came to improving my learning, and during the beginning of my schooling that trait got me in trouble. So eventually, for fear of the consequences, I began to suppress those thoughts and ideas and decided to just go with the flow. This all changed in the eighth grade when Ms. Angela Maiers came to our school and presented Choose2Matter. C2M’s mission was to tell students they have a voice and that they can accomplish great things once they realize they have a voice and their voice matters.”

Iowa High Five student voice organization has continued to grow. This past year we had four new leaders emerge and about 15 other students play smaller roles. Next year the group is really expanding with many more opportunities to enhance student voice. The students meet over lunch, after school, Google Hangout, and use social media. It is one more thing on their plates, but these are students who are given a chance to actually embrace their voice and move into action.

For example, students are helping to shape the learning that occurs in our school. One very powerful element that this group provides to the school is having a voice in the projects that teachers are going to launch. Before teachers actually teach their project in their classroom they have to go through a project tuning where they pitch their idea to a group of educators and students called “project tunings.” We have a protocol we follow, but this allows educators to hear from students and other educators to make sure everything is going to be successful.

Emma Doyle, an 8th grader in the 2014-2015 school year stated, “…the most basic job of Iowa High Five members is to sit in on project tunings… meetings where teachers pitch their ideas for new projects and allow the rest of the group to critique them. I have attended quite a few of these meetings and contributed my opinion to the teacher’s projects and in turn, their student’s experience at school.”

Iowa High Five is one of many examples showcasing the power of student voice. In the state of of Iowa, there is another major student voice organization going on that is changing the landscape of student voice in schools, at the district level, state level, and in legislation. This group is called ISLI. ISLI is an organization that hosts a fall conference run by students for students. It has also implemented #StuCamp, a rally to the capitol, and is working on other endeavors for the future. Chloe Johnson, also a former 8th grader this past school year shared her experience with ISLI.

The real adventure started in eighth grade when we were given the chance to go to ISLI. ISLI is a conference hosted by a junior in Waukee, Iowa, Ian Coon and a senior in Dubuque, Iowa, Jack Hostager, and it allows students to get their voices out there. Instead of sitting there and complaining to each other, the students not only brought up issues, but proposed ways we could solve them, and that, I believe, is the true meaning of student voice. Students bringing up the issues that they face, and then assisting each other in finding a solution. ISLI not only got me excited for student voice in general, but I also left with several ideas to improve my own school, this was a big contributing factor to the next event our group organized, which was StuCamp.

StuCamp was designed to create an EdCamp for students. Dane Barner and Aaron Maurer launched two of these on the same day in two locations. At the Bettendorf StuCamp, a group of four 8th graders and few high school students made this event happen. Chloe best summarized the event by saying, “The real change did not take place until somebody asked the million dollar question, ‘How can we go about fixing this?’”

Overall, student voice is about helping students move to action on the ideas that are important to them. The key is to help students define what student voice means for them. Once students are exposed to the power of their voice they start to realize that they can make a change in their education. As Emma shared in a reflection, “overall this has been quite the year for me, I am not even sure if I knew what student voice was exactly in seventh grade. Now it is a concept that I recognize in a variety of situations and have grown to hold a more specific and identifiable passion for.” (If you would like to read more on the views of Emma, feel free to click here to view several blog posts that she has developed.)

As Chloe stated, “My student voice journey has been an exciting one for sure, and it is nowhere near complete. I plan to continue using student voice to improve my education as well as other student’s education throughout my high school and maybe even college career. Student voice is definitely a step in the right direction, a step away from just memorizing facts in class and towards actually learning the material and enjoying it a little more.”

“In the end, one of the biggest things I learned, (and am still learning), from my work in student voice is that failure is good. High Five not only taught me how to be a leader, but also a collaborator, presenter, and sharer of ideas, and I couldn’t be more excited to continue down this path of student voice,” Laurel shares.

To embrace your voice and agency it does not require being loud. It requires having the courage to stand up and do something to make a change. It requires schools actually hearing and listening to the students. Students like Jordan who are quiet by nature felt the frustration of having her voice suppressed because teachers and adults told her “I was “too quiet” by anyone whom I asked”. Students like Chloe, Emma, and Laurel are not so quiet by nature, but were also suppressed because they did not have a platform. It is time that education levels the playing field of voices. Everyone must work together because we are in this together.

Student voice is possible. There are organizations and groups of students who would love to help. If interested in learning more reach out to, connect with ISLI, check out these student voice resources and stories, and join the #stuvoice and #iastuchat (website) to learn connect and grow with us.

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