Once upon a time, I entered the classroom as a young teacher excited to impact my students' lives. I started as a middle school teacher, so I had my class syllabus, the class rules, and the outline of what we would be doing for the year, and I presented that to my students on the first day of school. I did this because it's what my own school experience was and it's what I was told to do in my teacher education program. A few years later, I had the privilege and opportunity to attend a Tribes training, now known as Peace Learning Center. The program emphasized creating engaging learning communities. This shift from control to collaboration with students not only resonated with me but also yielded remarkable results in my classrooms over the years.
When constructing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) it is essential to build a robust infrastructure that engages all stakeholders, including students. Engaging our students in developing and refining the MTSS framework helps ensure an approach that meets their needs.
One of the most common misconceptions about engaging students in this process is that students lack the expertise to provide valid input.
|After years of listening to students, I've learned one key fact — they may not use our academic jargon, but students sure know what they want and need, and it's right in line with what research tells us.
I know that a change in practice can feel overwhelming, and we don't always know where to start. We don't have to completely flip our practice on its head. There are a few key places I have found that can have the most impact on student learning, behavior, and outcomes.
As adults and practitioners, we understand the power of being reflective. How can we teach our students reflection practices that help deepen their learning and improve outcomes?
While the idea of writing standards/objectives on the board may seem routine, it can be a powerful and dynamic way to help our students connect to and reflect on their learning. Really! I initially dreaded this strategy, but came to understand its potential when I put these steps into practice:
Reflective practices as an effective tool aren't confined to academics. I recall a lively and intelligent 7th-grade class I taught. Serving on a district committee required my absence from the classroom once a month. Initially, substitute reports for the class were negative, perplexing me as these were great young people. Following a candid conversation with the students, it became apparent that they disliked the substitutes' passive approach. I took time to explain to them my role on the committee and what an honor it was to be able to serve. I sought their input for solutions to avoid future negative reports. Collaboratively, we devised a plan: if the sub left names, those students spent the next two class periods in the Silent Work Center. The students believed this would motivate them during my absence. Upon my return after the next absence, four student names were left, leading to their two-class-period confinement. The classroom atmosphere that day was subdued, and at the end of class, my students commented on it. We discussed modifying the agreement, and with unanimous agreement, the four students rejoined our learning community the next day.
The next time I was out, the sub left a glowing report. I celebrated with my students, and we talked about what we had learned in this process. By collaboratively working through the problem, my students transformed their behavior, we created a shared agreement about what behaviors should and should not be exhibited and we strengthened our learning community.
Utilizing reflection in our classrooms and schools helps students make meaning and leads us to practices and policies that truly support students.
Related Resource: Giving Students Agency With a Seat at the MTSS Table
How can schools as a whole and school districts include student voices? I can think of two significant examples from my time as a district administrator that resulted in significant shifts in practice and policy.
I received a call one day from an elementary school administrator. There was a group of students who kept being sent to the office for behavior infractions. The school leadership team wondered if I had some ideas for strategies they could implement to change this trajectory. My first question was, "Have you talked to the students?" When the reply was "No," I suggested this as a first step. I set up the structure for a student focus group, and we brought the students together.
I asked the students one of my favorite questions "What do you wish the adults in the school knew or understood better to help you learn?" Their responses were amazing:
Social-emotional health, wait time, equitable response opportunities…their language is different, but what these students shared can all be connected back to research and what we know to be best practices! The school leadership team listened to this conversation. And created a plan for professional learning to help build the capacity to infuse best practices daily at their school.
In my role as the Director for Student Engagement, I established student focus groups of middle and high school students, and they often reached out to me with concerns. One day I received an invitation to a student-led protest planning meeting. Intrigued, I attended the meeting. The students expressed dissatisfaction with our district's approach to supporting student mental health. Their concern was in direct contrast to the ongoing adult stakeholder meetings I had been attending for months.
Recognizing a teachable moment and an opportunity for collaboration, I asked the students if, as a first step, they would be willing to meet with the adult stakeholders. They agreed, and we set up a meeting. During the meeting, students voiced their concerns and the adults shared the current initiatives. A significant disconnect emerged: though information about mental health initiatives existed, it wasn't reaching the students. This realization served as a wake-up call for the adult stakeholders, prompting a shift in strategy:
|The students highlighted a communication gap — the adults were using platforms like Twitter, but students were active on Instagram and Snapchat. The addition of the students’ favorite social media platform kept students informed and engaged.
|Several students were invited to become standing members of a collaborative steering committee composed of school district personnel and community health organization personnel. Student voices would now help shape the district's approach to supporting student mental health.
Ready to implement similar approaches in your classroom, school, or district? Here are some actionable steps you can take.
At the school level, examine your school improvement plan and look for areas where student voice could be incorporated.
Set a group size: the ideal number of students is 6-10. Determine whether you want multiple groups of this size to allow for a wider array of input.
Determine group membership: Groups should represent students in a two-grade level band. You don't want fourth graders in the same group as eighth graders. Also, the makeup of the group should mirror your student population and allow for a wide array of voices.
Gain family permission: Be sure to let families know their students have been selected and request permission.
Develop focus questions: Ideally, you want no more than about 6 questions. These questions should be designed to focus on the topic or area you have selected. Example: Our student survey data shows that students do not feel connected to their teachers. What questions can we ask that help us understand the root cause?
Determine how you will capture the student feedback in the session(s). If you want to take written notes, have someone as a notetaker who is not the facilitator. If you are going to record, make sure you let the students know and ONLY use those recordings to gather data. These should not be shared anywhere else.
Follow up with actions: Make sure that there are some clear actions taken as a result of the input you receive. Our students are watching and know when their voices have been heard and valued.
Find ways to incorporate student voices in a way that impacts policy and practice.
Students are our most critical and crucial stakeholder group; they are the reason we show up in our roles every day. Our students are the true experts on their education journey. Let's make a collective effort to create opportunities for their voices to impact and inform our practices and policies.
Our Branching Minds Professional Services Team is ready to support you. Reach out today to find out how we can help you build an MTSS Infrastructure that engages student voices and centers the work on our most important stakeholders.
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Benner, Meg, et al. “Elevating Student Voice in Education.” Center for American Progress, 14 Aug. 2019, www.americanprogress.org/article/elevating-student-voice-education/.
Bunner, Teresa. “When We Listen: Using Student Voices to Design Culturally Responsive and Just Schools .” KnowledgeQuest, vol. 45, 2017, pp. 39–45. 3.
Costa, Arthur L., and Bena Kallick. Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2018.
Teresa is an Educational Consultant with Branching Minds. She has had the privilege in her 30 year public education career to serve in a variety of roles where she has honed her skills as a classroom practitioner, coach and education leader. She served for over 20 years as a classroom teacher teaching almost every grade from 1st- 12th. At the school level and district level, Teresa held roles as a literacy coach, instructional coach, program academic specialist, district coordinating teacher for secondary literacy and the Director for Student Engagement in the Office of Equity Affairs in the largest school district in North Carolina. All of Teresa’s experiences have helped her gain expertise in working with students and families to co-create teaching and learning spaces and experiences that center and affirm our students’ and families’ cultural heritages as assets. Teresa is also a mom and is pretty proud of the four amazing human beings she raised. You’ll often find her hanging out with them talking books, social issues and (currently) cheering on her youngest as a college swimmer.