#WhyITeachNow: To Make Sure Students Have a Voice in Reimagining Education


Marquise Richards

by | 01.26.21

Marquise Richards is a teacher in Philadelphia, PA. Follow him on Twitter @MarquiseDavon .

This school year, my students are facing major challenges. Everything is done over the screen, and some students prefer other modes of learning. Their homes aren’t designed to be full-time learning spaces. Some students feel like they’re being set up for failure. 

My co-teachers and I are grappling with some big questions: How do we start to reimagine this virtual space so it can work this school year? And what should we reimagine so school can work better beyond this year? 

The pandemic has disrupted the way schools work, but schools weren’t working for all of our students before the pandemic, especially our Black and brown students. I want to see us use these disruptions as an opportunity to explore – an opportunity to take risks and learn from our students. In this time of change, we have a chance to reimagine education.

My “why” this year is giving my students the language and tools they need to be self-advocates, so they can have power in their own education, this year and beyond. Right now, we’re starting small. We’re teaching students what it means to “self-advocate.” We’re asking questions and then really listening to their answers. We ask, “How has distance learning been for you? What are some things you would like to see changed with distance learning?” And they give concrete answers. They say, “Oh, well, I would love to see y’all model this a little bit more often. Oh, I love when Mr. Richards does this, but I also like when Ms. Johnson does this.” When we ask to see or hear them, they let us know, “Hey, my house isn’t always put together, and I don’t want to be on the screen,” or, “Hey, there’s a lot of noise in the background here, so I can’t come off mute.” They speak up to say, “I’ve been at my computer all day, and I need a stretch break.”

They build on each other’s feedback, and I can see community forming. Students start to see that they have common goals and that they can have a voice. When my co-teachers and I make changes to respond to that feedback, they see that they have agency in their own education. 

We’ve talked about what it sounds like to be a self-advocate in these small ways, and then what it would look like for that advocacy to become more holistic. We also teach history lessons and cover some heavy content, but we consistently lace these skills through every lesson. It’s a matter of doing daily emotional check-ins, raising reflection questions and just helping students see that we’re building up these SEL muscles. Teaching them to ask questions like: How can I be more self-aware? How does my identity inform the way that I navigate this world? How do I be mindful of other people? And when push comes to shove, what are some ways that I can be a positive change? We want them to be able to say, “Hey, I’m experiencing this thing. So now I know how to react to it, or at least I know why I react in certain ways.”

Once students have that in their bones, once students see how they fit into their communities and how they can take hold of their education, I think we’re going to see a radical change. I think it’s going to help us as teachers, too, to have powerful collaborators in students and their families, because relationship-building plays such a powerful role in students’ success.   

We’re all facing these challenges together – and just like always, I’m dedicated to encouraging my students to use their voices. I’m always going to push for making our schools more communal and inclusive spaces.

Quick List of Self-Advocacy Questions to Ask Students:

  • How has distance learning been for you?
  • What are some things you would like to see changed with distance learning?
  • How could today’s lesson have been better?

Quick List of Questions Students Can Ask to Advocate for Themselves:

  • How can I be more self-aware?
  • How does my identity inform the way that I navigate through the world?
  • How can I be mindful of other people?
  • What are some ways that I can be a positive change?

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