Saturday, January 15, 2011

Empowering Students to Be Self-Advocates

Right before the holiday break I was contacted by Dwight Carter, the Principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio. He wanted to pick my brain about technology integration strategies that I have used at New Milford High School in New Jersey. Somewhere in our conversation that spanned multiple areas of educational leadership, we talked about how we regularly meet with groups of students in our respective schools. The goals of these meetings are to challenge the students to be catalysts of change and work to make their school the best it can be for them.

Suddenly the light bulb went off in my head and I asked Dwight if he would consider holding a joint meeting between our student groups using Skype. Even though he had never used Skype before, the idea was immediately enthusiastically embraced. Upon our return to school in January, Dwight and I set up a few Skype test calls to get him acclimated to the tool, set an agenda, and prepare our students for the meeting on Friday January 11, 2011. We originally had the meeting set for Wednesday, but my school was closed due to heavy snow. After all of the preparation and excitement there was no way we were going to let Mother Nature ruin this genuine learning experience that we had been working on for weeks.

Our meeting was held yesterday and the dialogue between the students of our two schools exceeded our expectations. As facilitators, we challenged the students to openly discuss and develop strategies that addressed increasing academic rigor/accountability and improving learning environments. The student voice is crucial in school improvement efforts and most often this group is excluded entirely. One of the overriding theses that both Dwight and I stressed to our students is that they must not be afraid to advocate for themselves if they feel that they are not being challenged or learning is not taking place.

It was difficult to listen and take notes at the same time as I was thoroughly engrossed in the student discussion, but I did mange to jot a few main points down in Evernote. In terms of rigor and accountability our student groups had this to say:

  • Having a passionate teacher who makes the course challenging from beginning to end is essential. We want higher expectations set.
  • Relationships between teacher and student are key.
  • Instruction caters to all types of learners.
  • Homework needs to be meaningful, regularly assessed, and directly linked to class content. Too many teachers give homework that is not relevant to the lesson and does not tie in at all.
  • We learn more through interactive projects and our own successes/failures than through traditional means of assessment (i.e. note-taking, quizzes, tests, etc.).
  • The learning process is a partnership between teacher and student. The students want and need a voice in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. 
  • An interesting sidebar that came out of this was how the teachers dress impacts how seriously students take them.
  • Students have to see a purpose to using technology tools in the classroom. They want to create content using technology.
For the last 20 minutes of the hour long meeting, the students from Ohio and NJ discussed learning environments. One thing they all agreed on was that classrooms need to move away from desks to more open, collaborative spaces. I actually threw in that if I could have my way all of the classrooms in NMHS would look like a Starbucks lounge (they really liked this idea). One issue they were split on was technology. As the conversation began, there were those students that stated they didn't want technology to be integrated into instruction because of their immersion in it outside of school. Then there were others who felt exactly the opposite, that technology plays such a huge part in their outside lives that in order to motivate them it should be widely integrated. Well students never let us down! By the end of the conversation they came to the same consensus that all of us in education have and that is that there needs to be a balance between research-based instructional techniques and technology.

GLHS is in the process of building a state of the art, three story learning environment that will blend traditional and contemporary (Starbucks) learning spaces, high powered wireless connectivity, project-based learning, and student voice/choice.  The facility will house up to 350 juniors and seniors who choose to select classes that offer creativity and project-based learning opportunities.  The conversation that took place between the New Milford and Gahanna Lincoln students describes perfectly what Dwight expects to see in the new building.  

The student-driven conversation left Dwight and I inspired to continually seek out the student voice in an effort to transform the teaching and learning cultures of our schools. As we learned, students want to be challenged, have high expectations set, and be provided with meaningful learning opportunities. These are challenges that both Dwight and I are ready to address head on. Once our time came to an end, we in turn challenged all of the students that their role is vital in this process and that they must become self-advocates to assist us in school improvement efforts. Based on the overwhelming positive feedback both Dwight and I received, we plan to continue facilitating conversations between our students while looking to expand the dialogue to other students in schools across the country and world.

Do the students in your school have a voice? Are their ideas respected and acted upon?


  1. Eric,

    In my German classes I am constantly using student blogs and our weekly Facebook discussion question to empower my students by asking them questions about education. They thoroughly enjoy being a part of the conversation, especially since it is their education we are talking about! I would love to see more schools including the students in the decision making process, unfortunately most schools see students as a non-viable source. I try to take the feedback from my students and apply it to our professional development sessions, but we definitely have more room to grow when it comes to giving students a true voice.

    Thank you for sharing - this is a great concept and hopefully the students recognize how neat of an opportunity this is.

  2. Outstanding post. We must listen to our students and teach the way that they learn and create more of a partnership between teachers, students and parents. We should involve them in developing the curriculum and how instruction is delivered. I love when students teach educators and parents.

    I feel that Blended Learning that includes face to face and technology will be the wave of the future in education.

  3. Eric,

    Great post. We need to listen to our students on a regularly basis regardless if it is informal or formally. They are the ones that know what works for them in school better than anyone. Just as a company listens to their clients to improve their product we have to listen to our students to improve our teaching.

    Here is a recent post I wrote along those lines...

  4. Eric,

    As one of Dwight's teachers, I can tell you that having a principal that supports this type of learning is HUGE. GLHS teachers and students are already doing things "outside the box" and it is paying big dividends in how they learn. Thanks for letting your kids help expand out kids' horizons!!!

  5. Thats fantastic Eric,

    More open and collaborative areas for teaching environments will lead to more innovative and empowered students.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. As I continued to read, I was inspired to really think about my classes and how I teach them and whether or not I 'hear' the voices of my students.

    I am also the Advisor of our Student Council and this post challenged me to really think about who / what our council is in our school.

    Thank you for the food for thought and the inspiration.