Sunday / May 19

Discover What Happens: When You Center Students

Another World is Possible

In April 2019, educator Shane Safir attended a convening of the Deeper Learning Dozen, a collaborative of 12 U.S. and Canadian school districts under the leadership of professor Jal Mehta from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In chapter one of her bestselling book Street Data, co-authored with Jamila Dugan, Safir describes an exercise she participated in at the convening, during which participants were directed to arrange themselves in the room according to a Western, colonial view of society. Safir and the other women under 50 stand behind the women under 40, who in turn are behind the men. The “old ladies” over 50 are dismissed to the back along with participants roleplaying children. No one in the rigid, hierarchical structure is very comfortable within this power structure.

Safir goes on to describe what happens when the group is invited to arrange themselves in a different way:

Next, we are directed by our teachers to re-form as a pre-colonial Indigenous community. We pull the chairs to the edges of the room as the elders lay a patchwork of woven blankets in the center. … The children of our village are asked to visit a nearby table and choose a ‘gift’ before sitting in a circle around the fabrics. … The ‘old ladies’ are retrieved from the other room and asked to encircle the children. Next, the aunties, uncles, mothers, and fathers (I’m in that group now) surround the elder women, and finally, the spiritual warriors surround us. I am once again moved to tears, this time by the centering of children and the felt sense of connection.

Read the excerpt of Street Data.

Since that first convening, Safir has continued to partner with the Ministry of Education in British Columbia–which serves 553,000 school students across 60 school districts–to grow and expand the Ministry’s provincial data framework to incorporate street-level data with a lens of equity and inclusion for historically marginalized communities.

Street data refers to data collected from the stories and experiences of people who are often on the margins yet closest to the issue being studied.

Do We Have the Humility to Walk Shoulder to Shoulder With Children?

Central to Safir’s work with school districts in British Columbia, California, and Washington is the practice, exemplified in the exercise at the Deeper Learning Dozen convening, of centering student voice. Safir and Denise Augustine—an Indigenous education leader whose work is highlighted in Chapter 1 of Street Data—together with Jamila Dugan and Street Data Pod co-host Alcine Mumby, recently discussed Indigenous pedagogy and the importance of student voice in “Walking Shoulder to Shoulder With Children.” During the conversation, Augustine connects the practice of centering student voice to Indigenous pedagogy, which she defines as the ways in which educators choose to show up and engage. “Do we view ourselves as sole keepers of the knowledge, or as facilitators of learning? Do we view ourselves as dominant over children, or can we have the humility to see ourselves walking shoulder to shoulder? Are we able to understand that children, if we allow it, teach us as much, if not more, about who we are and the world we live in than we teach them?”

Students Ask: Why Can’t the Classroom Be Based Around Us?

To understand what happens when educators make space for student voice, we turn to another episode of the Street Data Pod in which Safir and Mumby are joined by Ari and Harshan, two high school students who each lead student groups advocating for change in their schools. Two kinds of empowerment shine through as Ari and Harshan talk about their respective projects creating safe spaces and transforming the school’s assessment system—the power students feel in trusting themselves and the power of being in community.

Listen to how Ari describes the feeling after they would leave street data meetings, “I remember the team would be super psyched about the work that we were talking about doing and really motivated. That would make me feel a sense of pride within myself and empower me more to see that the people around me are also excited, and that they love me, and I love them. What’s really powerful for me is the community of it all.”

Ari’s and Harshan’s advice mirrors the language in the book of radical inclusion. In the words of Ari, “Every single child has good ideas […] Every single one of them has merit to the conversation. Every one of them has something to say and something good to bring to the table.” And, in the words of Harshan, “If the school system was designed to teach us, why can’t the classroom be based around us?”

Explore Empathy Interviews and Cogens to Center Student Voice

Empathy interviews and co-generative dialogues (cogens) are two approaches you can use to center student voice. This brief video highlights an excerpt of an empathy interview Jamila Dugan conducted with her 9-year-old daughter, Gia. The conversation reveals Gia’s understanding of the way she and her classmates learn differently, and what she needs to successfully engage in her lessons.

Empathy interviews require deep listening as we ask students to respond to open-ended questions that encourage storytelling. The data we collect through these interviews helps us to understand student experience and monitor their internalization of important skills.

The questions below, featured in Chapter 8 of Street Data, can help you begin to engage your students as experts in their own learning.

  • How often do you have opportunities to construct your own knowledge (versus taking notes or digesting information provided by the teacher)?
  • How often do you have opportunities to demonstrate your understanding in a way that’s different from a test or quiz? What is that experience like?
  • To what extent do you feel like you belong here? Why or why not?
  • To what extent do you feel seen and loved here? Why or why not?

Whereas empathy interviews can be used to solicit input from an individual student, co-generative dialogues, an approach developed by Christopher Emdin, are informal conversations between a teacher and a small group of students. Cogens require the teacher to resist defending current practices, instead prioritizing vulnerability and openness to student perspectives to provide feedback and co-generate a plan of action.

Jamila walks through some tips for educators who have tried cogens for the first time and want to refine their processes in “Session 5: Reimagine” of the Street Data Mini-Series. “This is like a dance,” Jamila explains. “It’s not perfect, but you want to try to help them help you to press to more specifics over time.”

This session is part of an 8-part video project from the Cult of Pedagogy chronicling the story of two schools working through the Equity Transformation Cycle, which can be found in full, for free, in this YouTube playlist.


Written by

Melissa Duclos has twenty years’ experience in the fields of writing and education including as a college-level writing instructor, freelance editor of social science and education research, and in education marketing and communications. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and is the author of the novel Besotted. Her essays have appeared in The Washington Post,, and The Offing among other venues. She is a Senior Marketing Manager at Corwin Press and the co-founder of Amplify Writers, a project that supports the career development of writers from marginalized communities.

Ally Cottrell loves translating complex topics into accessible narratives. She has a bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in English and Mathematics, and she currently works as a Marketing Specialist at Corwin. When not writing for work, she’s usually writing or reading speculative fiction while vying with her dog for a spot on the best chair.

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