Humanizing School: 3 Ways to Make Students Feel Valid and Valued

Jeffrey AustinBlog, Engage Better, Innovate Better, Lead Better, Manage Better

  • We can try to humanize school with help from students.
  • Students provided feedback through student-centered discussions on humanizing schools.
  • Students were more interested in foundational changes than they were in educational technology or systems.
  • The 3 major categories students’ responses fall into are trusting students, valuing their knowledge, and providing meaningful feedback.

Recently, in a training with a local non-profit, community-based writing center, my school-based Skyline Writing Center tutors were engaged in a thorough student-centered discussion on what it means for schools to humanize space in order for students to feel valid and valued.  The students’ ideas about what it means to feel valid and valued in school didn’t rely on a fancy engagement system or the newest educational technology; they were far more interested in smaller, more foundational changes to make school feel like a humanized space.  This discussion reaffirmed many of my beliefs and practices about what it means to make schools humanized spaces, and it reinforced the idea that, often, what we think of as routine or “common sense” is not universally applied throughout our institutions.

I’ve organized my students’ responses into three major categories and included strategies that I’ve used to try to humanize educational spaces in which I operate that respond to their concerns and frustrations in spaces where they don’t feel valid and valued.

Trust students

Students reported heavy use of compliance-based routines, like reading logs and worksheet packets, that didn’t allow for them to use their agency in supported environments; they want choices in reading, in writing, and in what they talk about in class, and we need to trust our learners to make decisions that help shape the learning environment to their needs.    

I’ve made frequent use of Harkness Discussions in my classes, which are student-led, student-driven discussions that feature minimal (or, ideally, no) teacher interventions.  Students make choices about what to discuss, how to discuss it, and, most importantly, how to build a workable, sustainable discourse community that values and considers all voices.  Students appreciate the learning space and time to be able to make meaning collectively without having to be right or having to match their response with my preconceived notions. When we trust students to shape the learning environment to meet their needs and not our wants, they stop worrying about being right and they start working to make meaning collaboratively.  

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Value student literacies and funds of knowledge

Our students are extraordinarily passionate people with a wealth of knowledge and skills, but often what students know how to do and the literacies they have aren’t valued very much or very often in school.  In our discussion, a student mentioned having to wait all day to do what they like to do, which was difficult to hear, but, sadly, not uncommon, as previous research has indicated. Allowing students to use what they know from their homes, communities, and hobbies can be a route to showing them that they matter and that their literacies are valued.  Like all of us, students want to work hard on things they care about.

Last year, I used a project-based, place-based approach with my Humanities students, as they selected a place in our community, used their research skills to uncover hidden and contested histories, and made persuasive arguments about what’s at stake with their selected location for other residents.  This trimester-long project culminated in the publication of a book of their stories about their places, which was distributed through one of our local bookstores, which helped position students as experts about our town. While students, families, and community members loved the product, students had a high level of engagement and investment in the process because of the meaningful choices they were able to make and the genuine value their knowledge had outside of the classroom.  They were able to teach others about themselves and their histories; the connection to the work and the empowerment it provided was exceptional.

Give students timely, meaningful feedback

Students identified the lack of meaningful feedback as a significant equity issue; some students, depending on their teachers, received a wealth of feedback that they could use to grow, but other students reported going through whole classes and even whole school years without a teacher saying anything about their processes or products.  Giving students feedback can be daunting for teachers already crunched for time, but it is essential for student growth.

In my district, we ELA teachers use single-point rubrics that help teachers zero in on skill-based focus areas for feedback.  The focus areas are rooted in Common Core State Standards that have been organized into learning progressions by a team of teachers.  Students receive plus/delta feedback on the skill that they’re able to meaningfully reflect on to make revisions. Students in my classes are asked to reflect on the feedback and their writing process, either in writing or in a face-to-face conference, before they assign themselves a grade.  Even giving students simple plus/delta feedback while asking them to self-reflect can fundamentally alter the trajectory of their work, especially if they can immediately implement teacher feedback and their own thinking to grow.

Final Thoughts

Creating more humanized schools isn’t about more computers or large-scale interventions; it starts with treating students like humans.  This means seeing all students as valuable for who they are, not their grades or their data points, and providing them with the support to use their agency to shape the learning environment and its outcomes to their needs and their dreams.


About Jeffrey Austin

Jeffrey Austin is the English Department Chair, World Humanities teacher, and Writing Center Director at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jeffrey serves on the boards of the International Writing Centers Association and the Secondary Schools Writing Center Association. He frequently presents on literacy and writing at regional and national conferences. Jeffrey was named the 2016 Commendable Teacher of the Year in Washtenaw County, and he was admitted to 2018 Innovative Educator Corps in the State of Michigan for his work closing achievement and opportunity gaps with the Skyline Writing Center.

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Header image photo by Geetanjal Khanna on Unsplash.