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Introduction

I confess. I am a recovering control freak. I didnt start out that way. I became a teacher because I wanted to fulfill what Thomas Jefferson stated as the purpose of public education: not to serve the public, but to create a public. Jeffersons quote made me question the kind of public I was creating within my classroom. Do they know themselves well enough to share what they think? Do they believe that their voices matter? I had a glimpse through a class project of what it would be like to create a public that felt empowered to answer, Yes! to those questions. Last year, my first grade students and I did a project about animal habitats and conservation. During one discussion students made the connection between human beings and animals. My students were excited about their conclusion that we too were animals and that our school is part of our habitat. I realized that this was a ripe opportunity for my students to reflect about the state of their learning environment and say what they needed to protect it. The students talked about the problems that harmed their school and urban neighborhood. One student said, Lets ask the rest of the school what they think the problems are and how they think we should make it better. I witnessed my first graders interview teachers, other students, and their family members about how they felt about our school. After analyzing the data, we found the most commonly voiced problem harming our school was trash being thrown on the ground. We brainstormed how to address this problem. Students came up with the idea to create task force teams that could teach and empower the rest of the school to preserve the habitat that they shared. This is the type of public that I wanted to create, where students reflected and felt empowered to share what they think, and where they believe that what they say can make a difference. I wanted to create a democratic public where equity existed and every student had a voice. My journey as a teacher has led me here, but it wasnt always like this. For the last eleven years Ive been living my dream of teaching in an urban setting. I believed I arrived with what was a wealth of experience to empower the lives of my students. My past experiences had included volunteering to care for children from homeless families at the Saint Vincent de Paul day care center. I studied the social issues surrounding low income families as an undergraduate student and wanted to give them a voice in society. I was fresh out of my teaching credential program and carried my ideals, resources, and passion. Wouldnt that be enough to begin the journey of empowerment among my students? It wasnt. During my first years of teaching, I was the first one to arrive and the last one to leave school. You would find me lesson planning until close to midnight each day. I would attend the birthday parties and baseball games of my students. If I was working so hard at connecting with my students beyond the classroom, then why did I still have to convince them to do the work? My initial ideals of empowerment and democracy within education were reduced to controlling my students in an effort to motivate them to care about the work we were

doing. I found that my methods with my students went from bribing, Those who complete this assignment will get a prize out of the prize box to threats, If you dont finish this on time, youll lose recess. This was the battle I had with my students year after year. My conversations in the teachers workroom took on the tone of self-pity and blame. Were doing the best we can. But there is only so much we can do without parent support. Eventually, my bitterness affected the expectations I had for my students. If I was teaching them what to learn and how to learn it, then why were the blank stares still there? Why were they regurgitating statements in class instead of what they were actually thinking? The reality is that my students actions reflected my own. We were both uninspired, and I felt defeated. Instead of being their mentor and advocate, I was perpetuating a system that controlled student thinking and feeling, in the name of what we called learning. I believed that if my students appeared calm, quiet, said the appropriate statements in class, and performed well on standardized tests, then they were internalizing what we learned. The opposite was happening. The same students were still falling behind and those who werent became bored. This had to stop. I had to go back to the beginning and discover how to live out the kind of educator I had dreamed to be. I created an educational experience for students that matched the sense of democracy and empowerment that Jefferso n hoped for. What did this environment look like? My students felt their voice mattered and they were comfortable expressing their opinions. Students collaborated with one another, and reflected on their learning often. This habit of reflection enabled them to excel because they came to know themselves as learners, felt proud of their work, and identified areas where they desired to grow. They were part of a community where students helped one another on this journey of learning. In place of control, I sought out to empower my students through the pursuit of the research question: What happens when student voice and student reflection guide my teaching and our learning? During this pursuit I redefined my role as teacher, enabling my students to know themselves and each other well as learners through a collaborative culture. My hope was that through this process, we would learn how to listen actively, ask questions and create space for students voices to guide how we learn within a democratic classroom, ultimately empowering the students as individuals.