21 May 2008

Enabling Voice

Last week Melinda Pongrey at LD Live! asked me about my communication skills. "Could you always tell people what you needed?" I told her, "No." Like most students who fall outside the "norms" created by school, I spent a lot of time mute, especially when it came to asking for things which might help me.

Then, over the weekend I watched a film that a friend lent me, Taare Zameen Par. And I cried because, well, in part because of the familiarity.

The child in the film hides and draws. I used to do that. I had this chalkboard in my tiny bedroom and I would disappear into worlds that I drew for myself there. Safe worlds. World where I could be whatever I wanted to be.

Those worlds, those drawings on the chalkboard, like the art of the child in this film from India, were my voice. Even if that voice only reached as far as myself.

But then, as adult after adult tells you that your way of expressing yourself does not matter, and that, in the ways that matter you are incapable of expressing yourself, eventually you might even give up that voice you have. Every answer you give is deemed wrong, or even laughed at. Every thought you have is outside of what people expect - and they tell you that. Everything you write comes back covered in "corrections." When you do things that seem right to you - from the music you hum or drum with your fingers to the pictures you draw in the margins of papers, to the daydreams you dwell in which let your imagination run - the humiliation and denigration just get worse.

So you find yourself sitting in silence. In the back corners of classrooms. In "resource rooms." In school corridors and offices. In car parks and city parks. Hidden in your own room. Wherever. It does not matter. You have learned that you are worthless, and your communication is worthless. Maybe you'll still yell from time to time, or fight, because that's all that's left and you're human after all, but silence will have descended.


Taarein Zamein Par Mummy - For more of the funniest videos, click here

This is why the most important thing you can do for students is to enable their voices, and to value their voices. Whatever their voices are, however they want to speak.

There is no reason that writing is prized more highly than art in schools, or even than speech. No reason that the making of music is not seen as valid a use of school time as writing. No reason to tell a student that SMS texting isn't writing, or twittering, or blogging, or IMing. The only thing that matters is to get them communicating, and to get them understanding how valued, how important, that communication is.

If you can get them communicating, in whatever form, you can get them interested in reaching out to the communications of others. If you can get them expressing themselves they will find in the expressions of others - if nothing else at first - techniques which they can imitate and eventually expand upon. And if they do that, they will begin to want to tap into the knowledge sources which surround them. Which is what you, as schools, and teachers, want them to learn to do. But if you have proven to them that communication is not good for them, they will not be open to communication.



A huge part of the solution is instructional tolerance - the willingness of teachers to accept real differences in learning and communication styles within a single classroom - the willingness of teachers to give up control over what students are doing every minute (an essential concept behind the effective use of personal Information and Communication Technologies - which cannot be used or personalized if too tightly controlled). That's not just a teacher thing, of course, although it takes a great teacher to really do this effectively. School administrators must encourage this and support it. If they don't, few teachers will be brave enough to truly try it.

And another huge part of the solution are those personal Information and Communication Technologies which can not only enable the voice, but project it, and can make that voice seem valid and strong. A mobile phone camera and some free computer software1 can turn a student into a film-maker whose work can be shared across the room and across the globe. Free online and downloadable animation and drawing software is everywhere, ranging from paint.net to Google SketchUp. Audacity can make every computer a recording studio for music, or simply the telling of stories - which can be edited and shared. Jott.com can turn a simple mobile into a speech recognition tool.

All can be edited and shared through the social networking tools which surround us. Blogs and wikis, Flickr and YouTube, or how about a site where the longest story - in Twitter-like fashion - is 140 characters? Because it is not just creation that makes communication valuable, it is discovering that you have something to say that others might pay attention to.

I found fabulous teachers in my life who helped me get to that point. They were (and are) the teachers who prize the idea at least as much as the method, the interesting solution at least as much as the expected answer, the originality at least as much as the "correct," the different at least as much as the "norm." Yes, they were always surrounded by other teachers with gags at the ready. Honestly, those who prefer to silence are still all around. But while research sure does prove out the destructive power of bad teachers, it also proves the stunning power of a great mentor to change a life.

Giving students voice is the most important thing we can do in our classrooms. We need to turn off the mute button which silences them. And that is not easy. Students who struggle with school and language learn all-too-quickly the high costs of trying to speak. The older your muted student, the more powerfully they have learned those costs, and the harder it it will be to convince them that their voice is worth hearing. And thus, the need to start to enable those voices is so very urgent.

Watch Taare Zameen Par if you can find it. [spoiler alert!] I will warn you that it may suggest that solutions come quickly - a Bollywood fantasy - but I've never seen a film capture the silencing with more intensity.

- Ira Socol

1 - also http://www.dvdvideosoft.com/products/dvd/Free-Video-Dub.htm and http://tv.isg.si/site/?q=node/873 for more options.

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

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5 comments:

Paul Hamilton said...

"...the most important thing you can do for students is to enable their voices, and to value their voices."

This sums up what ought to be the prime imperative of all "educators", including teachers, parents, and others.

This fundamental principle is really something I believe we need to practice in all of our relationships.

Penny said...

Even as a "typical" student who had a lot of fun in high school, I realized the importance of having an opportunity to develop my special "voice." I never would have mustered the discipline for all the math and science classes I took if I hadn't had band to look forward to every day. It took up some of my study time, but it also energized me and made be a better student overall.

I think about that when I hear about school rules that kick kids out of their extra-curricular activities if their math grades aren't high enough. (And then there's the budget cuts that take music, art and theater away from everyone, but that's for a separate rant.)

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Ira,

You said: "A huge part of the solution is instructional tolerance - the willingness of teachers to accept real differences in learning and communication styles within a single classroom - the willingness of teachers to give up control over what students are doing every minute (an essential concept behind the effective use of personal Information and Communication Technologies - which cannot be used or personalized if too tightly controlled)."

The problem with this statement is that there is a middle ground. We have to give instructors the benefit of the doubt as much as we do the student. Why? I know many instructors who value communication and individual voices as much as you do. But, in my experience (and I'm pretty tolerant), many students using personal communications devices often communicate with folks outside the classroom about topics that have nothing to do with why we're ALL in class in the first place.

We have to balance instructional tolerance and having voices with some degree of focus. Instructors have to offer a program and draws one's focus, and students have to sacrifice and pay attention.

I hope I'm not being too rigid here. I do appreciate the larger points of your post.

- TL

narrator said...

Too rigid? Nah. Especially not in your university environment. There - I actually think everywhere - part of enabling voice includes learning not to step on the rights of others. Plus, universities are - more or less - voluntary.

Most of this post is about K-12, of course, but I'll add that I think it is essential to encourage student voice at every level. Part of that is instructional tolerance and part of that is lowering the risk of speaking out and speaking differently.

- Ira Socol

narrator said...

and Paul: Absolutely. Giving Voice. It would surely make the world a better place because...

as Penny points out - this is not a disability issue, it is human issue.