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Listen to the voice of students

By Shannon Miller
October 10, 2014
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All over the globe, people are talking about transforming education. Lawmakers, activists, university professors, kindergarten teachers, school administrators, parents, millionaires and even movie stars are sharing their ideas about how to fix, change, reinvent and re-imagine the global education system to make it more relevant in the digital age. In this cacophony of thoughts, ideas, opinions and beliefs is a once-faint voice that is getting louder. The message of students is now resonating with those who are wise enough to listen.

We are so fortunate to live in an era when social media and online networks allow our young people to connect with each other and to the world. These powerful digital tools and devices not only let students create and collaborate but also share, learn and, yes, have a voice.

My vision is of a world where students have a role in education transformation that is based on making a positive impact. And I'm already seeing it happen in my community and around the world.

At Van Meter Community School in Iowa where I was recently the district teacher librarian, students follow their passions and make a difference. Take, for example, members of the National Honor Society who started a program called Dreams to Life. They raised more than $7,000 to help a nearby school buy technology for disadvantaged students. A couple of years ago, a group of seventh graders at Van Meter wanted to get involved with an organization called She's the First. They organized a fundraising effort that earned enough money to allow a girl from Africa go to school for a year. Another group of our students worked to help libraries around the country raise money for technology and books.

All of these projects had two things in common: First, students not adults led the efforts. And second, students used technology to communicate, collaborate and solve problems. The lesson here is that our students love to get involved in the causes that move them, and it's our responsibility as educators to offer guidance, but let the students lead the way. That's how the deep learning happens.

Last year, Ian Coon, a sophomore at Waukee High School, and Jack Hostager, a junior at Dubuque Hempstead High School, organized the Iowa Student Learning Institute, an innovative education conference focused on student voice.

More than 190 students, educators and community leaders from 35 Iowa school districts attended the event that was aimed at giving students a forum to discuss their ideas around how to make education more relevant and meaningful. Speakers included inspiring students and nationally recognized education leaders. But the real magic happened during breakout sessions, where students drove the discussion about developing a vision and action plan to map out the future of education.

This movement isn't just happening in my state; it's happening everywhere. Last year, I was curious to hear what kids would say if I asked them what they wanted from school. I created a survey and shared it via social media with my professional learning network. I wanted to know not just what my kids at Van Meter thought, but what kids all over Iowa, all over the country and all over the world thought. When I looked at the results, various themes emerged, but the most resounding message was that our students want to have a voice. They want a say in what they learn, how they learn, who they learn from, what tools they use and what their learning environment looks like.

I'm sure those survey results came as no surprise to Zak Malamed. He is a great example of how one young person can make a tremendous impact. Zak is the 20-year-old founder of Student Voice, an organization that encourages young people to take a control of their education. His for-students-by-students nonprofit organization believes that student voice can reduce absenteeism, enhance school climate, promote civic engagement and build character among all students.

We know that our young people need and want someone to support and lift up their passions. I want today's students to have opportunities to learn, create, connect and teach anytime they want in the best possible environments we can provide for them. It's time we helped them make that happen.

Shannon Miller is the former district teacher librarian at Van Meter Community School in Iowa. She is currently executive director of Library & Educational Services for Biblionasium, director of school and library strategy at In This Together Media and an educational consultant for Mackin Educational Resources. Follow her on Twitter.