Joseph Harris

Joseph Harris

By Joseph Harris

As most Kentucky teachers know, a student voice survey is administered once a year as part of the Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). Allowing students a voice in the classroom is empowering. Teachers who use student voice to inform instruction experience higher levels of student engagement because their students know they are part of the instructional decision-making process.

I am as addicted to student voice as I am to coffee, and while I am by no means a “guru,” I do encourage the use of a variety of student voice tools and strategies in the classroom.

A variety of student voice avenues are available to teachers in Kentucky:

  • Surveys can be administered throughout the year, especially around grading periods or after exams. I’ve also found it beneficial to informally survey by asking questions during lessons, such as, “Is this working for you?” “Should we approach this in a different way tomorrow?” “What worked best?”
  • Twitter is an excellent avenue for quick feedback teachers can use to inform practice. Here is a link to a blog reflection showing a Twitter poll I conducted last spring.
  • Plus/Deltas – Often, I use plus/deltas in my classes to see what worked and did not work in specific lessons or units of study.
  • Plan/Do/Study/Act ­– My classroom is a Shipley Systems-Based Classroom which operates on a continuous improvement cycle. This system lends itself well to student voice by bringing the students into the planning and data analysis processes. I highly recommend attending a systems-based classroom training. For more information visit Jim Shipley & Associates.
  • TPGES Student Survey – The TPGES Student Voice Survey has provided valuable insight to me. I administer it once per nine weeks and make adjustments as necessary. Here’s a link.

Before discussing my most recent surveying experience, I do want to caution teachers who are new to using surveys or other tools in collecting student voice that students are brutally honest, and if they are given the chance to provide real feedback, they will.

I spent hours creating the perfect lesson with a Shakespearean sonnet. I taught the lesson and, instead of fireworks, I was met with distant looks and yawns. What was I doing wrong? I stopped the lesson midcourse and asked for feedback: “Okay, tell me how to make this lesson better for you?” The class was silent for a few moments until finally a student suggested, “How about instead of you doing all the talking, you let us talk to each other about the poem? Let us figure it out?”

The other students nodded in agreement. So I did what any crazy teacher would do – I stopped my lecture and asked the students to partner up and determine the message of the poem. What unfolded was a beautiful lesson that set my feet toward using student voice as much as possible.

I could have ignored the cues of “I’m bored” from my students and went about the beautifully crafted lecture, but I must remember that students are providing me with feedback (data) about the learning experience in my class and since it my job is to make sure every student is learning to the best of his or her ability, I can’t take it personally. The feedback should be examined from a professional perspective and used to determine growth areas and instructional changes that are necessary to make the classroom a positive and powerful experience for all.

Near the end of our last unit, I administered part of the TPGES  student voice survey to my students. One area that stood out was a lower score in engagement. So I took the data back to my students and asked how I could make the next unit more engaging. Together, we looked at the learning targets in the unit and determined a plan of action.

I listened to what my students said would make the learning more “fun,” such as a group video project and a lesson in which the students analyzed a music video and then interacted with the lead singer of the band to determine whether their interpretations were on track. The student engagement levels were amazing, and one student even said, “Mr. Harris, I’ve learned more in this unit than I ever have about English because it was so fun!”

As heart-warming as that statement was, I want to carry that love for learning throughout the year. So I have made it my goal to continue using student voice to inform my instructional decisions. It just makes sense.

Joseph Harris teaches English and AP Language at Lawrence County High School in Louisa. He also serves as the English Professional Learning Communities Team Lead for grades 9-12 and as a Teacher Leader on both the School Instructional Leadership Team and District Instructional Leadership Team/Improvement Planning Committee. He is also a Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow.