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Welcome to Beyond the Bell podcast where you get an inside look into school life. We cover school related topics that support your child's education and well-being. As you listen along, we hope you'll gain insights for navigating school with your child and leave with a deeper sense of connection between school and home. Here's your host, Chantelle Quesnelle.

Chantelle: Welcome Simcoe Muskoka Families to another episode of Beyond The Bell. On this episode, we have Shania, who is a grade 12 student at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic. She is an active member of our Student Senate and its Equity and Diversity subcommittee.

Over the last two years, Shania has also been a leader of board-level student voice initiatives focused on student mental health and well-being. Locally, at her secondary school, Shania leads a social activism club focused on informing the school community about social issues that are important to students. I am super thrilled to have Shania join us on the podcast today to discuss student voice and engagement in education. She brings such a diverse range of experiences to this conversation, and I'm hoping she'll give parents and caregivers an inside look at the important impact of student voice in shaping school climate and learning. Welcome, Shania. 

Shania: Hi Chantelle. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited. 

Chantelle: Oh, I'm so glad to have you here with us. And so we're talking about student voice, right? 

Shania: Yeah.

Chantelle: So how would we define that? What when you think of student voice and you knew we were, you were coming on here to have a conversation about it. How do you define it? What does it mean to you? 

Shania: Yeah. So I think student voice is like providing unique perspective to topics or situations that might not even usually consider younger voices.

So like, I think student voice is just like, I think it's so valuable, especially in like an education context, obviously. It's so important when it comes to education because all the decisions being made by administration, by staff, by government officials, they all end up impacting student life and because we're living through these decisions, students should have the ability to provide this really like strong and realistic perspectives on student issues. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Wow. I that was such a comprehensive and inspirational definition, Shania. I think that, I think that's great.

And I know you've talked about, you know, generally what the impact is on, on students since they're directly impacted kind of by any policies or decisions that are made. But I suppose like what's been the impact on, on you when you've been involved in student voice initiatives or your voice has been consulted or partnered with on something that's impacting the student body. What has that meant for you? What has the impact been on you individually? 

Shania: It's really validating to kind of have someone ask you about it.

And I think a lot of the times when students are asked about topics, whether that's mental health or other things, like a lot of times students will give a generic response because they don't necessarily expect their opinion to be taken seriously. So when it comes to things like being asked about things related to this, I've tried to take them seriously and I try to be as genuine and give the most like accurate perspective. Like my personal perspective on that issue because I think it's important to have those diverse student voices, give feedback on things that are going to affect students in the long term. 

Running a club and being part of Senate, it's been really impactful for hearing other student voices too and like having that community of students that are like-minded that has been so meaningful to me, like meeting people who have similar ideas and being able to create this conversation that is kind of unreplicated in other environments because it's all completely student-run. 

Chantelle: I think that's great. I wonder if you weren't involved in these different student voice and leadership experiences. How might that impact your experience of school? Like has it changed how you, how you see things or how you participate?

Shania: Yeah, I think now a lot of the times when I hear someone bring up something of their concern, like, something that they think is a student issue. I take it so seriously because I'm like, I feel like a responsibility, like, as a student leader, I feel like responsibility or obligation that I have to voice these concerns of other students because people aren't necessarily, they don't feel like they'll be taken seriously. Uh, I think a lot of people don't realize the impact that their voice has, and students are really influential on each other.

And yeah, I think that's like a big part of teenagehood, like being influenced and also influencing other people. So I think people don't realize, like how much they can have an impact on how someone else perceives something and um through these initiatives, I've learned how influential we can be as students. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Yeah, that I think that is so important to, you know, we always see those slogans like “your voice matters” and how does that go from a slogan or words into genuinely feeling that as a student?

And so I guess I'm curious from your perspective or, or kind of your thoughts as, as you've listened to the voices of your peers, why do you think students sometimes don't feel like their voice will be taken seriously or like, um heard by, by adults? What do you, what do you think that's about? 

Shania: Um, I think it, sometimes it has to do with environment, and sometimes it has to do with seeing results for something that's being, you know, so…

Chantelle: … ‘cause change takes so much time, right!

Shania: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. So, even though we have these so many, like, advisory groups that you run yourself to, like having the student advisory, like when students kind of, I think they don't see those immediate results, they're like, “oh, it's- nothing is being done with the information but it just, it's a, it's a longer process, but I think a big thing is also environments. So like I've learned through my club because it's entirely student-run, and it's only students there, there's no staff really involved with it, I have seen students, the students that I've never met before, they provide such, just like genuine- that we just talk, it's like a nice dialogue and conversation about different issues that are important to them.   

And it's like, um it feels more genuine because that environment is so safe and they feel comfortable to talk about these things because they know, like we're all equals in this environment. And I think sometimes when staff becomes involved, which isn't necessarily a negative thing or anything, it's just they feel that disparity in power or if that makes sense. 

Chantelle: Yeah

Shania: Um So it's kind of harder to have as much of a genuine or organic conversation with someone who's kind of like, of authority if that makes sense. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I wonder, you know, even though it is um and, and maybe you could also start by telling the people who are listening a little bit more about the club that you got up and running in your secondary school.

So maybe tell us a little bit about that. And even within that context of it being a club run by students for students, I imagine it still took time to create that space of safety to have those open discussions. So maybe you could talk about that too. 

Shania: Yeah. So I think when I started the club, well, I kind of had the idea in grade 10 and I kind of just wanted to have that environment because I knew a lot of students had similar concerns as I did because living in the area that I do, it's kind of, we're kind of limited to the exposure we have to different ethnic groups, to different religion, to different uh social issues and stuff.

And I think there's even within that community, despite having that limited exposure, there's still a lot of people or there's smaller groups of people that have this passion to spread awareness or to, I don't know, find like-minded people. 

Chantelle: Yeah, sure.

Shania: So I really had this passion of like creating something where students can have conversations with each other and um focus on topics that are important to them. 

Chantelle: What kind of things do you talk about? Like, what are some of the topics that have come up as the, as the club has gone on?

Shania:  We've talked about mental health and stuff a lot because I've been part of your student advisory group and things like that. And I remember discussions that we have in the group I would bring back to the club and be like, what do you guys think about this? Because I feel like the more perspectives you have, it's, you have more diverse understanding of the topic. So in those conversations, I remember learning about how unique people's mental health experiences were based on their individual upbringings or backgrounds and things like that, like how much it can vary just based on these like fundamental factors, these things that are so fundamental to your being might not be applicable to someone else.

Um So I remember like learning about those things and people being so open with such a lovely experience and I just like, like that was I that made me passionate. Like I have to, I have to keep running this club. Like I have to make sure like this is my responsibility because it's such a nice community of students. Um Yeah, but like, as you were saying before, um it, it's, it was really difficult I think initially to create that environment where people are not awkward and like able to talk because I think it's like, so it's obviously natural for people to be awkward initially when you're joining a club or anything like that. But like, I really, my biggest thing was trying to create like dialogue questions. And I also started doing icebreakers because…

Chantelle: Ahh, yes! I love a good ice breaker! I love a good ice breaker!

Shania: … I would like, I would like, reuse the icebreakers that you would say in your meeting. I would take them to my and be like, what do you guys think about this? And it honestly opens people up so much. It's so surprising. Yeah. So things like that just to create some, some form of community. And just recently we went on this Coldest Night of the Year Walk associated with our local homeless shelter and that was such a bonding experience for our group. Like we all just like kind of talked and we had fun, and it was also for a good cause it all just felt really good. So, um yeah, I think deliberately, like trying to bond with the group is so important. 

Chantelle: Yeah because it builds relationships. 

Shania: Yeah, exactly. You work better with people who you have relationships with, I think. Yeah. And I know you've done so much work related to student voice and you've been involved so many people in those kind of things and that's been like, so amazing and so like, helpful to, to feel like heard by um someone at the school board, so I mean, yeah…

Chantelle: That's so kind. I'm, I'm glad uh it had or continues to have that, that impact. I, I certainly hope for that. I think one of the, the tricky things for me as um you know, the, the staff or the adult is exactly what we were talking about a minute ago that, that change in a, in an organization or system can take so much time. Um, and that sometimes because of, of that process, I worry about students feeling like they aren't heard when their voices and opinions are asked because it might take time to kind of implement those changes or, um, roll out something new to address the things they're advocating for. And so, yeah, keep keeping that in mind or, or hearing your awareness of that and, and how that's important for students to know in order to continue to share their voice, I think is really important. 

Shania: Yeah. And, but I think also like with your work specifically, like because it's so direct and targeted too, like it's catered to students that you want to hear our voice. I think that is different than like a, a climate survey or something like that, like, or just like surveys like um that we’re…

Chantelle: But we analyze the climate survey data!

Shania: Yeah. Yeah. So that's the thing like we don't, we don't know what happens with that information. Like we just kind of are doing it because we're obligated. So no one really knows how important their responses are the magnitude of like whatever they're saying, right? So when it, but things like the student voice research group and stuff like that, I feel like those are lovely opportunities and I think those make students feel like they're heard.

Chantelle:  So, what was it like then for you when, um, as part of that research group, the student voice research group, you analyze the climate data from the board where you're like, oh, this is how it might be used to help students amplify those voices and make those recommendations based on the surveys that everybody filled out.

Shania: Yeah, that was really, it was really interesting honestly because I, I had never actually, I never really put much thought into like, where, where does this data go and what is it being used for? And how is it changing things and that kind of thing? So yeah, that was a really interesting process and it was intensive like the amount of uh organization that goes into it. Um So yeah, that was super interesting. I think like um having students see that and know kind of the results of the data is, is pretty important too because once we are exposed to that, we can kind of spread whatever awareness because we know that this is considered a pressing issue in our school communities.

And even the fact that like the data was kind of directed even down to how it was responded from each high school. It's like, you know, what concerns are important at your high school and what you should bring back to your school and talk to your school about. Yeah. 

Chantelle: Yeah, that, that um data analysis and interpretation when it's from, when it comes from students and students are the ones interpret, interpreting it and advocating for something or making those recommendations, that whole process can be really, can be really powerful.

That kind of takes us to this discussion about what does, what makes student voice work meaningful. Because I know sometimes whether that's the intention or not student voice or, or youth voice, if it's in the community, it can feel um superficial or, or sometimes some of the literature talks about it being tokenized or tokenistic. And so I'm wondering from the experiences that, that you've had, Shania, what are some of the things that make student voice work meaningful for, for you or for students? 

Shania: I think student voice is meaningful when people are speaking to their experiences.

Like I feel like when a lot of the times when we talk about something general like a, a general topic, a lot of the times it can come across as tokenized or something like that, when people kind of just go with the obvious answer, if that makes sense, like something that would assume to be the answer. And I think it becomes really meaningful when people associate their real experiences and their personal experiences with um whatever topic is being discussed. Like for me, for example, like when we talk about mental health and well-being, I think it's more genuine if I talk about my indi- individual experience of being a person of colour or a woman of colour, that kind of thing and how that has affected my growth or my mental health challenges and things like that because my experience is unique and different than someone else's might be. And when we understand diverse perspectives, then we can have a better understanding of the general topic I think.

Chantelle:  I remember one of the uh student researchers from the first year we did the Student Voice Research Group said, um ‘we don't have PhDs, and we're not well-versed in research, but we have experiences and our experiences matter’, and I thought that was just so valid and really important to hear. 

Shania: Yeah, it's so true, especially when it comes to all these like student voice topics and especially like talking about education, we're the ones like living through the day to day at school and things like that. So like, yeah, we do have those experiences that really do need to be heard. I think. 

Chantelle: Absolutely. I wonder now if we could, could shift to talking a little bit about um advice and, and certainly, you know, Shania, I'm asking for you advi-, for advice based on your own experiences um in student voice and, and leadership. Um And if there are examples, you know, you want to share or things you wanna highlight. But, well, most of our listeners are probably parents and caregivers. I'm wondering if there was any advice that you would give students.

Shania:  I think students should know that they have a voice and that their voice can be heard. Um, I think students shouldn't be afraid to use their voice because even like absolute worst case scenario is that it goes unrecognized, but you still put yourself out there, and you still got across what you needed to and a lot of the times it goes a long way and people interpret what you say and people take you seriously if you make yourself, if you speak to what's important to you.

Chantelle: Yeah, I love that. What about for staff, whether it's educators or administrators, what advice do you have for staff in education? 

Shania: Um I think that staff, if staff could listen to student voice, I think I, I know a lot of staff already do, but um I think students really need to feel heard in their environment and uh I think staff could be surprised on how much students are able to open up at school if they just feel heard or recognized in their environment. 

Chantelle: Any um, just to kind of build off that, are there ways that you've experienced, um that staff have done things or approached things in a way that help students feel heard?

Shania:  Even small things like asking about their weekend or how their day is going and that kind of thing and also checking in on students and having those like minor mental health checks and stuff like that. Um Students feel validated and understood and like cared for, if that makes sense. And that is such a powerful thing to feel, to have that relationship with a staff member. And uh even it doesn't even have to be so personal. It's just knowing that you can have a dialogue with your students, I think is super important. 

Chantelle: And what about for students like you Shania, who see a need uh to have uh a club and want to get something up and going or have an idea for a student voice project locally at their, at their school? Um What advice do you have to kind of support that type of process for somebody -  a student or a staff who's heard this idea? Any tips for them.

Shania: Yeah, for me, I kind of, I just talked to the staff member that I had a relationship with, like I, I had whatever connection and I told them like, “This is my idea. This is what I wanna do. Can you support me through this? And if you can't, is there someone else who can”, and just having that initial, like getting the idea out there even if you're like, not, you don't know what the next steps are or anything? Like just having that initial, like this is what I want to do and having someone hear you um makes it, like, solidifies it in your head. Like ‘this is real’, like ‘I'm going to do this’ kind of thing. 

Chantelle: Yeah, take that first step, right?

Shania: Yeah exactly. So talking to a staff member. I think also I got in touch with my principal, and I was just like, “I just want to have a discussion, like I just want to tell you about this club that I have an idea for. Um if you're interested, like if we can discuss for a few minutes” and even if that's during lunch or just during your school day, just developing those connections can be really helpful in the long term and just make things easier for you as you go on with the club. Um marketing to students, like as in like just giving them the idea the option like, oh, this is a really good opportunity like uh you will be heard through this and this is student run. This is students talk to other students, you'll be surrounded with like-minded people. I think that's all really strong. I think being surrounded by like-minded people is one of the greatest things. And that's why you have such strong communities in sports and in music and then different things like that. Just Yeah. 

Chantelle: Yeah. Yeah, because even for students and student clubs, the recruitment or getting the word out to get people together in community. Um It's those initial phases that can be really hard and then there eff- there certainly is effort that goes into maintaining the club, I suppose. But um it's ok if it takes a little bit of time to get things up and running, but taking that first step is so important. 

Shania: Yeah, exactly. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I love that. Any, any advice for those who might feel nervous to talk to staff or to suggest an idea to an administrator?

Shania: Hm. That's a good question. Um I, like, I was extremely nervous asking people about it too. So, like it's something that I completely, I do understand and that does resonate with me. I just, um, I think that if something is super important to you, it's, it's like the first step is so worth it. Like it's, it's just so worth it. And I think if you realize or kind of think about how much you value this topic or like what exactly is important to you, it becomes a little bit easier just because…

Chantelle: To stay connected to that.

Shania: Yeah

Chantelle: … to work through the nerves. 

Shania: Yeah, exactly. So just reminding yourself like what this is for and how this will be in the long term. And uh honestly, despite that really nerve wracking and really maybe like anxiety- um producing first step, it's, it's just so worth it, and you end up creating such a nice community in the long term that will end up relieving your anxiety, I feel like.

Chantelle: Sure. Sure -  stay the course, right?

Shania: Yeah. 

Chantelle: And then knowing that most of our listeners are likely parents and caregivers that um might be curious how they support their own students in engaging in student voice work and sharing their voice and ideas in education and in clubs in student leadership, what advice do you have for the parents and caregivers in the role that they play?

Shania: I think it's honestly similar to staff to like, hear out your child's ideas and things like that and, and make them feel heard in their environment because I think when a student, a student will become more confident in their ideas and um understand their passions more when they have an outlet to talk about it. And I think the ideal is them being able to have that outlet at home or, uh, talking to parents or siblings about whatever kind of topic that they're passionate about. And if they're interested in being a student leader, or they have the potential to have that role, they can really learn that about themselves at home.

And, uh, yeah, I think just creating that environment for your child is really important. 

Chantelle: Yeah, I, I love that. Oftentimes at home we can practice what that might feel and look like in a way that feels, sometimes a little bit safer to share those ideas and, and practice what that advocacy might look like.

Shania: Yeah. And like, like making sure that those ideas aren't shut down at home. It's like, it's, it's nice to kind of work off of each other rather than shutting down each other's ideas. 

Chantelle: Yeah, because we don't really know what's possible until we ask. 

Shania: Yeah.

Chantelle:  Yeah. Awesome. Well, as we wrap up our, our conversation today, Shania, I'm wondering, was there anything about student voice and, and leadership that you had hoped we would talk about that we, we didn't get to yet? Any, anything that's left on, on our list of things to cover today. 

Shania: I think the main thing for me is to really emphasize that students should know that they have a powerful voice and how influential they really are. It's important for us to nurture student voices and to make sure that they understand that they can be heard through a greater outlet.

Chantelle: I love that. I think that's a, a great place to, to wrap up that, to remind students that they have a voice and having that come um to our listeners from a student for a student, I think is so much more impactful than me saying it, for example. That sometimes that peer to peer encouragement and reminder of voice has so much more power and impact. So, thank you for sharing that with us today. 

Shania: Mhm

Chantelle: So I hope this episode provided our listeners with an inside look at student voice and engagement at Simcoe Muskoka Catholic.

Thank you so much for being here with us today, Shania. We are so grateful for your leadership, um and advocacy and innovation here at our school board. I know you're in grade 12, and so we're gonna miss you as you go off to post-secondary next year. But um it has been my true pleasure getting to know you and work um collaboratively alongside you these last couple of years, and thank you for being on the podcast. 

Shania: Thank you so much, Chantelle. 

Thanks for listening to Beyond The Bell Podcast. We hope you found today's episode helpful. Beyond The Bell is brought to you by the Simoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and our Catholic Parent Involvement Committee. 

It's hosted by Chantelle Quesnelle. Pauline Stevenson is our executive producer. Episodes are produced and edited by Portage Creative. 

You can find our show notes and previous episodes on our podcast website BeyondTheBell.ca. If you like today's episode, leave us a review. If you have any suggestions for future episodes or any questions or comments about Beyond The Bell Podcast, you can send an email to info@SMCDSB.on.ca. Thanks again for joining us.

We'll see you next time.