WITS Voices: Speaking rights in the writing classroom
May 1, 2018
By Alex Madison, WITS Writer-in-Residence
On one of the final days of my fall WITS residency, I stood before a full class of seventh graders, hurrying to push through my fiction lesson so students could experiment with the new skill on their own. So little time remained, and I wanted them to apply some final revision techniques before turning in polished short stories for the class anthology.
As I rushed through the lesson, I paused often, asking students to share their thinking. “What did you notice about this?” “What stands out to you about this?” “What did you see the author do here?” I asked. I want student voice to drive my lessons, but as I posed question after question, my eyes flicking around the room, I realized with a sinking feeling that only some voices were being heard. I was calling on a rotating cast of about five eager students, over and over, and every one of those students was a white person, like I am.
As a teacher who carries many privileges into the classroom, I strive to be mindful of what bell hooks, among others, has pointed out: “The politics of domination are often reproduced in the educational setting.” There are so many systems that dictate who has intellectual and social capital within a particular setting, and race is an important one, though certainly not the only one. (For example, the teacher often has the most capital.)
I’ve taught in a variety of contexts, but this was my first residency with WITS. It was my first time stepping into someone else’s classroom, my first time working with middle school students, and perhaps most relevantly here, my first time trying to build a lesson arc – introducing a concept, modeling it, practicing it with students, and then releasing students to practice it on their own – all within a 50-minute period. I had allowed logistical pressures interfere with one of my foundational beliefs about teaching young people: it’s my job, as the teacher, to ensure everyone has speaking rights and intellectual capital within the learning environment.
Hierarchies cement quickly within any social setting, especially within classrooms. And, in a school where students have spent years learning together before I arrive as a WITS teacher, there are dynamics at play that I won’t be able to tease out. It’s tempting, as a teacher, to assume students remain quiet because they are “just shy” or because they feel unsafe, and to decide that allowing them to remain silent is a way of protecting them – even a way of allowing them to hold onto power. Teaching colleagues have made this case to me, and I think the case has merit. At the same time, I’ve almost always seen students appear to feel more powerful when they hear their own voices, out loud, in front of their peers.
We have a variety of pedagogical strategies to call upon in working to make sure student voices find an audience in the classroom – and the strategies all require more time, thought and patience than I was exercising this fall as I called on whichever seventh grader raised her hand. As I begin my second residency this spring, I’m recommitting to my role as the facilitator of a learning environment in which every student’s voice is heard. As a reminder to myself, I’ll share here some strategies that work for me. I’m always looking for new strategies as well.
- Tracking student participation. Simple as it is, keeping a tally of student participation makes the allocation of speaking rights undeniable to us as teachers. I recently observed poet Jeanine Walker teaching in her own WITS residency, and when she asked students to share their work at the end of the lesson, she consulted a list and told some eager students, “It’s not that I don’t want to hear your poem, but you have shared four times already, and I want to make sure we hear from everyone.”
- Eavesdropping on the “turn and talk.” The “turn and talk” or “pair-share” is a popular technique for good reason. It requires students to check their own thinking and understanding mid-lesson by sharing it aloud, and (when successful) it ensures that every student’s voice is heard, aloud, in the classroom, even if only by one peer. It’s also a perfect opportunity for targeted eavesdropping on the quiet students who never raise their hands, to affirm what they’ve said, and to invite them to share it with the whole class when we come back together.
- Marking an achievement in student work, and asking them to share it. By collecting student work, marking and commenting on parts we find exemplary, and asking the students to share those parts aloud, we reduce the students’ fears that they’ll say something “bad” or “wrong.”
- Identifying student exemplars during the lesson. After introducing a new teaching point and asking students to practice it, we can search the room for students demonstrating a new technique (especially students who haven’t shared their work before). We can coach them and encourage them, and ask them to share their learning with the class.
- Requiring all students to share their work. By giving students clear expectations or options (“You need to read at least two sentences, but you can read up to ten.”), we make it safer to share just the pieces they are proud of. The teacher I’m working with requires every student to read an excerpt of their work to the full class at the end of the residency. I was amazed at how every student rose to the occasion – even a student who had hidden under his desk during some lessons – and I was amazed at how proud they all seemed.
In the classroom where I teach, there’s a poster on the wall of the classroom, attributed to an anonymous student, that says, “I learned everyone has a voice, even if their voice isn’t heard.” I thought about those student words often over the course of the residency and wondered what the student had meant. Heard by whom? What does it mean to have a voice that isn’t heard? It was a lovely quote, but one I wanted to interrogate further.
I do truly believe there are some students who will never feel safe sharing their work in a particular classroom under any circumstances, who won’t want their voices heard by a particular group. But – having taught in public high school, in juvenile detention, in a rural schoolhouse – I have yet to meet one such student, which leads me to believe they are rare. My job this year – and in any teaching position – is to commit to the thoughtful, patient work of inviting students to share their voices. And, if they aren’t ready yet, to support them and invite them again later. And again.
Alex Madison grew up in the Seattle area. She writes fiction and nonfiction and holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in the Indiana Review, Salon, The Rumpus, Bitch Media, Atlas Obscura, Witness, City Arts and elsewhere. She has taught high school language arts in Highline Public Schools, creative nonfiction in Singapore, and fiction writing at the University of Iowa. She also teaches prose classes at Hugo House.