I Hear Your Voice, But Your Argument is Wrong

04 - Hack your high school

Prompt by John Spencer.

Next month, my advanced English class will take on their annual research project. In the past, we’ve had debates on issues important to them or they have researched the history behind a famous photograph, but last year (and this year), I have changed things up and started things off with a visual prompt that I swiped from John Spencer: Hack Your High School. List five things you could change about your school. We begin by listing what they came up with and then have an open discussion about it before moving on to the actual project.

That project is a collaborative presentation. A group chooses a topic, identifies the problem, and generates a viable solution. The research comes as part of finding proof of the problem and testing that solution’s viability, something that I emphasize in a brief lecture on how problem/solution presentation works: you have to not only identify the problem, but its cause, see who has the power to change things, and not only come up with a solution but consider as many logistical or cultural issues that may arise during the implementation process. I also note that one of my biggest pet peeves was people who either complain for the sake of complaining or offer a solution that is nothing more than a platitude or wishful thinking.

The presentations are graded on content as well as aesthetic. After all, good information can fall completely flat or get ignored when the audience is bored out of its skull (all teachers have experience with this). I give some recommendations–make sure that you and not the slide are the focus of the presentation, don’t just stand in front of the class and read bullet points, and make sure your slides can be and you can be heard from the back of the room. From there, I said they can do whatever they wanted, but with the knowledge that I would be asking questions after every presentation (and if all goes well this year, I might have an administrator or other teacher to make comments as well). We’ve been in the class together for 3/4ths of the year so far, so that last item is not to be taken lightly and they know it.

Last year’s presentations were solid and there was some real enthusiasm throughout the class, and I am hoping for some of the same this year. In looking back, though, I know that I need to work with my class on creating a polished presentation as well as refining some of their arguemnts. Still, in my first shot at this last year, I was impressed by a few things and have really come to see the benefit of a project like this.

1. Students gain an understanding of logistics. Last year, among the popular topics was being able to customize one’s class schedule more as well as more funding for the arts and non-sports activities, better school lunches, and solving our growing overcrowding problem. When offering solutions, many groups knew what could or should be done, but had a hard time working through logistical or financial roadblocks. It seemed that one solution put in place caused another problem or that “doing more with less” was not always easy. Some were frustrated; some saw a pathway via incremental solutions instead of focusing on the big picture.

2. Students want to be proud of their school. The idea behind this project is not “This place sucks. How do we fix it?” It’s more of trying to optimize what is provided for us and improving things for the future. A few students tackled issues such as sanitation and building construction and I specifically wanted them to come up with solutions that didn’t involve knocking the building down and starting over. In other words: can you work within the existing system to enact the change that will benefit you and future students?

To say that a place is terrible or a system is broken without really analyzing the hows and whys is a nice political tactic that will get you noticed (or even elected) but is ultimately a cop-out. Thinking within the system forces the class to thinkin more thoroughly about the school and their place in it. While some fo my class’s arguments last year came from a place of frustration, there wasn’t much throwing up of hands. In fact, a number of them genuinely wanted to improve the place and tried to find a way to focus their energy for the better.

3. The research is more solid. It shouldn’t be assumed that for a project like this, there is going to be more quality of research, but when I did this last year, there was. And I am not going to fling edubabble like ownership of learning or authentic audience at you. What I will say is that I think the research was better because as they looked at their topics, students narrowed them down to a specific process, and a specific process that is very common–after all, problem/solution was the process for just about every business proposal I ever helped write during my marketing days–and the topics were very localized. Getting the information needed could not all be done online. Some students had to interview teachers and administrators as well as students and many did field research of sorts by taking pictures. This provided more thorough information and actually made for better presentations.

4. Student voice is not all for one, one for all. Having been a publications adviser, I am a strong advocate for students having a voice. But I have found an odd sense of elitism within the #stuvoice conversations I have seen. Then again, I apparently misinterpreted the purpose of #stuvoice years ago when I wondered if they stood for everyone.

So the problem is obviously me.

Anyway, when some of the issues that my students were concerned about were brought up in a whole-class discussion last year, especially when it came to things like schduling, a number of students seemed tob e very dismissive of those who they perceived as “less than.” In fact, I actually wound up stepping in at one point and saying that they may not think that the students who, according to them, “don’t care about this place” matter, but the school serves everyone, so the solution that is generated must work for everyone as much as possible. I don’t know if I changed any minds, but I did want to point out that you canot solve a problem larger than yourself if you are in your own bubble.

5. Empowering students to use their voice isn’t enough. There was only one point last year where I found myself frustrated and arguing with a group. Their topic was parking and they were arguing that because the rules of parking passes are not always enforced, students should not have to pay for parking passes. It is unfair, it was argued, that students who did not pay and do not have a hang tag were not getting in trouble, which was a very fair and valid argument. However, I had one question: at 150 spaces and $25 per parking pass, the school makes $3750. If parking passes were done away with (or were free), how does the school make up the loss of that $3750?

This had not been addressed in the presentation and I honestly thought it was a legitimate question because very often schools are on a tight budget and that money goes to a general fund that pays for various amenities. Plus, $3750 is not a small amount of money.

However, the responses were all about how it was unfair how people who didn’t pay for parking were parking illegally, and I heard that so many times that I had to stop the discussion and not only restate my question, but make the point that regardless of whether or not students are parking illegally, the school is still making money because the pasess are prepaid and always sell out. In other words, you need to listen to the question being asked instead of claiming that life is unfair.

Which is really what it comes to, when you think of it. Truly empowering student voice is not just giving them a chance to say something, but helping them refine how they say it. Because if we want them to feel that they are being heard, they need to make sure they are speaking clearly when we’re listening.