In 2019, the team at the Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) realized that as we re-envisioned our frameworks and resource materials to center student experiences, we needed to bring students more directly into our work. Working first with students from three Seattle-area school districts and later with students across the country, we embarked on a project to do just that.
A team of CEL staff members worked with students who school leaders identified as less often heard, students who operate “under the radar.” We asked this diverse group of students about their best experience in school. For students and adults alike this open-ended project was a different way of working. “I had to really let go of some of the learned behaviors I have around leading students toward an outcome, so I could create space for students to be able to authentically share their stories,” reflected Jenn McDermott, Director of Innovative Initiatives at CEL.
Some students, particularly those who were older, also struggled. They’d ask: “What’s the right answer? What are you trying to get me to say?” What we really wanted was their unfiltered imagination.
But other students really dove in; they knew what moments to share and why. One boy said, “My favorite day of school was when it was my birthday because everybody said hello to me, and I wish that happened every day.”
After sharing their stories, students grouped sentence strips created from those stories. Very quickly, they identified two distinct themes: “happy” and “proud”. Using those two words as a foundation, we worked together with the students to turn those ideas into a guide that could be shared in the field.
Overwhelmingly, the students — especially the younger kids — told us that the “thing” we were creating together needed images and not a lot of words. They didn’t want it to look like an adult document, essentially. And they wanted to make sure that English language learners and students who couldn’t yet read could still use the guide. The students discussed and drew the shapes, images and colors they imagined.
Over time, the students’ many drawings evolved. A student with graphic design talent was the first to come up with the triangle-in-a-circle-with-a-superhero image and although the key graphic continued to be refined, we didn’t stray far from that image.
This is essentially how the Student Experience Story Guide was formed. Reflecting on our process and the guide, one colleague remarked: “This is not an assignment for kids. This is an assignment for adults to hear kids’ stories.” And they’re right.
We hope this tool serves as an opening to rich, meaningful conversations with students about what they want their time at school to look like, to sound like, to feel like.