Social Education 57(7), 1993, pp. 362-364
1993 National Council for the Social Studies
These and other experiences nurtured the sense of being contributing members beyond our schools and families. Looking back, we noticed that once key people within the community honored our voices, we became an authentic part of the community. We developed a sense of responsibility to that community and its values. With this in mind, we consciously decided to give our students the opportunity to use their voices and to listen to them.
When we talk about students' voices, we mean that we recognize students as separate, valued contributors within the classroom. They have relevant opinions, ideas, concerns, and experiences about the decisions made concerning what learning and activities they need to accomplish. A 7th grade student writes about shared decisions in her journal:
What we want to learn effects [sic] our learning and who teaches it. [Our teachers] say what we are going to study and we [students] sort of take over the rest. I think we should work together and teach each other.
A classmate adds:
The decisions in this classroom should not only be made by the teacher but by every student. The teacher should sort out decisions because she is usually the wisest, but each students should actually make the final choice.
Each distinct voice in the classroom contributes to the richness of the interaction while learning. Because students want to participate in the decision made in the classroom, they will, if given the opportunity.
When we hear and honor students' decisions, they can trigger numerous results. For example, students tend to assume responsibility for what they learn and how they learn it. It helps students perform at their best and participate actively in their learning. One 7th grader writes: "I see that if I like a subject and it's important to me, I really learn a lot without a teacher to help me along." Students become accountable for their work and thus become "insiders," or knowing participants, of the learning "club" (Smith 1983). Another student writes: "I am learning that I am a responsible worker...all of us are learning what kind of learners were are."
Students also become intrinsically motivated to become responsible for learning and to help organize the learning activities. Other students write: "After looking over the web [visual graphic] we made on death, I am looking forward to learning how different people view death," and "I'm helping out my group a lot by doing research and getting other needs for the group project." These things can happen when teachers become flexible enough to allow all students to assume, on an ever-increasing basis, a role in classroom decision making.
Students use their voices when they practice, or "try-on," the responsibility of making decisions in student-teacher negotiations. By this we mean that the teacher first reviews and outlines the curriculum according to state and local mandates. As the year progresses the students work with the teacher to develop and extend, or sometimes change, the curriculum. Neither students nor teacher assumes complete responsibility for the curriculum, but rather an exchange of ideas and activities combines the efforts of both. When decisions are made through student-teacher negotiations, both learn to give and take, much like the negotiations that occur in the world outside the classroom. This setting creates a social context that stimulates and supports the students, a community of learners, in the classroom (Bandura 1986). It also gives them a sense of their voice and their power.
Through the give and take of student-teacher interaction, students also learn when to yield. They yield by listening to the teacher's experienced voice that guides them in their academic endeavors. They then realize that the teacher, too, has a vested interest in their learning progress and strives to support them without automatically acceding to their decisions. Students express their perceptions by stating that the teacher should "tell us if we are doing it all right or all wrong because we don't want to go in the wrong direction."
To understand how students can use their voices in the give and take of student-teacher negotiations, we created a thematic study on death and dying with a group of 7th graders. We based this six-week thematic study on Beane's (1990) integrative curriculum model and implemented it in a communications classroom (Smith and Johnson 1993). The integrative curriculum supersedes the traditional, separate content area curriculum by focusing primarily on the intersection, the crossroads, between adolescents' personal concerns and the social concerns of the world. This intersection becomes a theme to study while developing such living skills as reflective thinking, problem solving, valuing, and critical ethics (Beane 1990).
Realizing the connection between exercising voice and developing responsibility, one of our first actions was to survey our students about their personal and social concerns. This survey linked the students' voices to our instructional course of action. By asking these 7th graders what they worried about most in relation to themselves and then in relation to the world, we found they worried about their future and the world's demise. The issues these students voiced seem grave, yet they are the issues facing today's young people. They voiced concerns about pollution, euthanasia, rain forests, hate crimes, nuclear war, and AIDS. The results converged in a theme that together we labeled "death and dying." This survey, received with enthusiasm by the students, was simply our way of encouraging them to use their voices and become integral parts of the learning community we were establishing.
Another opportunity for these students to exercise their voices was through the instructional choices we invited them to make. These choices included how we could study the topic, what resources we would use, which aspects of the content we would study, and what time line they would follow. For example, in the study of death and dying, students enter into negotiations about whether they would study a topic individually or in groups. They also chose study methods and identified learning outcomes such as working cooperatively in groups, producing a group presentation, and investigating their topic in current resources. Together we developed a framework of classroom operation that addressed whether to read literature in conjunction with the textbook or to read multiple sources in library research; and whether to take a test or write a paper as a way to demonstrate their knowledge. Although the students did not control the curriculum, we gave them increasing responsibility in curricular decisions. The students and teachers negotiated their learning through class discussions, student journals, small group meetings, and as individuals.
The students also voiced their opinions about aspects of the topic to study. In this thematic study on death and dying, they chose, within small groups, to study death from different perspectives and each individual selected a specific subtopic of interest. While one group studied hate crimes, another studied rain forests. The individuals in each group investigated an interest within their group's focus. Within the bounds of negotiation, they chose to work alternately on individual projects, in small groups reading topical adolescent literature, and as a large group in discussions the teacher facilitated. The students readily accepted the responsibilities of their choices and worked toward fulfilling them. One student wrote:
Right now our group is being very cooperative. We are headed in the direction of learning about the ozone layer. I want to know what all of it is about, I want to know how it affects the world and what it has to do with death and dying. I want to know why people, government don't make it a law that there is no polluting and get everyone to recycle.
Another student observed how she likes working with groups: "I like being in a group as long as [everyone] in the group does their part." Sometimes we need the teacher's help, but first we need to discuss as a group to solve the problem.
In addition to choosing how and what they would study, we also gave the students a voice in deciding when they would undertake and complete their work. Within this unit, the students chose when to read their literature selection, when to present their small group projects, and when to submit individual papers. As we negotiated the time frame with the students, we were nurturing their sense of responsibility. Our students gradually became increasingly responsible for their work and conscious of pacing themselves. Our students assumed responsibility when as a class they challenged themselves and succeeded in completing the rough draft of their individual papers by the agreed upon due date. This was a first for this group of students.
Student-Teacher Negotiations: Results
From this study with 7th graders, we learned that students and teachers working together can negotiate many of the decisions about curriculum. We also learned that we need to base decisions on priorities that are agreeable to both. Once the decisions are made, the students need to know we will hold them accountable for the work they have negotiated. For example, in this study the only teacher stipulation was that the students' individual papers be a responsive piece, their reactions to the issues they studied. The students willingly accepted this since they knew this format allowed them to voice their opinions freely. This give and take between students and teacher established a framework of responsibility within the classroom where both students and teacher had duties and commitments to themselves and to each other.
Within small groups, the responsibilities to each other included listening to others as well as voicing one's opinions. Small groups represent a social learning context in which the group's dynamics reflect the ebb and flow of the world and the surge and yield of cooperation and consensus. As individuals hear their voices in achieving consensus, group members begin to see themselves as important members within a classroom. When one of the literature groups became frustrated by the narrative's level of difficulty, they discussed this difficulty and developed a plan of action. At first, their opinions differed, but eventually they came to a consensus and agreed to read the narrative aloud in the group to create understanding. The length of the narrative, however, hindered their progress on other responsibilities, so later each group member became responsible for leading a discussion on specific chapters that remained. This small group cooperation encouraged students to consider the role of responsibility they need to assume in the world outside the classroom.
Just as we encouraged our students to become responsible to small groups, we also urged them to consider the community around them. Our students began by examining the big picture within their studies when we presented a developmental approach to learning and content through a process-oriented and global curriculum that focused on the way the students learned and interacted rather than an objective evaluation. This approach recognizes that both students and teacher continuously reconstruct their ideas about the world and themselves with each new experience (Piaget 1969; Siegel 1984; Vygotsky 1978). By lending an ear to our students' voices, we allowed them to construct their view of the world and invited them to become responsible to and for that view.
When inviting our students to take such responsibilities, our role changed to include the teacher as a facilitator of learning as well as a knowledge source. We found that our students responded to us in the dual role of learning guide and learning resource. Through this give and take when making decisions we created a learning environment that enhanced student responsibility. We respected the students' voices and they began to see themselves as viable, contributing members of the classroom community. Our students voiced such opinions to us through their journals. One states, "When the teacher made a decision, she asked the students what they think...so things would be more fair...and it gives the students chances to exercise their right to decide.
Giving students opportunities to exercise their right to decide becomes the impetus for developing individual responsibility. The prerequisite for supporting such student responsibility, however, is knowing ourselves as teachers and what we can accommodate within a classroom structure. We need to look at ourselves in relation to the content, the learning environment, and the students. We also need to know our students' developmental and social levels so that a negotiated curriculum responds to their needs, intellect, interests, maturation, and comfort. The responsive nature of this type of curriculum nudges students toward accountability and thus our expectations of students can begin to change. Shared decision making results in increased accountability and commitment. Students become personally committed to the community of learners in the classroom, to the teacher, and to the learning process.
Our experiences with shared decision making in the classroom demonstrated that an integrative approach to curriculum creates a learning environment beneficial for middle school students. The benefits of this approach to learning in a social studies classroom leads to an increased awareness that all people need to become responsible. Within the context of social studies instruction, teachers can use this awareness to teach civic responsibility. This approach to integrative curriculum along with shared decision making has confirmed our belief that for our students, the process of being allowed to be responsible is the first step to becoming responsible.
Bandura, Arthur. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1986.Beane, James. A Middle School Curriculum from Rhetoric to Reality. Columbus, Ohio: National Middle School Association, 1990.Piaget, Jean. Science of Education and the Psychology of the Child. Translated by Derek Coltman. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.Siegel, Irving E. "A Constructivist Perspective for Teaching Thinking." Educational Leadership 42 (November 1984): 18-21.Smith, Frank. "Reading Like a Writer." Language Arts 60 (May 1983): 558-567.Smith, J. Lea, and Holly A. Johnson. "Control in the Classroom: Listening to Adolescent Voices." Language Arts 70 (January 1993): 18, 30.Vygotsky, Lev S. Mind in Society. Edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, SylviaScribner and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge, Mass.:Harvard University Press, 1978.
J. Lea Smith is an Assistant Professor of Early and Middle Childhood Education at the University of Louisville. Holly A. Johnson is a 7th grade language arts teacher at SouthOldham Middle School in Crestwood, Kentucky.