Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Town Hall Meetings: Student Voice in Action

When I discovered Nathan Barber on twitter, it was like meeting a kindred soul. He is the author of "What Teachers Can Learn from Sports Coaches," a topic near and dear to my heart. He tweeted something about Town Hall meetings that they do at his school, and it sounded like an awesome example of respecting student voice. I asked him if he would write a blog post for me... so enjoy today's post from this gifted writer. 

Student voice may be one of the greatest things school leadership can give a student body. Students need – not just want – to have a voice at school. Therefore, the challenge for school leaders lies in providing safe, meaningful and productive ways for student voice to be heard. For some schools outlets such as clubs and organizations provide students a voice. 

For other schools journalism in various forms offers students a voice. At my school, we decided several years ago to provide students with an actual, audible voice in the form of Town Hall meetings.The vision for Town Hall meetings at my school (an independent school in Houston, Texas) originated with my Head of School before I arrived five years ago. However, the first ever Town Hall meeting happened on my watch. Looking back on that first meeting, I’m often amazed at just how far our student body has progressed with the Town Hall meeting.

We use one of our gyms as the setting for each Town Hall meeting, as we have no auditorium to accommodate the seating arrangement we desire. We seat the seniors together on one side of the basketball court and the juniors opposite them on the other side of the court. We seat the sophomores on one end of the court and the freshmen opposite them on the other end. Faculty sit among the students. This arrangement allows everyone to see everyone else. Additionally, anyone who speaks can address the entire student body face to face. The conversations generated in Town Hall meetings certainly would not be the same if a student had to stand at the back of an auditorium and address the backs of everyone’s heads. 

The conversation for each Town Hall meeting centers on one or two narrow topics, issues or questions. When we began this process several years ago, students did not know the topics or questions before they arrived for the Town Hall meeting. We learned over time, though, thanks in large part to student feedback, that students and faculty alike much prefer learning the topic or questions a few days ahead of time so they can begin to generate thoughts. Therefore, we currently share the topic or questions with everyone a few days prior to the Town Hall meeting. As a result, we have enjoyed much livelier and more meaningful conversations.

At the time of the Town Hall meeting, after everyone has been seated, I open the meeting with a brief reminder of expectations: One student speaks at a time. Remain respectful at all times. Feel free to disagree but articulate disagreements respectfully. Keep comments focused on the issue rather than on a person. After the reminders, I sit down. We usually project the topic or questions on a screen for students to see and to help students stay focused. 

Outside that, we let the students drive the conversation.

Our school’s Prefects (our senior leadership team that we use instead of Student Council) stand at each corner of the basketball court with a wireless mic. When a student wishes to speak, he/she stands, and one of our Prefects hands the student the mic. The speaker has the floor and no one interrupts. The speaker is free to state an opinion, ask a question, make observations, etc., as long as it is relevant to the topic. When the speaker sits, another students somewhere else stands, takes the mic, and speaks. This process goes on for about 30 minutes. I should mention, too, that faculty may participate by responding, asking questions, and the like, but they must participate as a participant and not as an authority figure. In other words, faculty do not correct or redirect students during the process, even if they disagree with or disapprove of what a student says. As a result, students see the Town Hall meeting as a safe place to express themselves. After the time has expired, I stand, thank the students, encourage them to continue the conversation throughout the day, and then I adjourn the Town Hall meeting.

If you are white-knuckled just thinking about handing a mic to a gym full of students, I totally understand. As an administrator, a small part of me prays before each Town Hall that the students will not do something to embarrass themselves or the school. Admittedly, this feeling tends to be amplified when we have visitors on campus to observe. Nothing compares, however, to the unsettling feeling I had years ago before we held our first Town Hall. I still remember some of my teachers saying, “You’re seriously going to hand the mic to the kids and then sit down?” Oh my.

When the Town Hall meetings first began on campus several years, we always had a few knuckleheads who wanted attention and made silly and/or unrelated comments just to get laughter. After all, teenagers do silly things more than just occasionally. Over the years, however, this has disappeared almost entirely because we have created a culture where comments like those are discouraged and not valued, and genuine participation is valued. Even when comments have gotten off-track on occasion, school leaders have never in five years taken the mic from a student nor told anyone to sit down or be quiet. Above all else, the Town Hall remains a safe setting that students know we (the adults) will protect. The students value the safe environment in which they can express themselves and they do a great job of getting the conversation back on track with no adult intervention.

Almost always, the conversation in the Town Hall meetings gets cut off due to time restraints. We like this, though. When the conversation ends abruptly in the Town Hall, it continues organically in the halls and classrooms, particularly if the topic/questions/prompts are good. A few of the topics/questions we have used in the past include:
-What does it mean to be an Eagle (our mascot)?
-What is the value of social media?
-Why do students cheat? Can we stop cheating?
-What would our school look like without grades?

Choosing the right topics and questions can be tricky. Some topics generate more conversation than others. For us,  allowing our students to help select topics has been pivotal for the success of the Town Hall meetings. In truth, not every minute of every Town Hall buzzes with conversation. There often occur periods of time ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes in which no one speaks. The first time this happened, the 60 seconds seemed like an eternity. We have learned to let the silence hang momentarily and to wait patiently. The conversation always resumes. 

These short periods of silence no longer bother us because the same phenomenon occurs in our Harkness classrooms, too. As in the classroom, the students always revive the conversation. On some level, the Town Hall experience mirrors a Harkness classroom: everyone faces everyone else; students drive the conversation; all opinions have value; respect reigns supreme; and authentic, meaningful and rich conversation flows from students being given a voice. The Town Hall experience should not be attempted by the faint of heart. However, once the right culture has been established and once the kids and the adults get the hang of it, the conversations can be powerful.

Could you hold Town Hall meetings at your school?
What fears do you have when you read this post?
How does your school respect and allow student voice?

1 comment:

  1. It’s my pleasure to read a post that has been written by the great writer Nathan Barber. He is such a gifted writer. I am always keen to attend all the conferences in which Nathan Barber is present. He is a good speaker too. I have attended all of his meetings at the public meeting rooms.