When Baltimore City erupted on the afternoon of Freddie Gray’s funeral, many adults froze in front of their television screens. The imagery of high school students hurling bricks and bottles at police in riot gear was, to many, stunning, shocking, astonishing.
I was not astonished. Instead, I was saddened, because I was watching evidence of something I’d long known: We’d failed our students.
They’d been speaking to us through seemingly senseless acts of violence and emotional outbursts and meltdowns that we were more comfortable with punishing rather than remediating and understanding.
After a long career in non-profit and public sector work, I became an educator. When I started teaching English in a Baltimore City high school 12 years ago, I couldn’t wait to introduce stimulating topics, inspire rich and exciting classroom discussions and sharpen critical thinking skills. To my dismay, my efforts were met by students with blank stares at best, disruptive jesting, outlandish comments or other aggressive behaviors at worst.
Not until I learned how to meaningfully engage student voice was I able to break through.
What is student voice?
Student voice is not recitation of facts or repeating correct answers. It is not “representative voice”—where we adults pick and choose who gets to speak for the young people in our lives (usually the popular or the gregarious).
Student voice is authentic conversation where each child is allowed the space and permission to speak on his own behalf, to say what he has experienced, what he thinks, feels and believes. We come at student voice by asking direct, open-ended questions and providing a platform for probing, challenging and revelatory answers.
Unfortunately, student voice happens far too infrequently in academic settings—the places where adults have the most opportunities to truly engage with young people who know and trust them. Instead, schools are—understandably—consumed with test scores and other metrics. Rare is the teacher who is even trained to coax out a young person’s true thoughts. So student’s voices go unheard.
We don’t hear what happened to that 8th-grader’s mother last night. We don’t hear how the sophomore feels about last week’s eviction or the police raid that knocked down the quiet freshman’s front door.
When voices are not heard they’re repressed, and when feelings and thoughts are repressed they can show up in ways that are socially unacceptable. Young people’s thought processes need to be put out in open air so that they can be examined or respectfully challenged. If not, their analytical skills are not given the practice needed to develop.
We know that students in Baltimore face every conceivable adversity in their young lives which too often culminates in childhood trauma. Students affected by trauma can demonstrate behaviors that include anxiety, depression, impulsivity as well as disruptive and/or aggressive behavior. Despite this knowledge, we fail to provide teachers and administrators with tools needed to offset the symptoms of trauma; and rather than providing avenues of voice and expression during the school day, we rely on instructional practices that require students of all ages to sit still and quiet for the entire school day.
It is not an exaggeration to say that some students in Baltimore City can go through an entire day, week, month or semester without being asked his or her opinion about anything.
That’s not just unconscionable; it’s dangerous. Just look at the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death.
It’s incumbent upon us—the adults in our society—to require school systems, especially in urban areas, to incorporate student voice into every day of the school experience. If all of our students had a forum for their voices the gravity of what they were feeling and experiencing would not have been a surprise to us. The need for this outpouring of frustration and violence would have been obviated had we only partnered with students to help navigate their difficult lives.
Freddie Gray was just a match; the powder keg was already set—by our inability to hear our students’ voices.