Student Voice-What are the Possibilities?

Note: This blog was originally written for the Inspired Learning community and has been cross-posted with permission. The Inspired Learning on-line community is a place for Alberta educators to connect, share and learn with other educators province-wide. More information about Alberta’s Inspiring Education vision can be found here.

My interest in student voice has been a serendipitous journey that started in my early years in the classroom, impacted my work as a school principal and has evolved into a bit of professional passion. So I have taken with great interest both the student-centered focus of Inspiring Education and Alberta’s Speak Out initiative. In particular, I have been reading the Speak Out blog where Alberta students post about the issues and questions that are currently on their minds. Over this school year alone there has been lively conversation around topics such as the impact of school sportsgovernment funding for school buses, reflections on shorter school weeks and creating learning-styles based classrooms, among others. I found it insightful to see the wide variety of views presented and even the vast selection of issues presented by the student bloggers as a whole.

A few years ago, as I researched further into this concept of student voice, I found Robert Hart’s Ladder of Child Participation (see page 8 of this document). Over the years, I have found various organizations (including school boards) modify the ladder to their specific contexts for student voice, but the essence is the same. If you are new to Robert’s ladder, you may find the image below from Compasito or this explanation from Cornell Garden Based Learning helpful.

Since finding Hart’s Ladder, I use it for reflection and to assess my own actions, both in classroom and school settings, to determine where the choices I have or will make regarding student voice fall on this scale. The goal of course is to be in the range of active participation (4-8) versus the non-participatory range (1-3).

I’ve also read interesting steps various Canadian boards have taken to bring students to the table and engage in decision making. Here are some examples:

Revisiting Inspiring Education and given its focus on becoming more student focused,what does student voice look in our classrooms and schools? How can we further elevate student voice in these settings? What possibilities exist to integrate student voice province-wide with the Inspiring Education vision?

Riding the Waves of Change


Recently I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel abroad to recharge and refresh. During this trip I had an opportunity to snorkel over a barrier reef for the very first time. On the day that we went, the ocean was very choppy and the guide asked our group if we preferred to stay in shallow, calm waters or deeper, rough waters. The caveat of all this was that we were likely to see more wildlife in the rougher waters. Ultimately our group opted for the deep sea experience.

Riding out on the ocean with the boat bouncing and sea water spraying, I admit that I became a little nervous about our recent group decision. Soon enough we were at our starting point and I found myself taking a deep breath and jumping in to the deep blue sea. The cool water felt invigorating, but as I rose to the surface the rough waters distracted me and I could feel myself starting to panic. My mind flashed to the snorkel techniques my husband and I practiced prior to our trip and realizing that I was getting nowhere other than more panicked by trying to stay above water, I took a deep breath and dove under.

Beneath the rough waters was a colorful world of fish, coral and other sea life. As I let my body ride the choppy surface and my breathing finally returned to its normal pace, I was in awe of all that I was able to see. I found myself gesturing emphatically to my husband all the wonderful things I hoped we would remember later. Our guide zipped just ahead of us, pointing to other creatures and leading us over the world’s second largest barrier reef.

In my life I have willingly taken on many personal and professional challenges, all of which I have never regretted. For someone who has been quite accustomed to change, even this brief experience, out of my element, was for a moment terrifying. So what has this experience reminded me about change? What can leaders bring to a community that is going through a change process?

Recognize that people need to know why change is important and help them to make sense of it

One of my favorite TED talks is Simon Sinek’s How Great Leaders Inspire Action. The premise of his talk is about articulating the why before the how or what. When we embark on change in our communities, individuals need to know why the change is important and more importantly, the reason should be one that resonates with the community. At times in education, we can be too focused on the change process itself and we must slow down to involve those impacted by the change. In our ocean adventure, our guide clearly explained our options for the day and ultimately let our group’s feedback shape the outcome.

If you are the leader of the organization, jump in with your team.

Change is never easy and it takes courageous leaders at all levels of a community to inspire others to be a part of the journey. I suspect if our guide had not jumped in to the rougher waters first, he may not have had many volunteers to jump in. Once he did, a few others were quick to follow and within minutes the whole group was in the water. For added support, there were staff that remained in our boat, not very far away from where we were snorkeling at all times. So leaders, invite others willing to take the first steps with you and also look for others who will be able to support the initial risk takers and ultimately the group, along the way. Failures and mistakes are an inevitable part of the process and with the right team can turn these situations into learning opportunities.

Take a look beneath the surface and explore, don’t be too focused on outcomes right away.

Of course when we embark on any change, there is an ultimate goal we hope to achieve. I support the use of goal setting and success criteria as they are essential to any endeavour. It is also important that individuals in a community have time to acclimate and dive beneath the rough waters under their own terms. I needed that moment when I first dove in to the water be slightly panicked, to catch my breath, and dive in when I was ready. When I saw what was beneath and how surprisingly more calm it was underwater, than above, you couldn’t get me out of the water.

The point is people need time to explore and adjust when change is in progress. If you stay solely task oriented and rush too soon to the next task, you miss opportunities for individuals to see the beauty in the change and embrace it. More importantly, they will not have a chance to engage in their own explorations that could bring great value to the team’s overall process and goals.

Let the group explore, but also remind them of the focus.

Our guides were great about letting us explore, but also did not let us wander way beyond our limits. Our guide in the water wore bright swim shorts so we could easily identify him from afar and he would take the time to show us the beautiful wildlife that he thought would make the most of our experience. Change is messy and while it is important to let individuals find their own way (see above) and work through this process, it will be necessary to bring individuals together and remind them of what is most important.

Change has never been easy and never will be, but with these few reminders from my recent vacation experience, I hope to make future change processes I am involved in meaningful to my community.

What other analogies could you add about change? What opportunities should leaders take to make the change process a more meaningful one?


What is Your Word for 2014?

With the start of the new year, I have been thinking a lot this month about my goals. A few days into 2014, I read about One Word 365. This is not to say that I would not be doing anything outside of my chosen word, it would simply be a way to live mindful of my intentions and provide a means to reflect on how I am living my daily life.

So after much thought, the one word I want to focus on this year is “cultivate”. As a former science teacher, this word brings to life so many images for me around growth, support, the building of strengths, and change. All of these themes will help me to be the best that I can be this year. So what do I want to cultivate?

As an educator I want to continue to cultivate and nurture the relationships I have made with others who push my thinking and learning. I also want to cultivate the leadership potential in my fellow colleagues so that they may be the best at what they do for our kids.

Personally, I would like to continue to cultivate spaces for me to recharge and focus on my well-being. This can be as simple as ensuring I do not bypass my commitment to exercise when I get busy and taking moments to stop and “smell the roses” throughout the day.

This is of course a work in progress, but for now, the questions I will be reflecting on daily are:

  • What relationships have I cultivated today?
  • How am I cultivating the leaders of tomorrow?
  • How have I taken the time to cultivate my own well-being?

So over to you, what is your one word for the year?


Making the International Day of the Girl Every Day

As an educator, nothing pleases me more than seeing schools full of girls, eager to learn and taking on challenges. This is because I know in many parts of the world girls are denied access to education because it is not held as a basic human right. Two years ago, The United Nations General Assembly declared October 11th as the International Day of the Girl. Along with many supporters and activists worldwide, Canada played an important role in advocating for the establishment of this day. Currently, many around the world are recognizing that we must urgently work to support education for all girls.

Why do we need an International Day of the Girl?

According to Plan Canada’s website, 66 million girls in developing countries are denied an education, despite the fact that a 10% increase in girls attending school would raise the country’s GDP an average of 3%. The reason behind why girls are denied an education is complex and context driven, but Plan Canada’s 2012 report, Learning for Life, has identified three main factors for girls who are not able to go to school and/or stay there: they are often from poor families, tend to live in a rural areas and from ethnic groups that are discriminated or excluded in their society. These identified factors of poverty, accessibility to education and discrimination are universal issues that all countries and local communities around the world are working to overcome.

So What About the Boys?

This can be the common reframe echoed any time girls or women’s issues are brought to the forefront. I cannot stress how truly important working for the rights of girls is really about human rights for all. This is because the views on gender that prevent girls from an education are also the very same viewpoints that negatively affect the lives of boys. The following excerpt from Plan Canada’s 2011 report, So, What About Boys?, provides clarity on why boys and men should care about gender equality:

“1. Girls’ and women’s rights are human rights. If men and boys believe in justice and fairness, they will be able to see that their mothers, sisters and girlfriends are often not treated the same way as they are, do not enjoy the same level of respect in the community, and do not have the same opportunities to make choices about their lives.

2. Greater gender equality will help boys to succeed in school, to be comfortable with their own identity, to be confident in expressing emotions and to be equipped with the skills to build positive relationships of mutual trust and respect.

3. Gender equality has often meant more freedom for girls and women to define themselves in new ways, but little corresponding change for boys and men. A new perspective on gender is about a more productive way of viewing power relationships to the benefit of both sexes ” (Plan Canada 3).

If we truly believe we live in an interconnected society, one based on the power of the human spirit to create change, then we cannot afford to ignore these issues.

The Voices of Girls and Women

Last week I had the opportunity to see a powerful documentary, Girl Rising, that speaks to the importance of educating girls and the challenges faced by girls around the world. The film features the stories of girls and young women told through a writer from that girl’s country. The film touched me deeply, enraged me and provided me with great hope all at the same time. It is a powerful and must- see film for all.

Malala Yousafzai demonstrates the courage, resilience and hope that is characteristic of many girls and advocates that are fighting for change. Her inspirational speech to the United Nations from July of this year can be found here (via The New York Times)and is a reminder of why this fight for girls’ education is so important.

Kakenya Ntaiya, founder of a primary school for girls in the Maasai region of Kenya , articulates in her blog post at National Geographic the power of education for girls.

From the start, every girl should have the opportunities and chance at life that she so rightly deserves. She should no longer have to fight for the basic rights that so many girls and women have fought for before us and continue to do today. In the future, she will not need an International Day of the Girl because all children will have basic human rights, the ability to make their own decisions, create their own life paths, as well as to equally sit at the tables of change when making decisions about their communities. The International Day of the Girl is one day and it will take recognition and work of what is important every day for these dreams to be realized.

Works Cited:

Plan Canada. “Because I am a Girl The State of the World’s Girls     2012: Learning for Life, Executive Summary.”  2012. Web.  11 October 2013. <>.

Plan Canada. “Because I am a Girl The State of the World’s Girls 2011: So, What About Boys?, Executive Summary.” 2011. Web. 11 October 2013. <>.


Wanted: 21st Century Leaders

Note: This is a post written for the members of Cohort 21 and will also be posted on their blog. I encourage CIS members to checkout this unique professional learning opportunity at

I also dedicate this post to all budding and active teacher leaders around the world, some of whom I had the privilege to already work with and others that I look forward to collaborating with in the near future!

Read any education newsletter, blog or article and it is clear that how we learn and teach has come so far from what we have often experienced ourselves as students. Teachers all over the world have embraced new pedagogies, technology and how they view students as learners. In these times of change, nothing excites me more than to see the shifts in how the view of school leaders is moving beyond the typical notion of the leader at the top. More recognition and value is being placed on the formal and informal teacher leaders in school communities.

I absolutely believe whether you are in a school or district that recognizes this or not (but hopefully this is not the case), that there are teacher leaders all around you. In fact, if you are reading this, I believe you are one of our much needed school leaders. Perhaps you have already explored and harnessed your leadership talents in your school setting. Maybe you know you are capable, but are hesitant to take that next step. Perhaps you’re not quite sure what to make of all this 21st century learning stuff. Wherever you are in this range, I hope by the end of this that at the very least, you are able to embrace the idea that the revolution in learning needs your perspective and expertise.

So what are the qualities exhibited by 21st century leaders? This conversation can span many blog posts long, so I have narrowed it down to three qualities/skills. I will preface my thoughts by saying that you may notice one obvious quality missing from my list, which is the passion for and belief in kids. This is omitted simply because I see this as a prerequisite for every educator. From my own experiences both as a teacher, administrator and evolving connected educator, I share below what I have often observed in those teachers making change in our schools.

21st century leaders are relationship-based

21st century leaders are driven by the ability to create and sustain relationships both with and for others. They know the importance of relationships and value strong connections with others. They also often leverage technology to create new relationships. These leaders are able to make meaning for others they work with and are able to create connections between the various other individuals in their school and virtual communities.

21st century leaders are able to “create the conditions for learning” (shared by @rita_russo, OISE)

21st century leaders create learning environments for both themselves and others. They embrace a lifelong mindset of a learner. They understand that the rapid pace of our current society doesn’t require the ability to know everything, but rather a willingness to learn. They are able to self-assess their needs and seek opportunities to develop the areas they are not as strong in. These leaders are not only effective in embracing this mindset for themselves, but also in creating it in others. They help to foster environments where saying “I don’t know” is not considered a detriment, but a jumping off point for further learning.

21st century leaders are courageous

21st century leaders must exhibit courage because of the changing nature of schools and the complexity that change with bring. They need to work beyond the traditional parameters laid out to find creative solutions that work for their own school settings. These individuals also know that the path to change can be fraught with challenges, but do not let those things stop them. They are resilient. Setbacks are opportunities to take a breath, reset, and carry forth the intended goal. 21st century leaders are not people without fear or discomfort, but they do push beyond it to do what’s best for students.

Not sure where to find these leaders? Take a look in the mirror the best example is staring right at you!

Still hesitant to lead? Remember, a leader is never perfect, but does embrace being a “work in progress”.  All leaders are continuous learners, so if you are looking to stretch your thinking, take a look at some of the work and thoughts of these individuals:

So what are you waiting for? Wherever you are in your journey, we need you to take that next step to create change for our students and schools. Dip, step, or jump right in and embrace the leader you were meant to be.