Students Have a Voice, Teach Them to Use It

Teacher: Starr Sackstein, NBTC

Class: AP Literature

School: World Journalism Prep (Queens, NY)


“I encourage disagreement” is a sign that adorns the wall above my desk. One of my students was enthralled with the saying as soon as words danced off my lips and into the pre-discussion atmosphere of my AP Literature classroom so much that he made me a poster. I promptly posted it to the wall and have not taken it down since.


Kids aren’t used to having adults welcome or respect their opinions, particularly those that don’t jive with their own, but I have never ascribed to that belief. Young people have marvelous and thoughtful ideas about everything and it has always seemed to me a little counterproductive to not encourage responsible debate.


Creating a safe environment where students are both prepared and comfortable to have intelligent conversations about literature is an essential rite of passage before college, if we are committed to helping them be prepared. So before a discussion ensues in a class, students are provided ample opportunity to write down their ideas and gather evidence from the text.


Just having an opinion is never enough, we need to teach them that support and evidence make the greatest opinions bulletproof. If they want their ideas to be taken seriously, they must be ready to stand their ground with proof and also willing to hear people who don’t agree and likely have their own support as well.



It was with this in mind that I began a regular rotation of student led conversations around literature. Each student or pair of students would be assigned a particular section of the text and would be tasked with developing questions to engage their classmates, specific relevant and essential text to discuss as well as evidence of author’s craft to support the conversation.


As they prepare, I’m available to answer questions, but usually only nudge them or provide them with more questions to think about. What I want to avoid is them taking my thoughts and adopting them for their own. They need to come to their ideas organically, not because I said so. Constantly I remind them that my ideas and thoughts aren’t as important as theirs, so it doesn’t matter what I think is right; there is no one right. Once they can wrap their brains around that, it is very liberating.



Students come armed and ready to discuss their portions of the text. We sit in a circle or a horseshoe, no student or person in front ofthe class, everyone equal. Sometimes, I don’t sit in the circle, but on the outside to watch and listen and to discourage the students to talk to me; they should talk to me, but to each other.

Discussions in my classes have sparked levels of intelligent debate where kids can disagree with each other respectfully and go head to head using support from the text, manipulating what they believe the author’s intent was. They have learned to value each other’s voices and their own and since all people have the chance to lead the discussion, and everyone has the chance to prepare first, there is an expectation of full class engagement that I don’t need to enforce because it happens naturally.


For classes of different levels, I have used Twitter chats for the same function. Not only does it teach students to make well thought out responses to text, but it forces them to be concise and direct.

Any classroom that puts a premium on what students have to say and offers them a platform to share will encourage higher levels of discourse. It just starts with a teacher who courageous enough to share the spotlight and let kids be the experts instead of themselves. There is nothing more inspiring than a room full of students who can carry on without me; then I know I’ve done my job well.


Starr Sackstein, MJE, NBCT –


High school educator, author, reformer, recovering perfectionist, Starr Sackstein leads by example both in the classroom and on the internets. Tattooed, quirky and opinionated, she takes every opportunity to learn and dispel myths and false expectations. Impassioned writer, photographer and mother to a sassy eight year old, Starr is convinced that her cats were human in another life. Grateful Dead enthusiast and fierce defender of first amendment rights.

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