“Gone are the days of the old adage that children should be seen and not heard.” That’s according to Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl, writing for Getting Smart. ”In order to prepare our kids to be productive members of society, we must teach them that their thoughts and opinions matter and should be constructively shared with those around them.”
Not only have we set down the notion of the voiceless child, but we now widely recognize the value of students’ ability to express themselves in a variety of contexts. We often refer to this as “voice”.
A recent Zellerbach report clarifies: “Youth voice describes a strategy in which young people are authentically engaged in working toward changing the systems that directly affect their lives.” This last aspect- changing the systems that directly affect their lives- is arguably the most important outcome of youth voice. However, supporting students in this element is where many school-based efforts fall short.
As is often the case, instructional teams have tools to foster voice in day-to-day learning- but are less prepared to cultivate the kind of voice that reaches beyond the classroom walls. SPEAK, a Boulder-based initiative that focuses on supporting and celebrating the voices of young girls and women, suggests greater focus and attention to what they call vocal empowerment.
“Vocal empowerment includes an inner belief that what I say is worthwhile. That my voice belongs to me. And that I have the right to self-authorship,” explains Beth Osnes, one of the organization’s co-founders. SPEAK’s global platform merges science and art to explore three aspects of voice- physical, social/emotional, and civic. SPEAK directly supports vocal empowerment of its participants by developing awareness and efficacy in these three critical areas. Osnes continues, “[Vocal empowerment training] leads to an understanding that voice contributes to larger conversations in the community and has the ability to make change.”
We can make moves to champion vocal empowerment in any youth centered space. For example, activities that explore personal identity can help students prospect and name their unique contributions, assets, and hopes. Deepening this self-understanding can aid young people in discovering what it is they need or want to say.
Opportunities for multi-modal expression are also important. Students may be encouraged to create blogs, podcasts, vlogs, or participate in national initiates like Videos for Change. Or, they may take part in YPAR (youth participatory action research), which “provides students the space and time needed to conduct systematic research, analyze oppressive issues in their schools or communities, and develop solutions to address them.” In addition, student-led conferences can boost youth voice.
Vocal empowerment can also be strengthened by explicit skills instruction and practice. Areas of focus might include public speaking, leadership, contextual etiquette, and even self-care of the physical voice. SPEAK’s Vocal Empowerment Curriculum, for example, utilizes tools developed by theater performers and voice/speech pathologists for vocal strengthening and expansion of expressive range. Teaching young people to speak so that others will listen amplifies their message.
Finally, youth vocal empowerment--especially that which drives civic change- relies upon partnerships with adults. In school settings, students benefit when adult allies are trained and supported in fostering authentic youth voice. This is a key reason why initiatives like SPEAK offer professional development for teachers and HR staff alongside their student-centered programming. By supporting the role models and mentors in a young person’s life, we are better equipped to empower students as change agents.
“Children do not have to wait until they are grown adults to make the world a better place,” concludes Kristen Thorson and Erin Gohl. “Kids have many skills and capabilities to meaningfully affect change. And sometimes they see issues and the path to change more clearly than the adults.” By activating, recognizing, and celebrating student voice, we make space for youth-activated change now.