The Roar of Student Voices

By Debario Fleming, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

When students have the time, space, and guidance to express their thoughts, these young people have the ability and capacity to produce some very insightful perspectives and intellectually provocative dispositions.

A significant part of my career was spent working with the youngest students in a school community—children ranging in age from five years to 10 years, to be exact. The level and frequency to which students endeavored to share their opinions, thoughts, and ideas verbally always stood out. Students were rarely shy about verbal expression. That’s a polite way of saying the kids talked a lot and not necessarily when it’s the most desirable for the teachers. 

I recall a funny interaction with one of our regular substitute teachers when he explained to me that he would no longer be available to cover my classes. When I asked him why, he replied with a crooked smile, “There are too many lawyers here!” 

Young people have a lot to say and they want to be heard. They want to express themselves and share their voices. When this proclivity for verbal communication occurs during consequential instructional moments, the classroom can be compromised and learning can be hindered. But when students have the time, space, and guidance to express their thoughts, these young people have the ability and capacity to produce some very insightful perspectives and intellectually provocative discourse. 

I joined the Field community over the summer while the campus was relatively quiet. When students returned in September, the roar of student voices flowed through the halls like a screeching freight train. It was apparent that the students were happy to be back on campus and amongst their peers. It was also clear that the students at Field have a lot to say. Fortunately, there are many vehicles for our students to develop and express their thoughts, ideas, and leadership skills to the community in productive and beneficial ways. I have observed how students channel their voices at Field to promote social activism, community growth, student leadership, and service. 

Student Leadership in Clubs and Electives

My introduction to student engagement and leadership came during the first week of school and my experience leading the Student Diversity Leadership Committee, which is one of Field’s many clubs and electives. One of my responsibilities as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is to lead this elective course. My vision for the elective has been to engage the students in meaningful, thought-provoking conversations that would lead to positive change in the community. They also have strong opinions and ideas about what the work should look like. Students are willing to be vulnerable as they often share personal testimonies making the Field community stronger. 

Students in SDLC are instrumental in developing new and innovative community programming designed to promote belonging and cultural awareness. 

There are many other clubs and electives that promote and highlight the significance of student leadership, community engagement, and service here at Field. The list includes:

  • GSA (Gender and Sexuality Alliance)
  • Social Activism 
  • Model U.N.
  • Environmental Action Club
  • Gardening and Composting  Club
  • Community Service Club
  • Animal Rights and Volunteering Club
  • Mental Health Awareness Club

The work happening in these clubs and electives is visible throughout the community and represents a significant aspect of the school culture. Students in the social activism elective have developed community culture surveys to better understand student feelings around religion, culture, and ethnicity; while students in Model U.N. are engaged in leadership opportunities in international relations through mock conferences, public debate, and written argumentation. Members of the Environmental Action Club are currently organizing student participation in an upcoming global climate strike. These are just a few examples of how our students are developing their voices and cultivating leadership skills.  

Action-focused Service Learning

Field’s two-week immersive Intersession program fosters collaborative work between students, faculty, and the community to dive deep into subjects and learn meaningful and relevant skills. This year, three of the 20 Intersession groups focused on giving students the ability to share their collective voices, develop communication skills, and engage their community through service-learning. 

I collaborated with colleagues and students as part of the Social Justice in Action group, which partnered students with community organizations committed to ending poverty and advancing a more equitable DC. At A Wider Circle, students volunteered in the donations center and created a large-scale mural for their Silver Spring location. 

Middle school students who joined the Lucky Dog Intersession course spent their two weeks learning about the nonprofit organization Lucky Dog Animal Rescue. They took on the challenge of raising funds that would support these rescue animals by hosting a baked-goods, art, and home-made jewelry sale on campus raising over $1,300 for the organization. 

Through the Pots for People Intersession, students learned about hunger and food insecurities in DC. Over the two weeks, the students volunteered at Bread for the City learning about the issues that cause food insecurities and learning about solutions and programs in action. Through art, these students created functional pottery and sold them to raise $2,140 for Bread for the City. These immersive experiences with partner organizations give students a new perspective and inspire action.

Fostering Student Leaders

Students interested in developing leadership skills and have a particular interest in diversity and inclusion, have opportunities outside of Field. There are local, regional, and national conferences and workshops that engage students in the work. Each year the National Association of Independent Schools invites students from independent schools across the country to participate in a Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC). This year, six Field students were able to participate in SDLC—held virtually. Following their participation in the conference, I interviewed a few students. I asked them to reflect on their experiences at the conference, the importance of self-reflection as a leader, and the keys to building a stronger community here at Field. Here some student comments: 

  • “Self-reflection is an important skill for a leader. People are watching to see if you are aware of how your actions are impacting people around you. People will be making judgments about you and if you are unable to make judgments about yourself it doesn’t make you a good leader because you can’t put yourself in the position of other people that you are leading.”
  • “SDLC helped us to build tools that would be useful in our communities. For example, we would begin activities with ice breakers or community-building activities before dealing with difficult subjects. We were addressing the importance of getting to know people to allow people to become more vulnerable. It’s harder to be vulnerable with people you don’t know so building relationships and connections is an important first step.”

We all share the responsibility of providing safe spaces and learning opportunities that foster positive and healthy identity formation in adolescents. And, let’s remember to listen, support, and learn as young people challenge social stigmas and offer perspective and thought-provoking ideas that will help our world become a better place.