Three Ways to Cultivate Classrooms Where Student’s Voices Are Heard and Valued

Three Ways to Cultivate Classrooms Where Student’s Voices Are Heard and Valued

Students’ voices and perspectives can only be amplified in our classrooms once students feel safe to express themselves. Displays describing classrooms as “safe spaces” are becoming more and more common, but, just as with teaching community guidelines and expectations, visual cues alone are not enough. For students to feel comfortable expressing themselves, they need clear instructions. This means that, as teachers, we must commit to building safe conversational spaces.


After reading Matthew Kay’s Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, I adopted three of Kay’s discussion guidelines in an effort to cultivate spaces where students’ voices are heard and valued. All three guidelines are focused on instruction around listening—a skill students and teachers alike could spend their entire lives learning, relearning, and refining.


Listen Patiently

It seems obvious that we should listen with patience; however, this aspect of listening too often gets lost. The more we care about a topic, the more we rush to talk. The less we care, the less inclined we are to feel obligated to pay attention. We need to actively learn to display social cues that show people they have our attention.


One way to teach patient listening to students is to establish that hands should not be raised while someone is still talking. Raised hands (often eagerly being waved) inherently communicate that students don’t care about their classmate who is talking. Waves of raised hands can also create unnecessary rush, causing folks to speak with hurried urgency before the next raised hand is acknowledged.


Another way to cultivate patient listening is to reframe the standard “one voice at a time” norm. This guideline can sometimes be framed as a punitive measure to avoid interruption; however, students who have an impulse to interrupt often care deeply about the discussion. Teaching students the transactional value of patiently listening can be enhanced by pointing out that an even greater eureka moment might be on the horizon if they continue to listen.


There are countless other ways students can communicate patient listening (such as eye contact and nodding), but, ultimately, the best guide to establishing effective and meaningful protocols is to ask students if they feel listened to and heard. There is great value in having transparent discussions with students about how it feels to be heard or, conversely, interrupted. 


Listen Actively

Ideas in our classrooms should not just be shared but also built upon. This means we must design structures that require students to engage with each other’s ideas and listen actively. In this setting, students don’t interrupt each other because each student’s ideas are worthwhile to everyone in the classroom community. When students are actively listening, the speaker doesn’t just feel safe but also important and smart and necessary.


One way you can find success here is by first encouraging and then requiring students to cite each other’s contributions to conversations. Just as students might take notes on what a teacher is sharing, students can and should take notes on what their peers are sharing. This small shift enables students to then reference and build upon each other’s ideas. In order to effectively teach this, you have to actively model connecting to and building upon others’ ideas and then ceaselessly hyping up students when they cite each other. 


Police Your Voice

If the classroom community of listeners is working hard to listen patiently and actively, the speaker should also be working on monitoring their voice. 


One important shift for the speaker is to address the community, not just the teacher. When students directly address only the teacher during a classroom discussion, you can turn your gaze to the rest of the students and nudge the speaker to address the whole class (“What you’re saying is too good for just me to hear. Let’s get everyone in on this!”). 


Another strategy for monitoring your own voice is to be humbly aware of how much space you are taking up at any given moment. Time is limited and listeners are hard at work. You can actively teach students how to succinctly and effectively use time to honor their listeners and reserve space for all to speak. 


Joe Cole is the director of Teaching and Learning at New City Charter school in Minneapolis, Minnesota.