The VOICES Conference brought students from all sixteen of our secondary schools, and our U-Turn program together to brainstorm ideas to overcome barriers to student engagement they experience at school. These 65 students come from different backgrounds and lived experiences. This conference provided them with an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about school in a safe space with their peers and educators.
Overlap Associates led students through their design thinking process to help them come up with solutions to some of the barriers they face. Design thinking changes how organizations and people solve problems. Before the problem can be solved, you need to understand it and how it impacts the experience of others. Creating an empathy map allowed students to understand the experiences of others by learning how to empathize in a meaningful way; they put themselves in other people’s shoes. This exercise created a lot of discussions, and many students experienced a turning point when sharing experiences; not everyone is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, and we don’t know what we don’t know.
In groups, students continued the design thinking process by defining the problem, researching, generating ideas, creating a prototype and testing. Feedback, which is critical to the process, was provided as students shared their thoughts and concepts.
For many students at the VOICES Conference, this was the first time they had participated in an activity where they felt that they were part of something and that their voice was truly heard. For Liza, a student in our U-Turn program, the best part of the day was having the chance to make a change for her community. At U-Turn, new students enter the program every few weeks. To help people get to know one another and feel comfortable, Liza would like to have everyone come together and participate in an activity, such as creating a poster. This activity would help put new students at ease by giving them a chance to get to know their peers. “Being here I have felt like I was part of something,” said Liza. “The atmosphere made me feel like I was wanted and my voice mattered.”
Jordan, another U-Turn student, liked having students and staff come together to address issues in schools that impact students. “We are working on making schools better for other students and making it a better place overall for everyone,” she said. “Students are the ones being affected the most by the issues, whether it’s with other students, how the program operates or with staff. Working together will help solve the issues and make it a better place overall for everyone in the school.” Jordan knows that starting a new program can be difficult, especially if you don’t know anyone. Her idea is to set aside time every day when new students enter the program to help them get settled and get to know their peers. “Feeling comfortable would encourage people to want to come to school and be in their classroom, or motivate them to get back into regular school.”
After a full day of taking part in the design thinking process, students left feeling energized and excited to move their ideas forward. Students presented their final plans to a panel at Conestoga College in April with the goal of implementing their idea in their school. Liza is excited yet nervous to move on to the next phase, “I am nervous, but I’m more hopeful that we will come up with a final product that will help and benefit my school.”