Student Voice and Immigrant Experiences

hands-1234037__180By Cynthia Reyes, NNETESOL President, Reporting from the International Student Voice Conference (Burlington, VT), July 7, 2016 

It’s Day 2 of the July 6-8 International Student Voice and Partnership Conference at the University of Vermont, and while my brain feels overloaded and I am saturated with information, it has me thinking both about the possibilities and the challenges of enhancing the voices of immigrant and New American students in our schools. I’ve heard the concept before and understand it as an idea that involves school personnel (e.g. higher education) and teachers forging equal partnership with students. For example, see Dana Mitra’s definition of student voice.  She argues that students should be a part of the solution in solving schools’ problems, and that schools should include students in shared decision-making.  As I think about our own communities I begin to ponder what it might look like to have our ELL students weigh in to inform teacher curriculum or school policy. It may be happening already in some pockets, but how might we further enhance our ELL’s voices so they can take part in making important school policy decisions? The Vermont Agency of Education is also thinking about the importance of student voice. Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe was one of this morning’s invited speakers, and Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler was also in attendance. It was inspirational to hear Secretary Holcomb talk about how schools might think differently about exploring the range of potential in our students, and to honor those differences but also to examine power and privilege within those dynamics. Secretary Holcomb also said – and I’m paraphrasing here – that we must “…provide support to those with less power today and to help them thrive so they can be members of the civil society tomorrow.”

With regard to our ELL students, how might we enhance their voices in our school communities, and how might we further help them develop a sense of belonging there? Here are some challenges that I considered:

  • Some school personnel may not feel that ELL students will be able to adequately articulate their opinions in English, and translating may be tricky if they can’t find an appropriate interpreter, or the translations don’t fully capture what students mean.
  • Some ESL teachers may not feel the support they need to help them collaborate with content teachers on student voice initiatives.
  • Like any initiative that comes with a mandate, student voice projects may be seen as something extra to add on to an already burgeoning workload.

But, here is why I think it’s important to be thinking about and discussing it with colleagues, and some of you in Vermont have probably already been engaging those hard conversations due to Act 77. The Act 77 Flexible Pathways Initiative is a mandate that is currently being rolled out. As I sit in this conference, it strikes me as interesting that there seems to be some assumption that this mandate will be the same for all students. I don’t hear any questions or critique about how approaches or models will be differentiated for all students. Regarding ELL students’ needs, I know that these conversations have been happening in some schools, among teachers and/or coordinator group meetings. How might there be more intersection between what is happening at the state level and what is happening in the schools, and how might higher education folks help to facilitate that?

So, why student voice? Here are some of the things that I learned while I was at the conference. Much of this is based on the work of the Vermont youth organization directed by Helen Beattie called Up for Learning.  Check out the video clip of students who are using their voices to inform curriculum and school policy.  Up for Learning describes a process that fosters partnership between students and teachers aimed at using student voice to seek solutions, to inform teaching, to create more venues for student participation. They use the following action terms to describe this process:

  • Share Responsibility
  • Start from Strengths
  • Assume Positive Intentions
  • Seek Equity and Justice
  • Create Open Dialogue
  • Employ Data to Drive Change (e.g., using surveys to gain insight and to help inform change)

I share this not to suggest that your school district should immediately look into this project (although it could be a transformational process), but to call on all teachers to ask yourselves: What student projects do you currently carry out with your ELL students? And which ones address the bullet points above?

These are just a few of my thoughts after attending this conference, and I pose these questions because I know there are already teachers who are doing incredible work with their students, who create space in the classroom for student voice, and who co-construct activities with their students. Let us (NNETESOL) know what you do!

I realize that my unfettered praise is probably due to the stimulating conversations that I’ve had throughout these last two days, but my question about where such partnerships exist for ELL students is earnest. My last pondering relates to how we might further enhance student voice in the ESL class, and how might we capitalize on their skills, strengths, talents, and wisdom and share that with all of their peers, teachers, and administrators. To that end, I’d like to share just a couple of resources for those of you who would like to do a bit of your own investigation into student voice. Summer is a good time to find inspiration!

  1. Student Voice Practitioners Blog – A website for practitioners and students who engage student voice in the schools. (Did you know that student voice is a well known concept in Europe, because many of the countries have signed Article 12 of the United Nations Rights of the Child (UNCRC)? The U.S. is the only nation in the world that has not committed to ratifying the UNCRC.)
  2. Picture1Cambridge Student Voice Seminar Blog – A website for the original location for the International Student Voice Conference.


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