Giving Students a V.O.I.C.E.

Matt Oberecker

Matt Oberecker ( teaches QUEST (Questioning and Understanding through Engineering, Science, and Technology) at Cold Spring Elementary in Central Bucks School District School (Doylestown, PA). Follow Matt on Twitter @CB_Oberecker and learn more about V.O.I.C.E. at


I vividly remember the day my fifth-grade teacher issued a challenge: improve an invention. It could be anything, real or imaginary. One friend added soda to the water fountains; another, a TV screen to his Walkman (this was the ’80s after all).

After an annual check-up in the doctor’s office, I settled on the idea of creating flavored tongue depressors. With a few flavor extracts, I made wooden sticks coated in cherry, vanilla, and root beer. I felt like Thomas Edison himself as I distributed them to my classmates and teachers, receiving accolades in return.

Imagine my surprise 15 years later when my mother, a nurse, presented me with a sample of a new product they’d purchased for her pediatrician’s office: a red, plastic, cherry-flavored…tongue depressor! The point of this story isn’t the money that I left on the table way back in fifth grade (after all, I had never heard of a “patent” back then), but rather that I can’t remember ever being so engaged in anything at school—a chance to create something that I was passionate about.

After reading Students at the Center, I was inspired to create an infographic— a distilled version of my vision for personalized learning. In their work on student-centered learning, Kallick and Zmuda contend that personalized learning “involves students in the design and development of the tasks they engage in.” I have shared my infographic with groups of teachers across Pennsylvania in various modes: summer staff development workshops, grade-level PLC’s, faculty meetings, and at a few statewide conferences. The fact that it has been so well-received speaks to the fact that teachers and administrators alike are looking for ways to leverage their resources in order to personalize learning for their students. Technology cannot accomplish this single-handedly; furnishing each classroom with a cart of laptops or a vault of tablets does not produce an effective teacher.

Conversely, we’re doing a disservice to successful teachers when we limit their access to robust technology, thereby making differentiation and feedback less efficient. Within this V.O.I.C.E. framework lies my core vision for 21st century teaching and learning: a symbiotic relationship between pedagogy, technology, and 21st century skills.


Recently, a colleague sought to modify the way that his students could publish the personal narratives they had written. Looking to shake up the traditional “Author’s Tea,” he challenged his students to tell their stories in creative ways. One girl filmed herself in front of a green screen as three different characters, recreating a field trip to a volcano as a TV news story.

Each of our students is unique, with different strengths and weaknesses. This is not news. When we give kids the freedom to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of different ways, we tap into those inherent strengths, hone them, and engage our students on a different level. Allowing for student choice is also a key factor in student agency, a tenant of many personalized learning frameworks.


How do I learn best? By this point in adulthood, you have probably answered that question for yourself. How often do we ask this question of our students?

Learner profile surveys, many of which can be downloaded online for free, empower our students with knowledge about themselves: strengths and challenges, interests and goals. This knowledge, coupled with instructional best practices and technology, can facilitate instruction that honors the multiple intelligences present in today’s classrooms. Reflecting on personal learning styles is not only a powerful motivator, but a first step to becoming a self-directed, independent, and lifelong learner.


Costa and Kallick outline innovative thinking in their Habits of Mind in this way:

“Think about how something might be done differently from the ‘norm,’ propose new ideas, strive for originality, [and] consider novel suggestions others might make.”

Fortunately, I teach in a district that proposed a new idea: a STEM program that is fully integrated into our students’ elementary experience. There are many areas in our curriculum that present opportunities for students to flex their creative muscles, and the same is true in districts without formalized STEM initiatives. Innovation labs, classroom makerspaces, and project-based learning provide venues for our students to think and work creatively. Simply stated, presenting opportunities for innovative thinking increases the chances that it will happen.


I am a disciple of Simon Sinek, the leadership guru who challenges leaders to build relationships rooted in trust above all else. As classroom leaders, teachers can cultivate trust and empathy among their students by providing opportunities to collaborate. “We can’t all be good at everything,” Sinek says, “…this is partly the logic behind having a team in the first place.”

Increasingly, I have begun to see my role in the classroom less as a facilitator but rather as that of a resource—almost like a consultant for the group. In a collaborative culture, the use of technology not only makes communication more efficient, but also provides opportunities to identify authentic, real-world connections and problems for groups to tackle together.


Recently, our building principal shocked us when he announced that one faculty meeting per month would be dedicated to what he called “20% time”—a time to be engaged in topics we felt passionate about. Some worked on trying out a new piece of classroom technology; others watched videos about reducing anxiety in children. We teachers had little trouble identifying topics of passion, but how often do we allow our students to do the same? Whether it be a “genius hour,” station rotations, or even personalized homework, creating outlets for our students’ passions increases engagement and solidifies real-world connections. The cultivation of curiosity, interests, and passion ought to be at the heart of a 21st century classroom.

Like Kallick and Zmuda, a visual I often use during presentations is that of a soundboard. Sound engineers are always fiddling with knobs: turning up the vocals on one track, turning down the bass on another. I envision the V.O.I.C.E. framework operating in a similar way: certain areas in the curriculum may lend themselves to “turning up” the collaboration or innovation while others may warrant less opportunity for student choice.

Speaking of sound, it can even work in music class. Our school’s music teacher recently challenged his students to demonstrate their songwriting ability using a method of their choosing: utilizing songwriting software, exploring digital sounds, writing on traditional staff paper, or performing live with instruments. He reports that the excitement among students was palpable.

At its best, it is my belief that the V.O.I.C.E. framework can pave pathways to personalization for classrooms in any school and for students at any level. At the very least, it can jumpstart conversations about what 21st century teaching and learning could and should look like— certainly conversations worth having. Ultimately, I believe that when we personalize learning for our students, we’re giving them that which we all hope for both in the classroom and beyond: a seat at the table.


Costa, A. & Kallick, B.. (2008). Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success. Alexandria: ASCD.

Kallick, B., & Zmuda, A. (2017). Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria: ASCD.

Sinek, S. (2014). How great leaders inspire action. TED. Retrieved from

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