The 2011 HWDSB Director’s Student Voice Forums for Secondary Students

[jbox border=”6″ radius=”12″ shadow=”5″ title=”Listening to Our Students” icon=””]…when we listen to our students they tell us better than anybody else can what they like, what they dislike, and what we can do better.”

CHML radio interview with @HWDSB Director John Malloy[/jbox]

It started with a question, “How would you make our learning spaces and learning experiences more effective, and what are multiple ways to do that?”

Jump to information on the Director’s Student Voice Forum

On November 14th and 16th of 2011, close to 600 secondary school students were given the opportunity to express themselves and to have their voices heard on a variety of different topics that were both generated by them and resonated with them. By request of our @HWDSB director of education John Malloy (@malloy_john), my superintendent of student achievement, Pat Rocco (@Pat_Rocco) came to Margot (@mags_cimba) and I (@bloggucation) to create the conditions and to provide an environment where students could have a voice and to provide for us their perspectives on education, their learning spaces and environments and to provide us with suggestions as to how we can serve them better. After all, we are here for them and we need to provide them with the best possible learning experience ever.

Dynamic Conversations

I love learning from students – I can honestly say that I have learned as much, if not more, from students than I have ever taught them. For me, I provide the conditions for learning and walk alongside the students on the discovery of it. They are capable of so much and we need only open the doors for them to be able to see it, experience it, and have confidence in their ability to comprehend, discuss, demonstrate, and do it. The Growing Success in Ontario document describes “…a [learning] culture in which student and teacher learn together in a collaborative relationship, each playing an active role in setting learning goals, developing success criteria, giving and receiving feedback, monitoring progress, and adjusting learning strategies.” (30) With this philosophy, we are moving away from the premise that teachers and educators are the active agents and holders of knowledge to co-learners with students as their active partners in the process. This ties in as well to John Hattie’s conversation in his book, Visible Learning, where he talks about “…a change in the conceptions of what it means to be a teacher.” (4) Rather than being the uni-directional portal of learning, “…determining goals and criteria for successful achievement, delivering instruction, and evaluating student achievement at the end of a period of learning” (Growing Success, 30) teachers, and educators as a whole, strive to know what each and every student brings to the table, builds and capitalizes upon that, and “…respect[s]…what [each] child brings to the class (from home, culture, peers), and allow[s] the experiences of the child to be recognized in the classroom.” (118) Students (especially teenagers) have a lot of pre-conceived learning that occurs externally to our influence as teachers. They “…not only bring to school their prior achievement (from preschool, home, and genetics), but also a set of personal dispositions that can have a marked effect on the outcomes of schooling.” (40) To hear from the students is to make these dispositions visible and supportive of us moving forward.

As indicated in our strategic directions, Engagement, Equity, and Achievement Matter and to do this, we must know our students, our staff, and our parents and community. Now, when I say “know” I am not just referring to having an undersatanding of who we are working with and serving but truly knowing, as best as we can, their socio-economic background, prior learning and achievement, cultural and linguistic backgrounds and undersatandings not only of learning but of education in general. We need to know the learning styles of our students, their interests, their needs, their personalities, their struggles, their successes and we need to meet them where they are – ultimatelty to engage our students where they are engaged in life them.  An essential component and area of focus for us in this regard is Student Voice. We want to hear from our students. We want to know what works for them and what doesn’t, what they think we can do better to serve their individual and unique learning styles and needs, how we can  honour their diverse backgrounds and what they can teach us, and how we can create the ultimate learning spaces and conditions for learning possible.

Knowing our students will help us tailor our programs to address their strengths and needs. This authentic student input will also help usto imporce our decision-making to support student achievement, and help us provide opportunities for student leadership

Engagement Matters

Ultimately, in listening to the students and gathering their voice, and to adapt some wording from John Hattie’s work, we are looking to ascertain ‘How we are doing?’ “in achieving the learning intentions [we] have set for [our] students, such that [we] can decide ‘Where to next?’ for the students.” (181)

So we endeavoured to create the ultimate environment and the condition for students from diverse backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities, levels of engagement (the engaged, the disengaged, the re-engaged), and achievement, and to create a forum in which all students could communicate in the way they felt most comfortable and proficient on the topics that resonated the most with them as individuals and as learners in @HWDSB. For as Hattie explains, “…the most powerful single influence enhancing achievement is feedback” and that “…the most important feature was the creation of situations…for the teachers [educators] to receive more feedback about their teaching.” He goes on to say that the “ripple effect back to the student[s]” would be high (12).

We aimed to create a blended learning environment, a differentiated classroom, en mass, where students could express themselves according to their own personal preference and learning style, have opportunities to contribute as active and valued members of the discourse, and to provide an equitable opportunity for the other 17,000+ students (we have 17,739 secondary students in @HWDSB) to have a voice as well.

Click below to play: John Malloy on CHML Radio discussing the Student Voice Forums (Nov. 17th, 2011)

[jbox border=”6″ radius=”12″ shadow=”5″ title=”Differentiated Engagement” icon=””]…The main task was: We need your advice [the students] regarding our learning spaces, the tools we use for learning, the kinds of classrooms we want, the kinds of assessments that really make you learn better, the kind of safety that you’re looking for, etc….we gave them the task, then we gave them options…

They were able to blog – we had computers set up – they could create podcasts – if they didn’t want to write they could speak – they could go to graffiti walls and write their ideas on paper, they could be part of discussion groups …for the whole forum they could make choices…

…if they got tired of one topic they could simply move to another.”

CHML radio interview with @HWDSB Director John Malloy[/jbox]

The Director’s Student Voice Forums
The Events

In order to provide the most differentiated experience possible and to give students as many opportunities as we could for them to express themselves in their way we set the Forums up using an Open Pace format. Our school board is divided into three clusters (north, south, and west) and we held the forums at a central high school in each of those clusters: Glendale (North), Ancaster High (West), and Barton (South). Prior to each event, we contact the Student Success / Guidance Heads and asked for them to work with staff at the school to select a diverse group of students that were representative of their unique student body. In essence, we wanted a sample group that would represent a micro-cosm of each individual school. We didn’t just want the vocal or the engaged as these students are only representative of a certain group. We wanted a wide range of students so that the ethnic, gender, and academic diversity of each venue was represented. The students were then asked what they wanted to talk about. Topics were sent to Margot @mags_cimba and me @bloggucation for colation and review. The topics generated were as follows:

  • What do you know about the assessment and evaluation of your learning? What do you need to know? How can you learn that?
  • Describe your ideal learning environment and explain how it would help you learn
  • What does your school environment look like and how can it be improved?
  • How can learning be relevant (meaningful, real-life) for you?
  • Do you have a psafe space? What does it look like?
  • What can HWDSB do to help you feel safe and comfortable in your school?
  • How have you expressed your voice during the ARC process (Accommodation Review Committee)?
  • How do HWDSB policies affect your experiences at school?
  • What can HWDSB do about bullying?

Comments on each topic can be reviewed on the Director’s Forum blog HERE

We set up a blog prior to the event (Director’s Student Voice Forum) with all 8 topics added for discussion and comment. By creating a virtual copy of the physical environment, we were able to invite comment and insight from all students in HWDSB beyond those that were physically present. This provided equitable access to opportunity for expression for all.

On the day of each event, we displayed the following Powerpoint on the screen which identified the 8 topics that would be the focus of discussion and the rules for engagement / norms of collaboration for the day. Our only criteria:

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t highlight a personal issue or expose anyone by name
  • Participate

The blog collected the voice virtually and provided a forum for those students that preferred to communicate collaboratively yet more privately by means of a screen and the Internet. It also allowed a broader audience of students to participate; and, further, it provided parents with an opportunity to see what students were saying and comment as well if they so chose.

Director's Forum Blog

The Director’s Student Voice Forum

The Writing on the Wall

Each topic was posted around the auditorium of the respective schools. We asked for students to visit the topic that resonated with them the strongest first, to jot their ideas and thoughts on the graffiti wall once they arrived at the station, and then engage in conversation with other like minded individuals who were attracted to that topic as well. Accompanying teachers were asked to be the recorders of each session but not to lead the conversations. A student facilitator was trained and provided the tools to guide the conversation at each station. Should guidance or prompts be needed to continue a conversation, or of the student facilitator needed help, then teachers were asked to support at that time.

As the conversation continued at each station, the teacher recorder documented the themes that commentary that occurred and were recurring. When students had exhausted their conversation or felt that they wanted to add to another conversation, they exerted the “law of two feet” and joined in another topic and conversation, first adding their comment to the graffiti wall, and then participating in the conversation.

The Graffiti Walls were just the beginning, however, as we knew that this form of expression and communication would only serve the needs of those students that felt comfortable with this form of communication and with discussing ideas openly with a group of their peers.

We had other options.


At the back of the auditoriums, we set up a blogging café where students could comment to the topics on the blog or add their own topic if neither of the 8 options presented resonated with them. We also had microphones set up so that they could speak their thoughts via podcast. This provided a wealth of opportunity for those students that did not feel comfortable writing or discussing their ideas openly with others. Here, they were provided with a comfortable forum, via technology, to express themselves and to be heard. In fact, I came across a few students that were having a robust conversation amongst themselves in the middle of the auditorium. I asked them why they were not contributing and they responded with “Nobody wants to hear what we have to say.” I assured them otherwise and asked them if they would have their conversation around a microphone, thus capturing their thoughts for all to hear. They agreed, and we were able to capture their conversation. Another student from an alternative education environment was very vocal and brilliant with his ideas. He would not, however, write them anywhere and was not interested with typing them on a blog. I asked him to podcast and he loved it. He recorded about 8 separate topics himself!

The Blogging Café

The blogging café was a huge hit at all schools but was particularly popular in the North cluster (inner city). At one point, we had a line up of about 10 students that wanted to add their voice in this manner. We also had an iPad station where students could blog or, more popular, to express themselves via webcam using the video camera. We had about 20 students choose to video blog – comfortable not only to add their voice but their likeness as well. Those less comfortable with that venue chose podcasting (audio only) and others still choose just to add their thought by writing on the Graffiti Walls or through conversation (captured by the teacher recorder).

We had an outlet for everyone!

At the end of the conversation period, Director John Malloy heard from a speaker for each station, who reported back the main theme and comments, and spoke to each topic.

The days were dynamic, full of voice and choice, a blended learning classroom en mass with a differentiated task.

Graffiti Wall Rolls

Graffiti Wall Rolls Ready for Analysis

In the weeks that followed, HWDSB’s Evidence-Based Education and Services Team (@HWDSB_EBEST), the Board’s research service (, compiled and analyzed the results so that the Board could respond to what students are saying.

Currently, in an effort to have students report back to students, Student Senate will be working with school based Media Arts teams to create 60-90 second Public Service Announcement capturing the themes and ideas of each topic. This PSAs will be provided to schools so that the conversations can take place locally, thus expanding the circle to the larger student body. The conversation is never ending and essential for us as educators to provide students with the best possible opportunities to meet their true potential.

Comment Cards

Comment Cards from the Suggestion Box

To return to Hattie, what we succeeded in creating was an expanded, instrumented, blended learning instructional environment en masse where student voice was valued and respected. We used the strategy of providing multiple outlets of expression so that students could feel comfortable communicating in a way that suited their personality and style (group discussion, white boards, chart paper, photos, podcasting, blogging, tweets, video blogging, whole group discussion, and more). As educators, we must “…be prepared to understand and adapt to the learner(s) and their situations, contexts, and prior learning, and need to share the experience of learning in this manner in an open, forthright, and enjoyable way with their students and their colleagues.” (Hattie, 23) We asked for their feedback for, as Hattie explains, “…feedback to the teacher about what students can and cannot do…is more powerful than feedback to the student, and it necessitates a different way of of interacting and respecting students.” (Hattie, 4) We created the situation “…for the teachers [educators] to receive more feedback about their teaching.” Hattie says that the “ripple effect back to the student[s]” would be high (12).

“All students achieving their full potential” is our goal.  We cannot achieve this goal without listening and responding to our students!” (Malloy)

I fully agree.


Education, Ontario. Ministry of. Growing Success, Assessment, Evaluation And Reporting In Ontario’s Schools : Covering Grades 1 To 12. 2010. (

Hattie, J. Visible learning, a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. 1st. 1. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Malloy, John. Student Voice ….continued. Retrieved March 7, 2012, from