Review of In Our Own Words: Students’ Perspectives on School

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of Shultz, J., Cook-Sather, A. (Eds). (2001) In Our Own Words: Students’ Perspectives On School. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

This book features the writing of eight student/adult teams, each sharing their feelings and perspectives of students about school. The teams consisted of middle school, high school, and college students who worked in collaboration with their classroom teachers and university researchers. The final chapter documents major issues encountered by teachers and researchers in co-publishing with student authors.

This publication was the first to engage students as coauthors throughout the process. The editors offer the voices of students as testimonies to the effects of education reform.

After an introductory chapter that explores the students’ writing from an adult perspective, the student authors explore important issues in school change, including:

  • Identity and diversity
  • Curricula
  • Rules
  • Skipping class
  • Real-world learning, and
  • The complexities of education reform.

The authors offer a final chapter about the process of engaging the students in critical reflection and education writing.

There are useful ideas presented throughout the book, however, while some are directly accessible to readers, others must be extrapolated from the writing. An example comes from the chapter, “Our World.” A student author wrote,

“There’s a lot of reasons to keep bilingual education. For example, people that don’t know any English, like my mom and dad, don’t expect to learn English on their own. They thought that they would have a teacher of their own to make their time easier. But it didn’t happen that way” (p37).

This book also embodies an uneasy tension involved in listening to
students: Is it the job of the adult to “interpret” students’ words in order to make students’ commentary more accessible to adults, or should the ideas, experiences, opinions and knowledge of students be unfettered?

The final student-written chapter of the book illustrates this tension. The students in a girls-only writing project wrote a chapter entitled, “Writing the Wrong.”

However, instead of letting the students’ writing speak for itself, their adult co-authors offered specific recommendations for improving schools, which they said were “embedded” in student freewriting (p163). The reader is left to decide the appropriateness of this approach.

As they reflected on the rewards of writing this book, the editors offered several benefits, which for the students included the opportunities to: Have their voices heard; see their names in print; realize they can have an impact on school practices, and; enjoy and learn from the collaborative writing process (p176).

The authors in this volume illustrate that issues of reassurance
and concrete support are central to including students in school change. This book demonstrates that by meaningfully involving students, educators can acknowledge the authority students have, and give credence to the contributions young people can make to school improvement.

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