Learning Out Loud Starts with Student Voice

In our January webinar, we welcomed two GOA members who view their membership in this global community as an extension of their commitment to meaningful student-led learning to share signature experiences that start with student voice.

Stacey Gauthier, Executive Director and Meredith Hinshaw, Director of Development and Communications at the Renaissance Charter Network, and John Clements and Mary Anne Moran, co-principals at Nipmuc Regional High School said that the launch of their signature learning experiences Rensizzle and Inspired Learning Days started with the questions: What if? and Why not?

  • What if students could tell their own story by practicing 21st century skills in areas they are interested in?

  • Why not have all students have a week of having something they really want to explore?

What if: student-led learning

It begins with asking students what they are interested in learning about, enabling them to express their strong opinions and honoring their voices through the design process. Renaissance and Nipmuc then lean into and honor students’ curiosity and passions with sessions including: Instant Exposure: Become a Photographer for a Day, Into the Wild: Learn Survival Skills, Fake It til you Make It: Adobe Design, The Sky’s the Limit: Exploring Space and the Universe; Extreme Geology: Climbing and Spelunking.

Students then learn in mixed age groups based on their interests, as well as outside the classroom and school building in order to take advantage of the surrounding community and states. “When students come back to us, what do they talk about? Rensizzle.” Both school systems talk about life-long learning as a part of their missions and Rensizzle and Inspired Learning Days as an embodiment of that mission.

Rensizzle happens one week a year (three days for elementary grades), and Inspired Learning Days- a full day when traditional learning is suspended, happen twice a year, district-wide.

Why not: going against the tide

The leaders at both districts pointed out: “We’re pushing against the current, driven by testing.” They each started small, with an experience that was designed around student interest and choice, and have grown over the years into signature experiences that students and the whole community share and look forward to.

These are days when they stop everything traditional- anything that constrains and, according to Clements, “chip away at the architecture of traditional school that holds us back from being the version of ourselves that we want to be.” He further pointed out that learning experiences like Rensizzle and Inspired Learning Days challenge the idea that we need a bell to move from one class to the next or that classes have to be divided into disciplines. How can schools build in more opportunities for authentic, student-led learning?

Addressing adult concerns

Gauthier shared that as she was investigating how Renaissance could grow their week-long program, a major challenge was teacher concerns: Am I able to lead this kind of unstructured learning, outside my classroom, with a different set of students, and outside my subject-area expertise? All, she underscored, legitimate concerns. Hinshaw stressed the importance of giving teachers space to voice their concerns and needs and attending to those in the design process. That might involve bringing in an outside expert to lead the learning experience, or other resources to enable teachers to learn alongside students.

This invites a paradigm shift from teacher as expert to teacher as learner. With the emergence of AI, it might be necessary for all teachers, workers and leaders to assume this learning stance, and a school is the perfect organization to cultivate it. At GOA, we work with teachers to take this stance as they incorporate AI in their classrooms as well as in their course design and assessment.

Students and teachers come with their passions each day, and Rensizzle and Inspired Learning Days offer an opportunity for students to see their teachers’ interests and them as learners.

Where to begin

Both systems start with school-wide brainstorming, where there is food, a photobooth, balloons, etc. Moran said prompts might be something like:

  • If you had an hour, half- or full-day, what would you want to learn?

  • What is one experience you’d like to have if you could choose your own adventure?

Responses are input in a document and sorted by topic and frequency. At Nipmuc, those 20-30 topics that have the most energy around them are then used in the collaborative session-building process. The outcome of this process is a list of sessions with objectives, community partners, hands-on activities and artifacts, that students review and use to rank their top four choices. Moran and Gauthier agreed: “What runs and doesn’t run depends on student interest.” At Renaissance, group size is around 20 students with 2 adults. “We try to honor student choices. They have voiced what they want and we need to honor that for this student-centered learning.”

A happy bi-product of this process is it sparks new and exciting ideas from talented teachers.

Reflection is a big part of the learning process, in general and for these signature experiences- not just having the day happen, helping students connect the experience to the greater vision and themselves as learners.

Reflecting on your why

For both Renaissance Charter Network and the Mendon-Upton Regional School District, Rensizzle and Inspired Learning Days are a manifestation of their missions- to cultivate student agency, deep inquiry and authentic learning. It is interesting that it takes setting aside the constraints of the traditional school day to fully step into this mission.

Clements went on to say that at Nipmuc Regional High School their aim is to offer experiences to help students develop a personal narrative- the story they tell about themselves to themselves. He quoted Ted Dintersmith in thinking about the impact of Inspired Learning Days- especially in the face of the traditional model of schooling: “Small sparks of change can lead to bonfires of innovation”.

Mary Anne Moran urges education leaders to go back to your team and ask: what if? And try something small to invite and honor student voice in their learning process.

At GOA, we believe learning starts with curiosity, which can grow into a passion. Check out the GOA capstone Catalyst projects, where students apply their interests to an issue that is meaningful to them. If you are interested in incorporating more student voice in classrooms everyday, check out GOA’s professional learning courses: From Lessons to Learning Experiences, and From Educator Designed to Co-designed.

For more, see:

GOA serves students, teachers, and leaders and is comprised of member schools from around the world, including independent, international, charter, and public schools. Learn more about Becoming a Member. Our professional learning opportunities are open to any educator or school team. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter.

Be a part of what's next.
Let's talk.

Contact Us