Building Space for Voice

On a drive with my eldest son a few days ago, I turned to ask him, “Have you ever felt racism?” 

My sons are 21 and 24 years old. We are brown. It is what most people assume upon noticing our last name, Rodriguez. This was my first time asking a question of this nature to my son and he didn’t hesitate to answer. “That’s why I was bullied in elementary school,” he answered. “What do you mean? What happened?” I asked. “I don’t remember… I only remember the feeling I had. I remember feeling like I desperately wanted to prove that I was American,” he explained in a tone that felt tinged with hurt, even after 17 years. As I share this moment I had with my son, I am overwhelmed with the desire to instinctively defend myself and my son. It is a feeling that is similar to the one he described having years ago. I didn’t know about his experience. His words from just a few days ago, left me feeling helpless and powerless. Experiences like these can be lasting.

These past few weeks have inhaled my heart, mind, and spirit, much like they have for many others. There have been lasting experiences for many of us. The realities that have been pulled out from the darkness into the light are painfully revealing. We have collectively witnessed a truth and it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye. There is monumental work ahead of every human being. Teachers hold a significant portion of that responsibility―to make changes and find ways to be better in our practice. 

Kojo For Kids: Jason Reynolds Talks About Racism And The Protests

Teachers have power and there are places we can begin to change our practice. We can find ways to make things better for our students. This is our continuous work. Change can be difficult. Our fears, biases, and racists tendencies can often stifle our attempts to experiment with change. It can be especially difficult when we do not recognize our own fears, biases, and racist tendencies. We all have them and we all must find ways to work our way out of them and become better. 

Words matter. Tone of voice matters. Behavior matters. The constant evolution of our classroom practice is ongoing. It is important for students to have opportunities for authentic and respectful dialogue. It is especially important for classrooms to build spaces for diverse voices. 

What voices do we give the most power and attention in the classroom? 

Scanning through Twitter a few weeks before the school year ended, I came across a feed that began when a parent discovered that more boys than girls were called on, during her daughter’s Zoom session. How did she notice? Her elementary school aged daughter collected tally marks each time a student was called on by her teacher. The tally marks showed a clear bias between boys and girls. Boys were called on much more than girls. What a brilliant collection of data! 

In my classroom, it takes purposeful maneuvering to make sure that advanced students do not take over conversations. Each year, my classroom includes students who are in silent mode. They select not to speak. For most students, this is a learned behavior that is developed through experiences where they have been shamed, mistreated, bullied, hurt, scared, or traumatized. It is not safe for them to speak. These students need to feel valued, nurtured, and safe before they will begin to participate. It is a consistent issue the first few months of school in my classroom. One way to make sure all students have opportunities to talk or participate is by using talking sticks. This is done by giving each student three sticks, they give up a stick each time they participate in the discussion, and when all their sticks are gone, they must respectfully wait until the end of the discussion. I find that once students understand that all voices will be valued and allotted time, they can be weaned off of the talking sticks, and enter freely into respectful conversations. Participation in dialogue cannot be optional. It is an important expectation for the lives of each student and modeling respectful conversations for students is crucial.

How do we invite students to show themselves as active participants in their learning? 

It is important to remember that not all students have the ability or oral language to express their voice. In my class, I had a student with special needs and speaking to express her thoughts was oftentimes challenging and understanding was difficult for others. Using an iPad was a common solution for students who had difficulty expressing oral language. However, when we began blogging in the classroom, she made her presence known. Although she wrote only few blog posts, she commented over 213 times in response to peer writing within a period of three months. The average number of responses for individual students was 50 out of a group of 34 students. Her peers reciprocated and responded. She gained freedom in this environment and her voice gained strength in communicating with others. This experience raised her to a level of equal recognition, attention, and care within her group of peers. It was a freedom she had not experienced before. She came to understand the power of her words and her voice.

These blogging experiences have empowered all student voices and in ways that have left a lasting positive impact on all students in the classroom, including those who are often marginalized or disenfranchised.

How do we facilitate opportunities for students to engage in difficult conversations? 

It is not uncommon for teachers to be fearful of having students engage in difficult conversations. We can fear uncontrollable situations, emotions, passions that cannot be contained, or the possibility of confrontation, conflict, and forceful ideas. These are the realities that prevent many deep intellectual conversations in the classroom. We can facilitate dialogue and listening by modeling for students these behaviors. We may experience students who will not participate for a variety of reasons, so it is important for teachers to continue searching for ways to engage students.  

Bell Hooks shares in her book, Teaching to Transgress, “In the privileged liberal arts colleges, it is acceptable for professors to respect the “voice” of any student who wants to make a point. Many students in those institutions feel they are entitled—that their voices deserve to be heard. But students in public institutions, mostly from working-class backgrounds, come to college assuming that professors see them as having nothing of value to say, no valuable contribution to make to a dialectical exchange of ideas.” (p.149) We can begin to strip away bias and racism in our classrooms by building space for student voice, especially when classroom discussions become difficult. The experiences of participating in difficult, but respectful discussions, can result in powerful opportunities for learning. Building space for diverse voices can help us begin stripping away bias and racism. 

Tricia Ebarvia: How Inclusive Is Your Literacy Classroom Really?

Words have power. Teachers have the power to change the trajectory of student lives. It is critical for each of us to do the careful work of creating space for all voices, while we continue to research and learn. This is a moment of opportunity for each of us to rise to the challenge, lean into conversations that cause us discomfort, and help all of our students find their voice.   

How will you value the diverse voices in your classroom?

12 thoughts on “Building Space for Voice

  1. Thank you for this powerful and reflective post about student voice. I like how your suggestion about talking sticks really gets students thinking about what they want to share – “I only have three sticks, three points to make…what will they be?” There is such wisdom and hope in these words: “We can begin to strip away bias and racism in our classrooms by building space for student voice.” Such important thinking for all teachers!!

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  2. Such a rich and thoughtful post, Marina. I really like the idea of the talking sticks. I’ve used something like that at times, but not all the time and it is worth thinking about. I need to be more aware of the voices that are in the conversation and the ones that aren’t. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Kathleen! Writing this post forced me to do a lot of thinking and I also need to be more aware of making sure all student voices are heard. Most of my learning comes from asking myself… How can this be better? Student voice is a priority and still I have lots of room to grow. We are human. Here, at Two Writing Teachers, is a good place for us all to learn together.

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  3. Oh, Marina! I love how you shared the power of student voice and ideas for implementation in the classroom. Just think what our world will be like when students know how to share their voice and also how to hear others voices. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Kristin! I think of that often. What amazing and powerful learning would happen for our students and for us teachers if we (teachers, schools, & districts) could prioritize purposeful time for those pieces of intellectual dialogue to be cultivated and nurtured in our classrooms. Our work will continue to be to find ways to welcome student voices. I think our world will be much better for it.


  4. The story of your son talking about his own experiences with racism tugged at my heartstrings and brought me back to my younger days when I had to deal with anti-Semitic remarks. Those things just stay with you… no matter how old you get. It’s good that we’re talking about these things with our children. Moving forward and making strides starts with earnest conversations.

    The research you infused into this post — your own classroom research and that of others — makes this post even more powerful.

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    1. This post required lots of reflecting. It is both fortunate and unfortunate that our brains hang on to negative experiences much more than the positive. I have had take more time to reflect on why I sometimes select to go silent. There are lots of variables to consider and it can all be complicated. I’ve been reading some intense books lately. Lots to reflect on. Having earnest conversations is a good start, I agree.


  5. Absolutely! Teachers need to be especially conscious of calling on all students equally. I used an app called “sticks” to select random students, in part as novelty, in part because keeping up with the actual sticks sometimes proved challenging. 😆 My desk was a mess. Now, once a student was called on, they could opt for a 50/50, or phone a friend option, or “Think on it and I’ll come back to you”. Even when they phoned a friend, the initial student had to voice the answer or at least repeated it (reducing anxiety).

    I love that you tallied your students blogs and responses! What valuable information!! For that one child with difficulty verbalizing, how empowering the blogging experience was! And even though you knew it, now you have proof!!!

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    1. Thank you for sharing, Katina! I’ll have to look into that app you found. Yes, blogging can be empowering for students and checking on those numbers really shines a light on that impact. This piece could have go on longer… there’s so much to speak on the importance for student voice.


  6. Thank you, Marina! I agree it is critical that we teach ALL of our students to have a voice and if a student is not using their voice it is our job as the teacher to figure out why and help them find it. I believe we can start by building classroom communities where ALL students feel empowered to talk and believe what they say matters. It takes time to build these types of classroom communities and to work with students on how to have a thoughtful dialog where the students are positioned to do most of the thinking and talking. With so much content in all subject areas being continually added on to an already full teaching plate, I believe some teachers feel as if they don’t have the time to really work on teaching students to use their voice and have meaningful conversations. We need to take the time and realize the teaching and learning that will take place will be far greater and it will also help build a sense of agency in our students. We can create classroom communities where WE (students, teachers, TAs, etc) are all teachers.

    Last week Peter Johnston (Choice Words, Opening Minds, Engaging Literate Minds) presented to a group of teachers that I am training to be literacy coaches. He reminded us that we need to create intellectually healthy classrooms, but that this is impossible unless we have socially and emotionally healthy classrooms. In the new book, Engaging Literate Minds, that he wrote with a group of teachers from Muskego-Norway Schools in Wisconsin here is how the intellectually healthy classroom is described, “We’ve come to believe that in intellectually healthy classrooms children should be: meaningfully engaged (not merely complying), inquiring/questioning, theorizing, seeking evidence, productively disagreeing, helping each other and seeking help when necessary, collaborating, and expecting and engaging different perspectives. We should not expect children to be held in place by intellectual hierarchies.”

    When students and teachers work together to create this type of learning environment we have spaces where all voices are valued and meaningful conversations around racism and anti-racisms can take place. This is a tall order.

    As a literacy coach, I can support teachers in creating intellectually healthy classrooms. In order to do this work, I need to better understand how we create classrooms where students will use their voices (spoken and written), so my summer reading stack around this topic has started…
    Let’s Talk; Facilitating Critical Conversations with Students – https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/lets-talk
    A reread of Choice Words by Peter Johnston (I’ve lost count on how many times I’ve read this.)
    A reread of The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton
    Opening Minds by Peter Johnston
    Engaging Literate Minds by Peter Johnston and Kathy Champeau, Andrea Hartwig, Sarah Helmer, Merry Komar, Tara Krueger, Laurie McCarthy
    We Got This; Equity Access and the Quest to be who our students need us to be. By Cornelius Minor
    Building Bigger Ideas; A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk by Maria Nicols

    I am always looking for recommendations so please share books and resources in helping create intellectually healthy classrooms. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Nell. I sure enjoyed reading your comment. Thank you for sharing so much of your thinking here. It was good to know we value many of the same things for students.

      This line you shared is the heart of it all I think, “I believe some teachers feel as if they don’t have the time to really work on teaching students to use their voice and have meaningful conversations. We need to take the time and realize the teaching and learning that will take place will be far greater and it will also help build a sense of agency in our students. We can create classroom communities where WE (students, teachers, TAs, etc) are all teachers.”
      It is a mutual partnership for a learning community with the teacher as learner, but also leading. And it is hard to nurture and cultivate intellectually healthy classrooms.

      These are the communities we must work to build in the classroom. Just a few years ago, I had this class. It was the class that has set me on a path for research. I am still collecting research to discover exactly what happened that year. It was an amazing year of learning. It was also the year I began a writing club after school. Time to cultivate that learning environment was key. As a teacher, I am working to discover how these practices can be integrated in the classroom without having that additional time.

      My reading is based on a search for the core components of a thriving classroom community, why it’s important, and how to implement it. Most of my research includes pulling bits and pieces from the books I’ve read and continue to read. And then there are books that push my thinking on the idea of voice.
      Here are a few:
      1. Literacy at the Crossroads by Regie Routman (This one is a must read)
      2. Teaching to Transgress by Bell Hooks (My most thought provoking read)
      3. Quiet by Susan Cain (This one helped me to understand those with quiet personalities)
      4. Bridging Literacy and Equity by Althier Lazar, Patricia Edwards, & Gwendolyn McMillon
      5. Essential Linguistics by David Freeman & Yvonne Freeman

      I hope these will be of some help. Please let me know how it all goes.


      1. Thank you, Marina! You have given me much to ponder and many new titles to help me with my research. And thank you to all of the writers at the Two Writing Teachers blog! I turn to your posts often in my literacy coaching work and value the thinking and expertise that you share around literacy teaching and learning.

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