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Equity and Voice: How a Sense of Belonging Promotes Students' Agency

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This post is written by Alison Lee, Senior Research Scientist, and Meg Riordan, Director of External Research, at EL Education.

"What might happen if we viewed youth as part of the solution, rather than as part of the problem?"  - Dana Mitra

As our previous post in this blog suggests, we have a simple idea at EL Education: students' sense of belonging matters. It matters in promoting deeper learning and equity. It matters every day, in every classroom, in every school. A key lever for increasing belonging is listening to and learning from student voice.

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Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than those who do not feel they have a voice. One way to engage and empower student voice is to include our students as part of an inquiry process--both in reporting on their experiences and in interpreting or providing root cause explanations and ideas for change.

In our Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) project, teachers asked students:

  • For whom does Crew seem to be most effective as an engine for academic, social, and emotional success?
  • And for whom is it least effective?

Students' answers helped us check our assumptions about Crew. Their voices informed the design and implementation of change practices. In this way students acted as a mirror to reflect a common experience, a loudspeaker to project diverse voices, and a collaborator to improve Crew. 

Starting with students' voices and examining the conditions that contribute to their experiences are essential steps to continuous improvement and change. But how did teachers and students partner in this work? What steps in the improvement process engendered students' agency? In the case study below, we explore how one school leveraged student voices to build a stronger sense of belonging for all learners.

Building Equity at Capital City Public Charter School

Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC, serves predominantly African-American (39%) and Latino (46%) pre-K-12th graders, with 75 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch. In their exploration of Crew as an engine for equity, sixth- to eighth-grade teachers examined students' fall survey data and identified that students reported low trust in their peers in Crew, which led to less willingness to participate or speak authentically in Crew. One student explained, "I feel like Crew leaders should take into consideration working in everyone's comfort zone ... sometimes [I] don't feel comfortable talking about really personal stuff and maybe some people do." Teachers also identified a promising outcome they hoped to use as a lever for change: a higher proportion of students reported that they cared deeply about helping their fellow Crew members.

Playing Community Is Only a First Step

After identifying trust and respect as areas where students saw gaps, the teachers on the Capital City middle school team decided to experiment with collaboration, a key deeper learning skill, as a way to create bridges to more trusting relationships. As part of a Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle of testing out ideas for change to impact students' belonging, teachers engaged their Crews in trust-building activities--games, initiatives, and conversations--with the intent of building community and trust through structures that support respectful dialogue. For instance, a student explained, "We practice accountable talk. When we're discussing something, it'll be like, 'I respectfully disagree with you because...'"

Teachers, however, noted that these activities led only to a modest gain in students' perceived trust (measured through weekly exit tickets). They concluded that while "playing community" (using structured activities) can support establishing a baseline expectation for Crew interactions, students needed more authentic and compelling opportunities to build relational trust. In response, teachers decided to use students' caring deeply for their fellow Crew members as a spark to ignite increased trust.

Authentic Projects Build Deep Trust

In the second PDSA cycle, teachers tried a new intervention: authentic projects that organically motivated students to work together more effectively and build relational trust. One teacher highlighted a project in which students decorated the door to their Crew room:

We've had to take a pretty big step back from the... structure... of starting out with a greeting, and then doing a share, and then doing an activity. That just isn't working. ... The biggest breakthrough that we had was this Crew door-decorating competition in the middle school, and so each Crew was responsible for decorating the door to their Crew space with their college or university, stuff about it. Every member of my Crew [had] a different job that they're working towards. Then they come together to make one collective door and one collective group. And as they worked, they just started asking each other questions.

The teachers recognized that creating opportunities for students to work toward a genuine product together was key to cultivating trust. One teacher reflected, "I think these projects where they become a group without really realizing it have been more successful. . . [now we ask ourselves], 'What are these bigger projects that we can do that can discreetly get them to work together without being, like, today, we are going to focus on working together.'"

In the Spring, when middle school students responded again to the 22-item Crew survey, data indicators for belonging, trust, and respect showed gains. For example, in response to the questions "How many of the students in your Crew share their ideas out loud?" the percentage of students who responded "almost everybody" or "all of the students" increased from 43 percent in the fall to 64 percent in the spring. The percentage of students who perceived that they were expected to treat each other respectfully increased (68 percent in the fall to 75 percent in the spring). Students' perception of how well they were able to resolve conflict and that other Crew members cared about them also increased--54 percent to 68 percent and 59 percent to 73 percent, respectively.

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What did teachers and students at Capital City learn this year while engaging in continuous improvement and listening to students' voices?  Three conclusions emerge from our data:

  1. Authentic tasks drive students' motivation to collaborate and increase relational trust.
  2. Crew leaders should strike a balance between "playing community" through structured team-building games and "building community" through projects that lend themselves to collaboration.
  3. Teachers and students can successfully experiment with new practices and measure impact. They are eager to try out strategies and investigate whether a change is making a difference or not?

For deeper learning to be successful, leaders and teachers must listen to, learn from, and lead with students. To promote an increased sense of belonging, we must invite and listen to students' voices; they can lead the way to experiences for learning and growth. As one Capital City student expressed, "I feel like I'm now able to work better in groups. It made me want to work in groups more...we do a really good job and we're like, 'Wow, we're all so different, but we're still able to work together.'"

Stay tuned for our next post in which we ask: Given our findings on teachers' and students' experiences, what can we learn in the coming year from our successes and missteps as we work to build more equitable learning environments?  

Photo Credit: Katie Schneider

 

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