SoundOut Student Voice Podcast

Empowering Students to be the Change by Angela Harrison

Please welcome guest blogger, Angela Harrison, who shares her experience as a student voice practitioner.  jean

Angela HarrisonAs a Student Success Teacher at St. Peter Catholic High School, I have had the opportunity to implement many new initiatives and observe their impacts on student achievement. In my opinion, one of the most influential initiatives to date is Student Voice.  Student Voice is an occasion for Ontario students to have a say in their learning.
Students can reflect upon what is happening in their schools and share their ideas about how to further improve their school climate. This can be achieved through various means. Students can apply for SpeakUp Grants worth $1000 or participate in the Minister’s Student Advisory Council, a group of 60 students across the province who provide ideas and advice to the minister on a variety of topics. Students can also
engage in SpeakUp in a Box survey kits in class in addition to Students as Researchers.

The Ministry of Education’s vision for education is to achieve
excellence and to make schools a welcoming learning environment
supporting students to speak their minds, get involved and become
active citizens and leaders. The brain theory purports that youth’s
innovative abilities are strongest up until the age of 25. This
research reinforces the import of tapping into the intellectual
creativity of our students’ minds and to harness their energy to make
changes and improve education for all. In turn, this will strengthen
student engagement and foster a positive school climate in which
everyone belongs.

Students as Researchers (StAR) is an opportunity for teachers and
students to work together as equals to perform research using the
collaborative inquiry method. I have been fortunate to partake in this
initiative for three years. At its inception, I was invited along with
four students to attend a training session in research methodologies
at the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the following year in Mattawa.
Students and teachers first speculated on their interests at school
and mapped out areas requiring further improvement.  This led to the
construct of an inquiry question which provided a focus for the
research project. StAR teams were then trained on ethical research,
research tools, collaborative techniques and how to effect change.
Students and teachers were exposed to a variety of data collection
methods including surveys, one-on-one interviews, focus groups, photo
voice and film based data collection. Next, they were briefed on
recruitment methods such as incorporating flyers, using word of mouth
and Facebook. Furthermore, research teams reflected upon how they
would get informed consent from students while maintaining voluntary
and anonymous participation and confidentiality.

My first StAR team’s inquiry question examined, “What social
experiences let students become resilient?” This students as
researchers team became leaders in our school and conceived of an
anti-bullying club called “The Knight Lights” to represent the light
at the end of the tunnel for students who felt like they did not
belong. They received RespecEd training and acted as peer mediators
and as a support group for students feeling marginalized.  They broke
down barriers and promoted inclusivity at all levels.

The following year, I engaged two groups of students to take part
in the student voice initiative. One team researched “What experiences
engage students in mathematics?” and the other team researched “What
conditions help students learn?” Needless to say, their data served as
a catalyst for reflection and an examination of teaching strategies.
Teachers and students were both surveyed to compare which learning
strategies made a positive impact on student learning and engagement.
Learning strategies were ranked in order of importance and shared with
staff at a staff meeting. Next, the results were shared with our
School Council, the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the Ministry of
Education at a student voice forum in Toronto. Upon realizing the
impact of such research, our results were incorporated into our School
Improvement Plan the subsequent year. One of our findings alluded to
the fact that many students arrived to school without eating
breakfast, and this impacted their ability to concentrate. As a
result, our school initiated a breakfast program with continuous
funding from the Ottawa Network for Education. Moreover, our math
findings were shared with our Middle Years Math Collaborative Inquiry
Team consisting of teachers from grades 6-10, and teachers willingly
incorporated the high yield strategies into their daily routines to
improve student performance in mathematics.

This year, St. Peter once again formed two StAR teams to research
“What factors motivate school spirit?” and “What tools and experiences
can be provided to students to help facilitate their transition to
life after high school?” Our findings on school spirit elicited
interest from our Student Council, Leadership Team, Athletic Student
Council and other stakeholders in our school creating conversations on
how to inspire more students to participate in extra-curricular
activities, pep rallies, social justice initiatives and more. Our team
researching transition to life after high school discovered which
tools and experiences proved to be the most helpful to students and in
which grades they were most effective. Their data advocated our
current use of myBlueprint as an exceptional tool for career and life
planning while proposing new ideas not currently in use to better
prepare students for their future pathways.
Once again, our students had the opportunity to attend the StAR Forum
in Toronto and give attention to Liz Sandals, the Minister of
Education. She shared some data indicating that the five-year
graduation rate increased 15% from 2003 to 2015, and that the
Ministry’s Student Success Strategy has introduced many innovative
programs by the Ontario government to help students succeed. This has
been accomplished by doing research and using data. She intimated that
student research is at the foundation of change.

All in all, my experience with Students as Researchers has led me
to several conclusions. First, this initiative promotes critical
thinking, collaboration, digital literacy and numeracy in bringing
together students with different talents to work towards a common goal
of helping improve the life of their peers. Students problem solve,
share their talents and ideas, use tools such as Google Forms to
administer surveys and interpret research data. As a result, students
exhibit a growth mindset. Second, students realize many of the
Catholic Graduate Expectations of being effective communicators,
reflective and creative thinkers, self-directed, responsible lifelong
learners, collaborative contributors and responsible citizens. Third,
students feel empowered and apprehend that they have a voice in
bringing about positive change. I asked one of my student researchers
why she participated in this initiative for two years, and her
response was, “I am graduating this year, and it was really beneficial
to see all of the things in place. There is an opportunity for me to
learn. Not only did I want to learn, but I also wanted to leave a
lasting impact on my school to benefit kids in the future. I have
always been someone who likes to help people so the thought of leaving
a lasting effect on my school…well, I jumped at the chance.”

At the end of the forum, all students as researcher teams created a
collaborative poem and were asked the question,
“We used to be…but now we’re…” Our students replied, “We used to be
stars, but now we’re constellations.”

To conclude, I would like to use a quote my students used for their
project title, “Oh! The Places We Will Go!” based on the Dr. Seuss
book:

You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

___

A little more about Angela…

I have been teaching for 20 years and spent 17 of those years working
at the Ottawa Catholic School Board. I have been fortunate to have
worked as a classroom teacher, resource teacher, Destination
Employability Coordinator and Student Success Teacher. These diverse
roles have taught me the importance of student voice in promoting a
positive school climate.

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