Making Students’ Voices Heard: Leadership In A Digital Age

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By Emily MacLean

At the start of a new school year, I remember being excited about showing my Year 5 students our new class website. I showed my students all the different components of the website and with great enthusiasm asked, “What do you think?” I was not expecting the rather honest response that I received. “Well Ms. Mac, it is kinda boring.” After accepting the initial shock, there were a few different ways I could approach it, but I felt it was best to ask the students for some feedback and suggestions.

Immediately, a flurry of ideas came bursting out of the mouths of students as we generated a list of possible ‘updates’ to our class site. From there, they started breaking off into teams to work on different aspects of the site from creating page banners to redesigning the resource buttons to creating an introduction video to the individuals in our class. The website came alive the moment the students began designing it to reflect who they were as a community.

The next day, the students wanted to brainstorm jobs they could have in the classroom and instantly the role of ‘techsperts’ was established. This role would be for two students each month who would provide support and be the first person of contact for students to seek out with their questions when it came to technology. No longer were students asking me ‘How do I….’, which allowed me to support other students in need. Together, the students would problem solve their technological issues, brainstorm creative ways to display their findings and provide constructive feedback to improve each other’s digital work. Digital peer coaching empowered the students to use their knowledge to help others while consolidating their own understanding of the knowledge and skills.

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Students also wanted to make sure their parents knew what was going on in their class each week, but from their eyes and not just the teacher’s. To solve this problem, they created weekly slideshows called the 5EM Files that were embedded in the website, with each student having a slide to design in whatever way they wanted and to share their ideas, thoughts and opinions about the week. Every week, students created these slides without any support from me as the teacher, but yet the quality and enthusiasm for creating and sharing grew with each passing week.

As the year progressed, the students continued to push the boundaries of expectations by using technology as a means to express themselves and support each other. This happened daily in classes with students creating individual inquiry presentations to share, digital posters to advocate for a cause, developing their class assembly featuring a fully green-screened newscast with commercials and even students teaching lessons to the class. Technology was never the main learning intention, but through technology the students were empowered to show who they were and share their knowledge and abilities.

Role of the Teacher

In these moments, it was evident that I could not be the teacher I once was and needed to change the role I played in the class community to support the facilitation of learning and creating. As students worked, I moved around the room asking questions, acting as a soundboard and giving small suggestions where necessary. No longer was there one teacher, but a room full of learners and educators who were willing to share and build upon each other’s ideas. The biggest change in my role was to not say no when students had an idea, but rather ask them how they were going to do it and support them in the process from planning to executing.

The Importance of the Student Voice

When students are given choices and have an opinion that matters, they are invested and engaged with what they are learning. By allowing my students to take the lead, through the use of technology, they began taking ownership and constructing an environment that was conducive to the collective community. Every student knows more about something than the teacher. Often, it is just a matter of tapping into the community of experts that will allow these students to shine. It has also been shown that encouraging student voice influences academic achievement. The use of technology helps students find the right medium to showcase their knowledge and share with others.

Start Small

Developing student leaders with technology will not happen overnight. Rather, it is about developing a culture of collaboration and community in the classroom. Start by asking students what it is they want to do and what their opinions are about technology use and then, most importantly, actually listen.

Students are full of great ideas, so even just allowing them to explore the possibility of one idea might be the spark that brings out the digital leaders in a classroom. This could be as simple as asking them what resources they want to use to publish their writing or if an expert with website design would support another student who is just starting out.

Developing Skills

By providing students opportunities for agency in their classroom, they will develop a multitude of transdisciplinary skills. Students may collaborate online through Google Docs or Padlets or design innovative projects requiring organisation, time management and problem solving. They often develop critical research skills as they navigate the digital world through the curation resources and notetaking. They might demonstrate their communication skills through developing a public service announcement video and publishing on YouTube or writing a blog together. These skills can be explored both digitally and by interacting with others in a learning space. Allowing them to explore which way works best for them will lead students towards a path of staying motivated to create and being curious.

Extending the Opportunities

As I transitioned to an education technology coach role and out of the classroom this year, it was important that I still found ways to support student leadership beyond the classroom setting. I had seen so much growth in the students’ technology skills as well as immense personal growth through encouraging them to take the lead that I wanted to find suitable avenues to continue to support them.

After talking to some students, a digital media team was developed in the primary school. While I had some ideas of things the students may want to do, I first asked them what they wanted this group to become. The students decided to create weekly webcasts featuring the news for the week, special features and upcoming events that they would plan, film and edit. The key to the success of this group was ensuring all students had a role that was valued and roles that they could rotate through so everyone could try every aspect of the team if they wanted to. From anchor to editor, videographer to director, everyone was valued in this inclusive community. They also filmed each primary school assembly to share with the parent community on the school website. Throughout the year, other projects have taken form, such as creating posters for school events, banners for exhibitions and photo slideshows that are played on screens around campus. When guest educators visited the school from overseas, it was powerful to give students the opportunity to share how technology impacts their educational experience. Their words from experience were far more meaningful than mine, as these students are the ones using the digital resources and tools every day to promote and explore their inquiries, learning from their mistakes, growing and ideating.

Technology continues to be an amazing tool for supporting student needs and bringing out the best in students. Student leaders can demonstrate confidence in developing who they are within a community and as individuals. With a little support from a teacher to encourage the exploration of innovative ideas, students can flourish as incredible student leaders.

 

Emily MacLean is an international educator working at Chatsworth International School in Singapore as the Education Technology Coach. She is a Google for Educator Certified Innovator (GUR14), a Google for Education Certified Trainer and an Apple Distinguished Educator (Class of 2015). She enthusiastically supports teachers across the primary school to effectively integrate education technology into the classroom. She is currently completing her Masters of Education (Information Technologies) from Charles Sturt University.

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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