The Loud Silence: Locating Student Voices in Partnerships

By Suzanne SooHoo

"Where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence. "
­A. Rich

We say we collaborate on the behalf of students, and yet curiously, student voices are almost inaudible when we embark upon our collaboratives. Why is this? Why are students not part of the dialogue or the restructuring efforts in our nation's schools and universities? Why do they not sit at the table among educators in an exchange of ideas? Shouldn't they participate, actively engage, be consulted, or at least be informed of what we as partnerships are doing on their behalf?

So why are they absent? Could it be ageism? Are we still unconsciously wedded to those traditional beliefs that "children should be seen and not heard" or that as adults "we know better"? How can we address the contradiction of claiming we are inclusive of all those who have a vested interest in schools while students are still noticeably missing? What role should students play in informing our work? Should they sit at the table of the executive committees to assist in policy making? How do we negotiate common ground with students? Perhaps they should be regularly consulted. Or at the very least, they could be regularly informed regarding our restructuring activities? Incidentally, do these queries have a vague sound of familiarity? Didn't we pose these questions when we initially considered the empowerment of teachers and site­based management?

Why is it hard for us to consult those we have systematically silenced? Why are we selective with regard to those with whom we collaborate? Should students be allowed to be equal partners in collaboration? What are the consequences of their participation? Their lack of participation?

If we were interested in inviting students to inform our work, where would we start? Roland Barth has compared the separate existence of teachers and administrators working in the same school buildings to toddlers who sit side by side in a sandbox, coexisting and sometimes throwing sand in each other's direction. In time, they share sandbox toys. Perhaps students could assist partnerships in building stronger sand castles which respond and change to the waves of reform but do not erode with the sands of time.

In 1993, the Partnership Network, a multi­institutional collaborative of fourteen school districts, two community colleges, a county office of education and two universities, housed at the University of California at Irvine, California, made an imprint in the sand by seeking student voices to advise its Alternative Assessment Project. Currently in its second year, the project is aimed at developing alternative criteria for university admissions. University and school personnel are jointly investigating indicators of success, beyond SAT scores and A through F requirements, embedded in portfolios, projects and performances.

Inspired by Grant Wiggins' work on authentic assessment, teachers and administrators, in an attempt to gain a more accurate picture of a student's potential, identified multiple ways of measuring student achievement. University members also deliberated the implication of this work in connection with student preparation for entry into the university. Subsequently, the partnership launched a small pilot project to mutually explore alternative criteria for university admission.

Almost a full year into the work the members of the partnership recognized that, in its zealous effort to design a matrix of success indicators, we had not "come to know" the students. How did they define success? What were the conditions in their learning environment that they perceive contributed to their success? Exactly who were these people we were working so hard for? Their invisibility in the initial conceptualization and development of the project cast them into the sea of anonymity. It was indeed time to throw sand in this direction.

Students surprised us with what they considered important to their success. They characterize classroom indicators which they perceived enabled or inhibited student success. "I don't do well in lectures because I'm not being asked to use my mind. I need to be actually involved in the learning," said Christine Lynch, who wrote, casted, constructed props, staged lighting, and directed a major play for high school. "I can't learn when the teachers won't let me get help from my friends. Talking helps me," said Tamara Contreras, who consulted regularly with traffic engineers at City Hall while developing a project to improve the traffic patterns around her school. Rena Sahib believes that her ESL class helped her learn to speak up but also held her back. "I didn't know the standards for college because I was in ESL. I feel that the kids in ESL are treated lower than others and don't get pushed towards college. By not pushing me, they slowed me down." She made an oral presentation and showed a comprehensive newspaper layout on a topic she investigated, year­long child care.

It was after his third high school and experiences with gangs that Thomas Gómez established his roots and began to spend time working in the community at car washes to raise money for a Hispanic street rag, La Calle, which encourages young adults to develop life styles free of drugs and gangs. He described different teaching styles he has experienced in high schools. "There's like three levels. The first level is preaching and I don't get a thing out of preaching. The second level is conversation where you get to talk with somebody about it. Then there is social learning. This is between the teacher and the student. It' s when the teacher shows you something and gives you a chance to show back. The teachers here want to know you more than in my other schools. That's why I wanted to show them I could do it [participate in the alternative assessment project]." Thomas and Tamara were the first in their extended families to break the cycle of high school dropouts. All four of these students will be the first in their families to attend college.

Students named pedagogy and human relationships as critical to their success in high school. With candor, they labeled practices which they perceived as effective to their success and critiqued those which were obstacles. What they had to say only confirmed that we had a long road to go in restructuring high school and university classrooms. But equally important was the fact that they did have something significant to say. In retrospect, by recognizing students as a valuable resource, the partnership launched the next year's project with the assistance of students who not only mentored the next group of candidates but also were invited to accompany partnership representatives to co­present at a national conference. Their classroom descriptions also stimulated the project to focus more attention in its second year on classroom teachers.

While student information made a significant contribution to our work this year, the question still remains, to what degree will they participate in the partnership. Just as teachers should take notice when students declare, "Stop lecturing at us. Invite us to be active participants," so we, as partnerships, should ask ourselves, "In our collaborative efforts to shape better educational opportunities for students, are we ready to start working with them to become agents of change in their own learning destinies?" If we could control the volume of partnerships, I would ask that we turn down the silence and turn up the student voices.


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