Quick! Name a goal of schools and districts all across the United States?

Ding, ding!

To create a classroom of innovation.

Teachers and administration alike are pouring over the blogosphere, Twitterverse, and attending conferences en masse to find this holy grail of transformation. And while there are innumerable treasures to be found in each resource, one of the most powerful ingredients of innovation is encouraging voice.

Think about it: when people feel safe to express their ideas and supported to take risks with their learning, we are able to transform schools from a place of instruction to a community of exchange, intrigue and interaction. 

The key to nurturing a culture of voice is establishing an environment of trust and respect. 


Angela Maiers’ 2011 Tedx Talk “You Matter” shared with us that two words — YOU MATTER —  “can change lives and can change the world.” In her work, Maiers advocates for recognizing each person as significant contributors to society; that each person deserves to be heard, seen, and cared for. With this, Maiers dares us to frame our interactions with learners, small and TALL alike, by saying:

“You are a genius and the world needs your contribution. What will you share with us today?” 

I’ve used this simple, yet incredibly important idea, in my work in the classroom and as a district leaders.

#BEEagenius in the Classroom

In the classroom, my students and I created #BEEageniUS as our galvanizing concept to get to know each as more than students with or without answers. With goals of fostering opportunities for empathy and connection, we explored some of the different ways in which they share their genius with the world. 

Using Padlet boards, they responded to these conversation starters, including:

  • What’s your theme song? Pull a lyric or two that best describes you.
  • What cartoon character is most like you?
  • Name one skill that you are proud of. Create a #hashtag to explain its significance.
  • Name one challenge that you are setting your sights on this year. Create a #hashtag to explain its significance.

The collaborative nature of Padlet allowed students to watch as each classmate added their post. Students showcased their creativity and personality through Padlet’s built-in multimedia tools, embedding photos, recording audio responses, even drawing and creating short videos. As the responses posted, colors, fonts, images, each student’s answer offering insight into his interests and her personality, and at the same time, combining to  weave a tapestry of community. 

My students began to see their peers through different lenses: they began forming new appreciations for their gifts instead of focusing on right and wrong answers. To further encourage relationships, we (myself included) commented on posts, drawing on similarities and providing kudos. 

We’re all gifted. We all open our packages differently.

One of the important features of this activity was that it was exclusive of “academic content.” Quite often we limit the interactions of our students by restricting conversations to “school.” This puts their contributions into a box: they’re either good at math or not; it’s a right answer or not. 

When we learn more about their inspirations, influences and ideas, we’re better able to appreciate their gifts. This is paramount to creating a culture of community. 

Students need to know (and believe) that we’re not going to silence them every time they make a comment or ask a question. 

How we respond (especially in the first weeks of school) sets the stage for the entire year. 

If we continually tell them they are wrong, they will begin to “not:” not try, not care, not learn.

If we continually tell them to be quiet or ask fewer questions, they hear: your voice doesn’t matter.


Leading learners, both small and TALL, requires us to be intentional with our words and cognizant of their impact and purpose. Conversations lead to communication which then lead to relationships and then to trust. Recognizing the genius within encourages and establishes a culture of contribution — a culture of connection — and, ultimately, a culture of belonging. We cannot successfully innovate alone.

Innovation isn’t the work of an isolated individual. Innovation is the product of interested and engaged members believing in positive change. 

Looking for a place to start?

Choose to commit to listening more and lecturing less.

Leaders: Lectures aren’t reserved for the classroom; ask yourself about your interactions with staff — are you directing, instructing, and telling? Or are you listening, encouraging, and modeling?

We encourage that which has always been done, to be approached differently. 

Leaders: How are you encouraging risk? How are you celebrating its purpose?

We look for the unheard voice to rise above the crowd of contentment.

Leaders: How are you gathering information and feedback from others? It’s commendable to have an open-door policy, but be careful to not place the responsibility solely on others to come to you. How can you highlight efforts or validate ideas from those quiet voices in ways that both point to and protect identity? 

We turn to the young people we serve daily and ask them to lead us.

Leaders: How are you keeping student voice at the center of this work? Can you create a student advisory committee with whom you meet regularly? How can/do you celebrate student-offered ideas and contributions? 

And just remember, we all have genius to offer — even if we don’t have all the answers.

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