What most people know about Generation YES is that it has something to do with students, technology and student voice. So we often get asked by conference organizers if we can help them find students to participate in a student panel discussion. We always try to accomodate them with teacher contact names from local Generation YES schools.
It’s good that people are trying. It’s a great reward for the students too. It’s so rare that you see students in any way, shape or form at an educational technology conference that the mere fact of them showing up seems like a statement. But student panels often turn out to be less satisfying than planned. The mere act of speaking is not student voice, and just listening is not enabling student voice.
Yesterday I posted about our latest white paper, Sharing Student Voice: Students Presenting at Conferences. In that paper, one section relates to student panels which I’d like to share here. It’s written for anyone thinking of taking their students to an education related conference. I hope that it can help make student panels more relevant for both the students and the audiences involved.
A Special Note About Student Panels
Student panels are often arranged by conferences to show that they are listening to students and supporting student voice. Since your students are likely to be well-known as articulate students who are making a difference, you may get an invitation to bring students to participate in a student panel discussion.
These student panels can be nice rewards for students, but they do not promote student voice by themselves. Unfortunately, these panels often take place in a vacuum. Students are rarely present at meetings or working group sessions where real decisions are made. Too often the panelists are asked abstract questions that are well beyond the student’s capability or experience.
If you can participate in planning the student panel, ask if the students can participate in the full day’s events, by working on plans or proposals alongside adults. You may want to suggest that the students are not asked questions about things that they have little control over, such as national policy or how they could use technology to improve “education” as an abstract idea. Since student voice is always grounded in action, questions that focus on eliciting student perceptions about their actual work will be more powerful and more meaningful for both the audience and the students.
You can prepare your students ahead of time by helping them understand that their experiences, such as by teaching teachers how to use technology as a GenYES student, are valid answers. They do not have to invent futuristic solutions or make up grand plans. What they have already done is worth talking about and is the true expression of student voice. Be clear with them about whether they will have a chance to participate in any decision-making activities beyond a panel appearance.
Student trust is a hard-won gift, and over-promising that a student panel is a chance for them to have a real voice in creating change might backfire. It’s not hard for students to realize that in reality there is no mechanism for any long-term participation on their part.
Finally, consider bringing some non-traditional students to the student panel. Students who are not your academic superstars and don’t speak in 5 paragraph essays often speak the truth with greater ease than students who are more conventional. Be sure to make it safe for them to say the unexpected or unconventional, within the boundaries of appropriate behavior. Your guidance will allow students to move past what they know adults expect of them and share their authentic voice.
You can download the whole white paper here in PDF form.