Helping Students Find Their 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


Instructional practices, like the physical formats of music, have evolved in response to technological developments. Vinyl records made way for 8-tracks as primers became textbooks. Cassette tapes were swapped for CDs, like chalkboards for SmartBoards. The shift to online music mirrors the emergence of today’s virtual courses. Paradoxically, the way we consume music has become more impersonal even as its accessibility grows increasingly personalized. As teachers and students are inundated with new software and apps, I can’t help but wonder if our classrooms are headed down a similar path.

Recently, I started purchasing some of my all-time favorite albums on vinyl, despite the fact that I already own them on CD, have them downloaded to my phone, and can easily access them through bookmarked playlists on a few streaming services that I pay for. A mid-life crisis? Too much time on my hands? Maybe. More likely, I am seeking to reconnect to the deeply personal ritual of experiencing music: holding the artifact in my hands, participating in the depth and texture of sound, and even physically passing it on to my children. (For my wallet’s sake, I sure hope they end up liking the Beatles.)

Like individual tracks coming together to make an album, our classrooms are filled with voices that are sometimes…lost in the mix. Personalized learning has the potential to not only reinvigorate teachers, but also pave pathways for each of our students to discover their individual passions, approaches, and voices. We can equip our students with the skills they’ll need to lead fulfilling and productive lives through a symbiotic relationship among pedagogy, technology, and 21st century skills—pairing the analog with the digital.

As educators, we are all in the business of preparing our students for the future by endowing them with the skills they’ll need to be successful. A unique challenge for preparing this generation of students is that we can’t even be sure what that future will look like. Most of the jobs they will compete for— I have seen estimates as high as 70%— don’t even exist yet. What we do know is that they will prominently feature technology, and that the so-called 21st century skills of creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking will be in demand.

Costa and Kallick refer to these skills as “Habits of Mind.” In their words,

“A Habit of Mind is a composite of many skills, attitudes, cues, past experiences, and proclivities…[and] are characteristic of peak performers in all places: homes, schools, athletic fields, organizations, the military, governments, churches, or corporations.”

In the brave new world of today’s classrooms, technology will never replace an effective teacher because of the relationships we forge and the Habits of Mind that we nurture. However, some teachers are reluctant to relinquish their traditional role in the classroom.

“An important concept for teachers to understand is that by helping to empower students, teachers enjoy more, not less, power.”

This statement, from Jonathan Erwin’s The Classroom of Choice, is a powerful one for teachers looking to employ personalized learning in their classrooms. Erwin touches on many themes that speak to the power of student agency.

“I’m not suggesting that we do away with carefully crafted curricula or let the students ‘take over’ the classroom,” he says. “Coaches, music teachers, and drama teachers don’t let the students tell them how to do their jobs, yet students feel empowered and important in sports, band, chorus, and in school plays, often work harder at these pursuits than they do in academic classes, and generally achieve higher-quality results.”

He suggests that “teachers can employ a number of strategies that help students gain power in school.” He goes on to outline some of the benefits of student voice and choice:

  • Students gain an understanding of themselves. When given latitude in the ways in which they can demonstrate their understanding, kids discover their interests and passions. This cultivation of identity will allow them to make more informed decisions in their lives, like when it comes time to choose an occupation in the future.
  • Students gain an understanding of others. In today’s networked society, any chance to establish personal relationships can go a long way in fostering empathy, compassion, and tolerance. Nurturing these relationships can take place in the positive interactions of group projects. In Habits of Mind, Costa and Kallick call it Listening with Understanding and Empathy: “Pay attention to and do not dismiss another person’s thoughts, feelings and ideas; Seek to put [your]self in the other person’s shoes; Tell others when [you] can relate to what they are expressing; Hold thoughts at a distance in order to respect another person’s point of view and feelings.”
  • Students develop productive habits. Soft skills, or personal attributes that lead to success, find a natural home in classrooms where creative methods are encouraged: flexibility, communication, problem-solving, and leadership are skills that can be practiced and honed. As Kallick and Zmuda aptly observe in Students at the Center, “[Students] use what they learn about themselves as a compass to direct their choices, decisions, and active engagement.”

Increasingly, a one-size-fits-all approach to demonstrating understanding is becoming outdated. Our classrooms are filled with personalities, each with unique approaches and skills. Innovative instruction paired with technology makes it easier than ever for students to showcase the many talents they possess, and the latent creativity bubbling inside them. The potential for personalization exists in every classroom, at every level. It doesn’t require a leap of faith, only an open mind. Equipped with voice, choice, and agency, students will not only demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter— they’ll come to understand a little part of themselves.

Could there be nobler cause in the classroom? Giving a voice to the songs yet to be sung.


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

Erwin, J. (2004). The Classroom of Choice: Giving Students What They Need and Getting What You Want. Alexandria: ASCD.

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

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Mike Fisher
6 years ago

This is an amazing blog post. As a lover of both metaphors and acronyms, this post hit all the right notes. I love, love, love, the image you created for V.O.I.C.E. I’d love to see it in every classroom! Kudos, Matt! Excellent Job! -Mike Fisher

Matt Oberecker
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike Fisher

Thanks, Mike!