Renewing Student Voice

I've planned to hold my first class meeting for 2011 tomorrow. In the spirit of our school where we try to find the foremost expert on a topic and model our approach on leading edge practice, I've decided to use the exemplary work of Donna Styles as my model. There is a useful site that links to all of the elements required - agendas, a problem solving model, encouragement techniques and other templates. I like the fact that this approach blends formality with social skills to remind the kids that this is a worthy undertaking where they can contribute and air opinions in a safe way without weighed down by restrictive processes.

Before getting the technology bug, Student Voice was a big interest of mine. Back at Flagstaff Hill Primary I was the staff member responsible for the reconstruction of our Student Representative Council into a Student Voice Committee structure loosely based on the model used at the time by Grange Primary School. My team teaching buddy and I would run these focussed double class meetings where we dispensed with the then current vogue of observers and timekeepers, and modelled ourselves on the formal structure of staff meetings with all conversation directed through an officious chairperson, minutes typed up on a class computer and a complex process of motions, seconders, points for and against, and agenda details. Students had to identify if their item was Information, Discussion or Decision - or it wasn't discussed!

I fostered the concept of student leaders who applied for and were elected to this specific role. They would chair and minute the various Committee meetings around the school. There was an Environment Committee, a Technology Committee, a Graduation Committee, a Grounds Committee and even a Canteen Committee. The leaders were impartial supporters, guiding younger students in the ways of fruitful discussion and clear decision making. I was lucky and had some exceptional leaders who made the whole process hum along. I see a number of them now as successful adults as outlined on their Facebook profiles. I created proformas for the various meetings and the leaders were the tip of the community service pyramid we had going at the school over ten years ago. I even applied for a position as a Coordinator in Student Leadership at a nearby school, gaining an interview but not getting the nod for the final position.

The next year, I saw the job as ICT Coordinator at Lockleys North advertised, applied and turned my back on the issue of Student Voice to focus on my fledgling edtech skills. Over the time here, I've tried to recapture the effective class meeting formula but the part time nature of the job meant that my good intentions ended up being compromised by time pressures and other responsibilities. In 2009, I found the Donna Styles resources on the web and resolved to do a better job. That year started with a fortnight long heatwave that sapped the kids' energy and I know I did not build the base for the structure to stand on its own and for the kids to really see the benefits of the various components in making their classroom a better place. This year I find myself with a great new class who appear to be very receptive to my directions and I want this to be an effective model for all of the Torrens classes if my class lead out and model the Class Meeting approach that Styles advocates.

Class meetings are not just window dressing for a classroom or lip service to the concept of Student Voice - although I've seen more than one classroom teacher sabotage the process so that they could show how these things are a waste of time and effort in my time. But a well run class meeting is a powerful thing. It allows students to take on roles that give them responsible power over their peers, it gives quiet kids a chance to verbalise their ideas and to critique others' point of view in a forum that protects them. Students make a shift over time from raising problems and airing complaints to then planning events and recognising individual and group progress within their classroom. It can teach kids that if they take the time to consult, think through alternatives and consequences, their ideas can start running and take flight. A class meeting can hopefully ignite the realisation that they can make a difference to some one else, to something else, to their community and maybe, in the future, to their world.

So, tomorrow's meeting is the first foundation for a year where I want to foster ownership of their own learning. Using an experienced person's methods should enable me to spend more time fostering the skills and voice of my students instead of re-inventing processes and structures from my prior experiences. classmeetingplans

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2 thoughts on “Renewing Student Voice

  1. Doug Noon

    As you move along with your plans, I hope you’ll have more to say about how this works out – the good, the bad, and the difficult. I’ve tried to do this in past years, and have had spotty results. Mostly, I tire of the time and effort required to do it well, and the kids don’t seem to value the opportunity, which makes me wonder if I could maybe do things differently, or if some groups of kids are more ready to make use of this type of forum.

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    1. Graham Wegner

      Class meetings are a long term investment of time and I don’t expect that things will really click before the end of the first term. The first thing I noticed today when I launched this was how much I talked – that has to calm down a LOT. Also, how much I wanted to keep interrupting to try and push the quality of conversation up. I also see that this can be become an extension of the Speaking & Listening strand of our English curriculum. I’ll revisit this for sure as the year goes on. I also need to be ready to tweak the Styles formula to suit Australian kids – the idea of Encouragement as she describes it is very hard for my kids to really understand. They can give a compliment and wrap some encouragement into that but it will take time for the kids to look beyond their own settling into a new year and see how their peers are travelling within our classroom.

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