“Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” This quote from Margaret Fuller sits along the sidebar of Kirsten Small’s 8th grade English course bulletin board page with an image of an open book beneath it. At first glance, one might see it and think, “of course an English teacher would have this quote on their page.” When you pause and consider what it is saying, it is representative of the goals of our eighth grade English course and of eighth grade itself: where students are beginning to realize their own ideas, develop their own opinions, beliefs, and voice; and through writing, and presenting, communicate these effectively and creatively while demonstrating an appreciation for the written and spoken word.
Eighth grade is an exciting time for students and fun for the teachers, Mrs. Small and Mrs. Corgan, who get to witness their students’ development over the course of the year. For our students, it is a year of personal growth. They have come to eighth grade having made the leap to deep understanding by the end of their seventh grade year. Students understand the theme and author’s purpose of the novels they read and are beginning to not only form their own opinions and beliefs, they are also able to express them through the written and spoken word. “If seventh grade is about following a recipe, eighth grade is about expanding and experimenting on that recipe. You have to understand the purpose for each ingredient. When you know it well, you can adapt it and make it your own” says Mrs. Small.
Throughout the year, students will begin separating themselves from the group and expressing their own opinions. It is a natural process that begins once a foundation of trust, respect, care, safety, empathy, and community is built. Both teachers create and cultivate this foundation for belonging and connection, a key component of the Shipley Framework for Well-Being, during the first weeks of school as they, along with their students create a class agreement, learn to be active listeners “to better understand one’s own relationship to a topic before being able to effectively communicate that out” (Corgan), and discuss why having their own voice is important.
“Understanding that everyone approaches a text with their own unique lenses; at the start of the year, [Mrs. Small and Mrs. Corgan] have students examine their own lived experiences and unique identities and analyze the impact that these things have had on their belief systems so that [their] students internalize that their voice matters; the more voices/perspectives, the richer our collective understanding of literature will be because no two students will approach or receive Fahrenheit 451, for instance, the same way. And that’s beautiful.” (Mrs. Corgan)
Students then craft “This I Believe” statements, sharing their vulnerability and innermost thoughts and feelings with belief statements including: “I Believe that Most people are motivated by fear”, “Hard work and persistence are keys to someone’s success”, “Everyone deserves a friend”, “I believe in the generosity of helping others”, and “I believe in the power of music”. This continues with their first Harkness table conversation where they discuss topics of guilt and justice from their summer reading book, And Then There Were None. The groups are small at first so students can develop their voice in a small arena and as the year progresses, so does the size of the discussion group until it is the whole class.
Throughout the year, students will read novels and explore questions including:
how factors and societal presences shape personal identity,
the effect of society on individuals,
how different eras define womanhood/manhood/personhood,
to what extent are we in control of our destinies,
the relationship between knowledge and individuality, and
how do relationships shape values.
They take responsibility for their learning by researching to understand the context of the books they are reading and presenting these findings to their classmates. Through the readings, class discussions, dialectical journals, and other written assignments, students’ thoughts, struggles, opinions, rearranging of opinions, and voices will begin to emerge as they come into a deeper understanding of themselves, their identities, and who they are. This understanding transfers to other curricular areas as students take what they are learning and apply it. Students are empowered to ask questions, understand context, form opinions, seek to understand others’ perspectives, and share their voice through small group, whole class, and Harkness discussions.
Mr. Mueller, eighth grade history teacher, has noticed a difference in students’ class participation and willingness to share their opinions. In previous grade levels, students might be hesitant to speak up in large class discussions; the eighth graders are showing much more courage in putting their opinions out there. Mrs. Corgan has noticed students are also using their voice to self-advocate with teachers around their learning needs. They are reaching out to teachers to ask for feedback, to understand their mistakes on assessments, and to ask for help.
Students know their voice matters. In Mrs. Corgan’s class, she seeks feedback from her students two-to-three times a year, “Surveys have become a really critical part of my practice as a culturally-responsive educator. They inherently let students know that their voice matters and practically, it helps me to determine what changes I need to make to my curriculum and/or pedagogy.”
Compassionate participation in the world, part of our mission statement, includes the ability to communicate effectively and creatively, in a range of forms, with varied audiences, and for various purposes, and this is what finding your voice in eighth grade is all about.