Opinion: As teachers, we must listen to our students and encourage them to use their voices

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By Mercedes Harvey-Flowers

In an op-ed, Michigan teacher Mercedes Harvey-Flowers advocates for more student voices in the decision-making process and shares how students turned their grievances into creative solutions.

The room is hot; That sticky, sweaty, smelly kind of heat you only feel in a high school classroom. The roar of fans swirling through the heavy air accentuates the stillness around me. Students lie looking at me and staring at their laptop screens. After 20 minutes of this, I get up from my perch on the heater. “Close your computers,” I instructed, as I handed them paper and pens. “Grab a pen and paper,” I say, “complain! What makes you angry? Something special for you, big… small…? Globally?”

The ice is broken, screams and whispers begin to fill the space, pushing the oppressive silence. The noise level will reach a fever pitch, it will be chaotic, but beautiful. Some pens move furiously, while others move slowly. Papers are covered with chicken scratch. As the pens cool, the sounds grow louder. The room comes alive as the students share their grievances. The singing of the voice comforts me.

Student voice is powerful. Shifting classroom experiences from teacher to student enhances what I grew up thinking school was. It defies traditional notions of classroom management. My next statement pauses briefly before picking up the conversation again. “Okay, pick one of your complaints. Fix it.” Crying filled the room, “Miss, I can’t fix the fact that my mom hates slips. Laughter follows as students begin to tailor solutions to their complaints. The solutions that begin to take shape show how much our students have to offer.

A student concerned about food waste suggests nutrient-dense entrees to avoid large portions of school lunches. Another suggests having a box for unwanted fruit or non-perishables that other students can take throughout the day. Another student complains that school is boring, but suggests that students have a say in curriculum decisions. She recommends having a student representative on the district’s curriculum committee and school board. Our Croc Enthusiast team determined whether Crocs are safe for exercise when not in “sport mode” by conducting a study measuring how many times a participant fell in Crocs in both modes and noting the causes of falls.

I’m not the first teacher to figure that out. Student frustration and frustration can be a bridge to something incredibly creative and useful. (An unwanted fruit box is a great idea!). But unleashing this chaotic chorus of voices can be terrifying. Even after ten years of teaching, I’m still trying to chase their voice for fear of missing the answer. After all, I’m a teacher, I grew up, I should be the pinnacle of knowledge in this place, right?

Error. It’s important for us adults to challenge our own fears and admit that even in the classrooms where we are experts, we may not know everything. Our students have unique skills and perspectives and now is the time to use them. When it comes to their education, our students should have a seat at the table where decisions are made on their behalf. When someone is not present, we should encourage them to bring their own chairs. (Yes, there should be a student representative on the district curriculum committee. After all, the students do the teaching.)

Throughout this learning experience, I have watched my students go from being intimidated by the course beyond them to becoming motivated researchers, advocates, and designers. They are learning their voice and research skills to provide informed solutions to the issues they care about. As their ideas progress, their confidence continues to grow with each research step. My students’ ideas are creative and creativity is what our system needs most right now. Decision makers at all levels, from school boards to legislatures, could benefit from hearing from our youth. It can be scary and there can be a little chaos in the process, but the result is worth it.

  • Mercedes Harvey-Flowers teaches American History and Advanced Placement Studies at Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Senior Writing Fellow.





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