Brian Kulak is the founder of Leveluplead.com and author of the upcoming book, Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame. Brian is a K-5 principal in New Jersey, a writer and speaker, and a proud husband and father. Follow him on Twitter @bkulak11.
Provide Student Voice in Everything You Do
When we arrived at the rescue shelter that Sunday morning, I knew I didn’t have a choice.
Surreptitiously, my wife had begun graduate-level research on what would become our next dog, and though she couched the idea to visit a Philadelphia shelter as “just a visit,” I have a feeling contracts were already drawn up and that everyone was in on the ruse. Except me.
With pinpoint accuracy (how many times had she been here?), she directed us to the kennel of a sweet, malnourished, Bichon Frise named Polly. Instantly, Polly meandered over and lent credence to the power of the expression “puppy dog eyes.” At that point, I was convinced that even she was in on the con. She knew she was coming home with us.
After spending a few minutes with her outside, we requested the paperwork to be drawn up. It was our 11th anniversary, and our kids didn’t know we’d be coming home with a new dog. Clearly, it was going to be a good day.
However, something about Polly, who would quickly become Daisy at our daughter’s request, was off. Sure she was underweight, she needed a haircut, and her eyes had dark patches under them, but it was something else.
She didn’t bark. At all.
While the thought of a silent dog does have its merits, a dog without a bark is like a child without a voice. Daisy had been debarked. She had no voice.
Without being too graphic, the Pennsylvania Amish Country puppy mill from which Daisy was rescued was horrifying. My wife found pictures of it, of Daisy, online shortly after we brought her home. Among other atrocities, debarking dogs is fairly common. Frankly, the whole idea of puppy mills is unconscionable to us both.
But a funny thing happened a few months into her transition into our family. When she gets excited to go for a “walkie” each day, like most dogs, she prances around, pants, and leads one of us to her leash and to the door.
At first, she just jumped up on my legs to affirm that she was, indeed, interested in the walk.
But then one day she barked.
It was strained and almost scratchy, but make no mistake, Daisy had found her voice.
The importance and power of student voice has inserted itself into PD plans, book proposals, and Twitter chats across the nation. It’s about time. Finally, and in some deeply entrenched traditional districts, begrudgingly, adults are starting to frame their thinking around student voice. Decision-making committees are beginning to include kids. Class libraries, Makerspaces, and common areas are taking shape with students at the helm. Social-emotional learning strategies and practices are considered by kids rather than for kids.
At long last, adults who have preached their love of children as the driving force behind their careers in education are replacing themselves with children as they look in the mirror.
We cannot underestimate the power of voice.
To return to Daisy, she is a completely different dog. The same dog who didn’t know how to go up or down stairs, who longed so desperately for human affection, and who had no idea Beggin’ Strips were a thing, is now playful, spunky, and, quite frankly, proud of her voice. She uses it with impunity, believe me.
Now, think about all the students you have taught, and have yet to teach, who found their voice. There’s an authentic glow and a stifled smile that accompanies that realization. For some, it happens, well, in utero (see: my own kids). For others, it happens in elementary school as they feel their way through letters, sounds, and numbers. For still others, it happens much later when they meet a teacher who gives them agency and audience, perhaps for the first time.
Voice, even in bark form, is the purest form of identity. Without it, students are reduced to a SMID, a plotted point on a data table, a standardized test score. With it, they are elevated and empowered; they are resilient and fierce; they are who we want them to be without us telling them who we want them to be.
They’re us before we became us.
As you plan your PD for the year, as you look at your budgets for next year, as you devise your district’s strategic plan, as you do anything that directly affects kids, give them a voice. Call them together, form a student leadership team, ask them to complete a Google Form. Take them seriously, praise their contributions, compliment their parents.
Then do it all over again.
Let the kids bark.
This piece first appeared on Leveluplead.com.