5 Innovative Approaches To Ignite Student Voice


5 Innovative Approaches to Ignite Student Voice

Create a class YouTube Playlist.


I LOVE YouTube. As a teacher this love has turned into my obsession with creating and curating YouTube playlists for my classes. YouTube lets you organize videos into themes and categories and compiles them all into one link that you can share with your students via Google Classroom or your class website. YouTube Playlists are powerful tools for igniting and supporting student voice.

I challenge my students to find videos that we can add to our class playlist and/or to share  videos that inspire or interest them. You can also feature student videos on your YouTube channel. Over the years, my YouTube Playlists continually develop and change to reflect/support not only my course content, but also the interests and learning needs of my students. As an added bonus, the students are researching and making critical choices about their selections and synthesizing their findings. If you are interested in learning how to create a YouTube playlist check out: Create & manage playlists.  

Genius Hour, 20% Time, Passion Projects – call it whatever you want – just do it .

This year I engaged in Genius Hour with my Grade 12s and Heritage Fair projects with my Grade 10s. For both projects, students create an essential question on a topic that interests them, engage in research, create a 90 second elevator pitch and create a final product and presentation they share with the class.

These projects truly ignited student voice in my classes. The students came up with topics that I never would have thought of. Also, the medium and style that they used to present their project highlighted each student’s talents and passions. One student created a website to inspire women in the arts, another tackled Islamophobia and the impact this has on her life, still another researched the history of LGBTQ rights and presented it as a spoken word winning the York Region Human Rights Award. Ultimately, these projects allowed me to learn from my students and share their passion. If you want to ignite student voice, try out Genius Hour. Be sure to check out amazing resources by: Joy Kirr, AJ Juliani and Gallit Zvi to help you get started.

Have Difficult Conversations

Too often in our classes, we avoid ‘controversial’ topics.  Rather than avoidance, it is our job to equip and support students with the tools to discuss these topics. Two tools that I use are this Google slides presentation I created: Difficult Conversations and this comic by the Oatmeal You’re not going to believe what I have to tell you that looks at the brain research behind why we have visceral reactions to controversial issues. In today’s world, it is so important that we equip our students with the tools they need to critically think and openly discuss their viewpoints and beliefs.

Value & Incorporate Student Interests  

Many of my students are interested in video games. One student told me that I could teach most of our unit on Ancient Greece through the video game Civilizations. At the time, I wasn’t familiar with the game. I asked the student if he could bring in the game, show it to us and explain how I could incorporate it into my teaching. He came back with one of the most engaging and thoroughly prepared history lessons I have ever experienced, and I left hooked on the game as well as his ideas. (P.S. There is a Civilizations Edu version coming out in the fall, so he was clearly a visionary ahead of his time).

Basically, as educators we need to step back and let our students share their interests, value them and look for ways that we can incorporate them into our teaching. If we want our students to have a voice in our classroom their passions need to be reflected in the learning environment and the pedagogical choices that we make.

Build Student-Teacher Relationships

One of my previous blogs discussed strategies for improving student-teacher relationships. I can’t stress how important this is. Ultimately, if we want our students to be vocal in our classrooms they need to know that their traditions, beliefs and opinions are valued – full stop. More than anything they need to feel safe and supported in our classroom. If you want to ignite student voice in your classroom, you better be prepared to value and protect it.

Think fast, draw-a-scientist!

Think fast, draw-a-scientist!  

What image just popped into your head?

Here’s my guess – an old, white male working alone. Am I close?

The research says that I am. This experiment asks children and adults to draw – you guessed it – a scientist. When it was first used in 1983, over 5000 students from three different countries all drew males. In 2017, not much has changed. When this test is used, children and adults almost always draw a male, with glasses, working alone.  Worse still, studies have found that these stereotypes start as early as elementary school.

This is indicative of the problems women face in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Globally women account for less than 28.4% of those employed in STEM.

Attempts to address this have focused on the pipeline issue – the belief that if we get more women into STEM fields of education we’ll get more women out. However, globally women with a degree in STEM are still far less likely to work in a STEM related field than men.

How can we, as teachers, help address this issue?

  1.  We need to acknowledge & challenge STEM stereotypes.

A group of researchers in the U.S. studied nearly 1.4 million users of an open source computer programming site Github.  They found that 78.6% of programs created by women were approved compared to 74.6% of programs created my males.  However, this higher rate of approval only existed when gender was not identified.  When the programmers identified themselves as female their approval rating dropped to 62.5%. Thus, women were recognized as better programmers only if their gender remained a secret.

Women also encounter stereotypes in STEM related degrees and professions.  Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao argues that there are a number of sexist micro aggressions that continually take place in the workplace.  Pao refers to this as “death by a thousand cuts.”   

Women who do pursue careers in STEM are expected to take on different roles in the workplace – they are supposed to be the office mother or daughter and are expected to do a greater share of the clerical work than men.  This may be why in 2011 in Canada only 27% of women who graduated with a STEM degree chose to work in a related field.

It is important for us to discuss and dispel these stereotypes in our classrooms. If we simply pretend they don’t exist we contribute to a culture that values women who are seen and not heard.  We need to have these difficult conversations in our classroom. We need to give a voice to the sexism and micro aggressions that women experience.

  1.  We need to showcase and celebrate female role models in STEM.

The University of Massachusetts conducted a study where first year female engineering students were either not given a mentor, assigned a male mentor or assigned a female mentor. The students met with their mentor once a month.  At the end of their first year, 11% of those without a mentor had switched majors or dropped out, whereas 18% of those with male mentors dropped out. Yet, 0% of those with female mentors dropped out. This example highlights the powerful impact that seeing themselves in STEM has on female students. 

Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook, states that there is a lack of female role models in STEM, and that this makes these fields less attractive to women.   Interestingly, in India 30% of women are programmers versus 21% in America. Journalist Vikram Chandra argues that this is because Indian women have more female role models in STEM fields than American women.

Books, tv shows, movies, the media and our classrooms need to showcase women in STEM. If you are looking  a couple fun places to get started check out this great kids book: Ada Twist, Scientist or watch my incredibly talented recently graduated student play Yael – a strong, smart, determined female computer programmer on Degrassi The Next Class. Up to you what you use, but let’s all start talking about and normalizing the idea of women in STEM.

  1. We need to rethink how Science is taught in schools.

Science is taught as a subject that has a right or wrong answer. Most classroom science experiments are “cookbook based” follow the instructions properly and you will get the desired result. This type of teaching creates a false image of a scientist as a person whose job is to find the right answer.  Scientists are not robots that simply record what they see completely objectively. Similarly, they are not capable of seeing everything (information can easily be missed and/or misunderstood).  In fact, it is important for students to learn that when we look back at scientific discoveries, much has been challenged and changed because of the fact that humans observe the same thing differently.   For example despite people seeing swinging pendulums for 1000s of years, no one, not even Leonardo da Vinci saw what Galileo ‘saw’.  Our observations are connected to our previous experiences, prior knowledge and preconceived notions.   Finally, it is important for students to recognize that science is not separate from society but part of a complex web of issues that they have the power to act on. We need a science curriculum that empowers students to become active citizens who view science as a tool for positive social change.

Rather than imagining scientists as brilliant robotic figures, students can connect with stories of people who worked hard, failed, tried again, succeeded only to find out they made a mistake and then try again. These stories bring humanity into science and may help to connect with students, like myself, who learn better when they can see the human connection beyond the textbook formula. Also, research shows that women are more attracted to jobs that they believe create real, lasting social change and involve people. Humanizing science and valuing different approaches to research and different types of knowledge may attract not only more females, but also more compassionate scientists and engineers.



Featherstone, E. (2015, June 24). Why women in Stem may be better off working in India and Latin America. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/guardian-professional/2015/jun/24/why-women-in-stem-may-be-better-off-working-in-india-and-latin-america

Github coding study suggests gender bias. (2016, February 12). Retrieved June 23, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35559439

Hodson, D., & Bencze, L. (1998). Becoming critical about practical work: Changing views and changing practice through action research. International Journal of Science Education, 20(6), 683-694.

Hodson, D. (2003). Time for action: Science education for an alternative future. International Journal of Science Education, 25(6), 645–670.

Huhman, H.  “STEM Fields and the Gender Gap: Where are the Women?,” Forbes, June 20, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/06/20/stem-fields-and-the-gender-ap-where-are-the-women/#4209f47741ba

Mercado, M. (2017, June 14). Female Mentorship Helps Keep Women in STEM Subjects, According To New Study. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from https://www.bustle.com/p/female-mentorship-helps-keep-women-in-stem-subjects-according-to-new-study-64437

Schwartz, Z. (2016, April 15). Why there are still far too few women in STEM. Retrieved June 15, 2017, from http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/why-there-are-still-far-too-few-women-in-stem/

The STEM Gender Gap: Where are the Women Equivalent of Steve Jobs? (2016, November 29).Retrieved June 02, 2017, from https://jobs.newscientist.com/article/the-stem-gender-gap-where-are-the-women-equivalent of-steve-jobs/

Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). (2017, March 29). Retrieved June 15, 2017, fromhttp://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-science-technology-engineering-and-mathematic–stem




Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships


Almost all of my teaching successes and failures can be attributed to relationships with students. Relationships are the heart of teaching.  Accordingly, as we head into summer and begin to recharge and think about the start of the next school year, and for my first ever blog post, I wanted to share Five Ways to Supercharge Student-Teacher Relationships.

  1. Take Risks & Be Vulnerable

Too often teachers believe they have to be the experts in the classroom when in fact this creates a power dynamic that distances teachers from students. It can also lead to teacher burn out as no human being can ever be the expert on everything. If you want your students to take risks in class, then you have to model this behaviour and join in the learning.  Every time I try a new lesson, assessment or technology I tell my students that it might fail, BUT that I am excited to TRY it. This could be creating a murder mystery scene, using Screencast or introducing Genius Hour.

The point is I tell them why I want to try it, that I don’t know if it is going to work, but that I want to do it anyways because I want to become a better teacher so that I can support their learning. This means that I regularly fail in front of my students. It also means that my students know that I am willing to fail if I believe there’s a chance it could benefit them. If students know that you are willing to open up and put yourself out there, then they will be more likely to do the same in your class.


  1. Be Kind – Always, no exceptions

I only give my students one rule. I tell them that this is the most important rule for the entire semester, more important than deadlines, their final mark or the content that they will learn in this course.  Be kind. In my classroom, be kind to each other.  We will applaud each other’s successes, support each other through challenges and contribute respectfully to class discussions and activities.  Students cannot learn and will not feel welcomed in a classroom where they are not valued and protected. Teachers have to model this and enforce this. Be kind- always, no exceptions.


  1.  Admit when you’re wrong and apologize

I have two young children, my oldest is turning 4 in September. Sometimes, I have lost my temper or failed at parenting in a myriad of other ways. I cannot be a perfect Mom, but I can apologize and try to learn from my mistakes. So I do. I apologize to my son, I tell him that I am wrong and that I will try to do better.  Just as I am not a perfect parent, I am not a perfect teacher. This past year, I lost my temper at a student. I didn’t yell – I am not a yeller, but I broke my cardinal rule – BE KIND – and told him in front of his peers how disappointed I was in the quality of his presentation. At first, I felt justified in my criticism (he clearly wasn’t prepared), but then I saw the crushed look on his face. It wasn’t what I had said, it was how I said it. So, what did I do? I apologized. I apologized to the student. I apologized to the class. I told all of them that my behaviour was inappropriate and that I was sorry for breaking our only class rule. I spoke with the student privately and worked at rebuilding the trust I had broken. In the end, he told me that no teacher had ever apologized to him before and he appreciated it. This moment didn’t take away the guilt I felt/still feel, but if you want to build relationships with your students, you need to be willing to admit when you are wrong.


  1.  Get to know your students & make sure they get to know each other.

If you read Teach Like a Pirate, you know that Dave Burgess discusses his first three days. One of the first things that he does is come up with a creative way for students to introduce themselves to the class and each other (play-doh anyone?). He also rewards them by challenging them to remember each others names.  

Reading this section of the book was an ‘aha’ moment for me. How much time did I actually spend in my high school classes making sure that my students knew each other? How could I possibly create a risk-taking inclusive learning environment for my students if they didn’t even know each other?!?! The simple answer was, I couldn’t.  I am now fully committed to making sure that my students know each other, before any course content is taught.

As a History teacher, I love having students research and share their family history with the class in any medium they choose. There are also a ton of Name Games & Get To Know Each Other Activities out there that can easily be adapted for any classroom. The point is it doesn’t really matter how you achieve this goal. It just matters that your students get to know you, you get to know them and they get to know each other.


  1. As Rita Pierson so aptly stated, “Be Their Champion.”

I like to create a class calendar that I either draw out on a whiteboard or post in our Google Classroom. It is accessible to all students and everyone can edit it. I tell them that they can put any dates that are important to them. Some put religious holidays, some put their birthdays (or their dog’s birthdays), some post sporting events and some don’t want to post (also completely okay). The point is anything that is posted on the calendar is acknowledged/celebrated.  Two years ago, my Grade 12s and I sang happy birthday to a beautiful dog named Billy, and I brought in a party hat and dog treats that the student could take home to celebrate with Billy later. That student cried, which might have made me tear up as well and all because I remembered to stop at the dollar store to pick up a party hat and some dog food. Sometimes our students have major achievements, one of my students wrote, filmed and produced a film that was being shown at the Toronto Short Film Festival. It was over March break, and she invited me, so my husband and I booked a babysitter and attended her show. I left that night so impressed by her and what she had achieved and honoured to have been a part of it. When we become champions of our students, we remember why we chose this profession and it fuels our passion. 

As Rita Pierson stated “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” When we create positive relationships in our classes, our students learn better and we enjoy our jobs more.

If you haven’t already done so, please check out: Rita Pierson’s TED talk and Dave Burgess’s book Teach Like a Pirate for more great ideas on supercharging student teacher relationships.

Thank you for checking out my first ever blog post!