Encouraging Student Voice


School starts in about a week. I have spent the past five days in professional development sessions. Hardware, web based,  students in trauma, students in poverty (in this session the speaker suggested we teach them the rules of the upper classes so they can be successful. This guy was a bag of some sort) the gifted learner, the reluctant or under performing learner Class Flow, Promethean Boards, Depth and Complexity, student polling, Flipgrid, social justice with picture books, preaching equity prophets ( good stuff there!),Safe Spaces, just to mention a few.  While almost all the sessions offered good stuff, the thing I really want to encourage this year is class discussion but mostly authentic student voice. So its the top of my syllabus. 

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Class discussions

We are going to talk a lot! Sometimes it will be pairing and sharing. Sometimes it will be table groups.Sometimes we will do circle discussions. We will learn how to talk, and listen to others. Sometimes they will be about history, current events, and sometimes you will decide. (from my 2019-2020 syllabus)

Developing Student Voice

  Last year I tried Restorative Justice, and other types of reflective circles. What I found was, kids who liked to talk, talked. Classes that were already good listeners, participated well. 

But what really flummoxed me, so many of my students were  reluctant to speak or listen. Some voices were loud and off topic. Some drowned out others. Few could sit still long enough for the 30 plus kids to take their turn with the talking piece. Large groups of kids would pass with Cheshire cat grins allowing the process to fall flat. This would oft quiet others.


My big take away from last year is I need to start with small discussions and help kids develop skills and comfort levels at the same time.

My big take away from last year is I need to start with small discussions and help kids develop skills and comfort levels at the same time.  First  I am going to do ice breakers that allow kids to list the three things they want people to know about them, then the three things they want to know about others. These will be compiled and used in concentric circle discussions in a speed dating situation. Students will take turns asking and answering the questions we used the day before.

We will also do BigPaper Discussions to give kids a chance to talk in situations that are not so socially charged.

From here we are going to try Discussion Wheels. Over a period of weeks kids will have an entry task of coming in, sitting with a specific discussion partner (determined by the day of the week) and have a 3 minute conversation. 

Student A will ask B the days question:

  • If you had $200 and you had to spend it in 4 equal parts, what do you think you would buy/do with it?
  • What is the best meal/food you ever had in your life, and talk about where you were and why you were eating it?
  • What was something fun you did in school that was related to learning? ( Can someone reword this for me to get an answer?)
  • If you could spend the day with any fictional character, ( cartoon, super hero, tv, movies, books) who would you hang out with and what are three things you would like to do?

Discussion Wheels and Slant

Partner A is to use active listening techniques like SLANT and record the main points from the speakers answer using a document we are calling a discussion wheel.  Part of the exercise will be like Save the Last Word for Me activity. The questioner will have to listen during the timed response of speaker. They won’t get to ask questions unless the speaker is very stuck. They may ask a follow up after the speaker is finished, As the activity moves forward over the weeks, a follow up will be a required part of the exercise. The process then flips to partner B.

Finally I need a bit of a crutch to keep me honest. The Discussion Wheel acticty is a great idea from a fellow teacher. We will be instituting it in both our classes. I also came across an online challenge that peaked my interest. Its important to find some support with instructional strategies. This way you hit the wall, you have someone to talk to, or help you to decide what to do next. 

Slaying the Mic

I discovered Jan Gamble, Slayer of the Mic  on Twitter. She is offering a challenge to engage kids in discussion and encourage student voice. The idea behind the challenge is to have a weekly activity to encourage student voice in the month of September. At the end we are to reflect on the differences that may come about from a month of sustained activities.

One of the best parts is her use of video responses to share instructions and encouragement. She shared with me she will have videos that are for teachers AND students. Her energy is contagious and having another voice in the room (one that is much more fun than mine!) to cheer lead and inspire is awesome! So I will be taking tips from her challenge and sharing results in my next post.

So to recap, this is How I Would Teach It…

  1. Have kids determine questions to discuss that are meaningful to them.
  2. Use a quick informal strategy like concentric circles to help kids to get to know each other and talk.
  3. Use a strategy like Big Paper o have students communicate non verbally in a quiet environment(Getting comfortable with considering other students comments and getting comfortable with quiet
  4. Learning the S.L.A.N.T technique and then starting the Discussion Wheel Practice on a consistent basis. 
  5. Help keep yourself engaged in the face of setbacks. Find a teacher who is trying the same strategy. Sign up for the #STMJR challenge in September,

Looking forward to making this a successful year of student voices. I’ll share at the end of September where we are at. Happy Teaching!

Sign me up….

I think having too many signs in a classroom is a mistake. Having said that, this year I am going to put up a bunch of signs. As teachers, we sometimes do the things we can find redundant or distasteful. I think a bunch of signs with Dos and Don’ts looks like Jail. Stay behind the yellow line! No touching! Pick up your visitation paperwork at window C.

My room is really horrible. I mean REALLY horrible. It has those 1970s moveable walls that no teacher has ever utilized. They are tan except for the dirt marks. My carpet. Yes carpet. Is horrifyingly grey and it took me about five seconds to dump a Venti coffee on it, never to remove the stain.

Kids are used to ugly institutional walls with informative signs. DMVs, Social Security Offices, Social Services, just a few of the places my kids see signs and drab walls. This year I need to dress things up, add visual interest and have visual information I can use as the bedrock of establishing my class as a semi orderly polite place to learn. 

Taking all this into consideration I have designed a few posters that I will use as my Anchor Charts for the school year. From my last post you can see I have many goals about building relationships but with my kids boundaries are important. I know from day one of undergrad you have your kids help you come up with rules for the classroom and set up expectations.


 I am down with this but what I discovered with my kids is that they show up with  established ideas about school.

 On many levels, they come to me with an idea that every class is an opportunity to push the limits. Students often arrive in my room with a negative view of school and have learned a pattern of behaviors designed to derail the class or teacher and in the end entertain themselves and others. It is often not even a conscious decision. My kids have come from ineffectual social situations, whether that is at home or school. They know what should be done but often live in situations where boundaries are not clear or enforced. They also have generally low expectations about what they should accomplish to be proficient or achieve mastery.

So now you’re thinking I am a bad teacher or bad at classroom management or racist, classist  or whatever. I will tell you I’m through the veil. I see my kids at face value. They are wonderful, lovable people in a broken system. So I am going to start with a sign. It outlines the class schedule. It tells them what part of the day they are in. It covers the acceptable actions and behaviors, and gives them a reference for what they should be doing.

This sign will be used in conjunction with a variety of strategies. Group behavior roles will be introduced the second day. These are not the class “rules” but they are established procedures for working together. Working together is another skill sorely lacking with my kiddos. 

 So this is how I built it. 

I tried Word. I looked at instructional videos, but quickly found my version didn’t match their version and any hack I tried wound up with error messages. Good ol Microsoft.

I went to Google Docs next. I created the whole thing using a combination of tables, clip art, bullet text, google drawings, and shapes. This was also a bust. You can’t really achieve a poster in this app.

I should have started with Google Drawings. Go to Drive, then click NEW, then select Drawing. 

I went to my district print shop page and found some of their established printing sizes. In Drawing, under File, find page set up and set your size. I did 24 x 36. Having accidentally done in it a doc format I actually had all the text and images I wanted. If you are ever doing ANYTHING multimedia, write the text, and gather images all in one place. A folder or a doc. 

Now drop text elements into individual text boxes. Drop all your images in randomly. It will end up being like an old school collage. From here you just drag and drop and move your elements around like you would cut outs from a magazine. It lets you overlap, place wherever want, bullet, center, change fonts, text sizes- all in the drawing program. 

So what’s in my sign?

Image result for PISCES

I fret over the first day. How much structure do they need? If i don’t lay down some rules, will I lose them right away? So I decided on the first day (among all the other get to know you stuff) I will show them the sign. It tells us what the intro task portion of class looks like, what instruction, independent work, and class wrap up look like. It will allude to other yet to be discussed procedures (That will have a sign!) 

The sign will also peek interest when they read about “class bloggers and photographers.” They will see a “PayDay” listed, and see that they will be able to have a place to get supplies in case they need it.


The sign is funny. I’m funny. Please don’t make me tell you again.

I’m very proud of my sign. It has problems, but then again, so do I…

Its middle school so bad funny is good funny. I chose Deadpool because it’s middle school. If there was ever a super hero for middle school it’s the Pool.

Be sure to check out the Educators Guide to Fair Use to make sure you are a comfortable with any images you may have used. I found that I can use fewer than 5 rom the same artist without getting in hot water.

He is obscene, narcissistic, sarcastic, hormonal and the banality of his character speaks to the larger absurdity that is public school. He fights even when he gets his hands chopped off. He comes back for more after every beating. What better metaphor for teaching? Plus I use the Chibi version because, again, Irony +Sarcasm +Cuteness +  Grown Up= Middle School Kid.

So this is just one of many signs that will go up. This one provides procedures I can pattern everyday after. It will hold me to routines I desperately need, and provide a road map for other elements of classroom organization. Kids are also wicked rule followers. I don’t have to tell you how they like to bust us when we forget a rule or procedure. 🙂

Happy Teaching!