My class and I often have short, morning conversations (commonly known as “Tribe Talks” in my room) where we give shout outs, talk about our expectations of one another for the day, and all are part of the conversation. At times, I still forget that those morning talks don’t just end there when it comes to letting students have an equal voice inside the classroom. Student voice and choice, being one collective unit, and creating a safe classroom is all part of an inclusive learning environment. I wanted to explore a bit more about choice in the classroom, specifically through projects, and understand what it means when the teacher lets go of the project exhibition process and product, and turns it over entirely to the students.
In the days before Fall Break, I needed to introduce my students to the idea of the exhibition that I created for them. I typically introduce exhibition a few weeks into the project. I wanted the students to have a general idea of my vision before going off to break. After all, upon return from the week off, the students would have to be ready to construct the exhibition. We would only have three weeks left of our immigration project, and we would have to get to work right away in order to finish all of the products and make sure it was beautiful work. I had dropped hints about silhouette making and infographic creation, and had even mentioned that I reserved the turf outside to exhibit on, but I hadn’t shared details past that. My first period class was fast approaching, and I was ready to share my grand idea.
“Alright guys, I’ve talked to you a bit about exhibition. I want to share some details about it before we go to fall break. Remember how I said we were going to have it held on the turf? Well, I got the okay! Exhibition will officially be on the turf! It’s going to be rad.”
Blank stares and crickets.
“Uh, can we do a chalk talk on exhibition instead?”
“Yeah! C’mon Ms. DeGrano, we don’t have much more to say about the field trip.”
Wait. Why do they want to complete a chalk talk about exhibition? I already told them what we were doing. What is there to add? I’ve spent weeks planning! I’ve told everyone how awesome it’s going to be. I’ve reserved the turf! My inner monologue would not quit. So I responded with the most diplomatic answer I could:
“Let’s hang onto these thoughts for a bit. We are going to finish the novel, and complete a chalk talk during project time this afternoon.”
Great. I had silenced them for a bit. I needed to think. I needed to figure out my next steps. I finished reading our novel, Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez, about a young boy who immigrates to the United States (without his family) at a young age. It is about his trials and tribulations as he adapts to the American lifestyle and lives out the “American Dream.” As I finished, the students applauded. I looked up, grinned, and clapped with them. They were excited about the book, and happy with the ending. And then, all of a sudden, it hit me. Right as I closed the novel and helped contribute to the applause, I realized that I was one part of the class and class culture. I was one clap contributing to the round of applause. It was not my exhibition. It was our exhibition.
During the break I wrote four statements on the different white boards in my classroom. The statements read:
As the students walked in, they noticed the words on the board, and nudged each other, pointing, and understanding what was happening next. I began to share my reasoning with the students. I explained that I had put countless hours of time and effort into the creation of this exhibition. I then confessed that I had lacked the wherewithal to let them have a voice. I thanked them for pushing me to check my ego at the door. They giggled, but nodded. I encouraged them to be honest while completing the chalk talk, and to my surprise, the results were more than I could have ever hoped for.
The students reached a conclusion that exhibiting the work on the turf would be difficult because of the lack of lighting. Also, they felt as though an exhibition on the turf would be a bit showy, and they want to give every school and classroom a fair shot at exhibiting work. They didn’t want to take the focus away from everyone else that night, since it is a village-wide exhibition. The students found silhouettes to be meaningless. They didn’t find interest in creating them, and wanted to nix that idea. The students loved the infographics idea, but they wanted to integrate it based on their new plan for exhibition.
“And then we can sell street food!”
“Yes! We need Border Patrol.”
“What about passports for the guests?”
“Groups of 4! We will need power tools!”
“Guys! Half of this could be in America, and half in Mexico!” “What about building stores? Selling products?”
“Right! I want to know about currency and what it takes to move to the US.” “What about the citizenship video we watched? We could teach them about it!”
The conversation went on like this for about an hour. I facilitated, took notes, and we finally reached consensus.
The exhibition was to be presented in rooms 125 & 126 of HTMNC. The wall down the center of the room would represent the border between Mexico and America. My office would be the legal port of entry. On that night, Border Patrol would keep watch of the area. Shops would be located in both The United States and Mexico. Merchants would produce goods, and professionals would run services. Groups of four would put together either a good or a service, and complete research to create an infographic about it. Goods would range from jewelry to street tacos. Services would range from lawyers to medical doctors. At the exhibition, guests would receive citizenship to one country only. Some would receive passports, and some guests would need to locate lawyers to help them get to another country legally. The night would still prove to be informative, and the excitement would be generated from the students.
“Choices for Children: Why and How to Let Students Decide” written by Alfie Kohn (1993) goes to great lengths to explain how traditional learning is based upon doing things to students rather than with them. This essentially eliminates any trust and choice element, and replaces it with preplanned units of study to make sure the information is gathered, repeated, and moved away from in a timely manner. Kohn refers to an article by early childhood development professor, Constance Kamii: “Toward Autonomy: The Importance of Critical Thinking and Choice Making.” As a firm believer in choice and autonomy, she states, “We cannot expect children to accept ready-made values and truths all the way through school, and then suddenly make choices in adulthood. Likewise, we cannot expect them to be manipulated with reward and punishment in school, and to have the courage of a Martin Luther King in adulthood” (1991, p.387). Near the end of his article, Kohn explains that teachable moments develop through conversations with students about their own educational path. Allowing students to have a voice in the direction of their learning is crucial to their experiences inside the classroom. “It is not “utopian” or “naive” to think that learners can make responsible decisions about their own learning; those words best describe the belief that any group of people will do something effectively and enthusiastically when they are unable to make choices about what they are doing” (p.3).
I work for an organization that encourages student voice and choice, and had thought that in the past I was doing a decent job of balancing my own creation with the flexibility to allow student input. This experience, however, was not without challenges, limitations, and sacrifices in the practice and the process:
1. There were moments where the excitement overshadowed the rigor. Often times, many of the students became so engaged with the designing, building, and creating aspect, that core objectives were lost in the process.
2. One particular student took student autonomy too far. He expressed to me many times how disengaged he was with the project subject. The student advocated for completing his part of the exhibition solely on dinosaur immigration. In this moment, while I wanted to honor his voice and choice, he missed the essential understanding of the human face of Immigration between Mexico and the United States. I sacrificed my student’s learning for his engagement.
The opportunity to have students decide what their exhibition looked like and felt like was eye opening. After exhibition was over, I asked the students to respond to a journal prompt that read, “How was the process of the Immigration Exhibition? What did you like, and what are some concerns or challenges that you had along the way?” Here is a selection of student responses:
“Sometimes during projects we get to do what we want, but this was the first time that we got to plan out everything.”
“I liked that our ideas mattered.”
“It was difficult sometimes for all the students to be on the same page, but the exhibition was cool to see. Everyone pulled it together.”
“It was like Ms. DeGrano wanted us to actually care about immigration because she completely let us run the show. I’ll probably remember this project for a long time.”
“I loved our exhibition. I loved that I was able to have my ideas considered.”
“Because a lot of us have never had that much freedom before, it took longer and was a little chaotic. But we had fun. I think we really came together as a class. It was a bonding experience.”
“I feel listened to. Usually that doesn’t happen.”
Student voice and choice is alive and well inside classrooms within the High Tech High community. It is extremely important to consider student voice when creating projects. Each student obtains information differently, and this can be translated into different versions of the same project. In my experience, my students already had ideas about the way that they wanted to complete and show their work. Some students wanted to build, others wanted to write, a few wanted to lead and speak. When students had a say in how exhibition looked, they felt empowered and began to own the project and their education. Isn’t that what we hope for? The idea is that if students are invested in their learning, the quality of work, ideas, and creation rises. I want my students to feel valued within the classroom, and I want my students to figure out how they obtain information best.
It’s extremely important to not only listen to your students, but also have conversations with your students. It is impossible to understand their needs if you don’t understand who they are as individuals. After reflecting on this entire process, I realize it didn’t happen overnight. I got to this point in my teaching career by starting out small. I first had short conversations about educational space. In the beginning of the school year, I asked students the following questions:
This provided insight to me about their feelings and pointed out fantastic rooms or spaces that they saw as a healthy, safe space to exhibit. I also found it important to remember that their vision can be adjusted and helped along by me. As a facilitator, it was necessary to guide the students along the way, while still valuing their ideas.
Lastly, and this was the most difficult part for me, was that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I find that if we as teachers push our ideas for projects and education, our students can understand the meaning of risk-taking while still being supported within their passions, strengths, and aspirations.
The biggest risk for me was to let go and to listen. I am learning that in order to be a strong educator, there are times where my own ego must take a backseat. My students have pushed me into the valuable role of facilitation. I am proud that my students spoke out and shared what is valuable to them about the project. This experience was a lesson in listening. I am grateful to learn from them at times, in the same way that they can learn from me. As I said earlier, I am one clap contributing to the round of applause. So now when I’m approached about what my exhibitions will look like and how they are progressing, I simply respond with a smile and say, “ask the kids.”
Kamii, C. (1991). Toward Autonomy: The importance of critical thinking and choice making. School Psychology Review, 20, 387.
Kohn, A. (1993). Choices for Children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan. 75 (1).