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Section Two: Activating Student Voice through Community Meetings How do I trust my students with real power?

The first month of school was exhausting because I was building trust with my students. My students werent used to being listened to. As we discussed the various things we did together I found myself repeating the statement, I want to know what you think. I am curious about how you feel we should But the same three voices spoke and the rest continued to remain silent. Was there something that I was doing to prevent my students from opening up to me? Were they just not used to being asked these types of questions? I hoped that trust would be built as I continued to ask, listen, and implement what was voiced. I figured that my hesitant students would see that I could be trusted to take other student ideas seriously by following through on what was shared. I hoped this would give them the confidence to share what they thought too. To empower students, adults must trust them with real power. This is critical, as explained by Cook-Sather, The most basic premise upon which different approaches to educational policy and practice rest is trustwhether adults trust young people to be good (or not), to have and use relevant knowledge (or not), and to be responsible (or not) (2002). Kohn states that we must allow students to have power with authentic choices and guide them in how to handle that responsibility (1993). Without access to real power, there can be no empowerment. Power needs to be a shared experience. I realized that real power would mean giving my students choices in how and what we learn. I also needed to provide students with a safe space to voice discontent when they were not comfortable. I would need to listen and respond. But this would not be an easy task. My first graders would need me to guide them through how to use their voices to empower themselves and to empower the school community.

While 13 out 17 of my students stated in the September preliminary survey that they felt comfortable sharing when they wanted to change how things were done in our class, I couldnt ignore the four students who didnt feel they could. I also noticed that since the same three voices were the ones sharing in class, I needed to find a way to hear all the voices in our class. After the preliminary survey, 13 out of 17 students liked telling a partner what they thought and 11 out of 17 students were comfortable writing what they thought. Although 9 out of 17 students were comfortable with telling the class what they thought, 8 students were not. I decided to use some key tools in our community meetings to hear more voices in our democratic classroom. How would first graders run a Community Meeting together?

I no longer used behavior color cards to punish students who misbehaved. I no longer had table points to mark on the whiteboard as a reward when they did something I wanted them to do. In years past I relied on these tools to give me immediate silence or compliance. But as the year progressed my students remained unprepared with how to solve problems independently or how to vocalize their needs. I had to rely on different tools if I was serious about listening to my students voices to guide how we built ou r community. Apple and Beane state that students are individuals who need opportunities to practice what it means to be a citizen who contributes to a society that prides itself on human dignity, equity, freedom, and justice (2007). I began to develop a democratic classroom environment with my students where they decided how to manage the behavior in our class. The root of a democratic classroom is that the students are part of the process of living out these core principles. If we didnt feel safe, then th e students had to think of another solution. We primarily used community meetings to help us with this. During my research I read that A.S. Neill, who founded the Summerhill School in England, designed a system in which students practiced democracy through general meetings. I had decided to label our version of Neills general meetings as our community meetings. Neill states that democracy in education has infinite value because of students sense of justice and great administrative abilities (Neill, 1992). Our class implemented some of Summerhill Schools general meeting structures for our community meetings. I introduced morning gathering and community meetings to my students during the first weeks of school. I told them that during these meetings we needed to listen without interrupting, speak when they have the talking ball, and think about what was being said because we needed their brain to help us solve problems. We began each morning gathering announcing events on our daily schedule. I asked my students to write questions that they wanted to know about each other. I read a different question

each day for the class to answer. We used these opportunities to get to know each other throughout the year while practicing speaking and listening skills in a safe setting. After we discussed the days events, each student said, Good morning! to a neighbor and answered the question. At the end of each day or when a new problem happened, we would gather on the rug for a community meeting. Students at Summerhill picked a chairman to run the meetings and a secretary to keep record of the business discussed in a multi-age setting. Neill states that children up to age twelve will not run good self-government on their own because they have not reached the social age. Younger children are only mildly interested in government (1992, p. 25). Since my first graders are six and seven years of age, I helped facilitate the community meetings, set-up the structure of the meetings, and took on the role of chairman and secretary while my students primarily brought concerns they wanted us to discuss. At the end of each day, we discussed the ideas and issues the students submitted to the Problems to Solve and Ideas for Change boxes. I introduced the Problems to Solve and Ideas for Change boxes during our community meeting in the first month of school. During any time of day, if after two students told each other how they made each other feel and their problems were still unresolved, they would write it on a piece of paper, drop it in the Problems to Solve box, and we would discuss the problem at a community meeting. The class community would share solution ideas for them to choose from and try for week. I introduced the Ideas for Change box as a safe place to write a new idea for how we learn when they felt uncomfortable in class. We would read their ideas in community meetings and they could explain why they needed this change and how this would help the rest of the community learn. My hope was that these boxes would enable my quieter students to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings in writing. My students said that they were willing to give it a try.

Embracing Authentic Problem Solving Conversations Students used the Problems to Solve box when they were unable to solve a problem at the Private Conversation Table. The Private Conversation Table had started out as a corner in our room but the students decided to move it to a table in the back of

the room because there was more space. At the beginning of the year, I introduced the Private Conversation corner as a safe place to solve problems with friends in class. When a student had a problem with another student, he invited her to the Private Conversation table to solve the problem. Each student took a turn to speak and listen to each other. I modeled this for the students and we practiced it with each other during community meetings. They each used I statements like I felt ____ when you ____. They continued to talk until they could come up with a solution together or when the other student apologized by saying Im sorry I __ and the other said I forgive you. Within the first month of its use a few of us noticed when a student would invite another student to the table, the other student would refuse to go. Students wanted to discuss this at our community meeting. We decided to write a set of directions or steps to guide how we should use the Private Conversation Table.
Co-written directions to guide students through their conversations at the Private Conversation Table When you have a problem you ask a buddy to the table, Can you come to the table please? You say, I felt sad when you hit me. The other friend is listening. You can say,Im sorry, I forgive you and thank you for forgiving me.

Left to right: Conversation directions, Celebration, Problems to Solve, and Ideas for Change boxes on our Private Conversation Table.

Nathan invited Isaac to the private conversation table to solve a problem from recess.

If a problem was still unresolved after using the Private Conversation Table, my students would write the problem down on a sheet of paper and drop it in the Problems to Solve box. If a student felt that a problem needed to be dealt with immediately, she would request an emergency community meeting. These meetings had typically been requested after recess when a student didnt following recess game rules. One day a group of students requested a community meeting after recess. They were blaming each other for cheating at wall ball. After taking turns speaking with the talking ball, we realized that we all had different versions of the wall ball game rules. I confessed to my students that I wasnt sure what the correct wall ball rules were. At the end of the meeting, we decided to ask our fifth grade buddies to help us with the rules. Inviting Solutions from the Wider School Community Since our school has preschool through eighth grade students, I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity by creating a mentor relationship between my younger students and the older students on campus. My colleague and I noticed that our younger students feared the older students while the older students ignored the younger ones. I asked my colleague if she would like to buddy up her fifth grade students with my first graders. We met with our buddies every other week since the beginning of the school year and did activities around academic content, interest, and relationship building. My students wanted to reach out to our fifth grade buddies because they were older and more experienced with playing wall ball. My colleague and I also wanted to provide an opportunity for our older students to care for our younger students. Our fifth grade buddies wrote the rules on a chart and taught us how to play on the playground. This made me realize that using community meetings didnt have to be only about our class solving problems alone, it could involve our school community. This made our community meeting feel more like a larger community effort.

We started each meeting with the Problems to Solve box. We all sat on our rug in a rectangle. I made a conscientious decision to seat myself at the same level as my students. I sat this way to show them that I was a part of our communitys decision making and not the dictator. I pulled out one written problem at a time. The student who wrote the problem spoke first, directly to the student he had the problem with by using I statements. The other student then would share their side of the problem or apologize. If the two students could not come to an agreement on how to solve their problem, the other students would share solution ideas. Id write the students id eas on the board and then ask each of the students working on the problem to choose one solution idea to try out for a week. After a week had passed, we checked in with them to hear how it went. Although our community meeting structure was consistent, relying on community meetings to solve our problems wasnt always easy. At times my students wrote problems to get back at a student who did something wrong to them. The Problems to Solve box became a way to tattle on each other rather than a solution tool. I would over hear students saying, Im going to write about you in the problem box without solving their problem in the Private Conversation Table. The following two weeks, I noticed that the same students who tended to tattle on others in class needed to be directed to use the private conversation table, problem box, and celebration box. When a student would come up to me to say what a friend did, I would prompt with questions, Did you invite them to the private conversation table? How did it go? Do you need to write it in the problem box? What was something someone did in class that was helpful?

Living out the core principles of democracy includes conflict whenever there are groups of individuals who are trying to reach consensus (Kohn, 1993). I realized we needed to re-commit ourselves to the democratic process. In democratic classrooms, Kohn argues that conflicts or dissention arent seen as threats but as opportunities to strengthen democracy by remaining faithful to its process (1993). I brought my concern to one of our community meetings and introduced the Celebration box. The Celebration Box: How can we get past dwelling on problems? During a community meeting, I shared how I was sad to see friends use the Problem box to get back at someone who made them mad instead of trying to sit and talk through their problems peacefully at the private conversation table. I told them we were spending a lot of time looking at mistakes instead of celebrating how we made our community feel safer. I asked the students to write on an index card what they felt should be celebrated in our class. At first my students were confused with the idea of celebrating someone else. I explained that our Celebration Box can be when you catch someone doing something that feels good for our community and you want others to know about it. After this discussion, they went off excitedly to write. My students wrote the following: I like when people help each other. Friends being kind and nice and helpful. I like when Paul said I want to play with you. Friends passing the ball. I like how friends play with me. Help with artwork.

At the end of every community meeting, we read the celebration box messages. The student who wrote the message read it aloud and we all clapped for who was celebrated. Since this was a new concept for my students, I made sure I caught someone using the celebration box and highlighted it in class. The first week of community meetings were focused on celebrations in class. Students could share a celebration aloud even though they may not have been able to write it. Some of the celebrations were: I want to celebrate everyone is listening. Caleb finished his sentences. (He was resistant to doing the work earlier) Paul is sharing and saying, Do you want some orange juice? Anna was fixing the portfolios. Im sorry for not paying attention.

I was excited to see that students were beginning to recognize each other for how they treated each other or how they helped the community. I appreciated how my students listened to my concern and made changes to rectify it. I was especially struck by how Mike used the celebration box to write an apology to the class for not listening or paying attention when others were speaking. We read his message aloud and clapped

for his honesty and courage. We decided at that moment to include apologies as part of our celebrations. A Confession It was hard to rely on community meetings and not the rewards and punishments as I had in the past. I was frustrated about giving constant reminders to listen to one another and to get ourselves ready to transition to the next thing on our class schedule. It took more time, effort, and patience to solve problems democratically. It was not neat, it was messy. My students were unique individuals who didnt always feel like doing work. They got distracted and would rather tag a buddy in class and run. They were human beings who wanted their way and had a hard time sharing with someone else. All of these were normal, but sometimes I felt exhausted, and I was tempted to use behavior card colors or put table points to bring an immediate pacifier to the chaos. Id find myself thinking, I dont have time to help them solve their problems! I have to teach I confess. I caved and did table points one day. It worked temporarily. They were quiet, but did they feel safe? I stayed up that night thinking about how I did the very thing that I was trying not to be anymore, controlling. If I was going after a partnership with my students I needed to figure out how to share the responsibility with them and when to step in and lead where they needed me to. Pink recommends since my students are not used to being given autonomy in school settings, they need scaffolding (Pink, 2009). Together, we needed to support each other in this democratic process. I explained that I felt frustrated by how some voices were not being heard because others were talking over them. I apologized to them for using the points to punish them instead of bringing it to our community meeting to find a solution with them. As I spoke I noticed that my students were intently listening. We retracted the table points and decided to use it as data to help us measure how we improved with getting ready on time and listening to each other.

We decided to look at the data each day and talk about the progress that had been made. I asked them what kind of problems they had been noticing within our community. We co-created the following chart:

My students felt being heard and being ready on time were issues we needed to work on together. I was surprised that my students wanted to include hitting as a problem because I didnt see this happening in class. My student Andy later to ld me, Teachers dont see everything. His statement revealed why its important for teachers to listen to students. I like to think I am an observant and attentive teacher, but the reality is that I dont see and hear everything. We used the above chart to monitor the behaviors we wanted to improve together. This process took more time than if I handled it with table points or colored behavior cards, but it strengthened how we collaborated

with each other and empowered my students to solve problems. This system honored their individuality. My student Paul said at the end of our meeting, It doesnt matter about the points. Its the learning. It amazed me how my young first graders understood rewards and punishments like table points dont help students le arn. Co-creating our environment enabled deeper learning. I was curious to find out if there were other uncomfortable things for my students. This led me to think about creating opportunities for my students to suggest changes or to voice what was uncomfortable for them. If they could create change, what would they suggest? The Ideas for Change Box: How can I hear more voices? The Ideas for Change box was another safe place for students to write ideas to change our room, routines, or how we learned together. When I introduced the Ideas for Change box in the first month of school, I thought about Valerie and Aaron. On the survey they stated that they didnt feel comfortable speaking in whole class discussions. During community meetings, I read aloud the ideas written in the Ideas for Change box after we resolved problems. One meeting, Valerie and Aaron wrote in the Ideas for Change Box. I was elated to hear what they wanted to change. They wrote they wanted to move the couch and calendar to another location. After asking her why, Valerie said she wanted to be able to read the Who Am I? books the class wrote. We all agreed to try it for a week. Aaron said he wanted to move the calendar to a different spot. After asking him why he preferred it this way, he said he had a hard time seeing the calendar from where he was sitting on the rug.
Before After

The next morning, Laura said there was more room on the white board to write. Oscar said that the change felt super good because there was more space. Kohn states, to arrive at a more accurate assessment of what is really happening in the classroom, we would need to look hard at what were asking students to do and why. Who benefits? (1996, p.15) When I placed all our materials in various spots in our classroom before school began, I believed I was thoughtful in making sure that all the students had access to them. Despite my good intentions, something as simple as the

placement of the couch affected student comfort and access. Without the Ideas for Change box and finding creative ways to hear voices in different ways, I would not have known what was uncomfortable for students like Valerie and Aaron. I also noticed that students began to use the Ideas for Change box to advocate for other students needs. Alex wrote, Can we change where the recess balls go? They keep falling. When we talked about why Alex wanted to change where the recess balls were placed, he said he noticed that every time someone in class tried to put them away the balls kept falling out of the closet. In our democratic classroom, community meetings increased empathy for others. The class was receptive to our community meeting tools, but I wondered how my focus students felt about them. Andys voice is heard without yelling Andy had a reputation for being violent last year when solving problems with other students. In the beginning of the year, when students accused Andy of saying or doing something that upset them, he would yell, Youre a liar! I needed to mediate private conversations with him and another student. As long as Andy kept coming to the conversation table, I knew there was hope. I kept our structure of using I statements and protecting the space to listen and speak for each student. After the first month, Andy would still say a student was lying but in a lower volume and he explained why he was frustrated. Isaac had blamed Andy for calling him stupid. Andy didnt deny this accusation. He explained he said it because Isaac tore down his Lego rocket ship at recess. Andy said he told Isaac not to touch his rocket, but Isaac still touched it and ended up ruining it. I kneeled down to Andys level and calmly told him, You can help Isaac understand how you felt without calling him names. Why?! Thats what stupid people do. They dont listen when someone tells them something! Andy said loudly. You can try using an I statement to Isaac in a calm voice so that he can understand how you felt. I advised Andy. Andy turned to Isaac and said in a low voice, I felt angry when you didnt listen to me. You broke my ship. Im sorry. Isaac calmly responded I forgive you. Andy simply said When I asked Andy to apologize to Isaac for calling him stupid, he asked, Why? Even though Isaac may have started the problem, you made him feel sad when you called him stupid. I answered. I was relieved when Andy remained silent and turned to

Isaac. I asked Isaac to also use an I statement to Andy so that he could understand how he felt. I felt sad that you called me stupid. he said. Andy paused and said, Im sorry. In the past, we wouldve blamed Andy for this particular problem. This made me wonder if his previous anger and violent behaviors were due to not being heard. According to Assor (2005), if compliance does not occur then anger is evoked due to feelings of unjustness. Teachers feel threatened when students act out in anger or overt non-compliance. I saw this in myself when I resorted to bullying my angry and noncompliant students into doing work by threatening them with punishment, like, You may not go to recess until you finish your work, moving behavior clips down to a color associated with negative behavior, and attacking their character, You dont seem to care about learning. After a while, losing recesses and frequent calls to parents lost their effect because the root issue was not their behavior, it was loss of control. My routines bullied students like Andy because it alienated him from our class community. He was the outsider because he would not do what I said. I sent a clear message to him and my other students that if they did not do what I said, then they would suffer the punishment. Instead, asking Andy why, helped me realize he needed to be given an equal opportunity to be heard and understood. If I consistently asked questions to understand him, would he begin to internalize our process of problem solving? A month later, Andy invited Joe to the private conversation table right after lunch. I was surprised that he used a whisper voice to speak to Joe because he tended to yell and use his taller body to intimidate others when he was frustrated. Joe and Andy were speaking so low that I couldnt hear them. I could see them from where I was. They appeared to be taking turns speaking. Once they were done, they both walked to their original areas, Andy to his seat and Joe to the rug. I asked them if their problem was solved and both gave me a thumbs up. When I asked Andy later what they talked about he said that Joe was not sharing the ball at four square but they figured out that Joe was frustrated because he thought he wasnt out yet when in reality he was. I then asked Andy if he felt comfortable using the private conversation table to solve problems peacefully, he nodded and went back to work on the computer. In later weeks, I noticed that Andy began to ask other students from other classrooms to talk about a problem. This gave me hope that if this was working for Andy then this would benefit the rest of my students. Another student Mike asked to speak to a boy in another classroom. My colleague said that Mike told her student he felt sad that he yelled at him when he was trying to help him. The boy apologized after being prompted by his teacher. Mike then said, I forgive you. Mikes peaceful demeanor surprised my colleague. I was elated to discover that Mike and Andy were using their

problem solving skills in class to empower them to do the same with other students outside of our classroom. I hoped that this empowerment would continue into redefining school-wide traditions, like our award assemblies.