I distinctly remember the first time I felt my opinion was heard and valued in school. It was during my senior year, and I was seated around a large conference table with several other students. My favorite teacher, Mrs. Guzikowski, was leading our seminar on Problems in Democracy. We were pretty intimidated by her sharp intellect and ability to dissect an argument, but her interest and careful consideration of our thoughts and arguments earned our respect and trust. She was the reason I decided to become a history teacher.
Our Middle School students don’t have to wait until their senior year of high school to express their opinions and to exercise choice in their learning. There are many opportunities throughout their Middle School experience—from creating class rules in fifth grade math, choosing a world language in sixth grade, selecting a novel in fifth and sixth grade literature circles, trying different electives in seventh and eighth grades, to engaging in history debates and delving into chosen research paper topics.
Student voice is more than just choice in topics, assignments, and programs, it also encompasses influence and advocacy. Each year, our eighth grade students develop and submit a petition to the grade level deans and me to earn the privilege of a dress down day on the eighth of every month. Written by committee, students work collaboratively to present a clear and cohesive argument to persuade our decision. Recently, a group of Middle School students campaigned for a review of our dress code for gender and size discrimination. I have encouraged them to use their voices for advocacy by bringing their concerns to Middle School Student Council to express their opinions and to discuss next steps.
Very recently, I had the distinct privilege of hearing Rabbi Myers from Tree of Life * or L’Simcha Congregation speak in person. Rabbi Myers shared one important lesson he learned from the tragedy last October: The words we use are important, and elevating the intensity of these words can cause an even more intense, even violent, reaction. This message has resonated with me—we must give our students the ability to be heard and to have influence, but it is imperative we teach them how to use their words and actions to advocate for civil discourse and positive change in our communities.