New England Secondary School Consortium


“Can You Hear Me?!”: The Power of Student Voice

The ice breaker seemed simple enough.

There were eight pictures of students placed throughout the room along with quotes from them on the importance of having their voice heard. Participants were asked to stand near the student whose quote resonated with them most. Many of the participants were racked with indecision—all of the student experiences resonated in some fashion. But one student’s exasperated plea stood out:

“Can you hear me?! I want my voice to be part of this community. Why can’t you figure this out?”

In this case, the student’s plea did not go unheard: the students, faculty, and staff of Harwood Union High School are well on their way to figuring it out.

A team from Harwood Union shared their experiences at the High School Redesign in Action conference (#NESSC16) during a session entitled A Call to Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Student Voice in Leading School Improvement. Students are not only taking a proactive role in designing their own education at Harwood Union, but they are leading efforts to change school systems and make sure that all student voices are heard and acted upon.

One of the first steps Harwood Union took to create a school culture in which adults and youth lead together was to hold its first-ever all-school dialogue, with support from Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together.

Students and adults had opportunities, during the daylong conversation, to give input about how, as a school community, they could work together to improve teaching, learning, and relationships. The day generated many ideas and perspectives, but three main themes emerged from the dialogue:

  1. Teaching and Learning: To improve as a school, we should focus on (a) students providing regular, formal feedback to teachers; (b) students providing input on class offerings; (c) teachers structuring classes to include choice in meeting proficiencies and addressing the learning needs and interests of individuals; and (d) teachers structuring classes to include opportunities for student exploration and student designed learning.
  2. Relationships: More opportunities for teachers and students to develop positive relationships though (a) 1:1 conferencing in class; (b) more informal check-ins within teacher advisory; and (c) more activities and subjects chosen by and for the students.
  3. Leadership: Opportunities for students to be leaders requires (a) decision-making meetings be held during the school day to include more students and (b) a process for sharing information and decision-making with students.

One of the most interesting “takeaways” from the all-school dialogue was that even though some Harwood Union students did not always feel engaged in the classroom, they were extremely engaged during the dialogue process. The students recognized the day was in fact a form of personalized learning: they were not just voicing their opinions; they were learning how they wanted to learn and reshaping the school to better meet their needs. 

After the discussion, students and faculty discussed the benefits of the new leadership model that emerged—a shared-leadership model that required youth and adults to lead together.

For an in-depth look at Harwood Union High School’s all-school dialogue, check out this video:

Student Voice and Choice: All School Dialogue Spring 2015 from Amy on Vimeo.

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