Interview by Esther Park
I asked some fifth grade students from Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School (whose names have been replaced by just their first initials) to share their thoughts on the following questions:
- What does student voice mean to you?
- Why is student voice important?
- What does an absence of student voice look like? Why might some students hesitate to share their voice?
- How can adults help students share their voice? What can you do to help your peers share their voice?
This discussion allowed me to gain valuable student insights on safety, choice, sense of self and belonging. It also left me wondering and reflecting on my own role as an adult who seeks to help students discover the power of their voice.
What does student voice mean to you?
“You get to speak out instead of letting other people choose for you. It’s about letting students choose what they get to do.” — B
“It means being able to say your opinion toward the school and what you really think about it. — T
“You know how sometimes your parents order for you at McDonald’s? It’s when you get to order for yourself.” — S
“I think student voice is when students actually have a say in what the school does or is planning to do.” — A
“Everyone should have a voice even if it isn’t as loud as the others.” — E
Why is student voice important?
“It affects us. You don’t want somebody else to make decisions that are going to impact your life. You would probably want to be a part of that decision. So we should be involved.” — K
“If it’s something that has to do with kids, I believe kids should be the ones who know what’s happening and they should get to vote for it.” — E
“Having parents or other adults tell you what to do isn’t fun for anyone. It’s not teaching you about life.” — M
“I believe student voice is important at school. We do a lot of fun activities at school but kids should know what the adults are planning and decide if they want to come or not.” — E
“If the adults were the only ones making the decisions, we wouldn’t have as many creative things that kids are excited about.” — C
“The voice of students is kind of special. I want to be brave and use my voice for something that I enjoy.” — J
What does an absence of student voice look like? Why might some students hesitate to share their voice?
“When there’s an absence of student voice, students would be angry because they don’t get to state their opinions.” — H
“Some kids might not share their voice because they think people might make fun of them and the kinds of things they like. You might feel embarrassed, but actually, there might be people out there that like the same things as you so you should share.” — K
“I always felt afraid to speak because I thought people would laugh at my opinion. When I did start speaking about my opinions, I actually realized that I was wrong. So I believe that children should just try speaking their ideas before judging.” — S
“If kids don’t speak up for themselves, they won’t get what they want and they won’t ever face their fears.” — C
“I think without students speaking up, it would be really boring. Kids would just be sitting in class doing whatever the teacher says… I think some kids don’t say anything because they think their ideas are pretty stupid. They think it’s amazing when other people share their ideas, but they don’t realize their own ideas can sound amazing too.” — M
“There would be no Student Council and no choices for anyone. Without students having a voice, there’s no way students can give feedback. — E
“When I was in [another state], I made sure not to talk because of this chart that had all these colors. If you go to red, you’d get punished and recess would be taken away.” — J
“The reason behind why people won’t share their voice? Social media is where a lot of these things start. When you share what you think, people comment to say mean and hurtful things. I see this happening on Facebook a lot. It can escalate to things in your job, school and building. People are scared.” — C
How can adults help students share their voice? What can you do to help your peers share their voice?
“We have to feel comfortable to let out our feelings. We gotta know that they will be listening.” — B
“I think it’s important to help students feel like it’s ok to share their ideas. We should all encourage mistakes and say they’re expected, inspected and respected. Adults should encourage students and say their ideas are good.” — M
“As fifth graders, other kids look up to us. We should check in with other people and ask how they are doing.” — H
“Sometimes if parents don’t know exactly what is going on, they can bring them to a therapist or a school counselor to talk to them.” — J
“You can get the person’s attention before you talk to them. State your opinion but don’t forget to ask for their opinion too.” — H
“Maybe you can give them some time to do research about the topic.” — J
“Teachers shouldn’t have all the control. Students should be able to make their own decisions. It’s probably not the best thing to do anyway because children are living things and we do not deserve to be treated badly.” — H
“Adults are older so if we disagree, we should disagree respectfully. Instead of yelling or speaking loudly, you could just say, “Well, I don’t really agree with that. Maybe we can find a different way” to the person.” — J
“Adults know what was fun for them when they were little. Couldn’t they know what’s fun for other kids? They’ve been through it.” — J
“I’m not saying kids shouldn’t speak their mind. It’s just that some kids would go overboard. Adults are responsible and they want their kids to be safe.” — C
As adults, we must at the very least provide time and space for our students to share their ideas and feel that their opinions matter. Students are counting on us to include them in conversations on matters that directly affect them. Ask yourself:
- What is the default for students at my school? Are students taught or even incentivized to stay quiet? Are students aware that they have a voice and that it is valued?
- Do students have high quality opportunities to practice advocating for themselves productively and respectfully with authority figures? What structures or systems need to be redesigned for all students to have access to these experiences?
- How am I contributing/not contributing to my students feeling safe and comfortable at school? How can I get others involved in making this an absolute priority?
Trust your students. They are the experts on their own experiences. The more exposure our students have to planning, dialoguing, decision-making, and accepting responsibility, the more empowered they will feel to initiate positive change making in our schools and communities. Start by listening — no matter how young they may seem.
Esther Park is a Gifted/Talented Enrichment Teacher and New Teacher Mentor at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School in Hawaiʻi. Esther graduated from the University of Virginia and received her MS in Educational Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She is an alumna of Teach For America and Hope Street Group’s Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellowship. She is currently a member of the national Teacher Advisory Council at Hope Street Group. Follow her on Twitter via @hawaiiest.