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February 1, 2022

Classroom Conversations / Balancing Participation

Equity doesn't always mean all students should get equal speaking time.

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Classroom Conversations Balancing Participation
Most of us have seen the once-trendy (and now oft-criticized) "equality/equity" graphic, where three kids are trying to watch a baseball game over a wooden fence. In the image captioned "equality," the three kids stand on one wooden box, which leaves the shortest fan still unable to see the game. On the image captioned “equity,” the shortest fan gets two wooden boxes, the medium-height fan gets one box, and the tallest fan now has none, which means all three can now see the game.
It is currently fashionable in equity-talk circles to add a third, or even a fourth, image. I've seen one captioned with the word "reality," which has the tallest fan standing on so many boxes that we can only see his feet. In another picture captioned "capitalism," the fence is so tall that no one can see the game over it. The most popular addition is an image with the opaque wooden fence either removed entirely or replaced with a chain-link one that the children can easily see through. This last image is often captioned "liberation."
The English teacher in me realizes that this analogy was always going to be an awkward construct, full of potential landmines. (Why don't they have tickets? Why is the kid meant to represent marginalized folks physically so short?) The symbolism was always going to be incomplete. And like any parable, its lesson became easier to critique the more often it repeats itself at equity workshops. However, before the graphic falls completely out of favor, I do think there is one more nugget of value to be mined from these eager little baseball fans and the boxes they stand on.

Centering Student Voice

Like all teachers of goodwill, I care about showing my students the power of their voices. I try my hardest to make sure that, at the very least, I don't lead conversations in a way that diminishes their confidence. I don't insult their opinions or patronize them when they share flawed, still-developing ideas. In the best-case scenario, of course, I want them all to feel like rockstar scholars. However, I have long noticed that some of the toughest conversations complicate this ambition.
Let's say we are discussing a section of a book where a protagonist's family must avoid Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Should students who have no immigration experience be as encouraged to share as those who do? Or maybe we are discussing punitive school dress codes, something that usually mainly impacts girls. Should boys be as free with their opinions, even though they have little to no experience with these issues? If all kids feel equally confident to share their opinions, all the time … is that good? Should this "equality" be the goal?
I've learned that the answer is no, uncomfortable as this realization may be to some educators. Of course, all students should learn the value of being succinct in conversation, and some more verbose students might benefit from clear strategies to avoid rambling at the expense of their classmates' airtime. But this is not enough. Certain voices, representing certain lived experiences, need to be actively "centered" in certain class conversations. "Centering" is a phrase we mostly hear in discussions about the texts we choose for our curriculum—not as much when dealing with real-life student voices in a real-time classroom conversation.
First, a quick reminder: "Centering" some voices does not mean other voices are completely silent. It means that an educator intentionally makes space for certain kids to say what they need to say—and openly acknowledges why this is important to the particular conversation. The decision to "center" a student's voice in a discussion is an acknowledgement that—for this moment—their lived experience makes their story, their perspective, and yes, their opinion, matter more to the discourse than those of their classmates without the relevant background. Classmates can pontificate and theorize, but when a student comes to a conversation with deeper, experience-based knowledge, their voice is most important.

It Takes Practice and Tact

There are a few ways educators can make sure that important student voices are less likely to get drowned out. First, we must lay a foundation where every student owns their relative lack of expertise. We should not only model this humility by being honest with kids about what we do not know, but also give kids practical sentence starters like, "Well, I am not ___, so it's reasonable to think that I am missing something . . ." or "I know that, since I grew up ___, I might not know much about this. . . ." This lessens the arrogant "I am already an expert on your experience" energy from some students that, regardless of their intentions, often dissuades certain classmates from sharing.

When a student comes to a conversation with deeper, experience-based knowledge, their voice is most important.

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Matthew Kay

Next, if we happen to have built strong relationships with the individual student—or group of students—whose voices we might anticipate centering, we might let them in on the planning. Some students, for instance, have helped me think up whole-class discussion prompts, so that their voices are driving the lesson. These kids might also help with the real-time facilitation of the conversation (which, again, requires solid relationships—we don't want to ask a student to lead a lesson if they've never spoken to us outside of class before!).
But my favorite technique for centering the voices of particular students is more subtle, and in my experience, the most effective. It is to "sit" with the contributions of certain students—in certain conversations—a bit longer than we do with their classmates. We all know about the wait time that we take between asking a question and calling on raised hands. "Sitting time" is "wait time" that happens after a student speaks.
Normally, after a student shares a thought, we encourage them, validate them, and pivot to call on the next kid. But when we are centering a particular voice, we "sit" just a moment longer with that kid's contribution. Then, after encouraging and validating, we might also ask them personalized follow-up questions. We might scrawl board notes on their contributions. We might even use their contributions to re-prompt their classmates.
This, of course, takes practice and tact, and is not divorced from relationship building. Many people of color, for instance, remember awkward requests from teachers to share the Black or Asian or Latinx "perspective." This is not that. It is making sure that when those students do speak on a subject about which they might have particular expertise, and which has a much greater impact on their lives, we teachers and their peers are more likely to hear them. And in hearing them, classmates will likely have a considerably richer understanding of the topic being discussed. Actively centering often-marginalized voices helps these students to grow confidence in school systems that rarely value their lived experiences. Many former students have told me so.
Equity does not mean that all students have their voices encouraged equally all of the time. It means that every student's contribution gets every bit of the encouragement, for each particular conversation, that it deserves. It is only right that we educators stack the boxes accordingly.

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