Flying for the first time to Orlando, Florida all the way from Portland, Maine was an adventure in education empowerment. I was en route to Big Picture Learning’s (BPL) 2016 Big Bang Conference, where I would be sitting on a panel of fellow students and superintendents to discuss student voice in education decision making. To me, the most educational component that Big Picture Learning provided wasn’t just the opportunity to participate, but also stemmed from the people who I met.
After arriving at the hotel, I made my way to a giant purple room created as a tribute to Prince and the legacy that he left to youth through his music and passion. This room was filled with new faces (I only recognized 2 out of about 150 people!). Here, we watched a group of students performing rap, demonstrating their passion for music and how it played such an important part of their education. This was my favorite part of the event.
Later that night, my mother and I joined a dinner that brought my session’s panelists and some BPL staff together. During the dinner, Andrew Frishman and Carlos Moreno, co-executive directors of BPL, introduced themselves to me and explained about the Big Picture network of schools across the country and how they provide student-centered instruction and curriculum that give young people a voice and a choice in their learning. I enjoyed learning more about this along with the opportunity to discuss our interests and share all that we had in common. As the result of a joyous evening with my co-panelists, I became more interested in what everyone had to say about their perspectives as superintendents, principals, educators, and students.
“We did not give them a voice.
We gave them a space to be heard.”
During the next few days, I tried to take part in as many sessions as possible, which included discussions on student voice, leadership, and learning the real meaning of “student voice.” I joined a “deep dive” session that focused on “improving the quality, quantity, and authenticity of student voice” led by education consultant Amber Kim. As I walked into the session room, a wall full of quotes caught my attention. One that particularly resonated with me was from educator, poet and spoken word artist Jamila Lysicott: “We did not give them a voice. We gave them space to be heard.” As a student leader who works with peers my own age and younger, many of us feel that we already have voices loud enough to shake a crowd, but are often not given that platform to take advantage and be heard.
Perhaps this is because we are still “inexperienced” or because we don’t yet know how to deliver our message in a way that adults will listen to and understand. I had many questions running through my mind after that session because it almost completely redefined the word “voice” to me.
When it was time to speak on the panel, I was perhaps a little nervous after I learned that I would be in front of an audience of more than 150 people representing 13 different countries. It shocked me a little because I felt important and somewhat of a valued member that everyone – from kids to adults – paid attention to. I was given the “space to be heard.”
“As students, we tend to forget that
education begins with us.”
I wished that my classmates who perceived school as just a “phase” in their lives or an “obstacle” that they’d overcome had felt that space. But I believe that although some of them may have disliked school, many of them, if not all, loved their education. Education and school aren’t always the same thing—whether students are only interested in sports, music, filming, or even just enjoyed practicing a certain hobby, they know their passions and they should have a voice in how these interests help them learn.
Often, as students, we tend to forget that education begins with us. In order for us to learn something new and fresh, we must first understand that true education begins at the end of our comfort zones. This occurs when our minds are grasping every fact we receive to put the pieces together for the bigger picture. On that stage, I felt somewhat challenged by an audience curious about what we do and how we do it. Engagements like this make me realize how much deeper education is than just books and memorization of facts, dates, and formulas.
After the panel, a girl from the audience walked up to me and asked me about my story as an English Language Learner (ELL) and asked if BPL would consider holding sessions about improving the experiences of ELL students and how we can invest more in them, and reform that entire program. I connected her with the BPL executives and now she’ll be working on her own project regarding her interest in helping ELL classes. I am thankful to have been part of a conference that gave me an opportunity to project my voice to an audience invested in hearing it. I hope that more students—like the girl I met after the panel—can continue to learn from spaces in which they are heard.
Salim Salim is a graduate of Deering High School in Portland, ME and a member of the Nellie Mae Speakers Bureau on Education Innovation. He is attending Bowdoin College in the fall.