SoundOut is an
expert assistance program focused on promoting
Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement
We work with K-12
schools, districts, state and provincial education
agencies, and nonprofit education organizations
across the United States and Canada.
As I continue to have conversations with young people and adults in
schools across the US, I consistently hear several specific questions.
One theme that consistently comes up is about giving students credit for
their contributions. This article addresses the question, "How can I
meaningfully tell a young person that their contribution is really
appreciated, and that they are making a difference?"
Adults who are authentically interested in student involvement are usually
interested in this question. I hear it in a lot of different forms from
teachers, counselors, youth program workers, and other adults in schools.
I have also heard adults give dozens of answers to it. Research
shows that acknowledging young peoples' contributions requires educators
to walk a fine line. In her book Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for
teachers from high school students, writer Kathleen Cushman identifies
students who report that, "I know the other person's gonna hate me when I
get praise and someone else doesn't." However, on the same page, another
student reports, "It feels nice when a teacher singles me out for praise
because it lets everyone knows I am smart."
There are thousands of ways to recognize students, and you've seen them
all: certificates, letters, ceremonies, and on and on. However, when I
talk with adults about it, there is a growing consensus that these steps
just aren't enough. The young people that we want to participate in
our activities isn't motivated by the norm. They come from backgrounds
that demand adults who care to recognize their lives.
With those factors in mind, a group of students and adults working with
SoundOut created the following spectrum illustrating different ways to
acknowledge student voice.
Here are some explanations of different
points on the spectrum:
Students are paid for
their involvement. This allows adults to acknowledge the extenuating
circumstances that many young people face and encourages diverse
participation. It can also create equity among socio-economic classes and
parity between young people and adults
Students get credit for being involved. The learning that students partake in during their
involvement is acknowledged for its validity to classroom objectives. This
can help make students aware of the so-called "real-world" applications of
Students are publicly recognized for their
involvement. Student involvement is acknowledged in the court of
public opinion by making other students, building staff, community
supporters, and the general public aware of individual and group student
activities. This can create a genesis of support beyond one particular
Students are released from classes to be
involved during the school day. Teachers acknowledge the
necessity of using classroom learning time to promote whole-school student
involvement. For students who cannot afford the luxury of being involved
in school activities afterschool or on the weekends, classroom hours offer
the most accessible means for participation.
Student activities and involvement are not
recognized at school. Student
involvement is seen purely as an extra-curricular activity, meaning that
it is outside the realm of regular educative activities. While
opportunities for involvement are procured for students, they are not
supported or sustained through any type of systemic acknowledgement of the
validity of young peoples' participation.
Following are some tips SoundOut has compiled from discussions with more
than 300 students across Washington state about publicly acknowledging
Typically Unsuccessful Strategies for
Acknowledging Student Voice
- Basing acknowledgement
on what adults value rather than what students value.
- Assuming certain types
of acknowledgement are good for everyone without regard for
administering acknowledgement among students.
- Holding external
events with no connection to the school or individual student.
- Assuming that a group's
mission is sufficient justification to become involved with no
recognition or celebration of student work.
- Offering excessive recognition
and celebration that seems like overkill, or even tokenism.
Typically Successful Strategies for
Acknowledging Student Voice
- Basing acknowledgement
on an appreciating students as
individuals and addressing individual needs.
- Assigning responsibility according
to proven ability in individual jobs or tasks.
- Recognizing longevity and special contributions
on a frequent basis.
- Acknowledging teams of students or the entire group.
Researcher Allison Cook-Sather has
observed that, "Because of who they are, what they know, and how they
are positioned, students must be recognized as having knowledge
essential to the development of sound educational policies and
practices." Engaging student voice in schools is the first step; the
next step is acknowledging those contributions. Hopefully the
lessons we've learned can help in your classroom or school.
SoundOut has worked in more than 100 K-12 schools and districts
across the United States and around the world. Learn more
and for more information