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The Promise and Pitfalls of Student Voice Initiatives

By Jerome A. Steele, Assistant Director of Research and Professional Development

What do we mean when we discuss student voice in schools? It can be anything from providing students with curricular choices in classrooms to surveys to student-directed Youth Participatory Action Research (Solorzano, Yosso, 2002). Fielding (2001) defines it as “students’ ability to influence decisions that affect their lives” (Lyons, Brasof 2020). This definition is sufficiently expansive to encompass the many forms it takes in practice, but says little about the roles of adult beliefs and the organizational structure of schools in these efforts. In their 2020 metaanalysis “Building the Capacity for Student Leadership in High School: A Review of Organizational Mechanisms From the Field of Student Voice,” Lyons and Brasof draw on Ronald Heifetz’s work on adaptive leadership to conclude “amplifying student voice is more of an adaptive challenge than a technical problem, meaning simply implementing a new practice is not enough - a change in mindset is required. Schools may first want to ensure educators believe in the power and necessity of youth voices in schools” before implementing programs (Lyons, Brasof p. 367). This observation leads us to different questions: do we listen to students about issues impacting their lives in schools and what does that look like? 

Trauma-Responsive Schooling: Centering Student Voice and Healing (2022), by Lyn Mikel Brown, Catharine Biddle, and Mark Tappan is a deep exploration of the student-centered programming that emerged out of a Research-Practice Partnership (RPP) dedicated to Trauma Responsive Equitable Education (TREE) (p.2). It is not a book about acronyms. The work is set at the pseudonymous West Elementary School - a rural school in Maine with a history of low test scores and high absenteeism. The project sought to “address the predictable and recurring barriers to healthy child development and learning that so often exist in high poverty rural schools” (p. 2). They articulate the foundation of their work:

“Our approach is grounded in the assumption that any genuinely trauma-responsive culture must engage children and youth as full and active partners in school and community transformation. Listening to student voices, taking students seriously, and seeking to promote their agency, control, and empowerment are critical to addressing and mitigating adversity, stress, and trauma, and thus ultimately, to healing” (p.2). 

Their vision of students as “full and active partners in school and community transformation” was advanced through their Somedays program. This activity starts with a simple prompt. Students are asked to complete the sentence “Someday in school I would like to…” (p. 17). Kids and educators then collaborate to “work hard to make everyone’s Someday wish come true” (p. 21). Students initiated a wide range of activities. Valerie, a student whose parents divorced while she was in Kindergarten, wanted to teach a Kindergarten class. She explained how this became “an opportunity to show [the kindergartners], it will all be okay; to know I’ll be there for them if something is wrong, so they can trust me for anything” (p. 19). Valerie collaborated with Rachael, the TREE facilitator, to develop a lesson plan that showed how shaving cream and baking soda can be combined to make snow. Class was held outside at picnic tables as Valerie led them through their experiment. Valerie reflected “I think they had a lot of fun, and they depend on me to go over there and explain everything to them” (p. 19). Valerie’s Someday activity was an exciting, hands-on science lesson, but its impact went far deeper than the content: 

“The children she chose to teach were the same age she was when her parents divorced, and her Someday allowed her an opportunity to create the kind of trust and support she needed at their age. She remembered what is was like ‘to be scared to go into the first grade,’ clinging to her grandmother, and she wanted to be the person she didn’t have, ‘somebody who they can trust and turn to, so that when they need you the most you can be there for them’” (p. 20).

The authors emphasize that “offering an opportunity to voice their desires enabled every child and adult to share a little bit more of themselves, what they liked, what they valued, and what they are good at. With their voices heard, children like Valerie experienced a sense of their own power to impact the school day” (p. 23). These impactful experiences assuaged any initial skepticism held by adults: 

As teachers reimagined students as creative, complex, thoughtful and altruistic, and as they began to see how they might learn something from the children they thought they knew so well, relationships deepened. With their children so engaged, families were drawn in, and their relationships with the school were strengthened. With the power of children’s imagination on full and continuous display, the school became a more interesting and joyful play to learn. 

While the Somedays concept is quite basic, it has vast implications. The simple act of asking students what they would like to do in school and providing them with support to realize their vision has tremendous potential to help students see themselves as empowered actors who are capable of “shaping issues that matter to them” and co-constructors of more humanizing, inclusive, and fun school cultures. The success of this approach, however, requires that adults in the building “believe in the power and necessity of student voice” (Lynn, Brasof 2020). This presents challenges as it requires adults to relinquish some control of the events in their classrooms and can create instability and uncertainty for teachers accustomed to functioning in more traditional instructional environments. This lack of certainty may lead some educators to fear “getting it wrong.” Brown, Biddle, and Tappan address the complexity of this adaptive challenge:

“There are a multitude of ways to create opportunities for students to share their knowledge and contribute to their own and others’ well-being and learning. Asking students what they want and need is the best place to begin. But what then? If we have not before worked with children or youth in this way, we might think we need clear, step-by-step instructions. In reality, this work is less “how to” than “how to be” - how to be the kind of adult children trust and feel safe with, how to be an adult who invites student insight and partnership” (p. 85).

Adopting this stance requires that educators become comfortable with being uncomfortable and pushing themselves outside of the boundaries of familiar structures and routines. There is risk in this, but truly meaningful, student-centered collaboration with young people creates conditions in which both students and educators can grow, thrive, and experience joy. 

While Trauma Responsive Schooling highlights how effective centering student voice can be to create inclusive, equitable and joyful learning communities, a case study entitled “They Didn’t Even Talk About Oppression: School Leaders Protecting the Whiteness of Leadership through Resistance Practices to a Youth Voice Initiative” demonstrates the harm caused to young people when adults attempt to control and co-opt student voice initiatives. Authors Jason D. Salisbury, Manali J. Sheth, and Alexia Angton draw upon Cheryl Harris’s Whiteness as Property concept to illustrate how administrators and educators sought to control and profit from an ostensibly equity-centered student voice initiative (Salisbury, Sheth, Angton 2020). 

The project they describe emerged from a Research-Practice Partnership that was to consist of two parts. The first was a credit bearing course that would explore multiple critical lenses to help combat deficit-based narratives about Black and Brown youth. The second was the creation of a Student Advisory Council (SAC) that was supposed to provide participants a platform to exercise their voice “on issues that matter to them” to support transformative change in the district. While the district articulated a transformative and equitable vision to the SVI facilitators, a disconnect between stated goals and reality soon emerged. 

Researchers who were facilitating the program were left out of the initial, introductory meeting of the SAC based on the district’s insistence that they “wanted the focus to be on the students” (p. 67). The District Equity Coordinator insisted that this was a “first meeting” which would allow the committee to “get to know students more informally.” However, “instead of honoring the stated goal of the meeting, district leaders offered a new agenda during the meeting and began to ask youth pointed questions about their educational experiences and what they wanted changed in schools” (p.68). Youth oscillated between “anger at university instructors, anger at district leaders and frustration with one another.” They felt betrayed by their university instructors who were unable to be there to support them in an unfamiliar setting for which they felt unprepared. Youth participants characterized this first meeting as “district leaders gathering stories and patting themselves on the back for being in a room with students of color” (p. 68). Following the meeting, district leaders insisted “they had really enjoyed their time with the youth.” This feedback caused researchers to reflect on “the misalignment of district and youth perspectives on the meeting” and “evidence that the district was generating positive publicity around the initiative” (p. 69). While marginalized youth felt alienated and unprepared, white district leaders were able to generate positive publicity around “their” efforts. 

In response to this unsettling experience, youth communicated via email about their priorities for agenda items for the next meeting. However, the district leaders dismissed their priorities. The authors stated that:

“the district’s response to the youth-led agenda made it clear that we had entered, and brought youth of color, in a situation that was not about developing youth transformative leadership but rather about using youth of color as data points for and legitimizers of the district’s agenda.”

This perception was confirmed during the final SAC meeting in which leaders attempted to maintain control of their agenda and narrative by deflecting from youth concerns. For example, “one youth’s work illuminated the bullying of an Asian American student in the LGBTQ community, and the superintendent explained away the (district’s) response to the bullying as the actions of a ‘lone wolf counselor’ who ‘was not doing his job” (p. 77). This dynamic was replicated when: 

One youth shared his research and other class projects to make the claim that the district curriculum was irrelevant, racist, and colonizing and the district’s six-million dollar learning framework was making the situation worse. The assistant superintendent then rephrased the youth’s point to shift the explanation away from institutional racism to a lack of individual teacher caring: “What I hear you saying is the content doesn’t matter. You just want teachers who care about students” (p. 77).

This wilful misrepresentation and misinterpretation of students’ work reinforces the fact that Black and Brown youth were merely props to legitimize the districts “equity efforts.” The meeting concluded with white leaders photographing student work without permission and posted to the district associate superintendent’s personal Twitter account. Posting the student work and taking photos with youth of color served to advance a narrative that portrayed district leaders as “equity-minded.” 

The actions of the district leaders in this article go beyond ignoring student voice in favor of a district agenda - it is much worse than that. By positioning themselves as “equity-minded,” the district leaders gained access to social and professional capital in an educational environment where equity has become a buzzword. While the authors draw upon Cheryl Harris’s Whiteness as Property frame to highlight the means by which district leaders exercised their power to maintain control of the student voice initiative, they do not extend the idea to its logical conclusion. The exploitation of the students in this article does not live only in the realm of narrative, perception, and social capital - its consequences are quite literally material. They used the experiences, trauma, and labor of Black and Brown youth to profit in a very literal sense. “Equity-minded” educators are likely to be promoted, hired by other districts, and given a platform to speak at conferences and provide professional development. All of this provides financial and social benefits to those educators. Student voice can be joyful, empowering and liberating as in the Somedays program, but it can also be exploitive, extractive and tokenizing. We have to ask ourselves not only “do we believe in the power and necessity of student voices,” but also “why?” Do we engage with students to help them shape the world they live in or do we utilize them as props to further our own agenda and advancement?


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