Empowering Students Means Affirming Every Voice – and Every Body


Cait O'Connor

by | 04.23.21

Cait O'Connor is an ELA teacher in New York. Follow her on Twitter @JustTeachingELA.

As an educator, I care about empowering and inspiring for every single one of my students. In my teaching journey, I’ve learned a lot about using student voice and choice to promote student participation, justice and inclusion. These strategies and the role of social justice in my teacher training has influenced these values.

But I’ve also observed the role that weight bias and weight stigma can play in discouraging our kids from engaging freely and joyfully in our classrooms, from taking risks in their learning, and cultivating self-worth. I’ve learned that to encourage sustained, self-directed growth for every learner, teachers need to affirm and support all of our students’ bodies, just as we support and affirm their minds, voices and perspectives.

By creating lessons and learning environments that honor the whole student – minds and bodies, voices and perspectives – we can encourage them to become confident learners, explorers and leaders. Below, I share how I use these four steps in my virtual and physical classrooms:

  1. I invite students to define our learning space. 

When students walk into a room full of attached desks, arranged in narrow rows, that space tells them that only some of their bodies and learning needs are welcome. 

If you’re a student whose body fits comfortably into that chair, and you learn well by sitting upright at a desk, then you’ll feel at home in this classroom. But if you can’t concentrate easily at a desk, or you can’t sit in that chair without worrying that it might break, or you feel self-conscious about the size and shape of your body when you walk down that aisle (as I often do, even as the teacher) — then you’re trying to learn in an environment that makes you feel unwelcome, marginalized and even unsafe. By inviting students to shape our space to serve their needs, they can see that our classroom is there to affirm their worth and inspire their growth – and so am I.

In our physical classroom setting, students are invited to arrange the desks the way that they feel most comfortable learning. I don’t stand at the front, but often sit among students as they work. 

In our virtual classroom, there’s no furniture to rearrange – but that doesn’t mean students can’t decide how they want our learning environment to feel. For remote learners, that starts with choosing how to connect. Sometimes, we’ll do a one-word check-in in Nearpod Collaborate or Google Jamboard, or a quick “Would you rather” poll. These days, students like to spend the first few minutes telling stories from their lives. These moments allow them to set the tone for our learning. 

  1. I encourage students to connect with our shared “why.”

I teach English, and sometimes, language arts can feel repetitive for students since it has become so skills-based. I’ve had kids tell me, “Every year, I read poetry, I write essays – but I don’t really know why.” Well, we teachers know how important our own “why” is! Just as we need to stay connected with the value and meaning of how we teach, our students need to find value and meaning in what they learn. That’s why I encourage them to reflect on the purpose of what we’re doing – and to shape the way we do it. 

First, every day, I frame what we’re about to work on in terms of what skills it supports and what it prepares them to study next. Then we talk about how we want to approach it. I build a lot of opportunities for self-direction into my lesson plans, so kids can decide which station activity they want to try, or how we should organize our time together. 

An important part of the ‘why’ is representation and understanding ourselves and those around us. We study authors with various identities, and I include size and size diversity among those identities. We study poets like Mary Lambert, Rachel Wiley, Fatimah Asghar, and Audre Lorde, who live or have lived in bodies that were and are marginalized in a multitude of ways including through weight stigma and anti-fat bias. 

Those steps go a long way, but to really invest, my students need our plans to support their perspectives. Every quarter (and sometimes more frequently), I share a survey with them in Google Forms, inviting them to reflect on what they’ve learned, what they’re missing and what they want to know. Their answers tell me how I can support their progress toward mastery, but they also help me find new ways to represent their lives and voices, their ambitions and interests, in their readings and assignments. The more they share their voices, the more meaningful we can make their learning. 

  1. Affirm students’ autonomy and ability – and empower them to be leaders

Whether it’s in person or online, I want school to be an embodied and empowering experience for my students. Learning must be an experience that affirms their autonomy and ability. Inviting them to rearrange their desks changes the layout, but putting them in charge of meeting their own needs during class mentally and physically provides them with agency. If students can’t respond to what their bodies need, it’s challenging for them to respond to what their minds need. For example, if students are preoccupied with hunger, that doesn’t just make it harder for them to engage – it disincentivizes them from trying. I encourage my students to take responsibility for setting themselves up to learn – from eating and drinking adequately, to asking questions and getting the answers they need to master the material. This approach can be a real game-changer: when led by an educator who encourages their ability to regulate their bodies, trusts their judgement and honor their reality, they realize I believe in their ability to achieve their learning goals.

  1. Center engagement on student voice and choice.

In this time of distance learning, educators all know how challenging it can be to get students to turn on their cameras – and when the cameras are off, it can be hard for teachers to feel successful. But as soon I shifted my practice online, I realized that if I tried to center on-camera activities, some of my students might comply, but all my students would lose their ability to regulate the way they learn.

Teenagers especially are experiencing so much, and adding potential body dysmorphia and anxiety to that mix creates the disengagement I’m trying to avoid.  

So instead, I rely on student voice and choice: for every virtual lesson, I build in a myriad of opportunities for students to share their perspectives and ideas – on their cameras, on their mics, in the chat box, on interactive slides, and in breakout rooms. Sometimes, I can’t predict what activities will resonate with my students, but by using their feedback to refine my plans, I can promote the empowerment and embodiment they need in order to truly engage.

We may not always know which of our carefully crafted plans will spark a moment of discovery and growth. But by centering their voices, their bodies, their perspectives and experiences, we can let them know that we’re here to support their learning unconditionally. Always.

Below, I’m sharing some resources that have informed my approach to empowering autonomous learning, countering weight bias and weight stigma, and affirming every student’s worth. I hope you’ll find these useful to your own practice, too.

  • Sitting Pretty: Fat Bodies, Classroom Desks, and Academic Excess (pp. 197-204)
    Ashley Hetrick and Derek Attig in The Fat Studies Reader
  • The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor
  • Ditching Diet Culture at School

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