From the Blog

Empowering Students to Use Their Voice

by Steve Sell 

steve post

The work of disrupting inequities in our schools and communities begins and ends with power: Who has it, and who does not? As schools work to increase opportunities for student voice, it is important to pause and ask whether students are able to use their voices in ways that challenge the imbalance of power and privilege in our schools and communities. We need to look beyond simply providing voice and choice in how students learn by creating more spaces for them to disrupt inequities and empower them to create solutions.

In my work facilitating and supporting a group of students in two Massachusetts high schools, I have learned some important lessons. To empower student voice, we must

  • Be an ally for students and not their leader
  • Help build their knowledge and understanding about identity, implicit bias, and structural inequity

What Is Allyship?

Young people possess a moral and ethical clarity that most adults lack. They have had less time to become desensitized and fatigued by the weight of injustice in our world. When empowering students to use their voice, it is therefore better to show up as an ally and not as their presumed leader or savior with all the answers. The traditional paradigm of teaching and learning situates students as passive participants and adults wielding power as leaders of the learning. This dynamic does not foster trusting relationships between students and teachers, nor does it promote the deep listening, support, and advocacy that young people so desperately need from us. Being an ally means that we focus more on learning about the struggles, issues, and dilemmas students experience; it means taking these on as if they were our own. Allyship does not require leaders to provide the answers; instead it requires us to show up for students ready to learn alongside them and to use our power and privilege to empower their voices.

Allyship means being intentional and transparent about the processes and structures used to build community and facilitate discussions. It is an opportunity for us to model practices that demonstrate we are there to collaborate and learn alongside them. For example, a superintendent I work with routinely leaves 20-25 minutes in every meeting with his student advisory group for “open mic.” This is an opportunity for students to raise concerns. This frequently leads to the superintendent learning about the impact certain policies or practices are having on students. Students bring up a variety of issues ranging from long lunch lines to the Eurocentric history curriculum. It is a space that empowers students to define what is important and relevant to them.

Building a Knowledge Base

If we hope to support students in identifying inequities in their schools, then it is important for those students to build an understanding of identity, intersectionality, implicit bias, oppression, and systemic racism. Students’ readiness for this work will depend on their identities, backgrounds, and experiences. Therefore, it is important to frame and embrace this work as a lifelong process that requires differentiation to meet the needs of individuals as well as that of the group.

There are many engaging activities that promote this kind of work. One way to get students talking about identity and the impact it has on individuals and groups is to post different “identity groups” around the room. Identity groups may include race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc. After these groups are established, read a series of prompts such as:

  • What group do you identify with the most?
  • Which identity do others see first?
  • Which identity do others not see?
  • What identity do you want to learn more about?

After each prompt, give students sufficient time to discuss what identity group they chose in response. Be sure to allow for some whole group conversations so people can share different insights and experiences across identity groups.

Activities such as this—and the conversations and thinking they spark—is one of the best ways to engage your students on the important topics of identity and inequity; it’s also an effective way of building the knowledge base your students need to go out and make change.

Changing Our Schools and Communities

If we hope to see real change in our schools and communities, then we must provide students with spaces that honor them as equals, demonstrate adults are allies in learning, and offer opportunities for young people to better understand themselves and others. Student voice must be more than providing choice over learning experiences and assessments. Our schools and communities need students empowered to use their voices to disrupt inequities.