Saturday, April 12, 2008

A few more thoughts on community organizing, ed reform, and student voice

Given The Annenberg Institute's report on community organizing and school reform (see last post), here's a portion of a paper I wrote on drama and the student voice in education reform:

Noting the current state of school reform and the continuing existence of large achievement gaps in the educational system, “nontraditional” attempts at promoting the student voice within educational policy seem ever the more valuable. As attempts at school reform continue to struggle, Alison Cook-Sather comments on the historical lack of student voice in education: “Since the advent of formal education in the United States, both the educational system and that system’s every reform have been premised on adults’ notions of how education should be conceptualized and practiced.” She continues, “There is something fundamentally amiss about building and rebuilding an entire system without consulting at any point those it is ostensibly designed to serve” (3). Without meaningfully incorporating the voices of students into how we form our schools, we are left with an incomplete picture of education reform.

Maxine Greene promotes the arts as spaces that open up students to explore possibilities, frustrations and change. She warns that “one danger [of our education system] that threatens both teachers and students…is that they will come to feel anger at being locked into an objective set of circumstances defined by others” (124). She comments that the arts “may be able to create schoolroom atmospheres where young people are moved to find hope again and, even in small spaces, begin to repair” (130).

When commenting on the student voice in educational reform, Yvonna Lincoln asks, “how do we set the stage for such sharing?” Perhaps it is the stage itself where we find one such meaningful forum. Playwright José Rivera (qtd. in Saldaña) reasons that:

Theatre is the explanation of life to the living. We try to tease apart the conflicting noises of living and make some kind of pattern and order. It’s not so much an explanation of life as it is a recipe for understanding, a blueprint for navigation, a confidante with some answers—enough to guide you and encourage you, but not to dictate to you. (27)

There remains is a need to create forums where students can express their opinions about school communities first hand to wider stakeholders who are interested in collaborating to form strategies and change based on the student voice itself.

A Brief Literature Review

There is a great deal of literature available on the inclusion of the student voice in education reform. Patrick Lee’s “In Their Own Voices: An Ethnographic Study of Low-Achieving Students Within the Context of School Reform” is one that seeks to capture the student voice on the topic of school reform. A high school student-researcher in Lee’s study summarized: “…students sometimes feel motivated after they have talked to somebody about their problems, and they also feel that there is at least somebody that was willing to ask about their problems, and they feel like they could study because the teacher does care about their learning and being someone in life” (Lee 1999).

Readers hear a harsher reality in this 11-year-old’s depiction: “Everything that come out of your mouth probably ain’t [going to be seen as] true because you know grown up, they got more respect and more power over you” (Lee 1999). Yet, even in this ethnographic research study we read about the student encounter through the lens of the researcher’s report. We are still one step removed from the literal voice of the student.

There appears to be some dramatic work being done in this direction of including the student voice in the educational climate—for instance, Jane Plastow’s work, “Finding Children's Voices: A Pilot Project Using Performance to Discuss Attitudes to Education Among Primary School Children in Two Eritrean Villages” examines the educational experiences of fifth graders in Eritrea and their reflections on the positive and negative aspects on their education. In this program, Plastow and her colleagues utilized Image Theatre techniques to explore what they liked and disliked about their school. Looking at these images, the students were then asked to create strategies for what they might change about the images, using Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed techniques. Finally, students presented teachers with short performance pieces that provoked teacher response (Plastow 347).

I was unable to locate documented dramatic experiences that specifically approached educational reflection and reform in the United States. Yet, there are various non-dramatic programs and reports that seek to solicit the opinions of students such as SoundOut, an organization that highlights efforts where educators and students work together toward school reform, typically through local initiatives that promote surveys and school report cards created by students. Still, the forums for creating this dialogue between students, teachers, researchers, and policy makers are largely new, with much of the territory uncharted.

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