March 8, 2018

If Only They Would Listen

By Sahar Mohammadzadeh

My father and I have a morning tradition. We settle ourselves in the car before dawn and tune the radio to NPR's Morning Edition. I relish the opportunity to explore worlds that exceed my imagination, savor the power in knowing the intricacies of foreign societies—or I did before the country from which my parents emigrated became frequently mentioned. Nationally disseminated reports plagued with unintentional errors began to spoil my morning experience. "Iran is pronounced 'E-ran!'" I recall yelling at the radio. "The country's name is not a subject and a verb." "The theocracy does not represent all citizens; we cannot be painted with a single brush sweep!" Every time I lashed out, my father would gently counsel, "Don't strain yourself. They can't hear you from the car.

It wasn't until I encountered the Student Voice Team, a group of students from across Kentucky working to boost the narratives and voices of students in education policymaking, that I began to redirect my frustration. Lobbying about draft bills I had written (like House Bill 236; a bill to have a voting student member on the superintendent screening committee) or working on campaigns (like the "Powerball Promise Campaign," which is credited with prompting the Kentucky legislature to recommit $14 million of state lottery funds to support need-based college scholarships in 2016) captured my attention. I channeled my energy toward reminding Kentucky policymakers of their underrepresented, disenfranchised constituents whose cultural backgrounds were dismissed, much like mine were on the radio. Civic activism became my megaphone, amplifying voices of the unheard. My activism gave me an outlet; reminded me that young people are the present, not just the future; and taught me that I might be too young to vote, but it was never too early to have a voice. Being a member of s student voice team instilled a priceless value on education that I would have never received through the classroom alone.

It seemed crucial to provide similar platforms for other students at my own school. After collaborating with teachers, the site-based decision-making council, and administration, a diverse group of students began gathering after school in a quiet English classroom to discuss obstacles in their education. Students made observations like:

  • "It's difficult being the only black student in my AP class. I always feel out of place."

  • "As an individual that suffers from anxiety and depression, it's troubling to see such a poor emphasis on mental well-being in school. Teachers aren't trained to deal with these situations."

  • "It's hard to value my education when I feel like the school doesn't even care about me."

This last, unexpected quote came from a student that became involved in the group by happenstance. He was waiting for his mom to pick him up and wandered into our meeting in search of someone to keep him company. He was, at the time, failing more than half of his classes. That afternoon, the group was discussing the school's new grading system, studying the intricate policies of standards-based grading. He picked up the grading policy book, filled with heavy jargon, determined to read through the rules that would influence his life in school and beyond. The next day, he returned with a fully annotated, Post-it filled education policy report. His interest in his education was reignited once his input was listened to. He found his voice and, through that, became a powerful agent of change not only for his peers but also for the entire education system.

Our team believes students are largely an untapped resource when it comes to improving our schools. After spending more than 35 hours a week over many years observing school systems up close, we have developed an expertise that we are able and more than willing to share to make the education experience better.

Ironically, it seems we talk about everything in school but school itself. When schools establish a space for students with a vested interest in their own education to discuss solutions-oriented education policy the insights they can bring to the table are incredible. Think of what could be accomplished, if only they would listen.

This article was originally published in the journal ASCD Express in the issue titled "Amplifying Student Voice" (Vol. 13, No. 13).

Sahar Mohammadzadeh

Sahar Mohammadzadeh

Sahar is a Yoda Corps Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. She is a former member and was previously the Postsecondary Research and Outreach Director. Sahar graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2018 and is a student at Harvard University.