I am ready to interview a new student. The child is five, tall for her age, but the parents have requested an interview for preschool. Carla enters the room, saying nothing and clinging to her father like a toddler wanting to be carried. We sit on the rug where there are blocks and puzzles and beads. Eventually she lets go as they both start to work with the art materials nearby. She never says a word, although she can speak.
Darlene’s family is from Ecuador and she returns there every year. A bright-eyed child, Darlene has a basic vocabulary and freely communicates her thoughts and stories. As a young child, she is always much better at telling what she knows rather than responding to what others are asking or suggesting. After one of her family visits to Ecuador during the school year, she starts to flounder at school. Her eyes tear up at minor difficulties that she used to brush off, but they now overwhelm her, and the words to tell what is happening seem stuck in her throat.
Sean is never at a loss for words. He makes announcements, initiates conversations, and seems to have a ready response to most questions, unless there is a question of wrongdoing. Then the response is usually frozen silence with blushing cheeks or a lie to cover up the offense. There is no apparent remorse, but seemingly chagrin at being caught.
How do educators help these children find their voice—a voice that will speak to the truth of who they are, their longings, their woes, their inadequacies, their hopes, their sins, their identity as children of God of infinite worth? How do we create learning environments where students feel safe enough to be vulnerable and strong enough to take risks?
I think that most teachers would agree with me that we want our students to be ready to speak up for truth and justice—not to be bystanders or victims, not to just give silent assent to the current state of anything, but to be discerning people and agents of change in their actions and with their words. I have often portrayed decision-making to students in three parts: there are those who promote something, those who protest it, and then there are those who say nothing. The silence is often taken for assent, which is not necessarily true. Silence speaks.
At our school, we encourage children very early on to advocate for the truth, confess the wrong, and to learn the language of apology, in other words the acknowledgement of sorrow and the granting of forgiveness. We intentionally work to know each child and to develop a sense of community. It is in this context that we support children in finding a voice. There are probably a variety of elements that contribute to this growth, but here are a few key practices that promote it.