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Blog: Friday, November 22nd, 2019

Student Voice: Are You Really Listening?

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

I made a commitment this year for each of my visits to secondary schools to meet with students. The commitment in part stems from a desire to walk the talk, as I feel strongly that as a whole, we need to give students more say about their learning experiences. My first meeting of the year was with a diverse group of grade 10-12 students from Rick Hansen Secondary. As you will see below, it was quite the learning experience. The students, pictured above, left to right in the back row are: Whitney, Laura, Hannah, Jashanpreet, Damanpreet, Nawan, Angad, and Andrea. Seated in the front row are: Tafouf, Gavin, Simranjit, Anna, and Inanc (I’m the big guy in the middle).

I’ll start by saying that I came prepared with a set of questions about their school experiences but hoped that they would take the conversation wherever they wanted. Well, as you can see, once they got over the initial trepidation of talking in a group with a stranger, they quickly carried the conversation into places I did not quite anticipate. With limited space here, I will summarize the key ideas that surfaced in our hour-long conversation:

What is the first word that comes to mind when you think about school?

This question was a bit of a warm-up, but here are the words which surfaced from the group in order of frequency: Stress, opportunity, expectation, homework, future, social. I asked the students to explain why they chose the words they did and most defended it. It acknowledged that school was an important part of their lives, but the pressures of expectation were things they all lived with, knowing that it was not always problematic, but that sometimes it was distressing (my word).

What do you like about your school?

The students spoke very positively about their school, their teachers and their curricular and extra-curricular learning experiences. They opened up about how dramatically different their experiences were compared to some of the negative perceptions they had heard from others in the community. They spoke about the school’s focus on science and business as a positive but also appreciated other options they had. Some who were new to this community spoke glowingly about how wonderful their school experiences have been, compared to schools in other jurisdictions around the country.

What would you like to be different about school?

While a few students talked about the availability of certain elective classes, to my surprise the one topic we spent the most time on related to assessment and grading. By way of background, I should explain that the re-designed provincial curriculum has invited schools to use more enabling assessment practices that accurately describe what students know, can do and understand. The staff at RHSS has adopted the performance scale below, and students wanted to discuss what was working and not working for them.

(I will come clean by saying that in previous posts I have been emphatic about the need to modernize our assessment practices and have encouraged the kind of thoughtfulness that the RHSS staff has demonstrated. So, it was challenging for me to be quiet about this topic and to listen and truly understand how the students felt). The discussion was lively. In essence, there was a sentiment among them that there was a lack of clarity about what “proficient”, “mastery”, and “expert” truly meant. Students admitted that having been raised on the system of letter grades and percentages, and they had not yet fully grasped (or agreed with) the performance scales. They surfaced the concern that they were caught between the traditional and current systems of assessment and grading, and that perhaps future waves of students who were brought up with performance scales would have less difficulty dealing with it. I pointed out to them that because the Ministry expects their teachers to report with letter grades and percentages, their teachers were also concerned about the mixed messages they were sending students and parents. Their primary concerns rested with the impact of these practices on their aspirations for post-secondary, and the fact that many of them had busy lives outside of school. Hence, further clarity would allow them to more effectively manage the time they spent on schoolwork relative to the grades they wanted to achieve — valid points. Their final concerns were that while they appreciated that their teachers engaged them in many discussions about grading, they wanted more concerted conversations similar to the kind we were having. They wanted a better understanding of the grading system and, more importantly, wanted to have their voices truly heard.

Is there an adult in the school who knows you well and whom you can talk to about what matters to you?

As our time together drew to a close, I pushed the conversation away from grading to another area of interest for me: school connectedness. I was pleased to hear that each student in the room could think of an adult who cared about them and to whom they could go if they had a problem. However, I was challenged (I think by Hannah and Gavin) if this was the right question. The point came up that there should be more than one significant adult for each student, and that many of them might be thinking about the same adult, so perhaps we should set a higher bar for our expectation for deep adult-student connection. Point taken.

A final thought

As our time wound down, the conversation came back to the issue of assessment and grading, letting me know that it was a genuinely important topic for the students. They wanted to know what I was going to do with the information they presented and wanted some assurance that this was not a token conversation that would ultimately go nowhere. I say here what I said then, which was that I needed to listen more to other students in other schools before taking any action. However, at a minimum, I would be accountable to them for letting them know that I heard what they had to say. I also suggested that it would be important for them to continue this conversation in their school, something which I left in the capable hands of their principal (no pressure, Ms. P).

I left the school with a sincere appreciation for the amazing work the staff have done at RHSS to create positive and engaging learning environments, one that would nurture the respectful and thoughtful dialogue that was the best part of my work in the district this month. Thank you, Hurricanes!

By Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden
Dr. Kevin Godden

By Dr. Kevin Godden, Superintendent of Schools

Kevin has been the Superintendent of Schools for the Abbotsford School District since July 2011, overseeing some 19,000 students and 2,500 employees. Kevin is committed to student success in all forms and envisions a school district that can nimbly respond to the ever changing needs and interests of its students.