Empowering Student Voices in Warm, Inclusive Spaces

By Angelina Gillispie

“My voice matters because everyone can combine and find strength and i am one of the voice that make change in community for the better and i am the one of the voices that speaks out to the help those with the same pain.”

– Veronica, 17, Tanzania

The words above were thoughtfully written by one of my students who is identified as an English Language Learner (ELL). Bright, bold, and brimming with insightful thoughts, she is from Tanzania, and has been living in the United States for less than three years, and here in Manchester, N.H. for almost two years. To say that I, a student-teacher working in the Manchester School District, am fortunate is an understatement — I have been working with students identified as ELL’s, students who can speak a myriad of different languages and are a part of numerous diverse and beautiful cultures, since the beginning of the 2020 school year.

In just those beginning weeks of my student-teaching experience, I was cultivating close and genuine relationships with my students. I was intentional about pronouncing their names correctly, asked them to teach me words and phrases in their home languages(s), and checked in with them daily about how they were doing. I was eager to learn about them and see them as the unique individuals they are — they opened up to me about their culture, their families, and their experiences before and after coming to the United States. They opened up space for me and would never fail to greet me with boisterous smiles, enthusiastic greetings such as “Hi Ms. G!,” and open, loving arms.

Inspired and touched by each and every one of them in such a short amount of time while being led and guided by my remarkable cooperating teacher, I began the school year committed to ensuring that my students’ experiences and voices were heard. I serve students that are coined as students of color, refugees, and immigrants. This means that I serve students who experience and are deeply affected by oppression, marginalization, and underrepresentation as a part of their daily lives. This also means that I serve students who are compassionate, intelligent, resilient, eager for opportunities, and wise beyond their years, backed with a lifetime of experiences across different cultures, countries, and languages in just their short, young lives.

Those who bear the experiences of oppression, marginalization, and underrepresentation rarely ever have a platform to allow their voices to be heard. These systemic forces unequivocally stifle their voices without an ounce of remorse or accountability. As a person of color myself, I knew this all too well. Along with my cooperating teacher, we integrated conversations and discussions around the importance of demanding our voices be heard with students. We talked about systemic inequalities, regarding educational, community, and political systems — inequalities that directly affect them and their families — and how we could use our voices to create reform and change.

In our safe, warm, and inclusive classroom community, students began to create, transform, and trust more in this idea that their voices did indeed matter. Our students began by writing letters to the Commission to Study School Funding, addressing the inequalities present within their high school and the Manchester School District. They asked for better resources, including having more books in different languages available for students to feel more welcome and a part of their school community. They used their voices in order to improve not only the educational experiences for themselves, but for all the future students to come. They went on to have their letters read live to the Commission, and some of our newcomer students valiantly read their own letters to strangers on a Zoom call.

Now, for the past few months, students have tackled larger systemic issues that they are passionate about through their Community Outreach Projects. Most are working in groups and addressing issues and projects such as homelessness, racism, providing more resources for schools, the dangers of smoking, packaging food for their school community, creating their own sports programs for kids who cannot afford to pay for lessons — we even have a student who is writing his own children’s book. They take deliberate time to reflect on the incredible work they are doing. They are actively using their voices, and they are the reformers our world so desperately needs. They are, in the process, combating systemic oppression and marginalization and creating their own platform. It is clear to me that they are the definition of empowerment. And their voices matter.