The second year of anything is always a test of faith against the sophomore slump. Expecting lightning to strike twice is hardly a good bet, so I approached the second year of the Educon conference with deliberately low expectations. Last year, the first year, was brilliant and amazing, so how could it be any better? Whatever happens, happens – and I was prepared for pretty much anything, or so I thought.
But it happened just like last year – the conversations were meaningful, I went to lots of great sessions, the social events were all too much fun.
What I didn’t expect was to gain so much new clarity about the issue of student voice and teacher voice as the crucial element in creating the kind of learning environment I want to promote in schools. Maybe it all seems blindingly obvious that I would figure this out after having worked to promote student empowerment through technology for the last eight years, but it really hit home as I watched the interactions between the students and teachers at Educon.
I’ve talked before about the Science Leadership Academy (SLA) and Chris Lehmann, their inspirational principal. (Read last year’s blog post about Educon: I’m the luckiest teacher in Philadelphia) He’s a big part of the reason this school exists, why Educon exists, and his mastery of this domain is apparent. And he’s hired a great bunch of teachers who care about kids’ minds and hearts. But I’ve seen lots of adults who walk easily with youth, with the kind of two-way trust and respect that makes you believe that anything is possible.
What is different at SLA is the feeling that it’s more than students “being heard” or “being liked” or even “being taught” — any one of those is hard enough in many schools.
It’s much more complex and intertwined with teacher voice. Teachers being listened to and taken seriously, given responsibility and trusted to be education professionals. It’s like the whole community has a voice – trust and responsibility, respect and care, and everyone who comes in the circle gets the same treatment. You notice it at first in the small gestures and acts of kindness, the ease with which intellectual challenge is assumed as the norm, and then you start to see it everywhere, between kids, teachers, and staff, and extended to us, strangers and visitors to their school.
And I also saw clearly how the expression of teacher and student voice is not just about social action, or being a change agent, it’s about taking charge of learning, of facilitating choice and agency in the academic process. I saw teacher voice being honored in choosing avenues of learning with their students, teachers being respected by students because of it, students taking their choices seriously, and the resulting mutual responsibility to get the job done and not let each other down.
This kind of learning is often caricatured by the “back to basics” crowd as contentless and rudderless, but it’s simply not true. Charting a unique course doesn’t mean you let go of the tiller.
Hoping that you can replace teacher passion and knowledge with a checklist results in kids knowing that something is wrong. Students need to see teacher expertise, and they know full well when it’s missing or if the system doesn’t care about it. One silent voice in the chain means every voice is lessened.