Dr. W.A. Kritsonis, National FORUM Journals, www.nationalforum.com
One Urban High School Student’s Voice – Many Lessons for
S. Marie McCarther, EdD
University of Missouri-Kansas City
This article explores one student’s understanding of teaching and learning in the place we
call school in an urban metropolitan district located in the heart of America. The
methodology drew upon video-taped interview and observation to identify instructional
best practice strategies that enhance what students love and dislike about school. Findings
suggested that students can contribute to meaningful discussion to improve learning,
increase achievement, and foster improved school climate and that students know good
instruction as active and engaging, building on their strengths and talents, and involving
them in making choices about what and how to learn.
Key Words: student voice, student-teacher relationships, culturally relevant instructional
“I love school and the opportunity it gives to me.” (Donavon, 2008)
Many of the headlines in newspapers today tout educational reform that is devoted to
cognitive initiatives that focus on increasing the learning outcomes of students and give little
attention to affective efforts that seek to listen to the voices of students and hear their stories
about schools. This stuck state that emphasizes reform policies and programs that disregard the
very students they are intended to serve by denying the importance of relationships, emotions,
and feelings has not produced the achievements it sought (Davis, McCarther, Friend, &
Caruthers, 2010). While the federal legislation, No Child Left Behind Act, (NCLB) (2001)
increases the federal responsibility for student achievement, it assigns states responsible for
utilizing scientifically based research to develop curricula and assessments that reflect specific
standards identified by each state. Clearly, schools are directly accountable for cognitive reform,
rather than affective reform.
The parent study from which this exploration stems suggests that quality education and
improved academic achievement for students must also be supported by policies and practices
that encourage educators to connect to the lives of their students, to have high expectations of
them, and to interact with them in ways that build mutually supportive relationships which
promote learning (Davis, et.al., 2010). Learning is a recursive process dependent on both
cognitive and social productions that demand affective participation:
Feelings and actions are also important. We must deal with all three forms of learning.
These are acquisition of knowledge (cognitive learning), change in emotions or feelings
(affective learning), and gain in physical or motor actions of performance (psychomotor
learning) that enhance a person’s capacity to make sense out of their experiences.
(Novak, 1998, p. 9)
Theoretical and Conceptual Framework
Students of color have not fared well in the present environment. An analysis of student
achievement, graduation rates, and other measures of academic performance have demonstrated
failure for students of all backgrounds, but most significantly children of Latino, African-
American, and Native American families, as well as poor European American families, and,
more recently, Asian and Pacific American immigrant students (Nieto, 2002). White students are
more likely to earn a high school diploma than their African-American and Hispanic peers (U.S.
Educational resilience, defined as the ability to succeed academically despite adversity,
focuses on the protective factors within individuals, within school systems, and within the
environmental context that function to overcome risk factors (O’Connor, 2002; Davis, 2007).
Current educational reforms, centered on policies and programs tied to cognitive reform, deny
the impact of resilience and its importance in the educational process. Connecting curriculum
and instruction to the known, to the everyday lives of students, having high expectations, and
interacting in mutually supportive relationships with students are the experiences that negate
adversity and promote learning. These are the experiences that help students “overcome and even
become strengthened by experiences of adversity” (Grotberg, 1997, p. 2).
Including each student’s voice in the educational experience creates important
instructional opportunities to identify their strengths and for students to build upon existing
constructed meanings for active engagement in the learning process and the school community.
Britzmean (1990) defines voice as “the individual’s relationship to the meaning of her/his
experience and hence, to language, and the individual’s relationship to the other” (p. 14).
Understanding the concept of voice in terms of traditionally silenced or marginalized groups in
schools, such as students of color or students from poverty backgrounds, values the lived
experience of others (affective), not the objective view of experience (cognitive). For this
exploration, the lived experiences of an urban high school student was expressed through his
voiced stories and captured through video-taped interview.
Capturing students’ voices as part of the research process of narrative inquiry “carves out
spaces for the embodied voices of the silenced (the stress on the last two letters is important here,
since it signifies an active process of control, regulation, and policing) to be articulated” (Apple
1998, p. x). Hence, researchers discover the realities of students’ lives and the meanings they
attach to these experiences. Sometimes thought of as stories people tell of their lives in
communities, organizations, schools and other spaces which they may occupy, narrative might
be both a methodology and the phenomenon of study (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994; Chase, 2005;
Creswell, 2007). Clandinin and Connelly (1994) explain the similarities and differences between
narrative inquiry and stories:
It is equally as correct to say inquiry into narrative as it is to say narrative inquiry. By this
we mean that narrative is both phenomenon and method. Narrative names the structured
quality of experience to be studied, and it names the patterns of inquiry for its study. To
preserve this distinction, we use the reasonably well-established device of calling the
phenomenon story and the inquiry narrative. Thus we say that people by nature lead
storied lives and tell stories of those lives, whereas narrative researchers describe such
lives, collect and tell stories of them, and write narratives of experience. (p. 416)
Shuman (2005) further described storytelling as “an aspect of the ordinary . . . . touted as a
healing art . . . a means for transforming oppressive conditions by creating opportunity for
suppressed voices to be heard or for creating opportunities to listen to those voices” (Shuman,
2005, p. 5). In other words, narratives are a mode of inquiry that, according to deMarrais and
Lapan (2004), is “both a process, a narrator or participant telling or narrating, and a product, the
story or narrative told” (p. 104). Schools are one of the few remaining places where people from
diverse backgrounds can come together and make meaning of their lives through the sharing of
stories from unique voices.
The methodology employed in this heuristic narrative inquiry drew upon video-taped
interview and observation to unlock the story of one urban high school senior. Listening to the
voice of the participant as he sought to make meaning of his schooling experiences in an urban
school is the essence of this inquiry. The interview format was semi-structured and consisted of
four questions that allowed for more focused, two-way conversation and communication
between the researcher and informant (Merriam, 1998): (a) What do you love about school? (b)
What do you hate about school? (c) What would you change if you were in charge of the school?
and (d) What would you like to say to teachers? As dialogue emerged, the interview became
more contextualized and reflected meaningful experiences of the participant. Guided by the
theoretical framework and research questions, the study led to the telling of the participant’s
experiences which served as data, leading to what Polkinghorne (1995) described as “analysis of
narratives” (p. 12) to identify themes to inform the work of educators and other stakeholders in
the school improvement process.
Identification of the participant was accomplished through the purposeful selection of one
urban high school in the Kansas City metropolitan area. A sampling procedure was open to
schools that provided, as Strauss and Corbin (1990) suggest, the “greatest opportunity to gather
the most relevant data about the phenomenon under investigation” (p. 180). The student returned
the consent form and was interviewed. The video tape was analyzed and common and/or
interesting themes and patterns were identified. Recurring themes related to student voice that
emerged included instructional experiences, multicultural content, relationships, and teacher
expectations for behavior and academics.
The Importance of Student Voice
Siddle-Walker (2001) asserts that attention to the affective is an important dimension of
the teaching-learning process. It may be understated that for many children in today’s urban
settings, academic achievement is most promising when there are strong adult-child relationships
in place and where children know and believe they are in an institution where people care about
them and all of their needs. Yet, it is often the case that the suppression of personal experiences
within schools and teacher education programs often contributes to the absence of reflective
practices, relationships, and overall caring which reproduces technocratic and corporate
ideologies that sustain the official narrative of culture (e.g., Irvine & York, 1995; Gay, 2003;
McLaren, 2003). It is within this environment that low expectations for academic success and
deficit thinking are likely to influence educators’ decisions about policies, programs, and
This inquiry sought to determine the role of institutional caring on the part of an urban
high school and its effect on the perceptions of school by one urban high school student. With
this in mind, this study sought to give voice to one student through telling his specific “stories
about school.” Findings from the interview transcription, data coding, and analysis suggested
that this student’s perceptions of one urban high school indicate a definite understanding of what
good instruction is to him. He wants instruction that is active and engaging, builds on his
strengths and talents, and includes him in choices about what and how to learn. He wants caring
teachers who have high academic expectations and a desire to connect with him within his lived
The following is narrative from one urban high school student. The details in the case
study are factual and are based on an interview with an African-American senior high school
student named Donavon (The name has been changed to protect anonymity). The enrollment at
the high school that Donavon attended consisted of 98.3% African-American students in grades
9 through 12. The attendance rate was 67%, meaning that on average, on any given day, one-
third of the students may be absent from school. There was a high degree of poverty, with 73.9%
of the students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school
year was 33.7% (DESE, 2008).
Through an analysis of narrative, such as in this case, findings demonstrated that the
stories the participant told about school were connected to resiliency. Here is Donavon’s story:
I come from a family where all my aunts and uncles are successful. They are CEOs and
professionals. And, well, my brothers and sisters kind of messed up. My uncle, who is
like my father to me, he really shows me the type of person who I want to be. My brother
got arrested, my sisters dropped out of school, and that made him sad. I see myself as the
last hope. School is more of life and changing the mentality of my family. We need to get
more people off the streets and staying in schools. I try and find ways to stay in school as
long as I can so I just go home to eat, study, and go to sleep. (Donavon, 2008)
Donavon begins his story with evidence of both resources and risk factors in his life. According
to Swanson, Cunningham, and Spencer (2003), young African-American males may be impacted
by multiple risk factors:
The societal stereotypes, in conjunction with numerous social, political, and economic
forces, interact to place African-American males at extreme risk for adverse outcomes
and behaviors, and suggest clear implications for the continued structural conditions that
characterize life in the United States for ethnic minorities. (p. 609)
These risk factors may be overcome through supportive relationships, such as the one Donavon
describes with his uncle, who serves as a positive role model for “the type of person” Donavon
desires to become (Donavon, 2008). In addition, the school as an institution has the potential to
provide support for increasing resiliency in students. Henderson and Milstein (2003) provided
six strategies for schools to include in their programs to improve resilience among students:
(1) promote elements of a positive school culture; (2) set clear and consistent boundaries;
(3) teach life skills; (4) provide caring and support; (5) set and communicate high expectations,
and (6) provide opportunities for meaningful participation (p. 53-57).
Donavon described the activities that he engaged in after the regular school day ended,
including participation in extra-curricular activities, such as the Future Business Leaders of
America (FBLA) and the Debate Club, and seeking teachers who needed extra help in their
classrooms after school so that he could remain in the building as long as possible. When asked
to further explain what he loved and hated about school, Donavon said:
I love the teachers. It’s all about the teachers at this school. I don’t think they get enough
credit for what they do here. They’re more like parents than teachers. They get paid less
to work here than if they worked somewhere else. I’m lucky to have teachers who want
to be here and teach. They could go someplace else, but they choose to stay here to help
me and other kids like me.
I hate the environment. The students disrupt learning – every 20 minutes the teacher has
to yell at a student or they have to kick them out. We may only get 45 minutes of learning
out of a 90 minute class. When the kids who want to learn can’t learn, it destroys the
fabric of the school. (Donavon, 2008)
Donavon went on to describe programs that are not offered in his urban high school and
community perceptions that revealed discrimination against students who attend his school.
At this school, we have less than what other schools have. Other schools have a band. I
used to play in the band at my other school. I was really very good . . . very good at
playing clarinet – in 7th
grade I was playing with the high school band. We were forced to
move here off of income, and my senior year is the first year this school has had a band. I
didn’t have the chance to be where I should be right now. That’s very disappointing.
I would change how people see us as a school – based on what a percentage of students
do in this school. I was in FBLA for a state competition – I placed third. I had three
judges scoring me, and I scored a15 out of 15 from two of the judges, and one judge gave
me a zero. One of my sponsors got upset and asked how that could happen. People said –
it’s your school name. It’s the school you have labeled on your business plan. That got
me frustrated, but I don’t accept that. As long as I know I did well, in my heart, I know it
could have gone to state [competition]. (Donavon, 2008)
Conclusion: Significance to the Field
Resiliency theory is clearly illustrated in Donavon’s story. However, more than this, his
story echoes those of so many who came before him, were with him, and remain after him. For
Donavon, the place called school is where he finds hope, promise, and meaning in his life.
Donavon’s story revealed him seeking desperately to find reasons to stay on the school campus
and off of the streets, and most critically, he expressed a deep personal connection to the adults
in the school house, even though his urban high school is not exemplary by most standards.
Donavon’s story demonstrates that much can be learned working in schools and listening
to student voices. School improvement and educational reforms can benefit from including
student voices in problem identification and problem solution. In her book, Student Voice in
School Reform: Building Youth–Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and Empower
Youth (2008), Mitra explores the emergence of student voice and its impact on school culture and
the learning environment. She proposes a list of advantages that result from including student
voice in schools, including the bolstering of student confidence and sense of belonging,
improving learning, and enhancing school climate. As urban public school leaders continue to
search for winning strategies to turn troubled schools around, Donavon’s story suggests a lesson
of value for consideration: listening to the voices of their students can bring an important and
unique perspective. Joining in partnership with their students, bringing student voices to the table
to problem solve solutions for the improvement of teaching and learning in their schools can
strengthen the bond between teachers, students, and administrators; improve the culture, climate,
and achievement within their schools; and increase students’ self-confidence and feelings of
belongingness (Mitra, 2008). The purpose of this investigation and sharing Donavon’s story is to
examine the lessons from student voices traditionally silenced, in hopes they will be heard today
and benefit tomorrow’s student.
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S. Marie McCarther, EdD is Assistant Professor in the Division of Urban Leadership and Policy
Studies in Education, School of Education at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, Kansas