Paving the way for student voice…

If you’ve read any of my classroom stories or seen any of my posts on Twitter or Instagram highlighting the shenanigans (but totally full of learning!) from my laboratory, you already know that there is always something going on. For the last several weeks, I have put my fourth graders in charge of learning and teaching about black inventors. I chose inventors that most are unaware of, while their stories need to be told, need to be shared, and need to be celebrated. The inventions created by this list of inventors would shock you, we interact with them nearly every day and have undoubtedly impacted your life in a major way. My challenge to my students was to find an interactive way to celebrate the invention(s) of their selected inventors.

“What do you mean, interactive?” asked one of my scientists.

“Do you mean like the way you teach us stuff? a second scientist asked.

“Can I just make a poster?” inquired another.

“Interactive means we all participate as we learn. And no — posters are boring — give us something to remember!” I responded.

And they were off. Some excited, motivated, inspired, while others were confused, scared, and a little worried about what this would all mean and look like in the end. No matter their state of mind, they set out to learn about their inventors.

We entered the room through an extravagantly decorated covering. Long strings of gold and black tinsel decoration hung from the door frame and glistened, basically begging for us to walk through. Skylar, a fourth-grader, greeted us at the door, welcoming us to the party.

“This party is in honor of Madam CJ Walker, please come in!” Skylar said.

Each of us tried to peak beyond the elegant door decoration to see what was inside of the party room as the friends in front of us entered. Each student disappeared beyond the gold and black tinsel curtain and audible gasps of excitement filled the air.

I was the last to enter and students were scoping out the different stations set up around the room as Skylar and I entered.

She gathered us all together to explain the stations.

Station 1: A table was covered in large white feathers, bowties, and fake pearl necklaces. Skyler explained to us how Madam Walker began her own business in the early 1900s, providing better beauty and hair products for African American women. All of the photographs she found of Madam Walker showed her in a pearl necklace, usually with a feather in her hair. She also noticed most men wore bowties in the photographs, but Skylar said that anyone could use any of the items at the table to get into the theme of the party!

Station 2: This table was where you could have your hair styled by Skylar — nearly everyone, including me, took advantage! Many of those large white feathers from station one ended up in our hair-dos!

Station 3: Another student wanted to play hot potato to honor George Crum, the inventor of the potato chip and her chosen inventor, so Skylar had that as the entertainment station. I loved this collaboration and best of all, it was not forced. These two students, Skylar and Sophia had a genuine conversation and collaborated in planning to make this happen together. No forced teams here, they chose to collaborate.

Students also grabbed iPads during the event to take pictures and videos — they wanted to capture the action and make a movie about it afterward. This was in no way prompted by me, I was a literal spectator as this all unfolded. I participated and enjoyed the event as it happened. I was not teaching directly, I was not in charge, I was not telling anyone what to do. This was all the authentic engagement of my scientists, all I did was empower them to create interactive experiences as a way to teach others about the amazing accomplishments of black inventors.

This simple decision to allow student voice and choice to come alive made a huge difference in the delivery of this project. It probably doesn’t hurt that they see me take this interactive and immersive approach in my own teaching. I am not saying that to toot my own horn here, it’s literally what one of my young scientists asked as I finished giving directions…

“Do you mean like the way you teach us stuff? a second scientist asked.

We have to use our own voice, choice, and creativity in teaching to pave the way for our students to do the same. These are simple changes we can and should be making as instructional leaders.

When you take risks, your learners will as well.

When you think differently, so will your learners.

When you express your voice, your learners will too.

Expect more out of yourself in order to expect more from your students.

We don’t need any more encyclopedias, we need thinkers, changemakers, and explorers.

Student voice and choice releases creativity, freedom of expression, and a challenge to be better. It’s helpful when you are the first to be creative, pave the way so that when you release your learners to be creative, use their voice and choice — they have a great model to follow. They know they can and should take risks; it’s the expectation.