Let Student Voices Ring—In and Out of School

By Reza Clifton
August 17, 2018

Imagine building a bonfire in a local park—legally, of course. You start throwing in file folders filled with papers, and somehow your laptop ends up in there too. Before you know it, everything you’ve collected, catalogued, and annotated is burning in the fire.

When faced with the concept of student-led classrooms, many educators visualize something similar to the bonfire. And they might not be too far off, according to Roberto Gonzalez, founder and executive director of STEAM Box. This Providence, Rhode Island-based Expanded Learning Opportunity (ELO) site partners with schools to deliver programs that provide students with learning activities and academic enrichment outside of the traditional classroom.

During a conversation in April 2018, Gonzalez summarized his curricular planning: “When I go into a new year, I go in with a plan from A to Z. [B]y the middle of the year, the students have ripped up that plan and are working on their own.”

So, how do you make room for student choice in the curriculum and maintain student voice when dealing with a grant funder or education department’s specific set of directives? And what if students want to explore topics or activities you’re not familiar with?

Marrying ELOs and Schools through College and Career Readiness

To some teachers, Gonzalez and other ELO providers are living in a utopia where Common Core, standardized testing, and performance-tied job security haven’t obscured points of comparison or intersection. But this is a narrow perception of ELOs. Like traditional instructors, providers of after-school and summer enrichment programs are often asked to include services that help close the equity gap, integrate college and career-readiness skill-building, and complement the STEM and literacy building that goes on during the school day. In the student-centered learning (SCL) community, we would call this “anytime, anywhere learning,” an instruction delivery method designed to incorporate the questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how into academic exploration.

Rhode Island Kids Count, an organization devoted to improving “the health, safety, education, economic well-being, and development of Rhode Island’s children,” helps us understand the connection between schools, ELOs, and the anytime, anywhere learning philosophy. The organization’s 2016 “Student-Centered Learning Fact Sheet” describes how “structured, credit-bearing learning experiences can take place outside of the traditional school day, or even the school year.” It also highlights how college and career readiness and “allow[ing] students to explore a career or topic of interest” are benefits of “learning anytime anywhere.”

An Extension Beyond College and Career Readiness and Academic Proficiencies

STEAM Box is doing the type of work RI Kids Count described. “I’ve seen students who were ready to drop out of school who launched [a balloon] to space and then got accepted with a scholarship to Worcester Polytech,” Gonzalez said. He went on to describe a student who went on to work at Google—the kind of anecdote that teachers and school districts clamor for.

As proud as he is of students who have won scholarships or were hired for prestigious jobs, Gonzalez and the organization also champion the students who gain other worthwhile experiences from engaging in their activities. He gave an example of a student working at Taco Bell, saying that she got “a sense of family” out of STEAM Box. When her school stopped housing the program, she transferred to another school to stay with the organization!

Considering that relationship building is a key part of the work going on in schools, there may be more that ELOs and schools can learn from one another, such as shareable SCL practices.

ELO + Schools ‘4 EVA’: Student-Centered Learning Strategies

To explore the intersections between ELOs and schools and to find SCL strategies that would work in both settings, I took two approaches. First, I returned to a “Newspaper and Digital Media Club” course I taught to examine the lessons of SCL strategies that were already in place or could be added. I also wanted to identify initiatives or activities that aligned with ELA, STEM, and art.

Then, I built a personal educational blog, Teaching is the New Black, where I could post curricular materials and examples that highlighted these concepts and subject areas, along with reflections on how or why I think they work. The resources I made available on the site—which include instructional tips and suggested sessions for beginning a digital media program—are also derived from my past experiences teaching high school and middle school students and leading workshops for adults.

Ideally, my blog readers will find the materials classroom ready, with enough information to understand and apply SCL concepts and practices like “helping learners identify their own interests, strengths, needs and preferences” and “creating learning progressions” based on student choice.

I wanted to address questions like “What if I didn’t plan for that?” while keeping in mind a point raised by Gonzalez: Although students may dismantle his curriculum, it starts with the skills that every student has to know. A visitor to the Teaching is the New Black blog will see the skills I wanted students to develop and practice under sessions 4–6. As far as sessions 1-3, those are devoted to “getting to know each other and the subject at hand.” For those needing immediate strategies for SCL, I direct you to the resources for sessions 7-9: Supporting Student-Led Inquiry, Exploration, Innovation, and Collaboration.”

One common thread through all my sessions is the emphasis on metacognitive processing and skill-building, like determining the right questions to ask when responding to texts or media and techniques to try for goal setting and monitoring action steps.

I also added “hints” related to integrating ELA, STEM, and art content and standards into lessons. For example, there are samples and tips for educators and ELO providers who want to help their students build infographics. This is a great way to support “student-led inquiry, exploration, innovation and collaboration” with real-world STEM skills that can—and should—be driven by student interest.

As Gonzalez and the youth from STEAM Box remind us, every year brings different students with different interests. To Gonzalez, this means “it’s our job as leaders to determine where our people are and how to reach our people best.”

But, we have to be willing to move aside while they tear it all down and build it for themselves.


Gonzalez, R. (2018, April 16). Personal interview.

Rhode Island Kids Count. “Rhode Island KIDS COUNT Student- Centered Learning Fact Sheet: Learning Anytime, Anywhere.” Rhode Island Kids Count, August 2016, www.rikidscount.org.

Reza Clifton is a writer, artist, educator, 15-year veteran of radio broadcasting, and current candidate for a master’s degree in Education degree from Providence College. Awarded for blog posts, podcasts and community organizing dating back to 2005, she was named in June 2018 as the Co-Executive Director of Girls Rock! RI in Providence, Rhode Island. 

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