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  • Abner Oakes

Student Voice

Let’s return to our implementation benchmarks, which you can see here and here. If you remember, loyal blog reader, I dove into three of them at 2014’s end - here and here and here - and want to get back to these dissections, trying to pluck apart each one, to get out our thinking behind them. Let me leap to my favorite, which is about engaging students in this process:

Benchmark #10: My school/district engages students in the learning process by regularly communicating feedback and providing opportunities for self-assessment, growth, and self-directed learning.

When I started teaching, I epitomized the Sage-on-the-Stage, with a language arts class that revolved around me, not my students. Luckily, I had a year off from teaching at Columbia’s Teachers College and learned many important things from Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Lucy Calkins. They helped me change my ways; they helped me see the importance of student voice, of keeping my mouth closed more than it was open. I learned to listen more, to ask better questions, and to find ways to fade into the background, letting my students take the stage. I can’t say that I was always perfect, but I can say that when I did the above - when I was intentional about putting students front and center - important things happened.

We here at JumpRope feel that student agency is a natural part of a standards-based teaching and learning approach. In fact, it demands it. An effective standards-based teaching and learning system revolves around transparency. Grades are tied to specific standards that a student has or has not mastered; in an effective system teachers and students both have that information, in a manner that is clear and easily understood; and students, with the help of their teachers, understand what they need to do to master those standards that are not mastered yet. Here’s what Chris Sturgis wrote about this topic in a January 2014 CompetencyWorks issue brief:

Transparency is a core value in competency education. It is the magic ingredient for increasing students’ agency and ownership of their education. Competency-based grading is transparent so that students know where they are on their learning progression, what they need to do next, and what proficiency looks like. Monitoring their own learning progression sparks students’ ownership and responsibility for their learning. Students become active participants and co-designers in their education.

I know that I’m stating the obvious for those folks that have moved to or are preparing to move to a standards-based system. You can’t have an effective standards-based system without student agency. But I want to take an even greater leap with this benchmark: It is the most important of our bunch and gets at some of the most important reasons for schools and schooling: Young people go to school to gain knowledge, to gain skills, yes, but most importantly to gain independence. To become their own learners. To be productive members of our democratic society. And I think that a standards-based approach to teaching and learning can be the heartbeat of that process.

The JumpRope team just got done reading and discussing Kozol’s Letters to a Young Teacher - as part of our monthly book club - and that book and its big ideas reminded me of some of the education-focused readings I did as an undergraduate, readings that caught my attention and made me think differently about schools and schooling: Postman and Weingartner, Freire, Illich, Dewey. I was a naive white kid from a big suburban high school in Connecticut, and then I went to an elite New England college with many from my own tribe. Education as a political act? Really? Education for social change? Really?

Well, yes, and standards-based grading, with its emphasis on student voice, can be that same kind of political act. Yes, I know that we get caught up in a variety of smaller details when we help schools and districts implement JumpRope and their standards-based system. We spend time making sure that the standards’ bank is just right or that those progress reports look how you want them to look. But do not forget the big picture, as I had done until Jonathan Kozol reminded me: Effective standards-based grading puts students at the center. Effective standards-based grading can create the kind of power shift that those radical voices had called and continue to call for. We need to remind ourselves of that big goal every so often. To make sure that we remember the rich green of the forest, not just all those trees.

Now, let’s hear from some teachers and their thoughts on this topic. Stay tuned for Friday’s blog post!

(I got the great pic of students teaching other students here.)

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