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The Power of the Straw: An Analogy for Student Choice and Voice

For those of you who have been following along, you'll already know that Zach Rondot and I published our picture book companion to The Expert Effect, titled The Expert Expedition, a few weeks ago. We didn’t write that story to amplify our own voices...we wrote it to amplify the voices of our students and to show the world what they understand and are capable of. And that's what this blog post will be all about: the importance of student voice and choice in learning.

To us, "voice and choice" aren't just buzzwords to drop into a conversation. Instead, it speaks to the culture of our classrooms. It's the way things are done with Zach's 4th graders and my own 5th graders. But the inspiration for this short report on the importance of voice and choice didn't come from within my classroom, but rather from my kitchen table. And it wasn't in the context of working with elementary students, but my own 3-year-old daughter, Madigan. Let me explain.

A couple of days ago, we were having a discussion with Fonz Mendoza, instructional technologist and podcast host of MyEdTechLife, about connecting student learning to the real world, when an unexpected story popped into my mind. Fonz had asked me a fun and creative question: "If you could have a billboard with anything on it what would it be and why?" My answer came from a passage that has stuck with me since the publication of our professional development book for teachers: "When you give students the opportunity to amaze you, they usually do!"

Of course, I wanted to unpack that idea a little further, so I told a story about having lunch recently with my own kids this summer. I had made delicious vegan burritos for my three children, ages 10, 6, and 3. Burritos made with freshly prepared black beans (not from a can), lime-cilantro rice, and avocado crema, made creamy from soaked raw cashews.

While my older boys dutifully ate the lunch I had worked so hard on, my 3-year-old daughter, Madigan, had other ideas. First, the selection of silverware displeased her. I got her a new fork. She still wouldn't eat the burrito. She wanted yogurt. I pulled out a container of Forager Vanilla Bean Cashewmilk Yogurt (dairy-free, vegan, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free). She couldn't eat it with her clean forks so I got her a fresh spoon. But still...parents of 3-year-olds will be able to predict...she wouldn't eat her lunch.

At this point, lots of possibilities flashed through my mind...bargaining, strong-arming, demanding... Do you need me to feed you? We won't be able to go swimming this afternoon if you don't eat lunch! Maybe you need a break from sitting at the table with us until you're ready to eat... After urging one hand-over-hand spoonful of yogurt into her mouth (most of which ended up dribbling down her front), I was ready to give up. After a few calming breaths and channeling the voice of Jim Fay and my inner Love & Logic, I offered an acceptable alternative.

Would you like to use a straw to eat your yogurt?

She got up from the table, went to the drawer where we keep our reusable straws, chose the blue one (her favorite), returned to the table, and drank the whole thing by herself. I was stunned (quite happily stunned) and it got me thinking.

To Watch the Entire Episode, Click Here: MyEdTechLife Episode 126

What does it mean to have a choice? What are some ways you can develop your voice?

This was a small, everyday example of how classroom practices can go. A teacher may have painstakingly developed a thoughtful and engaging lesson plan (the delicious burrito) but it might completely fall flat and not perform as intended if what the students are really in the mood for is something different (the yogurt). And even if you adapt and try to deliver the "yogurt" in a way that you might think is appropriate (with a spoon), some students might just need it delivered in a different way (the straw). To me, this is what it means to give students choice and a voice in their own learning. Student voice is the key to linking what students have to do in school with who the students are...what they are passionate about, what they believe, and what they’re curious about.

There once was a time when the teacher had to be the one and only expert in the classroom, like a chef preparing a well-balanced prix fixe menu, and the students’ job at that time was to soak up as much information as they could and spit it back out to the teacher in the form of a quiz or test (the information, not the food).

I don’t know if this reference is too old for you all, but I picture Charlie Brown’s teacher, with the voice of a muted trumpet, droning on and on. It’s the only voice we hear in the classroom, and it’s the only one that’s treated as valuable or worth hearing. Without student voices being lifted up and valued, schools would be literally monotonous. Student voice is the spice of life...without it, school is bland.

Why is it important for students to have voice and choice today?

The single problem plaguing all students in all schools everywhere is the crisis of disconnection. When school feels more like a game or a series of hoops for students to jump through, learning loses its meaning. In our recently book, The Expert Effect, we lay out our approach to creating meaningful learning experiences for kids. No matter the grade level or subject area, we know what a difference it can make to get our students…

Learn more about our books here.

We believe learning environments must prepare all young people to thrive in and transform the world. However, the traditional industrial design of schooling that is still common today—and which originated to efficiently establish basic knowledge and skills across a mass of young people—too often functions to sort, separate, and rank students in oppressive ways that reproduce the inequities and opportunity gaps of our broader society. Like trying to force a kid to eat yogurt with a spoon rather than a straw.

Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. Furthermore, the most innovative companies around the world now are not looking for workers who can simply comply with directions and follow orders. They’re looking for problem-finders who can come up with innovative solutions to problems we don’t even know exist yet.

What does your school do to ensure students are heard? How can we do better?

Some of the most effective uses of student voice have been when there’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Small problems like not having enough recess equipment, kids who are new to the school and need a friend. Inclusive books or new technologies needed in the classroom…the list goes on and looks different in every school. When students are aware of a problem, it’s the perfect opportunity to practice using the power of their voice for good. Some of our classrooms at our elementary school have organized to get new playground equipment installed, recess materials delivered, a new gaga ball pit constructed, and a green screen studio and camera equipment purchased, including a drone to help them make even better videos to showcase their learning.

This comes by inviting students to take part in classroom meetings, school board meetings, and Parent-Teacher Organization meetings. My students have been a part of welcoming our entire district back from summer vacation with a TED-talk style welcome, where they got up on the stage of our largest high school and shared stories of their authentic learning. It was my proudest moment as a teacher, seeing my students share their experiences and inspire an entire district that services 12,000 kids.

Now, it doesn’t always have to be that grand. It can be small moments on a smaller scale. Students presenting what they’ve learned or created to a neighboring class. As long as there’s an authentic audience to witness the students' voices, it’s meaningful.

My former 5th graders were paid a visit by their future principal at the end of our school year, and the discussion about what to expect in 6th grade turned to excitement about student clubs. Students at this middle school select their extracurricular activities and are free to enroll in any groups in areas such as music, theater, or engineering. If students still feel their interests are not met, they are free to propose new clubs, create new community traditions, and even redesign the physical environment of the school! Meeting students where they are and giving them control over their learning is one of the most powerful utensils teachers have at their disposal today. So grab a spoon...or a fork...or a spork...or a straw...and watch the learning advance!

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