How’s school? No really, your voice matters

Students speak up about their school concerns

Students Nick Denenberg, left, and Rand Ripple add their thoughts
8 for 8

The Student Voice sessions were part of “8 for 8 day,” which kicked off with a school-wide assembly on autism. The day also included breakouts related to the district’s eight “guiding principles”: caring, open communication, collaboration, diversity and inclusiveness, high expectations, respect, trust and learning.

  • CPR and defibrillators
  • Outdoor education
  • Social media challenges and responsibility
  • Responding to bullying
  • Reading for pleasure
  • The role of the school resource officer
  • Incoming eighth-graders primer
  • District climate and culture survey
  • Career goals and action plans
  • Transitioning to high school

The question “How’s school?” became a vehicle for transformation recently at Eastern Middle School. Students were asked to sound off on topics such as class content, school culture and community, bullying, the transition from elementary school to seventh grade, and electives.

The plusses at Eastern Middle:

“We’re lucky,” said eighth-grader Ce Ci Whitmer. “We get a lot of things other schools don’t get, even in Michigan.”

Added classmate Nick Denenberg: “I like that we have a lot of different ethnicities and learning styles.”

And from Olivia Nolan: “I feel like we’re independent.”

Seventh- and eighth-graders participated in one of four workshops, the second middle school stop as part of the national Student Voice organization’s school tour.

Throughout the day, small groups of students took part in discussions facilitated by Student Voice Executive Director Merrit Jones and Chief Strategist Megan Simmons. The goal: to think more critically about their education experiences and brainstorm areas of improvement.

Merrit Jones, left, and Megan Simmons, college student representatives for the National Student Voice Organization, facilitated sessions with Eastern Middle students

National Movement to Empower Students

Student Voice, founded over social media site Twitter, aims to empower students to partner with their educational institutions to help shape their experiences. The national tour was funded via a Facebook Community Leadership grant.

During the roughly one-hour session in one group, students offered areas they see as needing improvement.

Rand Ripple said some “challenge” classes feel to him “like they speed through the material, not that they are more in-depth than a regular class.”

For Nick, “it’s hard for me to conceptualize why I’m learning some things if I can’t connect it to the real world,” which brought murmurs of agreement all around.

“I like that in social studies, we lived an empire,” added Olivia, referring to a weeks-long classroom simulation. “I did so much better on those tests.”

Eastern Middle students shared what they think can be improved, then came together to discuss how

Anna Alt agreed. “We could teach things in more different ways,” she said. “I know a lot of kids don’t really learn just through notes and tests.”

As for school culture, Jones asked students in that group how they can hold one another accountable in areas such as bullying, after they shared that derogatory name-calling and gossip are problems.

“You just straight up should not be able to call people names at school,” Nick said. “Regardless of what your beliefs are, if we had a standard of what’s acceptable behavior then we wouldn’t have these problems.”

When classmates call someone a derogatory slang name, Olivia said, “they need to realize that person is deeply affected by it.”

Added Ce Ci: “It might be too big to stop, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help. I think kids should stand up.”

Judy Walton, Eastern Middle principal and coordinator of secondary teaching, learning and innovation for the district, called the day a successful learning opportunity.

“I was delighted to be able to have time to dialogue with every single seventh-grader today, and to collectively set a high bar for next year,” Walton said after the event wrapped. “We have an amazing staff and wonderful students, and today we saw both in full force.”

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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