By Mike Marsee
Gracie Learner just wants to be heard.
Even at 9 years old, Learner has no problem getting her message out. On one recent day, her message was all about ensuring that students like her have a greater voice in their education.
Learner, a 4th-grader-to-be at Kyrock Elementary School (Edmonson County) who has spoken at several education conferences and meetings during the past four years, recently told a room full of educators at the Western Kentucky University (WKU) School of Teacher Education’s Annual Summer Conference about the importance of making sure their students are heard.
“Teachers can help us with our education, but students have a voice, too, and students need to know that their voice matters,” Learner said.
Learner found a receptive audience in Bowling Green, where the conference she kicked off focused on student voice and engagement.
“There’s a movement, I think, toward really engaging students individually and giving them that voice,” said Andrea Paganelli, an assistant professor in the WKU School of Teacher Education and the conference’s chairwoman. “I think the idea behind student voice and student agency is that our students are able to take control, in a way, of facets of their own learning, and isn’t that liberating to think that we could give that to our children? I want my kids to have it, and every educator I know wants all of us to have that.”
Joyce Richards, a consultant in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Branch, said students should be encouraged to take an active role in their learning.
“Students are an important source of information and provide teachers opportunities to reflect on the quality of teaching as well as the learning environment. Encouraging students to have a voice in their learning can help to shape best practices that support student achievement,” Richards said.
Paganelli said when she and her colleagues were planning this year’s event, one of them thought it would be a good idea to bring students in as speakers to underscore the importance of student agency.
That’s where Learner and a handful of other students came in. Learner engaged the educators with a 30-minute keynote presentation centered on digital learning. Learner then joined four other students from nearby schools for a panel discussion that focused on how they use technology to learn.
“We had kids from all different age groups, so you get a wide variety of ideas and what they’re seeing and thinking in the classroom,” said Parker Stobaugh, a freshman-to-be at South Warren High School (Warren County).
Faith Harralson, a teacher at Estes Elementary School (Owensboro Independent) who was part of a Kentucky Reading Project group that presented at the conference, said the panel discussion helped her realize the importance of listening to her own students.
“I want to take more time to have that individual time with my students to really hear their voice and what their needs are and how I can meet those needs for them, and then give them more opportunities for trust. And that creates an amazing atmosphere where we can give students voice through that trust. A little from me and a little from them, and it’s a good balance,” Harralson said.
Students participated in some of the breakout sessions throughout the day.
Philip Russell, an English teacher at Bowling Green High School (Bowling Green Independent) who also presented at the conference, said he thinks student voice should be seen not as an option, but as “almost a necessity.”
“Students are receiving a wealth of knowledge and data. They’re using Twitter and that’s constant knowledge, but they always have the opportunity to respond to that,” Russell said. “They always have the voice when they’re on Twitter, so they’re used to that in their personal life. Hopefully we can incorporate that into the classroom, where we’re directing them toward the content we need them to have.”
Learner said her willingness to express her voice at an early age was inspired by her grandmother, Terri Stice, a former teacher who is the director of instructional technology for the Green River Regional Educational Cooperative.
“I think that we often try to harness kids’ thinking instead of just letting them run with it. I think it speaks volumes when a child whose attention span is supposed to be so small, but yet they can hold an audience’s attention for 30 minutes and do their own engaging presentation,” Stice said.
Learner pointed out in her presentation that she has been using technology virtually all of her life. Her address underscored the fact that technology is integrated into her life in a way that the adults in the room – whom she noted are part of the last generation that hasn’t always had the internet – don’t always understand.
“That’s how I learn: I am a digital learner,” she told the audience. “There is no doubt the digital revolution is a big part of future learning.”
“I think we still look at technology as something separate from our lives, something we choose to use in our lives, where it’s been a part of her life since the day she was born,” Stice said. “It’s something she’s grown up with, and she really doesn’t know a life without having that connection.”
Incorporating technology that students are already using is only one part of student agency. Russell’s presentation dealt with his apprehensions as a relatively new teacher about student voice, and he said it’s an area in which he knew he needed some work.
“I decided to dig into the topic more so that I could do that in the classroom. Now I see the simplicity of student agency; it’s a steppingstone. You give the students a voice and let them superimpose that on the content,” he said.
Harralson said teachers must be willing to try new things to help their students.
“I will try anything new that will help my students, and if it doesn’t meet their needs, then I’ll move on to the next thing,” she added. “If we can continue down the path of trying new things, then we will be better equipped in our classrooms.”
Nancy Hulan, a WKU assistant professor who led the Bowling Green-based Kentucky Reading Project unit that included Harralson, said the focus should be on engaging students.
“We know that one of the most important parts of teaching our kids is engaging them. If we don’t pay attention to their voice, they’re not going to be engaged. If we don’t build off of their interests, they’re not going to be engaged and learn as well as they should,” Hulan said.
Paganelli said she will be interested to follow the discussion on student voice in the coming years.
“I think it is in its beginnings,” she said, “and everybody’s starting to look at it from a different perspective.”
MORE INFO …
Gracie Learner on Twitter @gracieB_Learner
Terri Stice firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrea Paganelli email@example.com