Gaining Voice

When I was a kid, growing up in the traditional education system, I simply didn’t have a voice. I didn’t speak up in class. I was rarely asked my opinion. I did have a few teachers- one in 3rd- 5th grade who helped construct that sense of worth I needed to trust my voice, and another in high school who was quickly fired- that sought to build students’ inner reserves. Most of my schooling however, was listening to the only voice in the room that mattered- the teacher. If our voices were welcome in a class it was typically a simple question that you could cover in a few words- who was the protagonist of…., what happened when…, which president created….It was only later, towards the end of college, that I began to find something akin to my own voice, complete with unique thoughts and independent reasoning. I’ve come to realize that waiting until college is simply too late.

Over the years, I have realized that my lack of voice was part of the design of the education system. I covered up my own voice, ideas, and silly hopes- because it was easier. The path to success, I learned, was to keep your head down, and ‘get by’. This was the subtle message of silence and of giving up on your own voice. I learned little games and tricks to give the teachers what they wanted and learned that, in each one of those compromises, my own voice would be sacrificed. So, I sacrificed and learned to accept that fact as reality. And continued to do so for a decade or more. All of this occurred while I was a ‘good student’- getting A’s, taking AP classes, and advancing through the system. But at what cost?

Now, close to 50, I am opening a blog. But this blog isn’t simply about my voice- it is about the voices of adolescents that we have stunted, and our continual stunting of voices through our traditional methods of schooling. At The Sage School, we have a different model. We have a school where our teachers act as Adolescent Anthropologists. We work alongside teens struggling to find their voice, define themselves, and create their place. We ask how best to help them engage this task. We have the capacity, through giving them real projects that require their actual input and decision making, to help them construct, and not bury, their voices. We have the capacity, through in-depth conferences 3 times per year for 7 years, to give them voice on their strengths, goals, and directions. And we hear their burgeoning senses of self coming out daily- when you enter our doors, the building is a buzz with empowered voices. It isn’t, and won’t be, a silent learning space.

And, it works. We are raising a group of students who come to know themselves, who learn to speak for their needs and hopes, and who know, as one recent graduate said, “At Sage, I learned how to imagine something and then create it”. Precisely.

Please join us in this weekly series of thoughts and discussions from myself, our Head of School Harry Weekes, and guest faculty (or parent or student) voices.

Chris McAvoy
CoFounder, The Sage School