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Honoring Student Voices: The Underside of Lessons

Years ago during an interview, I opened my portfolio to show some of the things I'm most proud of. I passed around pictures of my students picking up trash from the side of the road, collecting and distributing toys for the Toys-for-Tots campaign, and standing outside the school on the Dr. King holiday to collect money for survivors of the earthquake in Haiti. I did, later in the conversation, talk about writing and literature, but I remember one of the last things I said before leaving the room. "I want my students to write well and to speak well, but above all else, I want them to be good citizens."

I know I am not alone in this. My teacher friends across the country teach math while teaching responsibility. They teach history while fostering a love of community. They help students conjugate verbs in another language while inspiring respect for other cultures. Expert teachers care deeply about creating a next generation better than the current one, for the hope for our future is in our students.

Because these things are the underside of our lesson plans, I have been confused in recent weeks by those who have criticized students for organizing the recent National School Walkout and other memorials for the seventeen victims of the Florida school shooting and for calling for regulations in gun laws. Disparaging comments from adults have flooded social media. Some suggest that teenagers are not as well-spoken as they appear to be on television, so they must be coached, or even worst, crisis actors. My expert opinion? I know from experience that yes, teenagers are that savvy and intelligent and interested in helping others.

TomDriggers.jpg

We also need to also remember that walking out is not a new phenomenon. It was young people who walked out of school and engaged in sit-ins and marches during the civil rights movement. It's young people who have started big movements for social change in the past.

Here's what should have happened. When students organized 17 minutes of peaceful activities or sat in silence for 17 minutes or walked into the hallway of the school to sit on the floor for 17 minutes, they should have been applauded. Regardless of the political beliefs of adults, students should have been supported and not suspended as they were in a district in Pennsylvania and many other districts across the country.

We say we value student voice--but do we?

Sometimes student voice comes in 17 minutes of silence.

We say that we want our students to engage in civil discourse and to understand their role in our democracy.

Sometimes that engagement involves standing up for their beliefs.

We say we want students to apply their learning to the real world.

Sometimes that application happens in the hallways of our schools in heartfelt, silent protest.

Next time, let's remember to practice what we preach. If we are honoring student voice in our classrooms, let's make sure we honor it outside those classroom walls as well.

Monica Washington is a K-12 instructional coach with BetterLesson.  She is the 2014 Texas State Teacher of the Year, a NNSTOY  member, a 2015 NEA Global Fellow, and a 2015 Lowell Milken Fellow.

 

Photo courtesy of Tom Driggers.

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