Today, I asked my students, what is the one thing you wish you could change about school, the way we as a society look at education or the way processes and procedures are instituted at school? The catch? I asked them to respond with two-words. “TWO-WORDS? Ms. Jones, we need more words!” But did they? I need my students to think critically and articulate thoughts succinctly, but substantively. The purpose of this assignment was to allow my students an opportunity to lend their voice to the reform conversation in ways that directly affect them daily. It was also an opportunity for each student to problem solve; after each identified the problem, they were required to write a 750-word logical argument solving the problem. I received a plethora of responses; here are some of my favorites:
“Fresh Starts.” They felt teachers should have resiliency training to help start each day fresh with students. He felt teachers held grudges against students who had previously committed an offense against a teacher. He also felt teachers could grow into being the aggressors and bait students to additional trouble. He thought it was “almost bullying!”
Another one of my favorites was “Elective Choice.” Sh’niya shared her thoughts regarding foreign language. She recalled a time she and her family were in the grocery store speaking Spanish; she noticed all of the dirty looks and how that made her feel ashamed or embarrassed to speak her native tongue. In class, she asked, “Is knowing multiple languages a positive or a negative?” I immediately answered that having various ways to communicate is always an asset, and it is celebrated/compensated in the workforce. She then asked why foreign language classes aren’t currently offered at our school. Stumped, I said it should be.
I added to the written conversation by choosing two words, Define Respect. This act modeled the expectation thoughtfully, using a high-quality approach to represent and reflect the diversity within the class and moreso, within our school walls. This simple act of joining my students bonded our values, wants, and needs within the work. I was compelled to use this approach and my two words to examine some of our schools’ existing policies (which my students found astonishing).
When educators speak of diversity it can mean a plethora of things: hiring people of color (POC), equitable professional development (PD), the demographic within the school (staff and student), addressing implicit bias, age, age bias, gender, gender bias, and the culture of the school. The latter is where I spent my time. I wanted students to learn first-hand how we all had a role to play in education. I began comparing the discipline data of the now 7th grade class with their 6th grade data. At the beginning of this school year, my co-teacher and I welcomed seven students who spent 80% of the previous school year out of the classroom and in the reflection room. For context, our school titles the location within the building for students to need to rethink their classroom behaviors “the reflection room”. Because the seven students who spent 20% of the school year in the classroom and the other 80% in the reflection room were still promoted to the 7th grade, I immediately knew they were smart. I wanted to see the data about why the students were removed from the classroom setting. After analyzing data thoroughly, over 50% of the behavior referrals for those students were due to disrespect. I asked the culture team (the administrator who handles discipline within the school) what disrespect meant, in addition to the title. After deep-diving into the subject, we found that disrespect was too vague to be added on a discipline tracker without context. Disrespect alone without additional comments seemed to be very subjective. I did not know if students disrespected the educational process, the culture of learning, or the teacher. In a quest to find out, we added a required text box for notes to the disrespect tab for all teachers to give context. What we noticed was a 47% drop in teachers using the disrespect tab. We also noticed there was no spike in any other area. That meant more students were staying in class, allowing teachers and students to rely on problem-solving techniques rather than subjectivity.
Not only did my students learn empirically from witnessing how we all can impact change, but they were also able to reflect on issues that could make a difference. When we as teachers teach by example, our students become more engaged and can witness the process at work. This simple assignment, meant to stretch my students, also challenged me. I reflected on my practice, and it helped our school level biases. When students have the agency to problem solve, it also opens the doors for us as teachers to lend to the process. When we think about the many ways to impact change in the daily educational experience, we often forget those voices who are being educated. When asked, my students thought critically about change and learned how to advocate in the process. Their voices were valuable in the conversation to improve education, instructional procedures, and operations.