68/365 Volume, Alone, is not Enough for Student Voice

Volume knob

A familiar trope in the education world is that of voice. Specifically, teachers are concerned with what they can do with voice, and the conversation positions them as wizards. Teachers can give voice, silence voice, encourage voice, privilege voice. If there’s an active verb lying around, it’s entirely likely a teacher can use it to affect student voice.

Most frequently, though, teachers speak of voice as a gift – “I really want to work to give my students voice.” This is to speak of voice as though its allocation resides within the domain of the teacher and students enter classrooms voiceless and hoping to be awarded their voices through the benevolence of teachers. Those claiming to give students voice treat students’ interactions with their friends, family, and communities as though they are not authentic uses of voice. They do the same of any online space where these students might contribute content ranging from reviews to status updates.

This said, when we speak of “student voice,” we are usually speaking of sharing, and not just sharing anything. We are speaking of sharing the work we assign to students in more open ways than the traditional teacher-student assessment transaction. What’s more, the goal is usually to position that work (authentic or not) so that students are sharing their school voices as loudly and vociferously as they are sharing the voices of their every day lives.

Volume is good.

In the moments when projects are seen as authentic and relevant to students’ lives, and they raise their voices digitally or otherwise, the increased volume can be a beautiful thing.

What must be done, what is incumbant upon teachers, is more than drawing out increasing volume. Along with volume, we must teach students the value of nuance when they speak in spaces physical and digital.

Here, too often, the schools we have depart from the schools we need. In the afterglow of students sharing loudly the learning they’ve accomplished and what they’ve created, it is all too easy to miss the opportunity to ask if what has been voiced has been voiced well.

We do not remember Martin Luther King, Jr. by saying, “Wow, he talked a lot, and it was loud.” It is in the nuance of voice that we can find great value. How can we help students to think of what they have to say as Hemingway did and knead and fold their words to hold more meaning than they’d considered possible?

1. To bring nuance to voice, the work must be worth doing. A rough draft can be coaxed out of the most reluctant students, so too, can a few edits before submission. To work toward a well-crafted and considered use of voice, students must be presented with work that draws upon their curiosities, challenges them to find answers, and then calls on them to create something of value.

2. A nuanced voice also comes with practice and the chance to do something more than once. Some science teachers will ask their students to conduct one experiment within a year and then present their results at a school science fair. In such instances, a student’s voice cannot be expected to have great nuance. This would come with the opportunity to design, conduct and share multiple experiments throughout the year. This is how practitioners within fields refine their own voices, by using them on real things over and over.

3. Some audience required. As much as practicing in front of a mirror or its textual equivalent can be helpful, nothing beats an audience who isn’t yourself. Through practice sharing voice with audiences, students gather practice with the real thing. Feedback will come whether asked for or not, and it needn’t nessicarily come from others. Simply by sharing their voices with others, students will hear their own feedback, understand where volume has been mistaken for nuance, and (assuming authenticity of purpose) work to add that nuance to accomplish the task at hand. As they grow, the feedback of others can be added and helpful. This can be pairing in class, larger groups, whole-class presentations, public forums, etc. The key, is audience and the chance to hear where nuance fades so that it might be shored up.

Argument of where the voice originates aside, volume will be inherent in student voice. In many cases, increased volume is cause for celebration. This volume must not be the end of the lesson. To prepare students to operate adroitly as citizens, they must have nuances in what they voice and expect it from others.

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