Using Student Voice to Transform the Classroom
In Lift Every Voice, a collection of essays by our 2016 Fishman Prize winners, Evelyn Rebollar writes about the unique blend of community and rigor she establishes in her classroom and how it helps her Bronx students, many of whom transferred from previous schools after struggling, succeed in the classroom and grow emotionally. Here, we feature an excerpt of her essay.
As students wrap up an exit slip for a lesson on figurative language, Alex stirs in her seat. “That wasn’t your best lesson,” she says. “I think we would’ve done better if we had an idea of what the finalized product looked like, like we have in the past.”
There is trepidation in her voice, but what Alex doesn’t realize is that her willingness to criticize my instruction marks one of my proudest moments as her teacher. It is the culmination of a formalized structure of student feedback and peer review that has become ingrained in the culture of my classroom.
It has taken my students time to get here—to become accustomed to criticizing our lessons. As transfer students, they often have a history of refusing to conform to authority. They enter my classroom poised to continue the age-old battle between authoritative teacher and inquisitive student. But they want to learn. They crave it.
When I first started teaching, I tried to get my students to follow all of my directions without question. What ensued was usually a poorly choreographed tango between the student and me, with the rest of the classroom as our audience. My approach had to change if I was going to reach every single student.
I tried to feel with the heart of a student. I considered why more than anyone in my life, I trusted my principal to allow me to grow as an educator and staff member. I asked myself, What are some practices that Ty implements to invest the whole staff and make us feel good about working here? My thoughts turned to the portion of our staff meetings when whole-school and individual classroom data is distributed for staff to analyze. I wanted my students to feel the same sense of being an integral part of the classroom community, so I replicated the meeting.
We call them Arena 3 meetings, named after our classroom number. The purpose is two-fold. The first goal is to give students a safe space to vent frustrations and make suggestions for future practices. The second goal is to involve students in analyzing data on their performance as a class and in comparison to the rest of the school.
In our first attempt, the students and I sit in a circle. The projector in the room is ready with a Google Slides presentation. Marvin asks, “Why are we doing this?” Lesli sighs.
But when they see the bar graph depicting Arena 3’s attendance in comparison to the other classes in the school, my students fall silent. While their attendance isn’t terrible compared to other classrooms, it isn’t the best in the school, either. And it certainly isn’t what it could be.
Soon the silence is broken by a cacophony of analysis:
“Be honest, we’re not doing that bad, miss,” Chassan notes. “I feel like if more students were enrolled in the class, our attendance would be higher.” Although Chassan’s observation might be inaccurate, I note that he is at least exercising a growth mindset—a skill the students and I work diligently to master.
Christian waits for the chatter to settle before stating, “I don’t know. I think this school is different from last year. That’s why people aren’t coming.” His input spurs a discussion about changes in the new school year and the ways they affect attendance in our classroom.
Our first meeting lacks structure, but students are engaged; they are all struggling, and in many ways succeeding, at applying a narrative to data—an English language arts skill that is paramount to critical thinking. They exchange hypotheses and challenge one another. Within that half hour, I don’t have to mitigate behavioral issues at all, and as they speak, I realize that the key to effective classroom management is engaging curriculum. Students don’t misbehave when they’re challenged and interested.
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