Silencing Student Voice

Barriers to School Transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement, Student Voice and Student Engagement by
Student engagement has a lot of different appearances.
Student engagement has a lot of different appearances.
To assist you in identifying and challenging adultism in schools, I’m adapting this list of common phrases educators have been conditioned to and may use to try to silence oppressed students, especially when students challenge them.
The quotations below are often used by educators against students; however, you can to hear similar strategic dismissals and silencing of the accounts and concerns among students and of parents and community members in education, too. Students of color, working class and poor students, queer and LGBTQI students, fat students, disabled students, and other marginalized students frequently hear these things more than other students. Silencing student voice happens a lot of different ways.
These strategies, and others that may have been missed, can be found in any order. Students’ experiences of educators trying to silence them commonly go something like this:
  • Educators assert authority over students
  • Educators question student knowledge/judgment
  • Educators delegitimize student responses
  • Educators delegitimize students
  • Educators enforce dominant point of view
  • Educators shut down debate or conversation
Strategy: Educators assert their authority over students.
1. No, but…
2. You’re wrong.
3. You’ve been wrong before.
4. That’s not true.
5. Are you sure? I’m going to Google it.
6. Really? I don’t believe it.
7. That’s never happened to me / anyone I know.
8. I’ve never seen / heard of that.
Strategy: Educators question student knowledge/judgment.
9. You don’t know that for sure.
10. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
11. That doesn’t count.
12. This is a completely different situation.
13. You’re making it about students when it’s not.
Strategy: Educators delegitimize student responses.
14. You’re overreacting.
15. You’re blowing it out of proportion.
16. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?
17. Stop getting so emotional.
18. Don’t tell me you’re upset about this.
19. You’re getting angry /raising your voice / shouting again.
20. Not everything is about…(structural oppression goes here).
21. Stop trying to make it about…(structural oppression goes here).
22. You always say that.
23. I knew you’d do this.
24. Can’t we talk about something else?
Strategy: Educators delegitimize students.
25. (Rude laughter)
26. (to someone else) She’s crazy. Don’t listen to her.
27. Why can’t you just relax?
28. Can’t you take a joke?
29. I’m just joking.
30. You’re so serious all the time.
31. You’re so angry all the time.
32. You have no sense of humour.
Strategy: Educators nforce the dominant point of view.
33. You have to accept that…
34. You must agree that…
35. It’s obvious that…
36. You must be stupid to think that…
37. Everybody knows…
Strategy: Educators shut down debate or conversation.
38. This is a stupid / irrelevant / useless conversation.
39. Why are we still having this conversation?
40. It’s not important.
41. Not everything is a campaign.
42. You’re making it worse by talking about it.
43. Why don’t you just give it up already?
44. I’m done.
45. Are we done?
46. Are you happy now?
47. I’m gonna hang up.
48. I don’t debate on this topic.
49. I’m not having this conversation.
50. I said I was sorry! Isn’t that enough?
This post is wholly adapted from here with permission of the original authors.

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[This post is wholly adapted from here with permission of the original authors.]
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How to Facilitate Student Voice

SoundOut Skill Building Lesson Plans

Engagement is Not Black and White - Students at the SoundOut Summer Camp


It can be hard to facilitate student voice. At SoundOut, we define student voice as any expression of any student, anywhere, at any time about anything related to learning, schools and education. Trying to facilitate definition on purpose can challenge the most experienced teacher, wizened community facilitator, or determined student leader.

ALL student voice can be supremely useful. That includes students who dress in ties and business clothes and present at school board meetings, as well as those who text answers to tests under desks and fight in the hallway. But when things go bad, and they can, facilitating student voice can be counterproductive and actually work against the very things it was intended to do.

Over the last 15 years, I have facilitated student voice in a many settings with a variety of students for literally dozens of reasons. I have also trained and taught thousands of people how to do the same. Following are some tips, concerns, and considerations I have compiled for people who want to become EXCELLENT student voice facilitators.

I share this out of love and respect for everyone who has ever sat through a poorly led student voice event and wanted to do it differently. If you are really committed to being an excellent facilitator of student voice, read on. If you’re not, well, good luck, and don’t give up.


HINT 1: Before You Start

Before you start down the road of facilitating student voice, youth should think about these questions:

  • Who were the best teachers, facilitators, or adults who worked with students you ever experienced? The worst? What made them that way?
  • What is your goal for being an excellent facilitator- productivity, interaction, fun? Do you think you can facilitate all those at once?
  • What assumptions do you have about facilitation?
  • Why do you really want to learn more about excellent facilitation?

After thinking about all this you are ready to begin learning more about being an excellent facilitator- but not before then! Take a little while and really consider those questions, and then read on…


HINT 2: Be a Facilitator- Not a Teacher, Speaker, or Preacher.

There’s a difference between a teacher, a speaker, a preacher, and a facilitator. A facilitator’s job has three parts:

  • Lead the gathering or group
  • Guide towards goals
  • Lead by example

A excellent facilitator always starts by setting the tone of the student voice group. A facilitator is not expected to know it all, nor are they expected to drive everything. Insecure leaders do this. Secure leaders follow the maxim that, “A good leader makes the people believe they did it themselves.” You have knowledge and experience that you can and should share; however, you do not have to be the expert. Allow students to teach you. Also, remember that the mood of the facilitator will set the tone for the entire workshop, and that enthusiasm is contagious. Strive to be positive, be human, and have fun in every student voice group, no matter what its about.

Six Tips for Excellent Facilitation

  1. Set aside your needs in favor of the needs of the student voice group.
  2. Establish a friendly atmosphere and open sharing of ideas.
  3. Encouragestudents to take risks. When in doubt, check with the student voice group. It’s not your responsibility to know everything.
  4. Be aware of student engagement: Observe what is said, who is speaking, and what is really being said.
  5. Respect is the critical ingredient in effective student voice groups.
  6. Successful student voice groups should be uncomfortable sometimes. Address conflict and do not try to avoid it. Create an atmosphere of trust so that disagreements can be brought into the open.


HINT 3: Create Guidelines and Goals

Many well-meaning facilitators come from cynical perspectives that disallow us from acknowledging the norms that make successful student voice groups work. We can overcome this by having students create ground rules or guidelines before you begin. Brainstorm potential rules and write them down – but avoid too many rules. There are three essential guidelines:

  • Stay on task. Every student voice group should have a clearly stated purpose and agenda. This allows us to stay focused, considerate, and action-oriented.
  • Avoid rabbit holes. Alice fell into a world away from reality – Your group doesn’t have to be that way. Stay aware of off-topic banter, read your audience, and consider other ways to share ideas before getting too far away from the point.
  • Look for diamonds by working through the coal. There are rough things to go through in some student voice groups. Instead of avoiding them commit- as a group- to getting in and going through them.

Every student voice group should have some specific guidelines that all students agree on. Some goals can include:

  • Accomplish the specific task at hand, and when we’re done say we’re done.
  • Build a sense of teamwork and purpose.
  • Show that everyone has different strengths and abilities to offer the group and that no one is better than anyone else.


HINT 4: Think about Framing and Sequencing

Framing. Facilitators introduce the purpose, or frame, the student voice group they’re leading. Framing happens when a facilitator sets a simple prompt that lets students know there is a purpose to the group.

Sequencing. An important consideration is the order in which you present student voice groups, or sequencing. If a group has never learned together, it might be important to follow the sequences laid out beforehand. If they spend time together a lot, following the formal sequence isn’t always necessary. If a group is more comfortable with each other, try bursting the bubble by digging right into deeper group times. It is important to try to put “heavy” activities after less intensive ones, to build a sense of rest and preparedness.


HINT 5: Reflect, Reflect, Reflect

One way make student voice group events matter is to reflect before, during, and after the reflection. You can see reflection as a circle: You start with an explanation what you are going to learn and frame its purpose and goals to the group. As the activity progresses, the facilitator taking a more hands-on or less guiding approach as needed. Finally, group reflection helps students see how they met the goals of the workshop, and helps them envision the broader implications. Then the group has came full-circle.

Five Types of Reflection Questions

  • Open-Ended Questions – Prevents yes and no answers. “What was the purpose of the activity?” “What did you learn about yourself, our team, our program, our organization, or our community?”
  • Feeling Questions – Requires students to reflect on how they feel about what they did. “How did it feel when you started to pull it together?”
  • Judgment Questions – Asks students to make decisions about things. “What was the best part?” “Was it a good idea?”
  • Guiding Questions – Steers the participants toward the purpose of the activity and keep the discussion focused. “What got you all going in the right direction?”
  • Closing Questions – Helps participants draw conclusions and end the discussion. “What did you learn?” “What would you do differently?”


HINT 6: Make Meaning With Students

At their best, student voice group events can serve as bridges between students and promote learning through community building. They can reinforce the need for communication, co-learning, and collective action.

At their worst, group events can actually be tools of oppression and alienation and serve to support vertical practices that isolate people from each other everyday. As Paulo Freire wrote, “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust.” In this sense, excellent facilitation requires that we all become humanists who engage students with each other, followers with leaders, and teachers with students.


HINT 7: Create Safe Space

It is vital to create, foster, and support safe spaces where students can learn together. In a society that is openly hostile towards critical perspectives, participants in any activity need support when they make their voices heard. Establishing a safe space is powerful, positive, and hopeful, and hope is a requirement for excellent facilitation.

Seven Ways to Create Safe Space

  1. Acknowledge that everyone has preconceived ideas about others– or prejudices– that can damage others and ourselves.
  2. Ask students, “Who should be in this group but is not?”
  3. Focus and limit our conversations until trust increases (sometimes it is better to agree not to talk about specific issue/problem right away.
  4. As the facilitator, seek true dialogue and ask real questions.
  5. Encourage students to examine their personal assumptions by checking in with others rather than hiding or defending them.
  6. Speak from personal experience by using I statements and do not generalize about others.
  7. Be open to a change of heart as well as a change in thinking.


HINT 8: Seek Consensus

Whenever a student voice group is discussing a possible solution or coming to a decision on any matter, consensus is a tool excellent facilitators turn to. Following is a popular consensus-building technique.

Fist-To-Five Decision-Making

Start by restating a decision the student voice group may make and ask everyone to show their level of support. Each person should responds by showing a fist or a number of fingers that corresponds to their opinion.

  • Fist is a no vote – a way to block consensus. It says, “I need to talk more on the proposal and require changes for it to pass.”
  • 1 Finger says, “I still need to discuss certain issues and suggest changes that should be made.”
  • 2 Fingers says, “I am more comfortable with the proposal but would like to discuss some minor issues.”
  • 3 Fingers says, “I’m not in total agreement but feel comfortable to let this decision or a proposal pass without further discussion.”
  • 4 Fingers says, “I think it’s a good idea/decision and will work for it.”
  • 5 Fingers says, “It’s a great idea and I will be one of the leaders in implementing it.”

If anyone holds up fewer than three fingers, they should be given the opportunity to state their objections and the team should address their concerns. Continue the Fist-to-Five process until students achieve consensus, which is a minimum of three fingers or higher, or determine they must move on to the next issue.


HINT 9: Embrace the Journey

Learning is a process, not an outcome. Encourage students to view the student voice group process as a journey that has no particular destination. However, even experience cannot teach us what we do not seek to learn. John Dewey once wrote that we should seek, “Not perfection as a final goal, but the ever-enduring process of perfecting, maturing, refining is the aim of living.” This is true of excellent facilitation.

Students should use student voice group action as a starting point for a lifelong journey that includes learning, reflection, examination, and re-envisioning democracy in our communities; facilitators help groups down that path, and encourage students to embrace the journey.


HINT 10: Embrace Challenges

Since excellent facilitation is a process, it is important to understand that there will be difficult times ahead. One of the keys to excellent facilitation is knowing that criticism will come – and that can be good. We cannot grow without criticism. In a society where criticism is often a one way street, we must be aware of the outcomes of our actions, embrace these challenges, and learn from them. Following are several strategies for fostering critical thinking with students.

Seven Ways to Grow Student Voice Groups

  1. Use think-pair-share. Have individual thinking time, discussion with a partner, and presentation back to the student voice group.
  2. Ask follow-ups. Why? Do you agree? Can you elaborate? Can you give an example?
  3. Withhold judgment. Respond to answers without evaluating them and ask random group members to respond to them.
  4. Summarize. Asking a student at random to summarize another’s point to encourage active listening.
  5. Think out loud. Have students unpack their thinking by describing how they arrived at an answer.
  6. Play devil’s advocate. Asking students to defend their reasoning against different points of view.
  7. Support students’ questions. Asking students to formulate their own questions and build off your questions.



These are the plainest steps I can write down right now for becoming an excellent facilitator. There is plenty of information about facilitation online, and some of it is good. This is meant for those who want to be Excellent. I hope you join us!


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Lesson Plan on Roadblocks to Student Voice

SoundOut Skill Building Lesson Plans
SoundOut students deliberate on important issues in a Seattle high school.
SoundOut students deliberate on important issues in a Seattle high school.


Introduction: Inquiry-based lesson plan for 4-16 students and adult participants

Goal: When this session is complete, participants should be able to…

  • Acknowledge issues and concerns
  • Anticipate and plan for problems before they occur

Time: 40 minutes

Materials: Flip chart paper and markers; index cards and pens/pencils

Space: Enough to accommodate whole group

Considerations: Even after discussing power and respect, laying ground rules, building teams, defining terms, and talking about structural barriers between students and adults, issues often remain. Concerns may be raised by people in the school who have not been a part of the process of fostering Student-Adult Partnerships. Participants themselves may have concerns. Therefore, it is critical to get the issues out on the table and address them. Without clear and open communication, the group runs the risk of having the issues surface later to sabotage their work.



  1. Distribute two or three index cards (scratch paper may also be used) to each person. Place the rest within reach.
  2. Ask the group to think of their worries and fears about the partnerships they are building, Tell them to imagine worst-case scenarios—or even just annoying-case scenarios. Examples include over-burdening staff, adults not following through on their promises slower board meetings. Adults taking over, students misrepresenting the agency in public, etc. Have people write each concern on an index card. Using anonymous index cards allows people to admit to worries that they might otherwise not express.
  3. Collect cards. Read them aloud and create a master list on the flip chart. If there are a lot of issues, create priorities by having people come up and place check marks by the three they are most concerned about.
  4. If the number of issues and /or the number of participants is small enough, with no more than 10 people, you can work in the large group. Otherwise, break the large group into smaller groups of 4-8 people.
  5. Each small group should come up with…
  • At least three ways to prevent this concern from occurring
  • At least three ways to deal with it if it happens
  1. Ask each small group to share their discussion with the large group.To close, ask if there is a concern that wasn’t addressed that someone feels is critical. If time allows, address it then. Otherwise, make sure it will be discussed at some point in the near future.



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Bias Against Students Workshop Outline

SoundOut Skill Building Lesson Plans
SoundOut students present on important issues at a Seattle high school.
SoundOut students present on the purpose of schools at a Seattle high school.


Introduction: This is a lesson plan on communication for 8-40 students and adults that uses intergenerational dialogue, critical thinking, personal creativity, and group analysis to examine media bias.

Goal: When this session is complete, participants should be able to…

  • Identify popular media images and messages about students and adults
  • Examine how messages affect relationships between students and adults

Time: 105 minutes

Materials: A wide collection of newspapers and magazines of all kinds that will be re-purposed; scissors, blank paper, glue sticks, pens, and crayons for each small group of 4-8 people. If possible, music playing while work is happening. Before the lesson begins, make sure supplies are distributed among the tables, with additional supplies in a central location.

Space: Workspace for each small group

Considerations: Reality and media images often don’t match, especially when it comes to students. Images of adults are distorted in mainstream media, as well. This activity gives students and adults a chance to look at the images put forth by the popular media and assess how those images have influenced their feelings and ideas about each other.


  1. [5 min] Split people up into groups of 4-8, depending on time and group size.
  1. [30 min] Instruct each individual participant to pretend they are aliens who know little of your culture. You want to compile some information for the folks back on your planet about what it means to be a student in a school and what it means to be an adult. However, all you’ve got to work with are the newspapers and magazines before you.Every participant should work individually to create two pictures, with one showing what it means to be an adult and another showing what it means to be students. You can make a collage, put together a collection of words, create a symbolic representation of the “typical” student or adult, anything – just be creative!Keep a few questions in mind:
    • What do students do?
    • What do adults do?
    • What are students or adults like?
    • What’s important to know about students?
    • Adults?
    • What are their relationships to each other like?
  1. [20 min] Have individuals within each small groups share among themselves. Each person describes his or her picture and what the picture says about what it means to be a student or an adult according to popular media. To save time, you could have half of each group focus on students and the other half focuses on adults.
  1. [5 min] After each member has reported to their small group they should work together to create a group definition for “student” and for “adult.”
  1. [5 min] Each small group should report back and share their definition and descriptions with the large group. The facilitator should listen for themes and compile a list on flip chart paper.
  1. [10 min] Discuss participants responses to the art they have made.
  • What doesn’t seem very realistic to you about these images and the definitions/descriptions? Why?
  • What does seem realistic? Why?
  • What’s missing?
  • How do you feel about these images?
  • How do you wish they were different?
  • How do these images get in the way of students and adults working together?
  • What things can people do to improve the situation?
  1. [15 min] For the closing activity, ask participants to stand in a circle, shoulder to shoulder. Explain to participants that after spending the whole lesson exploring media bias, they are invited to “Stand and Deliver.” This requires individuals to come to the center of the circle, one at a time, and declare something they are going to do to fight media bias against students. Give ample time for everyone to speak if they want to, but don’t force everyone to talk either. This activity might require the facilitator starting it, so be sure to have an action in mind before you start.



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Restorative Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement
Olympia 2014
Students participate in a conversation about restorative justice led by SoundOut in Olympia, Washington.

Restorative justice is a student-led approach to resolving conflict in schools. It holds Meaningful Student Involvement at the center, with students as planners, facilitators and evaluators throughout the entirety of the process.

What It Is

Where many previous conflict resolution programs in schools were adult-led and student-driven, restorative justice programs elevate student voice by increasing student agency through positioning learners as strategic owners of the entire process. Students can call for restorative justice, plan its implementation, facilitate the process and submit their feedback afterwards. This is especially important to students of color, of whom US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, ”…minority students across America face much harsher discipline than non-minorities — even within the same school…some of the worst discrepancies are in my home town of Chicago.” Many people believe historic ways of behavior management in schools are directly responsible for several realities for students of color and low-income students, including the achievement gap and zero tolerance policies, both of which encourage students to drop out or face being pushed out of school.

What It Does

Restorative justice moves students to engage with each other in powerful, responsive ways. The philosophy and practices of restorative justice bring students who misbehave into structured, safe and supportive conversations with students who are affected by their misbehavior. This teaches accountability and interdependence while repairing the harm that was caused. It also prevents future behavior of a similar fashion, as students become more responsible for their actions and responsive to the climate of the learning environment. Significant research supports all of this.

Community organizations, individual schools and districts across the United States are adopting this practice more frequently, including Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) and Oakland Public Schools.

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