Coaching Students to Think and Speak for Themselves

A theatre arts teacher and a Critical Friends Group coach for the Narragansett, Rhode Island school system, Jan Grant works closely with teachers in three Essential schools-elementary, middle, and high school. Her work with high school students there sparked the following reflection:

The concept of Collaborative Inquiry was easy for me to accept when I first encountered it at a week-long summer conference. Though I found it more challenging to apply to practice in our own schools, it became clear that this idea could work in some form with my high school students. When I came back from the conference, I wrote to every student with whom I had worked during the previous year, inviting them to a meeting to hear about Collaborative Inquiry. Fourteen students ranging from ninth to twelfth grades came on an appointed evening.

We discussed the possibility of a small group of students working on extracurricular collaborative inquiry projects they would design, develop, implement, and document themselves. Students would decide their own goals and objectives, and they needed only a little prodding to initiate a complex and enthusiastic discussion about the endless possibilities, or “strands” of focus, open to them.

Although the Collaborative Inquiry process was as yet ambiguous, their intellects caught hold of the idea that each individual would design his or her own project and process. With mentoring, they would have ownership of this work as a group and as individuals. They would be in charge, responsible for the success or failure, the mediocrity or excellence of their plans.

As these students set out to learn “to know what they did not know,” their voices became increasingly important. I asked them to address a number of tasks and issues in future agendas: their group norms, overall goals and objectives, additional ideas for their own strands and projects, and methods of facilitation and giving feedback.

Their chance at facilitation started soon. Our meetings were held from 7 to 9 p.m. on a school night, and the person who volunteered to be recorder for one meeting would facilitate the next. Soon the meetings began to be as important as the projects being designed. The group was beginning to look like a Critical Friends Group.

This ever-changing group of truly extraordinary young people is now in its third year carrying out activities and projects. Amng other things, students have researched and developed materials for teacher evaluation; looked into a student “hotline” at the high school; mentored elementary and middle school projects; and videotaped their schoolwork for teachers to examine in their own study groups.

The skills they practice stand them in good stead. Meeting regularly provides them with a structure to support and encourage their own work. They are learning:

  • to facilitate and use the methods and protocols of
    “reflective practice”
  • to make public their ideas and opinions courageously
    and with appropriate methods
  • to develop leadership skills
  • to present at conferences and other public forums
  • to know that their ideas can become viable projects
  • to work with other faculty through “I-messaging”
  • to move in and among a variety of groups and
    cliques at the high school
  • to have confidence and build their self-esteem
  • to have a voice.

This learning happened through the powerful process of creating a safe, non-judgmental environment, learning to create and respect their own group norms, taking part in workshops designed to develop interpersonal skills, learning that forthrightness and honesty matters, realizing that their truths are important, practicing teambuilding techniques, airing differences and diversity issues in order to work toward acceptance, honoring confidentiality and becoming real people with one another.

Some may argue that we don’t have time for this kind of process. I argue that we do not have the right, in good conscience, to eliminate it. Our content and process pieces must work together in balance. Knowledge is remembered and held dear when created on a foundation of respect, encouragement, and self-esteem. Don’t we forget the rest? What teachers do you remember? Why? What knowledge remains with you? Why? Which students emerge as leaders? Why? Where and when do at-risk students succeed? Why? How?

Jan Grant may be reached by e-mail at