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Reimagining Our Schools 1.0

Student Voice

Anyone who has been following my written musings and wonderings for the past nearly three years will know that I am a HUGE (hear the Bernie Sanders emphasis here), a HUGE proponent of soliciting and paying close attention to what kids have to say about their educational journey and experiences. I served as a building administrator for 21 years of my public education career, 18 of those years as a building principal. I as look back on my experiences, I can’t think of a single occasion where I regretted soliciting student feedback or input. Now, I didn’t always like what they had to say. But, I never questioned the sincerity, honesty and the integrity of their perspectives or ideas.

Kids have a lot to tell us about their education. If, of course, we choose to listen and demonstrate value in what they have to say.

I was struck by an opinion piece that appeared in the May 5, 2020 edition of the New York Times. The author, Ms Veronique Mintz, is a 13 year-old eighth-grade student at a public New York City middle school. Like the majority of American students, she was thrown into the world of distance learning with little warning or preparation. But, having done it for a while, she finds it vastly superior to trying to learn in classrooms full of disrespectful students, led by teachers who lack the skills or training in effective classroom management. Here are excerpts from her piece as she reflects on her experience.

“I’m in favor of the distance learning the New York City school system instituted when the coronavirus pandemic hit. If our schools use this experience to understand how to better support teachers in the classroom, then students will have a shot at learning more effectively when we return.”

“I go to a school that puts a big emphasis on collaborative learning; approximately 80 percent of our work is done in teacher-assigned groups of three to five students. This forces students who want to complete their assignments into the position of having to discipline peers who won’t behave and coax reluctant group members into contributing. (Through distance learning) I can still collaborate with other students, but much more effectively. We challenge one another and it’s a richer learning experience.”

“Distance learning gives me more control of my studies. I can focus more time on subjects that require greater effort and study. I don’t have to sit through a teacher fielding questions that have already been answered. The fact that I am learning so much better away from the classroom shows that something is wrong with our system."

That bears repeating: "Something is wrong with our system."

She even offers solutions! “What lessons from remote learning can be taken back to the classroom? I have a few suggestions. First, teachers should send recorded video lessons to all students after class (through email or online platforms like Google Classroom). Second, teachers should offer students consistent, weekly office hours of ample time for 1 on 1 or small group meetings. Third, teachers who are highly skilled in classroom management should be paid more to lead required trainings for teachers, plus reinforcement sessions as needed.”

She concludes: “These first two suggestions began during distance learning and have already been a great success. I hope they continue when we return to school, and that schools use this opportunity to improve the learning experiences of all their students.” (Emphasis added.)

Veronique is right to see our present circumstance as an “opportunity to improve the learning experiences of all" students. That is what reimagining public education is all about, An opportunity. A challenge. A professional obligation. A moral imperative.

Veronique’s voice is but one of the 56.6 million students attending public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, as of the fall of 2019. While they may not all agree with her, shouldn’t we be interested in the perspectives of all kids? They may have unique opinions based on their unique experience. This is the only group of students in our modern history who were sitting in classrooms with their friends, learning traditional subjects in largely traditional ways, one day only to be thrust into an unfamiliar and isolated system of online learning and relying on the wonders of the internet to remain engaged, even a little, and to have any hope of connection the next. Do you think they might have useful tidbits that could be informative in reimagining their experiences? You bet they do. We owe it to them to find out what they have to say. We owe it to them.

I challenge teachers and systems to find out what kids are thinking, and to collect these perspectives in a way that will be useful once we begin building our “new” normal. Now, we shouldn’t hold any allusion that they will be able to offer solutions to technical problems. (Where do we eat? How many kids on a bus at one time? Do we wear masks? Will we go to school every day? Will we still use our computers?) These are issues for the adults to argue about. No, where kids can offer true illumination are in the important areas of effective instruction, building communities and a sense of belonging, reasonable and fair assessment and grading policies, opportunities to be creative and explore what interests them, social justice and equity. If anyone thinks that students do not have opinions on these and a myriad of other topics, I dare them to ask. Go ahead. Ask the questions that will build the data that we should use in our reimagining efforts. You will not regret it. You have my guarantee.

Collecting data is frequently cumbersome. But, realize where we are right now. Kids are sitting in front of computers, chrome books or tablets trying to learn and engage. They are spending their days working with devices that are designed for data collection. Let’s use these tools to get to the facts, sure some opinions as well, but the facts about the status of American public education from our current customers, our students who, until recently, occupied our classrooms. And, I can assure my readers that this does not have to be a complicated, bubble sheet, survey. It could be some simple, open ended questions that students respond to, or even an online class discussion considering some key issues. It could even be as simple as three questions.

As you think about school, before the pandemic and since:

  1. What works (or worked) for you? What did you most enjoy and derive benefit from?

  2. What doesn’t work for you then or now?

  3. What would make your school experience better?

(These questions are similar to the ones I used during middle school student focus groups. See my June 10, 2019 post, Lean In and Listen)

All I know is this. If we are content to simply re-open “business as usual” schools, were are passing on a HUGE opportunity, and ignoring a HUGE obligation to provide American students The Education Kids Deserve.

Don’t believe me? Ask them.

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