Bringing Student "Voice" Into Education

On Friday, March 22, 2013, The Washington Post published an article about the "The Independent Project," a youth-driven initiative whose mission is to help students design their own schools. For some readers, it may seem that this movement is merely a direct result of the utter failure of schools designed by adults, and that the primacy of the student’s desire to get rid of grades and testing is merely a direct result of the utter failure of a movement that has left far too many students, and most of their teachers, way behind. Not only are we falling behind in attendance and graduation rates, but also in passion; in the desire of young people to participate fully in this thing that we have come to call "becoming educated.”  For me, this Project is a result of all of these failures, and of much, much more.

The guiding principle of the Project is to give students a "voice."  This will not only provide a means of including them, it will become the actual means of educating them. Most of what young people now engage in at school, once they can decode letters and numbers, is a process of disciplining and challenging their minds. Sadly, much too much of this is still done through the primitive act of memorization. In contrast, higher order brain activity is a process that advances creative problem solving, and relies on coherent communication.

Young minds should be as heavily engaged in acquiring self-knowledge, and other-knowledge, as in acquiring knowledge of the natural and abstract worlds of science and math. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is the literacy of being able to read others and to respond appropriately; in short, it is about communication…it is about voice.  The specific spirit inside each student has a specific voice, and that voice grows and is strengthened by the opportunity to exercise it in discourse and inquiry, which is the true meaning of being liberally educated. The outcome of this will be that when young people have an opportunity to develop strong voices, they will become strong leaders - of themselves, and of one another. How poetic, then, that the groundswell for this right-minded approach to educational reform comes from those who will tolerate being voiceless no more.

To watch The Independent Project in action, view the video below on students designing their own school:

Write Brain

It’s poetic! On January 31st I gave a talk on Healing Trauma through Narrative Reconstruction at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, where analysts are deeply engaged in learning new ways of effectively healing trauma. In my talk, I outlined 30 years of my field data on the power of healing and transforming lives through writing exercises that I developed for an emotional literacy intervention, and later integrated into clinical practice. The key thesis of the talk was that when we write, we enter an altered state. This state is akin to that which was once achieved through hypnosis, and now through EMDR. And that in this state, and from this writing brain, we can also retrieve memories long forgotten or repressed and, with proper guidance, make coherent sense of them andweave them into a newly strengthened and more coherent self-narrative. Two days later the Education section of the Sunday’s Times featured an article on a new initiative that works to heal Veteran trauma through writing! In it, Veteran testimonials attest to the findings that I shared. The Editor of The Journal of Military Experience stated that: “Traumatic memories are fragmented...not always in order...if you can put those emotions and the traumatic events in a narrative that makes sense to you...it makes the trauma tangible. If it’s tangible, it’s malleable. And if it is malleable, you can do something with it.” How uncannily it echoes the closing quote of my talk from psychologist and linguist, Ken Wilbur: 

We need to give careful attention to the text we call the self, before it can become transparent. In therapy, or any work that engages closely with text, we need to work toward the knowing that our personal history…is mutable.

Martin goes on to say: “We write to bear witness.” This mirrors a quote with which I opened my talk: “We write to discover what we know.” This was a quote from a playwriting teacher I’d had years ago, as I was beginning to develop ‘healing dialogues’ with people across the lifespan, inviting them to view a photographic trigger and then do a free-write in response. This writing was then shaped into an outline for a two character play, through which the writer could work out unresolved conflicts and discover forgotten meanings and events.

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One member of the Veteran’s Project highlights the benefits of this approach, asserting that it was indeed healing to: “Step away from the war experiences and observe the details in new ways. To talk about character development, narrative structure and point of view.” Another said he’d had trouble ‘talking about his experience, but had no trouble writing about it’. This is not news to me! I have been helping people of all ages reconstruct their narratives for decades, through my non-profit, Find Your Voice. The results were so powerful, and so consistently transformative, that I now use writing in every individual therapy session that I conduct as well. The pen is indeed mightier than the sword! And, like all potent tools, it needs to be handled with care. People with particularly traumatic narratives need accompaniment and guidance and containment in their voicing, well beyond that which a writing teacher alone could offer. Once they have articulated, reframed and shared their core trauma story, they can continue the writing practice safely on their own. Also, untrained workshop leaders can become traumatized by upsetting material themselves, and may not be able to endure or contain the transmission of content and feelings involved in the sharing. For these very reasons, in my own new project...The Voicing Project, I plan to bring my combined dramaturgical and clinical training to the enterprise of helping people voice toward healing, while also training other clinicians and coaches to do so as well. It seems to be the write time to launch it!