What students want you to know about school

The art of listening

The 21st Century Classroom podcastWe are big believers in including student voice in our storytelling. Usually we ask students to talk about a specific project or experience that we are featuring. But what if we left it open ended? We wanted to find out what students would talk about in a free-flowing conversation about what is meaningful for them about school. We learned a lot, and we hope you do too.

 

A full transcript appears below.

Rowan: School shootings: like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change.

Narrator: Today, on the 21st Century Classroom, we are going into listening mode. We want to feature student voice in a new way by asking students to talk about school. Our questions are open-ended and our agenda non-existent.

We bet that educators will be able to learn a lot by tuning in to a free-form of conversation among adolescents.

Our students today hail from Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, VT. 250 grade 5-8 students from Duxbury and the larger town of Waterbury attend the school. These two towns form a rural community that sits on the east slope of the Green Mountains right under the majestic Camel’s Hump, Vermont’s second tallest and most recognizable peak. Looking at the school from the scenic Route 100 highway, you see a modern looking structure surrounded by soccer fields with a forested hillside as a backdrop. A long driveway lined with maple trees leads to the school. You might also notice the chicken coop of the school’s signature sustainability program, colorfully decorated by a student-created mural.

Although the school sits geographically on its own – most everybody needs to drive or take a bus to get there –

Our students today talk mostly about how much they want their schoolwork to connect to the community and the real world.

Let’s meet them.

Shyannah: My name is Shyannah. I am an eighth grade.

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Damien: My name is Damien and I’m in seventh grade.

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Jordan: I am Jordan and I’m in eighth grade.

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Rowan: I’m Rowan and I’m in seventh grade.

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Narrator: So these four wonderful students were somewhat randomly selected by social studies teacher, Lori Morse, who is on Team Prodigy, one of two 7-8 grade teams in the school. As the discussion ensues, don’t worry about trying to track who is saying what, just roll with it as a group conversation. Try to tune in to what these students express when given an open opportunity to share.

The first question was simply: what is meaningful to you in school?

Jordan: Any opportunity to grow and learn in the area of kind of just outside world like sustainability and Ms. Morse does a really nice job with, you know, she actually changed the world as an opportunity to donate money to humane societies or maybe just make our community better.

Shyannah: Yes. I think sustainability helps us to notice what’s going on around the world that we’re not really aware of. I definitely think that it’s good that we have something like that and Ms. Morse just teaches a lot about like how it’s good to be a good person and to help in the little things that could change a person’s life.

Rowan: This Civil War project that was due recently, that whole thing, just even the little bits of the video, things that may have liked researched at home, all those little things. Even though they were like in the past you can still kind of– I don’t really know what the right word is but like, kind of like apply it to what’s kind of happening now and kind of like some things, not all things–

Damien: Yes, if we don’t know what happened in the past we don’t know what we’re going to do in the future like we’ll never learn from our mistakes. She kind of tells us– In the beginning she told us like this happened to get rid of slavery but racism is still real and stuff like that. Sexism, and a whole bunch of other things.

Narrator: What kind of connections did you make from the Civil War up to what’s going on now?

Shyannah: I noticed that even though the confederates were fighting for like slavery, it’d still be going but not all of them were bad. I’d like to think that they were all for it, they just lived there. Because I’m African-American, I hear a lot of racist things but I don’t let it ruin my life because African-Americans then were treated a lot worse than I am. I’d like to think that I had it better than they did.

Damien: I agree. I’m also African-American and although racism isn’t all the way gone, it’s nothing like it used to be. I hear some things that are nasty or bad, but African-Americans used to be treated much worse than we are now. So it’s kind of not really nice to think about but and I’m not sure I want to talk about it because it’s kind of a sensitive topic. Someone might not have the same opinion but I think the way he targets his audience is people who feel vulnerable or want something and he targets them by saying something they want to believe.

Rowan: They kind of feed it.

Damien: Yes, like he feeds them false information and they want to believe it so they do believe it’s true. If you heard something like I don’t know, like if you heard something you wanted to believe you want to believe it.

Rowan: Like a rumor that you like, I don’t know. I’m not sure if like is the right word but, yes.

Narrator: Does she just tell you these things because she has really strong opinions or how does it actually play out–

Shyannah: She does like to talk about if there’s school shootings she’ll make sure that we’re okay and that if we ever want to talk about it we can–

Rowan: It’s okay.

Shyannah: Yes, it’s open to talk about it.

Rowan: Because it’s something that’s happening now and it could be like somebody has changed the world. You can kind of openly talk about it in her classroom and kind of hear other people’s opinions, her opinion, what everybody has to say about it. Sometimes you may have like this giant weight on your shoulders because of it and after that you’re kind of just like, oh, good.

Narrator: That was interesting because I started up by saying what’s kind of the most meaningful stuff for you. I thought you’d maybe talk about something that’s really fun but you guys talked about sustainability and kind of some heavy stuff you’ve been looking at, social studies. Help me understand that.

Do you think students like to deal with serious stuff?

Damien: I don’t think we like enjoy it but it’s not like something I’m going to talk about all the bad things for fun but it’s like–

Rowan: Like a reality check.

Damien: Yes, it’s like reality check and when you talk about it it takes the weight off your shoulders.

Narrator: Help me understand that.

Shyannah: I think it’s helpful because if your parents don’t watch the news and there’s something that like bad happened–

Rowan: And we just hear it from around.

Shyannah: Yes, and we talk about it, I think that feels really helpful because I don’t like to watch the news because there’s a lot of politics and I don’t like to think about politics because I’m still too young to vote. I definitely think it’s helpful because if there’s a school shooting you’ll hear about it but it’s not totally clear. If you know someone from where it is, it’s definitely helpful so that you can check up on them and it’s scary to think that there are so many things wrong and that we’re not doing anything about it. I think that she should try to help us understand that.

Narrator: I’ve had conversations about these kinds of heavy things before where I came away feeling like overwhelmed. You guys said sometimes it makes you feel like it’s a weight off your shoulders. I don’t know if you’ve had both of those experiences or if you know what makes the difference for moving it towards kind of the more positive.

Rowan: Sometimes I come to school kind of knowing back to actually the school shootings and like that happened and it was just yesterday. I’ll come to school knowing that just happened, I’m not okay right now. If we talk about it in class, then when I go to sleep at night I’m not worrying about it anymore because I know that I can change that or that I can be part of the change and then sometimes it’s like even if there’s not a little bit of talk about it like how you can change it, sometimes I’ll just go to sleep feeling, oh my gosh, a lot.

Shyannah: I think it helps to talk about tough stuff. It feels like it takes a weight off the shoulders.

In sustainability class last year, we all wrote letters to ourselves. About what we wanted to do when we grow up and how we want to change the world. I said to be more sustainable and not use a lot of electricity because of what it’s doing to the Earth. Part of my letter was like I want my children to be able to drink water. To be able to see animals that are still around because they’re dying off because of what we’re doing to the earth. It’s a lot of pressure for us because we’re still young. But we can still do things about it. It does put a lot of pressure on us. But it kind of lifts like the weight off when we talk about it and when we actually do things.

Jordan: Adding on to what you said, also they’re educating us about this because they want us to pursue a job in the future that can help lead these global causes and help us keep animals, keep the giraffes and stuff in the places that are being destroyed. I think that is probably, I mean when you think about it and you watch the news and stuff, at first it’s not great but I think one leading to another,

You have to feel not great first to feel like the weight is lifted off your shoulders once you do something about it.

Narrator: Do you get a chance to do stuff about in school?

Shyannah: Yes, like change the world. You pick a topic and you can do anything. I’m doing something with animals. I earn money and give it to the homeless shelter. I also would want to go there and just see the animals. See how they’re treated because they might not be treated well. And if they don’t get a home they usually get put down, so…. I think that we should offer the teams to do change the world because we could do a lot. And like other schools too. We could change the world so fast if we had a lot more people involved.

Narrator: It’s a cool idea. That’s like my next question.

In your wildest dreams, what would school be if you could just like make it out from scratch?

 

Jordan: I think that math is great, science is great, language arts is great, and social studies is also really good. But, if I could add something it would probably be a class about global problems or something like that where each student pursues a problem and find something to do about it. I think that’s what partnership for the goals is when it comes down to the global goals. I think that they could definitely benefit from that.

Shyannah: I think that if we have like a class to teach us about… not really business but how we’re going to go into life not closed-minded, be like more open-minded.

Rowan: Knowing what we’re going into and kind of not that we’re closed off from the world right now but kind of being more that class when in my mind we would like open up and allow us to understand what we would be going into.

Narrator: What about beyond the subjects?

Do you have ideas about how school would be better like if the way teachers taught was different?

Damien: I think teachers do a pretty good job with this already but more hands-on learning like projects. I think it would be a lot better instead of writing on paper if we did some sort of project. Which I feel like in social studies, in science we do that a lot. 

Shyannah: I feel like if we– Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut you off. I feel like if we did a lot more things off of electronics. And you did a lot more paper. Because all we’re doing is sitting on our phone book most of the day. It’s really not good for you.

Also, to add what classes we should have I think band and chorus is definitely helpful because since I’ve started band I’ve been getting a lot better grades.

Rowan: You have to learn fast. You have to keep up, you have to keep practicing, and you have to learn the pieces. You only have maybe one or two months to learn that a piece and you have to learn it well or, you know, we are kind of going to just be not blowing and just kind of figuring off.

Narrator: It’s really performance.

Damien: Right.

Shyannah: It makes us feel good when we’re all together and we’re all doing well even though that sometimes we’re not totally focused on what we’re doing in band. We’re all learning and we’re learning to work together with people even if we’re not friends.

Rowan: You kind of nail that piece eventually and you’re like, I just did that.

I can do that in all my classes and then you succeed in every one of your classes. It’s great.

Narrator: If I can see a theme, it sounds like a lot of the stuff you are saying is about connecting to the world. With sustainability and change the world, you’re all doing stuff on the road. You’re in a band, you’re actually performing for raw audience. Is that too big of a generalization to say that–

Shyannah: No. And I think chorus is also very good, too. Because this year I got a solo and it was like adrenaline. I was really proud of myself. I was able to stand up and sing in front of a bunch of people that I didn’t know.

Even though I was nervous, I was still proud of myself. It like pushes us to do stuff that we might not be comfortable with. It pushes us out of our comfort zone.

Rowan: It’s kind of, oh right. Miss Dubois, she does the musical. You do have to audition but this year it was Ms. Dubois and Ms. Morse and they’re really supportive. They’re like you did a great job. That’s really nice to hear but then there’s only two people. Then once you finally get on stage and start performing the night of the show … I was terrified this year because I never had a big role. It’s kind of like you’re performing in front of, I don’t know like–

Shyannah: Hundred?

Rowan: Maybe a hundred people that you don’t know over half of them. Once you do it, you’re kind of like–

Damien: It’s really cool to have out of school communities and I really had fun in school this year kind of having the music weirdly.

It was just nice knowing that if I’m like down, if I’m not doing well or something I can just think of it. If I could like get this role in musical and if I can do this then, yes. I don’t know, it’s just really nice.

Narrator: Wow, what a great conversation. The last comment in particular was so interesting. I later found out that this student had recently played the lead in the school play. He had worked hard to get the part, and then worked hard to make sure he did an awesome job. No wonder he plans to look back at that when he’s having a tough time. Basically he’s built that resilience. The resilience that comes with having been challenged, truly motivated to try, and then supported to succeed.

My big take-away from this conversation is that these kids are asking to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

They don’t want school to be a sheltered place – they want as much contact with the real world as possible. Students want to talk about tough things, like slavery, modern racism, climate change, and school shootings. They want to face authentic challenges, like making a positive impact on their community, or performing for an audience.

So let’s give it to them – the real world, warts and all, with opportunities to make it better. This conversation makes me confident that the young adolescents of today will rise to the challenge.

Thank you to the Crossett Brook Middle School Chorus for that wonderful rendition of the state song.

The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by me, Life LeGeros. Huge thank you to Damien, Shyannah, Jordan, Rowan, and their teacher Lori Morse. Our theme music is “Sunset” by Meizong and Yeeflex, the Argofox release.

students from Crossett Brook Middle School

 

Good luck out there, educators, and whatever you do, keep listening to students.

Life LeGeros

Life has worked in various roles in K-12 education, including classroom teacher, assistant principal, math department head, state agency administrator, and school board teacher representative. His dissertation focused on the impact of math teachers' knowledge on the growth of their students. He believes in teacher leadership, student empowerment, and challenging the status quo. He loves being immersed in tech-rich and outdoor environments, though not simultaneously. Find him on Twitter @lifelegeros.

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