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Encouraging Student Voice and Student Choice

Instruction

I am a graduate student and instructor at IslandWood, a school in the woods on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  Over the course of IslandWood’s four-day residential environmental education program, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders from the Salish Sea region learn about communities, ecosystems, and stewardship through art and exploration.  As an instructor, I lead a field group of 8-12 students each week.  With the short amount of time I have with each field group, it is necessary for me to establish relationships and guide students to engage in learning as quickly as I can.    

A few months ago, as I was reflecting on my practice, I realized that I wanted a way for students take ownership of their learning and their role in our field group.  Around the same time, I started reading “Empowering Education” by Ira Shor and was intrigued by his implementation of critical democratic pedagogy in which students had a voice in shaping not only the culture of the classroom, but the structure of the class and the topics and material that were covered.  While Shor applied his pedagogy to classes in a community college, I wanted to see how much student voice and choice I could bring into my teaching in environmental education.  I started small, but my range of student choice has grown to include a large portion of my week.  The places in my teaching where I intentionally incorporate student voice are:

  • Community Norms - At the start of every week with a new group of students, we sit down to create a community agreement.  My students have a choice in how they want our group to act during the week, and often it draws from their home classrooms.  By letting students guide the direction of our group, it allows them to feel more invested in the community and in following the norms.
  • Discussion Norms - In addition to establishing community norms on the first day, we also set discussion norms.  Some students are familiar with discussion norms from their classes and others are not.  Often students from different classes are mixed together in my group, so it is important that we set discussion norms specific to our IslandWood group.  I provide a list of potential discussion norms, allow students to add any that are missing, and then we vote on which norms to abide by during the week.  Since dedicating time to setting discussion norms with my groups, I have noticed that they are more willing to engage in discussion in a way that allows more voices to be heard.  
  • Jobs - I have a list of jobs that students fulfill each week from navigator, who leads us to our destinations, to timekeeper, who is responsible for keeping track of the time.  At the beginning of the week, I allow my students to choose their top three jobs and assign them to make sure everyone has a job that they want.  In addition to releasing some of my responsibility to my students, the jobs also allow students to feel more ownership of the group.  
  • A Compare soil labInvestigations - At IslandWood, one piece of our curriculum is centered around conducting an investigation.  I have shifted from student-centered to student-directed investigations.  In a student-centered investigation, I pick a topic based loosely on students’ interests and provide them with the question, materials, and data collection methods.  On average, a student-centered investigation takes about half a day.  In a student-directed investigation, I frontload the week with exploration, activities that require students to start thinking about a topic, and a mini-investigation (student-directed and led by me).  I provide time for them to pick their own topic, question, and data collection methods as a group, and then we go out and collect and analyze the data.  While this process is much longer (taking up closer to a full day with my students), I think it is worth it because by the time they start to collect the data, my students are incredibly excited to investigate the topic they chose. Often, the students come up with topics that I probably would have chosen for them, but the fact that they came up with it themselves leads to greater investment and participation on their part.  
  • Assessments - Summative assessments take very different forms in experiential environmental education than written tests. One aspect of my teaching that I have recently started to work on is, at the end of a lesson, allowing students to choose how they want to summarize information they learned.  I will present them with mediums they can use to share information (eg, poster, song, skit), and allow them to choose their medium.  For example, during my most recent teaching week, I worked with two other instructors to bring our field groups together to present results from their group investigations.  I allowed my students to pick how they wanted to communicate their information to the other groups, and most chose to do charades to incorporate audience participation while a few decided to present the investigation results in a poster.  In the end, we were able to combine those two ideas into a final presentation that everyone was comfortable with and participated in.  Allowing choice in the presentation of information made students excited to share what they had learned. 

Investing in student voice may require some extra work and loss of control in the short term but pays off in the long term.  Allowing more opportunities for student voice and choice has helped me connect with my students more and helped them with investment in their own learning.

I am a graduate student and instructor at IslandWood, a school in the woods on Bainbridge Island, Washington.  Over the course of IslandWood’s four-day residential environmental education program, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders from the Salish Sea region learn about communities, ecosystems, and stewardship through art and exploration.  As an instructor, I lead a field group of 8-12 students each week.  With the short amount of time I have with each field group, it is necessary for me to establish relationships and guide students to engage in learning as quickly as I can.    

A few months ago, as I was reflecting on my practice, I realized that I wanted a way for students take ownership of their learning and their role in our field group.  Around the same time, I started reading “Empowering Education” by Ira Shor and was intrigued by his implementation of critical democratic pedagogy in which students had a voice in shaping not only the culture of the classroom, but the structure of the class and the topics and material that were covered.  While Shor applied his pedagogy to classes in a community college, I wanted to see how much student voice and choice I could bring into my teaching in environmental education.  I started small, but my range of student choice has grown to include a large portion of my week.  The places in my teaching where I intentionally incorporate student voice are:

  • Community Norms - At the start of every week with a new group of students, we sit down to create a community agreement.  My students have a choice in how they want our group to act during the week, and often it draws from their home classrooms.  By letting students guide the direction of our group, it allows them to feel more invested in the community and in following the norms.
  • Discussion Norms - In addition to establishing community norms on the first day, we also set discussion norms.  Some students are familiar with discussion norms from their classes and others are not.  Often students from different classes are mixed together in my group, so it is important that we set discussion norms specific to our IslandWood group.  I provide a list of potential discussion norms, allow students to add any that are missing, and then we vote on which norms to abide by during the week.  Since dedicating time to setting discussion norms with my groups, I have noticed that they are more willing to engage in discussion in a way that allows more voices to be heard.  
  • Jobs - I have a list of jobs that students fulfill each week from navigator, who leads us to our destinations, to timekeeper, who is responsible for keeping track of the time.  At the beginning of the week, I allow my students to choose their top three jobs and assign them to make sure everyone has a job that they want.  In addition to releasing some of my responsibility to my students, the jobs also allow students to feel more ownership of the group.  
  • A Compare soil labInvestigations - At IslandWood, one piece of our curriculum is centered around conducting an investigation.  I have shifted from student-centered to student-directed investigations.  In a student-centered investigation, I pick a topic based loosely on students’ interests and provide them with the question, materials, and data collection methods.  On average, a student-centered investigation takes about half a day.  In a student-directed investigation, I frontload the week with exploration, activities that require students to start thinking about a topic, and a mini-investigation (student-directed and led by me).  I provide time for them to pick their own topic, question, and data collection methods as a group, and then we go out and collect and analyze the data.  While this process is much longer (taking up closer to a full day with my students), I think it is worth it because by the time they start to collect the data, my students are incredibly excited to investigate the topic they chose. Often, the students come up with topics that I probably would have chosen for them, but the fact that they came up with it themselves leads to greater investment and participation on their part.  
  • Assessments - Summative assessments take very different forms in experiential environmental education than written tests. One aspect of my teaching that I have recently started to work on is, at the end of a lesson, allowing students to choose how they want to summarize information they learned.  I will present them with mediums they can use to share information (eg, poster, song, skit), and allow them to choose their medium.  For example, during my most recent teaching week, I worked with two other instructors to bring our field groups together to present results from their group investigations.  I allowed my students to pick how they wanted to communicate their information to the other groups, and most chose to do charades to incorporate audience participation while a few decided to present the investigation results in a poster.  In the end, we were able to combine those two ideas into a final presentation that everyone was comfortable with and participated in.  Allowing choice in the presentation of information made students excited to share what they had learned. 

Investing in student voice may require some extra work and loss of control in the short term but pays off in the long term.  Allowing more opportunities for student voice and choice has helped me connect with my students more and helped them with investment in their own learning.

About the Author
Amy Compare
Author: Amy Compare

Amy is an environmental educator in IslandWood’s graduate program in Education for Environment and Community program through the University of Washington. Prior to grad school she received a B.S. in Interdisciplinary Studies (Environmental Studies) from the University of Central Florida and served as an AmeriCorps member in the nonprofit City Year Seattle-King County.