Voices from the Field: Empowering Students for Their Future

By Stephanie Vinal

Stephanie Vinal is a high school special education teacher in a Massachusetts urban district and a Summer Policy Fellow at the Rennie Center. The Rennie Center aims to elevate a variety of perspectives by inviting practitioners to contribute to our blog.

My first lesson, on my first day of my first year of teaching, was horrible. My lesson plans were concise and contained multiple access points, my slides had well-placed memes, and I did an entire song and dance to introduce the idea of figurative language. Crickets. What was I missing?

It turns out I was missing authentic investment and engagement from my students. Just because I told them figurative language was important and provided multiple ways for them to process the information does not mean that I ignited an interest within them. As I’ve seen over the past few years of teaching, investment for students as well as teachers comes from meaningful collaboration and autonomous decision making.

Our education system is not preparing students to be competitive innovators
High school graduation rates across Massachusetts continue to rise—reaching 87% in 2016—and reflect the intentional focus of policymakers, districts, and educators to support students in getting their diplomas. But while more students are graduating from high school, their success in higher education does not demonstrate the same level of achievement.

30% of Massachusetts public school students enroll in developmental—or remedial—courses at the state’s public colleges and universities. Only 56% of students attending our state schools will graduate in less than six years. If more students are meeting the academic standards required for high school graduation and entry into higher education, what is holding them back?

Many students are unprepared socially and emotionally for success in college. There are no current indicators that systematically track social and emotional learning; however, Georgetown University research found that 21st century skills like critical thinking are considered very important in 96% of occupations. According to this research, current graduates are lacking in these skills as well as other social and emotional competencies. College graduates and those in the early workforce would benefit from more experience with self-regulation, perseverance, and independence in their primary and secondary education.

Rennie Center research (Putting Students at the Center of Reform and Toward a More Comprehensive Vision of Student Learning) affirms the importance of elevating student voices within the classroom and school setting by focusing more on individualized student-centered learning to better prepare them for the workforce and higher education.

Student leadership begins within the classroom by increasing meaningful, individualized, and relationship-based learning opportunities—what the education world calls ‘student-centered learning’. This approach is leading to improved outcomes for students. The Carlton school in Salem improved from a Level 3 to a Level 1 school in the state accountability system by using student-responsive interventions and individualized learning. At Brookline High School, students enrolled in the Alternative Choices in Education (ACE) program focus on student-driven learning and student-selected assessment formats. The flexible instructional pathways have resulted in a 50% decrease in unexcused absences.

Apart from being an often-cited buzz word, what does student-centered learning really mean? The Rennie Center’s Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report defines student-centered learning through four cross-cutting principles: individualization, student agency, relationships, and expanded learning opportunities. As a practitioner, I am 100% on board with the concept of student-centered learning, but I struggle to visualize specific strategies of how it can look in my classroom. I know that giving students control over their learning helps to foster educational ownership and investment, but how do I do it?

What needs to happen?
It all starts with a common vision co-constructed by teachers and students. These goals are situational and student-dependent, but they require teacher-led facilitation and support. It is important that there are strong administrative and operational supports to create a school culture of student-centered learning. The following research-based methods can help us better understand how to support students in building self-efficacy and entrepreneurial mindsets.


What does a student-centered classroom look like?

What tools do teachers need?

What do schools need to do?         

What are the additional operational needs?

  • Student ownership
  • Personalized learning strategies
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Comprehensive assessment
  • Examples of best practice
  • Professional development
  • Preparation and licensure


  • Clear expectations for student learning
  • Flexible use of time
  • Participatory assessment
  • Transparency and collaboration
  • Flexible schedule
  • Flexible location
  • Shared expectations
  • Strong relationships with adults

Learning Lessons
Going into my fourth year of teaching, I no longer view lessons in teacher-controlled silos, but work collaboratively with my students to develop entire units that cater to their strengths and interests. Students showed increased investment and work completion during our graphic novel unit where they directed their course of study by choosing which of four novels they wanted to read and selecting from a menu of activities throughout the unit. In addition to increased autonomy over academics, we have built a culture of social and emotional health and support. Not only do my students build their academic skills, but also their ability to self-regulate, set and achieve goals, and advocate for what they need to prepare for success in higher education and the workforce.


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