Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Students and their voices

We've been talking about student voice for several years now. You can find all kinds of blog posts and articles about student-centered learning and helping students find and use their voices. But I have a question: Do we really want kids to find their own voices?

Please don't get huffy. Not yet anyway. I know the answer most teachers have: "Of course we want kids to find their own voices!". Yes, but we also want and need degrees of compliance. I think one of our challenges is allowing students to find their own voices and yet do so within very specific parameters. I think part of teacher resistance is about grading. I think another part of teacher resistance is about benchmarks and standards. And I think another part of teacher resistance is how to make sure students stay within the parameters and constraints defined by the learning objective(s), standards, etc. 

But compliance within parameters (number of minutes, style of work, expectations, etc.) and constraints (specific amount of time, assignment criteria, etc.) is possible and can allow for students to make choices and experiment with different modalities, or voices. Hold that thought, please.

I've gone back in the digital archives to find what we've been saying about student voice and choice over the years. There has been a lot so what I share with you is, admittedly, selective.

In 2014, Rebecca Alber published in Edutopia and gave us five ways our students might have more voice and choice. Keep in mind that student voice and student choice have been inextricably linked when talking about student-centered learning. 

Let me address those ideas of voice and choice. In student-centered learning, it makes sense to give students options; that is, choice. That is one of the advantages of choice boards; however, it is important to note that students are given choice within certain parameters. That makes sense to me because I know the learning objectives and the standards. Even if my older students know both of those things, the objectives and the standards may matter less to them unless I can craft them in a rubric, perhaps a single point rubric that guides students in making their choices. Some of this is the spirit of contract grading, which can also make sense for older students providing their parents are on board.

Voice, then, should be a natural extension of choice. Too often teachers and students think that voice means that students choose to use a different form of technology to showcase their learning. I get that. Teachers have to figure out how to grade student assignments and do so reasonably equitably. That's where the single point rubric comes in. Students know the criteria against which their work is being assessed, and so do parents. However, we also know that such assessment can be subjective so students might think they do superior work when they have not.

On the other hand, if the students can express or somehow explain what they learned and why it matters to them, that voice may be significant in helping them, their parents, and the teacher understand if the work is representative of compliance and learning, or just compliance. Have the students stayed within the parameters and executed those well? Or has the student been messy about meeting those prescribed criteria and yet can express what, why, and how that student learned?

Then comes the question of what is most important and that may be dependent on the content and the grade level as well as many other things. Is it most important for the student to stay within the lines of learning? Or is it most important that the student has begun to figure out how he/she/they learn? There is, I suggest, no simple answer to those questions.

Barbara Bray and Kathleen McClaskey developed a "Continuum of Voice" that was then modified in 2018 by Barbara Bray as the "Spectrum of Voice." In her post about this image and her thinking on the topic, Bray included an Alan November quote: "Who owns the learning?" That may be one of the most important things November has ever said.

Yes, who owns the learning? Not the teacher. Not the parents. The student. That has led to all kinds of research and publishing about student autonomy, student engagement, and authenticity. And in the back of the room, that small voice whispers "But what about compliance?" To which I ask, "Compliance to what?"

Let's fast forward to 2020 and 2021, the Years of Disrupted Learning. On February 4, 2020, Jethro Jones was the guest poster for Ditch That Textbook and Jones wrote about ways to increase voice and choice in the classroom. One of the things he pointed out is that students need to learn that learning is about the work and not about the grade, so what if part of what we do is about feedback rather than grading? Yes, I'm a fan, but I have to make sure parents understand what that means because they are often very much about the grade.

John Spencer has a whole collection about empowering students as he addresses what it means to make a shift and provide for student agency, student choice, and authenticity in learning. Spencer notes that compliance isn't always a bad thing. I realize that if we want students to learn the value of learning and to want to engage in the process of learning, we have to help them understand the difference between compliance and being empowered, and we have to provide them with the opportunities, the lane markers, or whatever else makes sense for them to realize when they can be empowered to work outside of the lines and when they must comply.

When I think about authenticity or engagement or empowerment for some of my students, I realize that very little of what I teach in 11th grade English may seem authentic for any of them and they may feel they have little opportunity to be empowered. 

The kind of writing my AP Language students have to do is authentic insofar as it prepares them for the AP Language test which is not remotely authentic beyond that test experience. However, I know I am not limited to making sure they know how to do that kind of writing so I have the freedom to help them learn to write in other ways and, I hope, understand the differences in those types of writing.

I'm making adjustments in the second semester for my English III students in that I will give them a lot of choice. Overall I need them to read, to learn or to practice critical thinking, and to be able to express their thinking. I need them to be able to express their thinking in writing and realize that could be a script for a podcast or a storyboard for something they choose to do graphically. We will start the semester reading the same book, but they will have choices in how they interact and engage with that text. This gives me a way to show them how this might be done while providing some lane markers by using only one text.

Then they will choose their own texts for the balance of the semester with periodic whole class work with a short story or an article or a poem. I will have a hyperdoc or choice board for all of these assignments. You might think that insane, and it might be. I'll have a specific choice board for the whole class work. For the text choices, I'm starting with a generic choice board so I can determine how best to modify it based on the text choices students make from the curated list. I'm gambling a bit on some significant text choice repetition. I'm allowing students the option of choosing books that are not on the curated list, but they have to write a justification for that choice so there is a possibility that particular choice won't be an option.
Here's the thing: we want learning to be a process, and preferably a tidy process. But learning is messy, and there's been plenty of research on this topic as well.

I don't think learning is linear whether it's math or science or history or anything else. I think some learning requires some specific foundations, but even as we continue to learn we go back to and reinforce parts of our foundations. And real learning requires consistent and constant feedback, which is a different post. Starr Sackstein wrote about the importance of feedback, among other things, in 2015

So, yes, when I try to help my students find their voices and use them, it will be exhausting and frustrating and patience-testing. . . for all of us. They will be resistant and suspicious. I may get a few phone calls or emails from parents.

However, at the end of the semester, if they've learned a little something about their learning and if they've learned a little more about their approaches to reading and thinking and writing, I'm okay with that. I hope their parents will be. I hope they will be. Even that will be their choice.

Choice board resources

Single-point rubric resources

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