Student Voice

Why Is It Important and How Do We Encourage It?

Lower School Director Alison Max Rothschild ’85, Middle School Director Danny Isquith and Upper School Director Lorenzo Krakowsky talk about one of the central tenets of Calhoun’s progressive approach to learning—student voice—and explore what it means, why it’s important, and how it finds expression in the daily life of our children.

[Calhoun Chronicle, Winter 2016]

What do we mean by “student voice”?

LORENZO: Student voice means a lot of things: It means involving students in decision-making at the school; allowing students to find their voice while they’re students here, in a variety of ways; paying attention to students and having a fundamental respect for their experience, their point of view. Giving students opportunities to have a voice in all of these different ways is what distinguishes a progressive school from a more traditional school. It’s such a central part of progressive education—the belief in child-centered education, and the notion that students should be living democracy rather than preparing for democracy.

In what ways does Calhoun’s approach differ from traditional methodology?

ALISON: Very often, schools have a narrow set of expectations and limited tolerance for temperaments and personality types, and in many schools, kids are not allowed to speak or are really only allowed to speak if they have one desired response—so kids don’t develop their own voice, their own opinions. At Calhoun we try hard to make room for lots of different kinds of kids—which is a lovely thing in and of itself, but there is also an important educational principle behind it, which is, if you begin your education feeling that your opinion matters and you’re being heard, it sets you on a very different course in terms of the way you interact with the whole notion of school, teachers and classmates, and the way you take risks and ask questions. You have to practice expressing and making choices and not just follow someone’s direction. You become a different kind of student from a child whose voice is suppressed. Making sure kids feel good and comfortable to be themselves will make them more interesting, creative, passionate, questioning, thoughtful, curious students.

DANNY: Traditional education—in my mind, because I went through it—takes the position of “Here’s what you need to know. Learn it. Show me that you know it.” I never came into the equation. It was never about how I interacted or intersected with the information; it was all just about “Here’s the material; learn that material.” So I never was able to internalize it. I was a very good student, but that doesn’t mean I understood everything I learned—I knew how to “play the game.” There’s a difference, and I’m acutely aware of that difference. I went to college [Yale] and got smacked in the face because all of a sudden I had to be more thoughtful, and put more of myself into the papers and the discussions, and it was hard for me at first because I’d never had to exist within the curriculum.

LORENZO: It’s not just about our programs; it’s also something about the culture of the Upper School, and I’m sure it’s true of the other divisions. Because of the strength of the relationships between kids and adults here, because we call one another by our first names, because it’s such an open space, kids just feel like they’re listened to more.

So how do we help children find their voice?

DANNY: Our whole curriculum is based on kids finding their voice. We say that we meet kids where they are and then help them grow. But in order to do that, you need to know where they are; and the best way to [do that] is to help them know where they are, and help them find their voice so they can figure out and say, “Okay I’m here, and here’s what I aspire to be.” I’m big into metacognition—the whole idea of teaching kids early on to interrogate what’s going on with them.... What is it about their learning experience that works? What is it that doesn’t? How can they figure out what they need and then ask for it? If you don’t have a voice, and don’t understand who you are, then how is that going to happen?

ALISON: A lot of it is about the process. For preschoolers, it’s all about attaching their voices to the work that they’re doing. We’re not just looking for a finished product; we want to know the thought that goes into the work while the children are doing it. And then we document that, we share it, and the teachers use that understanding to learn from [the experience] and plan future lessons. There’s a set curriculum that the teachers are following, but we leave “space” for emerging curriculum that comes from the kids’ voices. In the upstairs 3’s, for instance, there’s a doctor study going on that came completely from the kids. The teachers are working on ways to support that study.

DANNY: It’s true: Opening the space for kids to potentially change the direction of a lesson is central to our approach. If a student takes you on a tangent, and that tangent is worth going down, go down it. As a teacher, that’s what I always loved. There was one calculus class where I taught kids how to balance their checkbooks because it came up. Because the truth is, it’s not so much about the facts that they’re learning; it’s about the habits of mind that we’re trying to teach them. That’s the stuff that they need to keep. When they’re 40 years old, will they remember how to factor a trinomial? And is that really that important? Probably not. But I want them to remember what it felt like to stretch themselves. And again, that’s where we’re putting them at the center . . . we’re not putting the information at the center. We’re putting their experience with the information at the center. So I love what we do here. And we do it all over the place; it’s not just about bringing the curriculum to them; sometimes it’s about asking them to step into it a little bit. Oh, geez, Marco’s [eighth grade social studies] class . . . the kinds of discussions he is having with these kids, he’s not just talking about what happened and when it happened, but he asks, “How do you see this historic event represented in the current reality? What does this make you think? What does this make you feel like? What does it remind you of?” He’s bringing the kids into history; it’s something that actually has emotional, cognitive and intellectual links to who these kids are and how they see themselves.

LORENZO: In Upper School classes, our kids are encouraged to do a lot of presentations, [participate in] a lot of discussions, a lot of debates and projects, where they’re asked to express their voice in a way that maybe other high school students wouldn’t as much. Even the word “teach” here, I think, is more about listening to kids and giving them more of a chance to express themselves.

How is finding one’s voice related to choice?

ALISON: Oftentimes, children in traditional schools—and in life—are just so programmed and adult-directed all the time that they never have time to develop their own interests, passions or opinions. Here, in early childhood, choice time gives kids the opportunity to find out what they’re interested in and what they’re good at and what they like and don’t like.

For our youngest children, we have some dedicated choice time, before and after lunch, as well as during arrival in the morning. That’s a really important time; you’ll see that kids actually want to get to school early so they have their choice time.

For our “older” Lower Schoolers, we offer special courses, which is a dedicated time each six-day cycle when students can choose a class they would like to take. Fourth graders are given the opportunity to teach a special course or, if there’s an interest or passion they have, they can seek out a teacher to lead a course on that subject. This is really the introduction to the “elective” concept that they’ll encounter in Middle School, and it’s a continuation of the choice time they had in the earlier years. In other classes, students are frequently given opportunities to follow their interests—within a framework: They get to choose their own reading selections and topics for research and how they want to present [that research]. In math classes, third and fourth graders are given the opportunity to challenge themselves with more advanced problem-solving classwork or homework—to push themselves a little harder.

We’re trying to encourage the children to become the drivers of their education, so they don’t rely on an adult to push them toward the next thing but to begin taking ownership of it. Lower School students need a lot of scaffolding and help with this, but as they get older at Calhoun, they’re really good at driving their education.

DANNY: Balancing the amount of choice is interesting. If you give students no choice, they obviously don’t have any ability to voice their opinions at all. If you give them too many choices, it becomes a bit chaotic. And what I’ve noticed students will do is, they’ll just ask for everything and take whatever they’re given, and then they’re not actually making any choices. So I’m trying to find that sweet spot where they have just enough choice, and they have to be really thoughtful, and they have to think, Okay, what do I want? And how can I stand up for myself and ask for it? Our new trimester system is great because it gives students more opportunities for electives: seventh and eighth graders can now choose three electives over the course of the school year. It’s great preparation for Upper School.

LORENZO: Upper Schoolers have a lot of opportunities for choice: choice in being leaders, choice in their clubs. And the amount of choices kids have here about their courses, as they get older, is unusual. That’s partially because of the mod system, which allows more time for more electives. And we don’t just have electives . . . now we also have E-block classes, intersession courses. Junior Workshop is a self-directed project that is really about students articulating a question that they’re interested in and then researching it. And for Senior Work, students are asked to identify an internship they’re interested in doing and then go out and do it. We also offer an independent study program that allows kids to do work not offered in the regular curriculum. Isaac is writing and illustrating his own graphic novel; Owen organized a math independent study; Jhoenny is studying Japanese; Sam is painting; Michael is doing a comparative study of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Homer’s The Odyssey; Lincoln is developing a curriculum on communication through rap [see page 10]. Two seniors, Bennett and Lia, will be conducting multiple dissections over the course of seven weeks this spring as part of an independent study in biology with [US science teacher] Francesco Filiaci. Lindsay, a sophomore, has pieced together three separate independent courses of study on film, in preparation for her Junior Workshop next year—quite ambitious . . . and completely self-generated.

Earlier, you mentioned the importance of student voice in terms of decision-making.

LORENZO: Yes, voice is also about developing the skills to advocate for yourself—with teachers, with peers. We have a variety of ways to hone those skills. Two student reps come to every faculty meeting as full voting members; we have a student who helps run town meetings; two students sit on the disciplinary committee of the Review Board, listening to peers and helping make decisions;
and students sit directly on search committees and have a voice on all hires for the Upper School—faculty and administrators. Their feedback is taken very, very seriously.

Peer Leadership is also a good example of student voice, because, again, students are actually teaching and playing a role and [taking] responsibility that is more than students are traditionally given. I think about our social justice coordinators, and the students who work with teachers to help select the division-wide summer book; they’re given the responsibility to make that decision and then shape an agenda. Affinity groups are student-centered, giving students a voice and a space to express their voice. Students also run the club program, the spirit squad, and community service projects.

ALISON: For younger students, it’s about learning problem-solving skills and conflict resolution. In the beginning of the year, teachers ask what rules the students think they need to keep their classroom safe and happy and comfortable. So rather than have the teacher come in with a set of rules, the kids co-construct the rules for the classroom—which ultimately does solicit the same kinds of things we would have put in place ourselves. The same process is used for daily job charts: the teacher does not prepare the list of jobs ahead of time; the kids come together to figure out what jobs they think are important in the classroom. And because the children have created the rules, they take ownership and are invested in having the rules followed. It helps them develop a real sense of what’s right and wrong—and the children are encouraged to work through problems. I think we see that play out really well at Calhoun; by the time kids get to Middle and Upper School, the kids conduct themselves really appropriately because they have learned how to do it in a very authentic way.

DANNY: In the Middle School we’re trying to teach kids how to advocate for themselves. The biggest thing we’re trying to convey is that, instead of waiting for an adult to take care of something, be proactive; try to get something started and have the confidence. In the beginning of the year, we had a very complex scheduling form that required the kids to do a lot of the work for themselves. If they wanted to switch a class, they had to explain why; they had to get their parents to sign the form; they had to get their advisor to sign it. That was intentional, for two reasons: one, to make sure the kid really wanted the change—it wasn’t just some sort of whim; and two, to demonstrate that you sometimes have to work for things that you actually care about.

Another way we encourage kids to advocate is with clubs. Do you want a club? You create it. We don’t want it all coming from [the faculty/administration]. I’d love to see some of the older [Middle School] students running clubs. That also brings up a bigger discussion—student government down here [in Middle School] is quite different from how it’s run in Upper School; we have no elected positions; it’s whoever shows up. Talk about democracy! You show up or you don’t have a voice! And they do show up; we get about 30 kids to each meeting, and kids who go once tend to go all the time. They really do care.

I had a bunch of kids who wanted to run part of an assembly and they just came right up and asked me. I thought that was amazing; it’s not something I would have done when I was their age! Of course, I don’t see fifth graders doing that; developmentally, they’re not ready. But I do see fifth graders starting to ask questions and wondering why things are the way they are. That’s the first step . . . that’s about interrogating your reality so you can decide what it is that you want to change.

So, on reflection, what’s the single most important way we encourage student voice?

DANNY: I think we treat kids the way we treat adults. More than most schools, we don’t see a divide, faculty and administrators versus students; they’re just another constituency whose opinions we value—not just because we know we should, but because we actually do. And I love that Calhoun kids really find their voice here. They really learn how to advocate for themselves, they know how to talk to adults, they know how to talk to one another.