Addressing the Question of Authenticity in Middle Grades Student Voice Work: Wrestling with Politics, Power, and Purpose in Education
Addressing the Question of Authenticity in Middle Grades Student Voice Work: Wrestling with Politics, Power, and Purpose in Education
Bryn Mawr College
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Addressing the Question of Authenticity in Middle Grades Student Voice Work:
Wrestling with Politics, Power, and Purpose in Education
Alison Cook-Sather, Mary Katharine Woodworth Professor of Education at Bryn Mawr
College and Director of the Teaching and Learning Institute
at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, Pennsylvania
Since the advent of principles and practices that
gather under the umbrella of ‘student voice,’
questions have arisen repeatedly about whether
particular approaches that claim the name incline
toward the authentic or toward the contrived.
Rightly so. These are questions that need to be
asked again and again, and as several essays in
this issue of Middle Grades Review make clear,
the concept of authenticity itself also needs to be
regularly interrogated. Generally, in the world of
education, as in the world beyond it, concepts and
practices are developed by adults with little or no
attention to the experiences and perspectives of
young people. Consistent with this tendency,
authenticity in education is often thought of as
residing within a particular (typically
adultgenerated) task, rather than comprising a
judgment by a student of a task
Key to contemporary student voice work is a shift
from focusing solely on adult-generated concepts
and practices of ‘authentic’ student voice to
attending to the experiences and insights of
students, taking seriously the deeper
understandings that emerge at the intersection of
these youth and adult perspectives and priorities,
and engaging in collective action that such
Over the last 20 years, there have been national,
region-wide, and individual efforts to effect such a
(Beattie, 2012; Cook-Sather, 2014a; Fielding,
2015; Serriere & Mitra, 2012; SpeakUp)
particularly after the passage of the United
Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
(Lundy & Cook-Sather, forthcoming). And yet the
politics of schooling writ large and of individual
school contexts, the power discrepancies still
typically structured into the student-teacher
relationship, and the deeper, often unspoken
assumptions about the purposes of education all
make student voice work a fraught and complex,
albeit potentially transformative, movement. To
frame the articles included in this issue of Middle
Grades Review, I briefly revisit perennial
questions raised regarding the authenticity of
student voice work, particularly those that
highlight issues of politics, power, and purpose,
and I then turn my attention to the various ways
in which the articles in this issue address the
question of authenticity.
Where Student Voice Intersects with
Politics, Power, and Purpose in Education
An oft-repeated question about student voice
work is an explicitly political one—a question of
who influences and who is influenced. Posing this
question about student voice work within schools,
Arnot, McIntyre, Pedder, & Reay (2004
“In the acoustic of the school whose voice gets
listened to?” (quoted in Rudduck & Demetriou,
2003, p. 278). This phrase, “acoustic of the
school,” was coined by
attention to what is audible in a particular
context—what sound is produced and perceived—
in the space of a school. In his words: “Whose
voice is heard? Who is speaking? Who is hailed by
this voice? For whom is it familiar?” (p. xxi).
Questions of whose voice gets listened to are
inextricably linked in student voice work to
questions of whose voice is acted upon.
Such political questions are always informed by
acknowledged or not, issues of voice “are
embedded in historically located structures and
relations of power” (Alcoff in Fielding, 2004, p.
300). As Alcoff continues: “‘Who is speaking to
whom turns out to be as important for meaning
and truth as what is said; in fact what is said turns
out to change according to who is speaking and
who is listening.’” Taylor and Robinson (2009)
explore power as a significant factor in shaping
both the philosophical underpinnings
of student voice work and the practical
assumptions that are made about what is possible
through this work in the British context, where
student voice as a recognized movement emerged
under the leadership of the late Jean Rudduck.
Rudduck raised questions about authenticity from
the beginning. In a recent tribute to her
leadership and legacy, Fielding (2015) cited
Rudduck and Flutter’s (2004) highly influential
work to remind us that student voice is
“potentially an agent of radical change” only if
“‘the principles and values of pupil voice and
participation are threaded through the daily
interactions and communications of school life
and reflect a coherent and widely supported set of
values and principles’ (p. 125).” It is on that “only”
that questions of authenticity hinge, because to
thread through daily lives in school the values and
principles that underlie student voice work—
“trust, respect and recognition, together with a
sense of reciprocity and opportunities to exercise
responsibility”(Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007, pp.
184-5)—is to change the standard weave of school
culture. Driven by variously defined and
increasingly high-stakes performance measures,
schools are hard pressed to consider students’
“experiences of education” (Rudduck, 1999, p. 10)
or focus on “authentic learning” (Rudduck &
Flutter, p. 62). Thus politics and power intersect
with purposes of education, which are too often
reduced to “an economically driven rat-race”
(Fielding, 2015) in pursuit of schools as
highperformance rather than person-centered
organizations (Fielding, 2011).
Even when the principles and values of student
voice are ostensibly taken up, the authenticity of
the work can be threatened by what Rudduck and
Fielding (2006) called ‘the perils of popularity’:
the investment of agencies and the proliferation
of websites and ‘how to do it’ resources that yield
“‘mile-wide’ promotion with only ‘inch thick’
understanding” (Rudduck, 2006, p. 113).
Oversimplification of the issues involved in
changing school culture to make it more
responsive to students can lead—and has led—to
tokenism, manipulation, and practices not
(Atweh & Burton, 1995;
Fielding, 2004; Hopfenbeck, 2013; Lodge, 2005;
Thomson & Gunter, 2005)
. Even well-intentioned
student voice initiatives “can actually reinforce a
hierarchy of power and privilege among students
and undermine attempted reforms” (Silva, 2001,
p. 98), and there will, necessarily, be gaps
between teachers’ and students’ perspectives of
. So how might we
keep the question of authenticity front and center
in student voice work?
It is essential that anyone engaged in student
voice work critically analyze the politics in play,
the way power dynamics between students and
teachers (and administrators and researchers)
play out in that work, and what the underlying
assumptions about the purpose of education are.
An approach that addresses all of these questions
is the movement away from speaking about and
for students toward a more dialogic alternative of
speaking with them
(Cook-Sather, 2012; Fielding,
2004; Fine, Torre, Burns, & Payne, 2007)
Country- and province-wide projects in the
United Kingdom (Rudduck & Flutter, 2004;
Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007) and Canada (Levin,
2000; SpeakUp (n.d.)) are joined by individual
efforts in Australia (Holdsworth, 2012), New
Zealand (Kane & Maw, 2005), Greece (Mitsoni,
2006), and elsewhere to examine education,
publish perspectives and findings, and make
change with students. Even in the United States,
where the Convention on the Rights of the Child
has not been ratified, there are occasional
examples of efforts to distribute school leadership
and effect school reform
2012; Mitra, 2008; Yonezawa & Jones, 2009)
ways that strive for authentic partnership with
The student voice movement is gaining momentum, and as it does, it is critical that we continue to ask both the larger questions about politics, power, and purpose and the particular
question about authenticity that this issue of
Middle Grades Review takes up. Whose voice gets
listened to and whose voice is acted upon in the
various arenas—curriculum, instruction, and
assessment—within which power struggles get
(Brasof, 2015; Earle & Kruse, 1999)
what ways might we reconceptualize power
relationships between and among students and
educators such that trust, respect, recognition,
and a sense of shared responsibility for teaching
and learning come to inform school cultures?
How can we strive for a kind of authenticity that
is defined by young people’s as well as adults’
priorities? These are and should continue to be
questions perennially posed by and through
student voice work. Using one of the key insights I
have gained through my own work with student
voice and student-teacher partnerships in
secondary teacher preparation and college faculty
development, I turn now to a detailed
consideration of how the articles in this issue
address the question of authenticity in student
voice and add to this growing body of work.
Multiple Perspectives and Multiple Ways
of Addressing the Question of Authenticity
One of the most important insights I have gained
through my work is that there is rarely, if ever, a
single “right” or “true” perspective. This is
perhaps an obvious point and one that can be
embraced in the abstract without understanding
its power until that power is unleashed. When
multiple perspectives, each of which yields one—
or more—angles of vision, are brought together,
there is a greater likelihood of perspective in both
the literal and the metaphorical senses: informed,
. Emily Nelson (this volume) makes this
point in her essay, “Student Voice As Regimes of
Truth: Troubling Authenticity,” and she argues
for “a socially constructed view of authenticity
[that] foregrounds issues of power embedded
within the ‘machinery’ of empowerment and
promotes a contingent and reflexive approach to
Tracing the evolution of the authenticity notion in
student voice work, Nelson illuminates the
constant tension between ideals articulated and
realities enacted—between the aspiration to “get it
right” and unleash ‘authentic’ student voice and
the issues of politics, power dynamics, and
purposes of education that complicate such ideals.
She insists that we keep in mind the paradox
according to which the discourses that set up and
introduce practitioners and academics to
possibilities in student voice work also potentially
constrain thinking. She offers the “student voice
as regimes of truth” concept to “help us to engage
with these shifting power relations by placing the
student voice discourses under a reflexive analytic
gaze,” and she then puts some of her own student
voice research under just such a reflexive analytic
Nelson’s findings highlight the complexity of
student voice work that all the essays in this issue
illuminate. While embracing a commitment to
“‘purposefully empower[ing] young adolescents’”
to assume an active role in their education and a
concept of student voice as “students and teachers
participating in ‘hands-joined activities, ones that
teachers and students work together in
developing’” (National Middle Schooling
Association, 2010, p. 16, quoted in Nelson) would
seem a step away from the traditional politics,
power dynamics, and purposes of schooling,
paradoxes remain. For instance, Nelson found
that “collapsing the student/teacher hierarchy as
a way of elevating student status, in practice
worked against developing the kind of influence
students were seeking,” which was more peer to
peer. This difference between adult and student
priorities and perspectives leads us back to the
theme of multiplicity and the necessity not only of
bringing together multiple perspectives but also
of recognizing that each perspective is itself
informed in multiple ways.
The larger questions regarding authenticity that
Nelson raises are addressed in multiple ways in
the two articles in this issue focused on students’
experiences of and perspectives on literacy
practices in relation to those students’ identities
and learning in language arts classrooms. Both of
these articles address the question of authenticity
of student voice at the intersection of a particular
theoretical framework, educational context, and
focus within student voice work. They both
illuminate the complexities and constraints of
student voice work in schools, offer detailed
representations of students’ experiences and
perspectives, and raise questions and offer
examples of actions adults and youth might take
respectively and together.
In “Cultural Capital, Agency, and Voice: Literacy
Practices of Middle School English Language
Learners,” Bogum Yoon (this volume) explores
the interconnection among two sixth-grade
Russian English language learners’ agency,
identity, and classroom dynamics for their
language and literacy learning in a middle school
classroom in the United States. In keeping with
the theme of multiplicity surfaced in Nelson’s
discussion, Yoon found that despite the students’
similar backgrounds in terms of race, native
language, age, gender, and length of stay in the
US, there were striking differences in their
literacy practice participation. Although she does
not use the “student voice as regimes of truth”
concept, there is a parallel here regarding the
danger of making assumptions about monolithic
experiences of seemingly similar students.
a & b; 1984; 1986) cultural
capital theory as a conceptual framework, Yoon
explores how classroom contexts allow these two
middle-grade English language learners (ELL) “to
use their primary language and culture,” and she
examines how “these contexts influence the way
ELLs construct voices and position themselves.”
Like a particular discourse within Foucault’s
theory of regimes of truth, the work of Albright
and Luke (2008) and Lareau and Horvat (1999)
support Yoon in suggesting that cultural capital
theory can be seen as “deterministic” and “does
not pay particular attention to individual
interactions and agency.” Yoon includes a focused
discussion of agency to counterbalance this
inattention in Bourdieu’s work. Just as student
voice itself is co-constructed, Yoon argues that
“cultural capital is not only acquired or possessed,
it can be constructed, created, and activated by
ELLs according to various contexts.” Yoon
emphasizes that “the factors that influence the
ELLs’ participation in literacy practices are
complicated and cannot be explained with one
single feature.” As she explains, her study
suggests that “classroom dynamics might affect
the ELLs’ voices, participatory behaviors, and
their positioning of themselves as passive or
Yoon’s essay offers a vivid example of the way that
politics, power, and purposes of education are
always at play, and how they intersect in complex
ways with the multi-dimensional identities of
students. She illuminates how practices in which
teachers engage can invite or hinder students’ use
of their languages and cultural references as
cultural capital and how these opportunities or
lack thereof affect students’ identity development.
She also illuminates the ways in which peers
affect ELL students’ engagement and
development. In her discussion, Yoon argues that
“classroom dynamics that focus on culturally
inclusive or non-inclusive pedagogy are important
aspects that middle school educators should
consider on the development of student agency
and engagement.” Such consideration could
certainly contribute to changing the standard
dynamics of classrooms and the standard weave
of school culture.
The second article that focuses on students’
experiences within classrooms is “Authentic for
Whom?: An Interview Study of Desired Writing
Practices for African American Adolescent
Learners.” In this article, Gholnecsar E.
Muhammad and Nadia Behizadeh (this volume)
approach the question of authenticity from
several angles: they ask what constitutes an
authentic writing assignment, they seek to
understand how African American adolescents
describe their classroom writing experiences, and
they analyze what factors African American
adolescents desire related to authenticity for
writing instruction. Many of the most desired
aspects—expression, personal connections,
sharing with peers, sharing with teachers,
structured writing, student and teacher choice of
topics—resonate with the quality of experience
that students articulate in the other studies
included in this issue. The focus is on engagement
and relationships, on the human dimension of
learning, on being perceived as a person with a
legitimate and, indeed, important perspective. As
Jasmine, a 13-year-old African American girl in
this study, put it: “If you won’t listen to me when I
speak, how about I write something down and
make it beautiful and fluent and just powerful.
And then you will pay attention to me and what I
actually have to say.”
Listening to what students say matters to them
and acting on what they hear, Muhammad and
Behizadeh not only strive to support authenticity
in student voice, they also expand the response to
the question, “In the acoustic of the school whose
voice gets listened to?” As they point out, “student
conceptions of authenticity in writing classrooms
are overlooked when it comes to informing
curriculum and policy decisions and are not
widely reported in large-scale assessments.
Moreover, the purposes for writing that African
Americans held historically are largely absent
from the ways writing is privileged in language
arts classrooms and within assessments.” In a
study of a diverse body of eighth-grade students
over two years,
students articulated the importance of structured
choice of valued topic, freedom over structure,
writing for impact, and sharing final products and
in-process work with others. In the study they
report on in this issue, the authors compare these
four to the themes derived from interviews of
Black/African American students. Drawing on the
students’ own words, on the work of Geneva Gay
(2010) regarding the importance of using
students’ cultural resources and perspectives as a
conduit for improving and advancing teaching
practices, and on the work of Muhammad (2015b)
Winn and Johnson (2011)
, Muhammad and
Behizadeh argue for culturally responsive writing
pedagogy that calls for teachers to find the
intersections of students’ histories, identities, and
Drawing on Splitter’s (2009) definition of
relevance, Muhammad and Behizadeh assert that
“to be authentic, the writing task must connect to
the lives of the youth.” This definition of
authenticity resonates with Rudduck and Flutter’s
(2004) call for “authentic learning.” And it applies
not only to writing but also to all aspects of
students’ schooling. Their “framing of educational
authenticity as residing within a student’s
perceptions rather than a task” that is
conceptualized and required by others
necessitates engagement in authentic student
voice work: asking students what they experience
and think, trusting and respecting what they say,
and then working with them to understand how
to make change given the politics, power
structures, and purposes of education as they
encounter those. Within writing pedagogy, it is
often the case that “‘the teacher does all the
composing, and students are left only to fill in
missing information’” (Applebee & Langer, 2011,
p. 26, as quoted in Muhammad & Behizadeh, this
volume). So too for much of education. It is this
structured power asymmetry and pedagogical
practice that student voice work aims to change.
The final article in this issue widens the scope to
explore what happens when student voice informs
school-wide initiatives and how authenticity plays
out under those circumstances. In “Implementing
Middle School Youth-Adult Partnerships: A Study
of Two Programs Focused on Social Change,” Cat
Biddle and Dana Mitra (this volume) argue that
youth-adult partnerships position youth and
adults in roles of equal leadership of initiatives in
their schools and communities and can “disrupt
traditional relationships between young people
and adults by working from an assumption of
youth capability and agency, rather than passivity,
and the value of young people’s ideas and
leadership.” In their study of UP for Learning’s
Great Expectations and Getting to Y programs,
both originally designed for high schools in
Vermont but adapted for middle schools, Biddle
and Mitra were interested both in how
youthadult partnership practices affect positive youth
development of middle grades students and in the
extent to which youth-adult partnerships at the
middle grade level are able to position youth as
social and school change agents. Both programs
position students as partners with adults in
working to change expectations, in the first case
regarding expectations for learners in schools and
in the second case regarding school and
This study takes on directly the political, power,
and purpose questions of student voice work.
Echoing Rudduck and McIntyre’s (2007) list of
the values and principles that underlie student
voice work, Biddle and Mitra draw on what they
call the “ABCDE”s of youth development: agency,
belonging, competence, discourse and efficacy
(Mitra & Serriere, 2012). Like Nelson, they
identified differences in the ways that students
and adults perceived the youth-adult partnership
programs in a middle school context. In their case,
youth participants perceived positive
developmental outcomes as a result of their
participation, whereas adults observed difficulties
in supporting the implementation of these
initiatives when the goal was cultural or social
change. As they explain: “While youth generally
reported that their participation in the Getting to
Y and Great Expectations programs had led to the
development of some new skills and abilities,
some adults partnering with youth in these
programs remained skeptical about the readiness
of school structures to support youth in
translating this development into school-wide or
Even through programs that successfully enact an
alternative to the student-faculty power dynamics,
the politics and dominant practices within schools
can prevent culture change. As Biddle and Mitra
put it: “The comparison of these two cases
improves our understanding of how middle
grades student voice and youth-adult partnership
practices are both enabled and limited by existing
structures of expectations about youth leadership
in middle grade schools.” Beyond this basic
difficulty, though, Biddle and Mitra highlight a
paradox: “The importance of student voice for
drawing attention to entrenched injustices or
community silence on an issue (as in the case of
suicide or ability), but also the lack of resources
and time available within middle school
structures, even those supportive of student voice,
to support youth-led efforts to address injustice.”
Student voice work asks us to accept the
importance of bringing together different angles
of vision born of different positions that, at their
intersection, yield perspective that can catalyze
insight and inform action. Both practically and
metaphorically, as well as politically, this
evocation and juxtaposition of perspectives,
particularly those that have been ignored or
underrepresented in schools, is the goal of
student voice work that strives for authenticity.
But as the essays in this collection make clear,
approaches to seeking, sharing, learning from,
and acting on student voices must constantly
question the ways in which those approaches
intersect with politics, power, and purpose in
education. The essays in this issue of Middle
Grades Review reveal the ways in which the
homogeneity of (also socially constructed)
dominant cultures works against student voice
efforts that demand acceptance and indeed
pursuit of complexity and multiplicity. To realize
the potential of student voice as a radical agent of
change, ‘voice’ is not enough, as Lundy (2007)
argued, unless it is understood as the sound,
presence, and power of students alongside adults
. The journey toward
authenticity in student voice work—and if these
essays consistently send one message, it is that
this is an ongoing journey—requires interrogation
of the term ‘authenticity’ itself, vigilance against
the ways that dominant perspectives and
practices reassert themselves, and persistence of
both adults and young people in co-creating a
world in which “with” is a reality, not only an
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