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Episode 36: Planning for Student Voice—Accelerating Learning through Individuality

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.

Introduction

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. 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. Thank you for joining us.

Hi listeners. We are so excited to share this month's episode with you about student voice. This is a topic that we have touched on before in previous episodes. We, at the Department of Education, firmly believe that as we look at students and where they are this school year as they've re-entered schools, it's a topic that is important to their success in this particular time. That's why we're revisiting it with our State Teacher of the Year, as well as additional County Teachers of the Year, who have incredible insights on this topic. As you listen into our conversation think about how this applies to your classroom, to your school, or to your district. Specifically when it comes to the ways that these teachers are engaging students and building their classrooms, their lessons, their units, on students, their voices, and achieving learning acceleration through that.

Interview with State and County Teachers of the Year

Theresa: My name is Theresa Maughan. I am a social studies teacher high school teacher at East Orange Stem Academy in the East Orange School District. I am currently the Essex County Teacher of the Year and the 2022 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.

Teresa: Hi. I'm Teresa Diaz. I am the Commercial Arts Advertising Design and 3-d Computer Animation teacher at Hunterdon County Polytech. I am the Hunterdon County Teacher of the Year.

Dennis: I'm Dennis Dagounis. I am a science teacher here at RosellePark High School and I am currently the Union County Teacher of the Year.

Kim: Hi. I'm Kim Madalena. I'm an 8th grade language arts literacy teacher at Washington Middle School in the Harrison School District. And I'm currently the Hudson County Teacher of the Year.

Ken: Awesome. Thank you everybody. And I'm so excited to have such a diverse group here. We have great representation from a bunch of different subject areas. So I'm really excited to get all of your perspectives on what we're going to be talking about today—leveraging student voices for learning acceleration.

And the first question I wanted to dig into with all of you is, what do you think of when you hear the term "student voice"? And what personal connections do you make when you hear that term?

Theresa: I can begin. My name is Theresa Maughan. And when I hear the term "student voice," I immediately think about student agency, giving students an opportunity to participate on many levels in their educational experience within a classroom setting. For me, the personal connection would be that i like to give my students an opportunity to share in the decision-making in terms of what it is we will be covering for a particular unit. Giving them an opportunity to share their input in the guidelines for our learning community. And just allowing them to be more engaged in the process of their education.

Teresa: This is Teresa Diaz. I agree with you, Theresa. I think that, to me, student voice is giving the kids a say in their education. And as soon as they do that—they have a say in what they're learning ,and how they're learning it and the pace at which they're learning it—it engages them. It allows them to pursue their passions and interests, and makes learning very personal to them. And it's a—I've noticed a very big difference in their engagement and enthusiasm for their projects when they have a choice in what it is they're learning.

Kim: Hi. This is Kim Madalena. In a classroom that I really believe belongs to them as much as it belongs to me, I want my students to feel valued. And I believe that student choice does that. It's great, also, for students who may be struggling or feel like they don't fit in. And I see that often in a middle school setting. Because, oftentimes, when they share their feelings, their beliefs, their cultural values, they find that other students are feeling the same way as them. So I think that when they are able to make change because of their voice, it's, you know, an even greater feeling for them, and myself as a teacher.

Dennis: Hi. This is Dennis Dagounis. I think with being a science teacher teaching science through student inquiry, problem-based projects, and providing students a choice, lends itself to creating an environment where the students' voices are heard. My students are always researching, collaborating in groups. Sharing information out to class during our inquiry-based lessons. In my classroom, the students have choice as well, [in] how they want to demonstrate their knowledge of a concept. In my projects, students have the ability to demonstrate their  knowledge any way they choose.

I could have 20 kids in a classroom, and when it comes to that final assessment I give the kids choice. I allow them to show me they understand the project or the concept by drawing something, or coding, or creating a video. Or some kids just like to write creatively.

I feel when the kids are allowed to display their knowledge in a medium that they are comfortable with, they're able to go above and beyond and actually enjoy the task at hand. You know, not every kid likes science. So I'm always trying to give those kids a little bit of passion for science. And I feel like when they're given the choice to play in a medium they enjoy, they usually thrive.

Theresa: This is Theresa Maughan. If I can add something else, in terms of being a social studies teacher, one of the areas that we really emphasize is having our students recognize that they can use their voice as change agents. And so whenever students can impact policy, it's always, you know, a very great, authentic experience for them. So this idea of student voice a school level or a district level would mean that we allow students—we give them the power, we empower them to perhaps be a voting member of different school boards. Or, as Kim said earlier, to use their positions on student councils to actually influence decision making within the school. And so, for us as social studies teachers, this is what we want. We are built around that concept of activism and change agents. And that's what student voice brings to the table.

Teresa: This is Teresa Diaz. Yeah, following up on Theresa on the activism. My students right now are working on a PSA project. So they're creating public-service announcements. And, of course, being in art, a lot of what they do is their personal expression. But this project especially, it allows them to choose what topic they want to communicate to the community at large, to the school. And it's amazing how personal they get when they are making their presentations at the end of this PSA project. Because they all come from a place where the topic is completely open, but they're choosing what's important to them and what they wish others would understand about them. So that they create this sense of community of "Oh, I'm not alone," you know. Or "maybe you've misunderstood, you know, this action about me or this lifestyle that I have or this cultural…" whatever it may be. And I think it's just a great project for them to use their voice.

And the activism part, you know, it's very clear. Especially my animation students, when they make these PSAs in the form of, like, an actual animated commercial, of the reach that is has. You know, they put that on social media and it reaches a thousand people overnight. And you have conversations started. And they get to see, firsthand, how what they are creating, what they initiated and what they are creating, can affect change in the community. Art activism is so powerful.

Kim: Hi. This is Kim Madalena. And I just wanted to touch upon a little bit of what Dennis had said and Teresa Diaz said about the choices in projects. In my classroom it's not uncommon to see anywhere from 10 to 14 different choices that students could make in terms of a final project for a novel that we've read. And I do try to come up with some ideas to help them along the way, focusing on multiple intelligence because I know that not every student, you know, learns the same exact way. But I also always leave the very last choice as your personal choice. And I feel that when students take me up on that, the conversations that I have, the one-on-one conversations with students are just so enlightening. And I think, as Theresa said, you are able to see them express things that they might not normally express with others because they feel so comfortable.

Dennis: Yeah. This is Dennis Dagounis. To piggyback off of Km, they actually have a voice in direction of the class itself. You know, I can ask guiding questions. I can come up with the projects. But it kind of just opens the door for the kids to discover things I wouldn't have normally put on say a PowerPoint and the multiple choice tests. Not everybody learns well through a multiple choice test. So when we give the kids these opportunities to choose their own assessment and their own voice in these assessments, it just empowers them. It gives them an opportunity to play and actually understand the concept.

Also, I think clubs are very important to have in our schools. You know, my school district is pretty small. We have about 10 or 15 clubs. But giving those kids that outlet where they can find common folks, common peers that enjoy their medium or their club, and then being able to be those activists, as Theresa Maughan had said. You know, I used to run the ecology club for years. And we would just go around and, you know, figure out "how can we improve the school?" "How can we improve the school district?" Then it started out simply by, "we don't recycle paper." And the kids came up with, you know, ways of getting teachers to recycle. And then we got into recycling plastic and aluminum cans. And then all of a sudden we broke into, "how can we change things in the cafeteria to help the environment?" You know, we got rid of straws and a couple other things. But it was kind of interesting to just see where the kids—when you gave them that that opportunity to see the issues and try and fix those issues in our school in a school district—the kids came up with the solutions and they ran with it.

Ken: Thanks everyone for sharing. So rich and so deep. And I really love the way that you all framed the agency of students when it comes to them being activists and change agent, s in their educational environment.

So, as you think about that, and you think about the agency that students can show through student voice, why can that be important in learning acceleration as students are thinking about the ways that they want to accelerate their own learning in school coming out of quarantine and uneven learning environments?

Kim: Hi. This is Kim Madalena. And I really believe that if students feel valued and have a voice, they'll be more willing to enter into that partnership with the school to improve their learning. I think that allowing their voices to be heard on any variety of topics will allow students to have a better understanding of the goals that we're setting in the classroom, the school-wide goals. And, once again, I think it just all comes back to "student voice personalizes learning." And learning acceleration, there is a sense of personalization that needs to take place.

Theresa: Hi. It's Theresa Maughan. In terms of learning acceleration, I believe most of us would agree that we can connect student engagement with achievement. And so voice empowers those students to really become engaged in this process. And providing them with authentic situations that we utilize their own cultural background. To me, I connect this idea of learning acceleration and enabling kids to work on grade level and be able to continue to learn with their peers, as opposed to ideas that were used most frequently in terms of remediation and pull-out programs.

I think if we design our lessons from a culturally-responsive teaching perspective, we will allow our students to bring to the table their backgrounds, and the ideas that we find within our standards will all of a sudden be brought to life through these real-life situations. And I'm referencing, you know, black, indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ {lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning} community. All of this is really important. And it all blends together towards this idea of acceleration as opposed to remediation.

Teresa: This is Teresa Diaz. Yes, Theresa. I mean, I completely agree that as soon as the students have voice, they're going to be engaged and that drives their passion, especially in my field. They get to work on projects they want to do for a living. Or they get to explore their future careers. And that engagement is so high that they want to learn more and want to learn more. And eventually, it's not just learning, it's real-life, right there. All of a sudden they're working for clients. They're getting that hands-on experience in the real world, so it's meaningful to them. And again, what you were saying, you know, I have a lot of…high population of LGBTQ students, and they want to create animated characters that they can relate to. They want to see scenes and animated films and television cartoons and comic books that they can relate to the storyline.

You know, I even had a student now working on a PSA project including LGBTQ in sexual education at the high school level. So as soon as they get to own who they are, you know, and that self-identity. They raise confidence in who they are. And they connect to others. And that makes them want to learn more because they see the power that their education has as soon as they have a voice in it.

Dennis: Yeah. This is Dennis Dagounis. I agree that creating these authentic learning projects will eventually lead to students being engaged. And when they're engaged, they learn. And student voice and student choice has just shown that the retention of information is a lot better through giving the kids a voice and a choice, rather than, "here is a bunch of information. We want you to just memorize this information." So I think by creating our projects that are authentic learning experiences, like we're all doing, gives those kids the opportunity to have their voice heard, gives them that choice. And their learning is going to be much deeper than beforehand.

Theresa: You know—this is Theresa Maughan—I was thinking about everything that was just stated and it immediately brought to mind to me the importance of professional development. Because, you know, we're talking about everything we've said may be perceived as the ideal. And the reality is, we may have teachers, we may have administrators who do not have the mindset to be willing to enlarge the role that students play with their own education. And so I think we need to mindful of making sure that we do provide, you know, any type of professional development that will enable teachers to make that switch.

One of the things that I immediately think on is the workshops that I've attended that really taught me about the importance of having a class contract, and having the students engage in that process, and spending the time in the beginning of the year to invest in having students set the guidelines, because this way they're part of the process.

Kim: Hi. This is Kim Madalena. And Theresa Maughan, I could not agree with you more. I think that there are teachers out there that, you know, might be a little afraid of this at times. Because, you know ,sometimes when you know administrators walk by if, they're not aware of, you know, what you're doing in your room in terms of student voice, that can become a little intimidating for teachers. But I can assure you that once you allow students to make choices and you become comfortable with that and, as you said, spending that time in the beginning of the year and establishing that mutual respect in the classroom. In my room, you know, my students know that, you know, we have to respect each other. We might not always agree. We'll have to agree to disagree sometimes. But having that mutual respect is important. Having that comfort level of being able to share your opinions with others is important.

But I do think that professional development  in this area is very important. And, you know, we should make sure that educators have that available to them. It's also good to maybe go into classrooms where this is happening so people can see what it looks like. As I said, you might walk by and it might look like organized chaos in some rooms, because sometimes that's the way it looks in my room, but great things are happening.

Dennis: This is Dennis Dagounis. Yeah. I've always said that in my class I'm teaching science, but really I'm trying to teach them a life skill and problem solving and critical thinking, because that's going to be something, no matter what they do, where they end up, they're going to need that skill. And just like Theresa Maughan had said, yeah, professional development. We need to...school districts need to buy into professional development to kind of try and foster more student voice and student choice. A lot of teachers...I was having a discussion with a brand new teacher today. And he came in, he looked at my class and he said, "wow, there's a lot of stuff going on. How do you control it all?"  And like you just said Kim, yeah, it almost looks like organized chaos. But as long as you understand what's going on, and you have an idea of what the kids need to be working on, and what they're working on, you know the learning is happening because the kids are engaged.

Theresa: This is Theresa Maughan. And Dennis, I couldn't agree with you more. And if we're still on this topic about learning acceleration, what I find very interesting is that fact that we really need to revisit the curriculum. We need to revisit our schedules. We need to revisit our pacing so that we can devote the time to those areas that hold interest for our students. And we can't just be locked into the traditional pacing guidelines because we want to provide our kids, as Dennis mentioned earlier, with more than just—and Kim—more than just, you know, rote memorization. More than just understanding from a social studies perspective, timelines, we really want to give them a deeper understanding of how what we're presenting, what we're all engaging in the work within our learning community, our classroom, we want to understand how that transfers into what they will experience once they leave our classroom.

Conclusion

Ken: Man, these insights are so awesome. And I love this idea of slowing it down so that students can truly understand topics and subjects, and maybe catch up on some of the things that they missed, to be able to move forward at a faster pace in the future once they're able to really be able to understand those concepts and dig into them in ways that make sense for them and that engage them on their level, in the ways that they find meaningful. So this was...this is really great.

Thank you so much to everyone who took part in this episode. Thank you to my amazing guests. Thank you to the Office of Educator Evaluation for helping set up this episode. And, as always, thank you to Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this so that it can be accessible to all.

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.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released. Also, please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.


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