Episode 5: Changing the Future — Centering Student Voice in Education
Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.
[upbeat background music]
Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.
I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.
Ken: Welcome to DOE Digest. I’m your host, Ken Bond. Student voice is many things, but a central theme is elevating students to the center of our work as educators.
The first portion of this episode was recorded with participants from New Brunswick High School at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education's "Hip Hop Youth Research and Activism Conference."
New Brunswick High School
Yesenia Infante, Social Studies Teacher
Yesenia: Hi, my name is Yesenia Infante. I'm a Social Studies Teacher at New Brunswick High School.
So, I became introduced to the National History Day project from my supervisor. He introduced it to everyone in our department in New Brunswick High School, and he asked us if we would like to participate in it last year. So, I presented it to all my students and I found these five students who were really interested in creating a project and conducting historical research.
So they thought about the different things that they care about, or different questions that they have. So students were really interested in doing something about their community because they wanted to learn more about New Brunswick. They all really love New Brunswick and are proud to be from New Brunswick.
So... they thought about questions that they have about why their community is the way it is and one of the questions they came up with is, "Why is everyone who attends our school Latino or black?" So they decided to start researching that and they found the rich history that exists between our community and North Brunswick and Milltown.
Once they had a list of questions, we talked about where they could go to find those answers. And then we went to those places. If more questions came up, they added them to the list and then they tried to find new sources that they could use to answer those questions.
So we went to the public library, the New Brunswick Library, the North Brunswick Library. We went to the Rutgers Library and then they just started interviewing locals and asking them questions and just...it was basically snowball sampling. Figuring out who could we talk to figure out the answers to this.
[end of Yesenia’s section]
Montserrat Alvarez Cruz, Student
Montserrat: My name is Montserrat Alvarez Cruz and I’m a junior at New Brunswick High School.
When we started this, we had less time than everybody else who participated. And most of these schools were...not new to this project. They had done it for several years now. We had a lot of support of our teacher, but then after that, we, you know, letting loose until we had the way of it, the flow of it. And then we basically took time, all together, to like participate and just, like, go out and find research. And that's how we started by leading the project.
We made, like, a little agenda of all the things we needed, like pictures, information and paper, interviews, and that's how it was led. And then after that we had a lot of support of our classmates that were watching us stay after school, come, like, during our lunch to work on it. And just be there in the hallways outside working for hours and hours and hours. That's how we led it.
It was different because we've…me personally, I've never done a project that was my choice, my, like, do whatever you want. Go for it and people are gonna to see it. People are actually gonna take their time to, like, read it and understand it.
It felt -- it felt great, honestly. It just feels good knowing that as a student and as a--as a Latina, you have a voice and you have something to say to others. And not only about you personally, but, like, about your community. Like, I wasn't born here but I was raised here. And it just means a lot for me that I could say, like, "I know my history, in a way."
[end of Montserrat‘s section]
Jennyfer Robles, Student
Jennyfer: My name is Jennyfer Robles. I'm a junior at New Brunswick High School.
First, when we started working together, none of us knew each other. Like, we didn't, like, maybe interacted at some point, but we weren't really friends. So, like, it brought us closer together and we would spend a lot of time researching. And we could, like, pick and choose what we want. We could, uh, choose the videos, the, um, pictures, the music. So we had more freedom to express ourselves than if the teacher had given us the information.
We were able to express ourselves fully through the documentary. We presented to the different colleges and we even presented to elementary school students. So, like, it really inspired them and it showed them that they could also do the kind of work that we do. So, I think it's like really rewarding for us because it, like, shows us that we can, like, make a change and people are listening and interested.
So I think I remember the most presenting to the little kids. They were like, they had a lot of questions and they were, like, really excited. Little kids don't have that role model. They think that, like, grownups are the only ones that can do these big things, but then we have us. We didn't even like have anything beforehand. When they, like, see us present, it's like, I guess, we're like role models to them.
[end of Jennyfer’s section]
Dwinght Pumarol Gonzalez, Student
Dwingth: My name is Dwinght Pumarol Gonzalez. I'm a senior in New Brunswick High School.
We teamed up. We basically went to these places just to have fun. It wasn't something that our teachers needed us to make. It was our option. It was our choice to do this. So we pushed ourselves to do it and we had fun in the process.
Mostly everything we found were newspapers. Very rarely we found good pictures that we could actually use on the video. Some things included riots that were occurring at that time. Maybe some teacher opinions or teacher-involved issues that were happening.
At times we actually got the opinions of the students who were in those events that were happening at that time. But mostly it was just hard data.
So most of the findings were about related to the Brown V. Board of Education case. That case decided that all schools were going to be integrated at that time and this caused a lot of turmoil in between everybody. And eventually what happened in New Brunswick High School was that the...the school actually got segregated once more, uh, by the Commissioner and they--the Caucasian students went from New Brunswick High School to North Brunswick High School. And this caused, again, segregation in the school. And this is what, since then, we've been living through. This is what makes it difficult for us to actually have a diverse education and experience. It affects how we're going to interact when we actually reach these diverse groups in society.
[end of Dwingth’s section]
Dayana Matamoros, Student
Dayana: Hello, my name is Dayana Matamoros. I'm in eleventh grade at New Brunswick High School.
So one of the main, big reasons we wanted to hit this topic was because of the change we wanted to make upon people and our community, especially New Brunswick.
We wanted people -- we wanted to let people know that "hey, this wasn't like this before. Like, there was a change."
One of the main differences that we saw upon our project was that people started to see, like, things aren't, like, as they seem. Like, we wanted to know why everybody segregated. How North Brunswick came upon. How Milltown started. And that's where, like, people started to see, like, the differences of how change has come throughout the years.
We can also see the differences in our community within by the education that happens by the different types of rules that we have, like, with other communities as well. Another thing that we saw that impacted the community was how they saw New Brunswick. They really caught on to our research, which we are very grateful for.
[end of Dayana’s section]
[transition music to next section]
Ken: After interviewing the team from New Brunswick over lunch, I was able to sit down with the founder of the "Hip Hop Youth Research and Activism" conference. She explained why centering student voice is at the heart of her work.
Hip Hop Youth Research and Activism Conference
Lauren Kelly, Assistant Professor at Rutgers
Lauren: I am Lauren Kelly. I'm an Assistant Professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education.
This conference grew out of a class that I taught at a high school in New York. So I taught a Hip Hop Literature course and it was in the suburbs and I realized it was just difficult for my students to really connect to the work. And so I wanted to connect the students in my classroom to other young people who were doing this kind of work around hip hop and social justice and spoken word.
What I think is really powerful about work like this, the work that, you know, the young people are doing in New Brunswick, is that it's really student-centered. It's not just, you know, "the student spoke in class a little bit." It's not just their activities and it's fun. I think fun and engaging aren't the same as raising student voice or centering student voice. Um, and especially centering their knowledge.
And so I think the difference between "we had a Socratic dialogue in class" and students doing research and presenting on their community, is that it's about their knowledge, their wisdom, their intellect, their research skills, their presentation skills, their facilitation. And so, so much about that that really starts to disrupt the very traditional notion we have of schooling and who has the wisdom and who's responsible for teaching.
For me, personally, all this ties back to K.R.S who is an MC and he was a part of the Universal Zulu Nation. And they came up with the elements of hip hop in terms of having language around it. The fifth element is knowledge. And so connecting it to things like research. And that's why it's--it seems disparate and disconnected, because we think of hip hop as the music. We think of it as sound. We think of it as the stuff on the radio or now on the internet. So, it's easy to forget that when as soon as we see the elements visually, knowledge is placed at the bottom. Because it's like Maslow's, you know, hierarchy of needs, right? That's the first thing and everything is built, it's resting upon knowledge. And so doing research on our communities -- you know, this group researching desegregation and segregation in the schools that they're in. They're literally looking at the past of their community to better understand how it is where it is and how do they make changes for the future, which is an incredibly powerful thing for anyone to do, but especially students, right?
[end of Lauren’s section]
[transition to next section]
Ken: One of the many ways that the New Jersey Department of Education elevates student voice is through its State Board of Education's student representative. The 2018-19 representative sat down with the podcast and shared practices she feels are important.
Nora Faverzani, New Jersey State Board of Education Student Representative
Nora: My name is Nora Faverzani. I'm from Ocean City School District and I'm currently a senior at Ocean City High School.
For the past year, I have been sitting on the State Board of Education as the permanent student representative. I've been giving reports monthly and giving input on different discussions throughout the year.
I became involved with the Department of Education through the New Jersey Association of Student Councils, which is an organization where all the student councils in New Jersey came together and have an Executive Board of Students who run the organization for the year. I personally felt inclined to run for the position of State Board of Education representative because I wanted to make a change.
The key to student voice is knowing that you have one. I think a lot of students don't realize that they have the power to change things or have the power to speak on things that are going on in their school because they're not a teacher, they're not an adult, they're not an administrator, they're not a parent. And they think that their voice isn't heard. And I just wanna make sure that everyone knows that that's not true and I think that students are what the school is.
So if your students care about something, and your school isn't focusing on it, I think they're doing the wrong thing. And I think the amount of student voice that isn't heard around the state is really a shame because they're the future and they're experiencing it currently and we should value their experience more. So I wanna encourage all of the students and teachers around the school to really hone in on that and allow students the opportunity.
One of the main things that has helped our school climate is that we have two vice principals. One who is particularly in charge of the student events and student organizations. And so every single student in the school knows that that's our key point person if we have an issue, comment, complaint concern--something regarding an event, a student, something like that. That's one of the things that really helps us keep things rolling in the school and brings our ideas to the forefront. Also, we have a student wellness center. You can go in there if you're like feeling like you wanna talk to someone, but also if you wanted to start, like, a program. I know in the last year we had someone who started an initiative to have a "stress less" week right before finals, which is going on now. So the sophomore class council, in conjunction with the wellness center and the administration, has been having dress-up days, awareness meetings, different stuff like that to try to reduce student stress and make an overall, more calm environment going into finals.
Ken: As Nora shares in this next segment, the hiring process in her district showcased student voice. She was able to engage with other students in the decision process for who their next teachers would be.
Nora: I've been in about five, I think, teacher demo lessons, um, involved in the hiring practice. And I think it's actually a really awesome process. I know that a couple of the ones I've been in were classes that were outside of my comfort zone, and some of them were more things that I was interested in. And I know when they selected the students they wanted some who were just, like, general students and some who were, like, in the specialized fields. So I did one for a choir teacher; I'm not a singer at all. You don't want to hear me sing, ever. But there were also some choir students there. So I think it was a good mix of opinions.
They'd ask the potential candidate to leave the room and we would have five to ten minutes for us to just give our first impressions, our opinions. And then they would ask us follow-up questions, like "how did you feel about this component of it?" or "what were your thoughts on bla bla bla?" And we would answer back in how we thought the candidate was. And it wasn't a very intimidating environment; it was only a couple administrators hiring process, not a whole room of, like, ten people. So it was very easy to share how you felt and feel like you were being heard.
[end of Nora’s section]
[transition music to next session]
Ken: During the last DOE Digest episode, we focused on educators at the SEL Forward conference. This episode we're focused on a group of student presenters and the educational leaders who attended with them.
SEL Forward Conference
Students from West-Windsor Plainsboro Regional School District
Students: [students speaking all at same time] … West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District.
Ken: Ready to go?
Ken: Okay. Alright. Ready? Set. Go. Go!
Shreya: [laughing] We’re from the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. I’m Shreya and I’m in tenth grade.
Maya: I’m Maya and I’m also in tenth grade.
Phanisree: I’m Phanisree and I’m also in tenth grade.
Eisha: I’m Eisha and I’m in eighth grade.
Kabir: I’m Kabir and I'm also in eighth grade.
Smrithi: I’m Smrithi and I’m also in eighth grade.
Ken: So, you’re all here and you did something at lunch time. Can you just tell me a little bit about it?
Phanisree: Yeah, sure. So we got up on stage and we decided that we wanted to talk a little bit about mindfulness and how it ties in to social and emotional learning. And kind of to demonstrate the importance of mindfulness, we did a mindful eating activity. So we tried to tie in mindfulness into, like, empowering people to understand the importance of the present moment and how they can take advantage of it.
Phanisree: Basically it's utilizing the five senses...when you eat.
Ken: Whoa. Wait on second. I think I have some chocolate. Can I grab some?
Phanisree: Yes. Please.
Ken: And then you can walk me through it. Alright?
Phanisree: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Ken: Let's see. Give me one sec. So walk me through.
Phanisree: Take the chocolate and you place it in your non-dominant hand.
Ken: Okay, so for me that's my left.
Kabir: Those of you listening, you can follow along as well.
[students and Ken laughing]
Phanisree: Um, and you're gonna look at it.
Phanisree: You're going to look at the wrapper. You're gonna look at the colors on the wrapper.
Ken: [murmuring in agreement]
Phanisree: And then…you're gonna take the chocolate and you're gonna bring it up to your ear. And you're going to unwrap it near your ear so that you can hear the crinkle of the wrapper....
Phanisree: as you do it.
[wrapper crinkling some more]
Phanisree: So you can hear the crinkle, crinkle of the wrapper as you try to open it.
[more wrapper crinkling]
Phanisree: Once you're done with that you're going to bring the chocolate up to your nose and you're going to waft it. You know, take the flavors all in.
[wrapper continues to crinkle]
Phanisree: And then this is the hard part. You take the chocolate and you place it in your mouth, but you don't eat it. And you're gonna kinda let it hang out there and just don't chew it. And you try to take all this in -- all the sensations, all the flavor. You try to see, like, how has the texture changed from when it was outside in your hand versus how it's inside your mouth. And finally, when it feels a little awkward that food is just sitting in your mouth [laughing], you can chew it and eat it as you normally would.
We really do miss out on a lot of flavors and sensations, um, because a lot of us don't really prioritize eating.
Phanisree: And also it's an excuse to eat chocolate.
Smrithi: This is really important because in schools and in work, during lunchtime, is -- we're like "okay, let's do work." None of us really focus on the food. And we're all really stressed out. So if you can't do yoga, or do something that's, like, formally mindful, just taking two minutes out of your day to take a piece of food in front of you and feel it and hear it and actually eat the food, it helps you calm down and de-stress. So that's a really important thing. That's why we did it – cause, to value the food we're given.
Ken: Seeing the teachers that work with you, what advice would have?
Shreya: So, hi. I'm Shreya. One of the strategies I like best is gratitude journaling. So like when you're having, um, a stressed out moment and you're feeling really pressured and maybe even panicked, one of the best things to do is just think about what you're grateful for. It really helps you relax and come back to the moment.
Maya: I'm Maya and a strategy that I use a lot, um, is using the glitter jar. Normally even if people know about this strategy, they think it's for younger kids but I actually find it really helpful. So, uh, with the glitter jar, which is basically just glitter, water, and maybe some glue, in a jar, you shake it up first. And that's supposed to represent your thoughts swirling around in your head. It's kind of chaotic in there. But then as the glitter gradually settles down, you can imagine your thoughts settling down as well. And this strategy is just really helpful for me to re-center and focus my thoughts on one thing.
Eisha: Hi, my name is Eisha and one of the things that I do to destress is, uh, practicing my instrument, or just listening to music in general. Mindfulness is something that should be catered to yourself since not every single strategy works for every single person. For example, meditation might not work or journaling might not work.
Kabir: Hi, I'm Kabir and something I wanted to bring up for a lot teachers, a lot of people spend their entire -- uh, their entire day on autopilot. If you've ever...if it's, like, a weekend and you've ever gotten into your car around the time when you go to school every day for work, have you ever just started driving and ended up outside of your school? Taking into consideration and paying attention to, at least, one small action every day is very helpful. Whether it's brushing your teeth or washing your hair. Things like that. It can be very helpful and allow you to destress.
Smrithi: I’m Smrithi and I agree with all of you guys. Like, these methods I use in real life. As a student, I would want to practice mindfulness with my teachers who teach me, like, social studies and math, so I can see them in a different light than just someone who writes on the board and helps me learn.
Community Middle School
Shauna: My name is Dr. Shauna Carter and I’m the principal of Community Middle School.
Rebecca: And I am Dr. Rebecca McLelland-Crawley and I am a teacher resource specialist for Gifted and Talented at Community Middle School.
Shauna: As educators, we have a lot on our plate. And when we hear from our kids, we need to prioritize that. And when the kids say that they're stressed, that they can't handle certain things, then we need to make room on our plate. Our kids wanna please us and they don't want to disappoint us. So, when they are feeling this way, it is taking everything in them to become vulnerable and say, "I need help."
They value their peers more than anything, so the fact that we do these presentations with our students, it's because our students listen to other students. And so if it works with their friends, they're more likely to get on board with different things and, um, feel less shame and stigma because of it. So, again, it's really using that student voice for everything.
Rebecca: How do we find out what our students are feeling? We ask them. I ask them to let me know some of the things that they wish they could tell their teachers but couldn't. And I had them write it up anonymously on a whiteboard in my room. Uh, one that really stuck with me was that a student felt like they could not get through the day without breaking down and the pressure to be perfect and the anxiety was driving them to the point where they just could no longer...do what we do, of powering through the day. And it really resonated with me -- if this is one student that feels this way, then clearly there are many more.
Rebecca: So why are we here today?
Ken: [murmurs in agreement]
Rebecca: We are here today because we have some amazing students who identified that there was a social-emotional-well-being breakdown in the system and not just in West-Windsor, but around the world. And they also realized that they were not being tapped into as a resource and they wanted to solve the problem -- or at least have a seat at the table and become credible experts in it.
So for four years they have been researching. They've been working with stakeholders and experts-- psychologist and psychiatrists. Dr. Vo in Canada who wrote “Mindful Teen.” They've been working with different mindfulness groups. Just to learn the variety of strategies that could be used.
[end of Community Middle School section and SEL Forward Conference section]
Ken: It's important as educators to keep in mind that all student voices need to be heard. If due to student's race, gender identity, language background, sexual orientation, etc, their voices are marginalized, that puts up a huge roadblock. Equity works that lasts allows students from minoritized backgrounds freedom to lead the work on topics that are meaningful to them in ways that elevate their voices and in venues they feel comfortable with.
Please join us to talk about this and many other topics around student voice at our third-Tuesday #NJEdPartners Twitter chat. We'll be talking on July 16, 2019 at 8:30 PM [EST]. We hope that you're able to make time on your calendar to talk with us as the state-wide professional learning network.
We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.
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