Including All Voices

A conversation between Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks.

Take a moment to think back to your early years in school. It’s the beginning of the year. The teacher asks a question, and hands shoot up with bright minds excited to explore and share their idea about the answer. Now fast forward about four months into the school year, same class. The teacher asks a question, and only one or two hands go up. What happened? It’s the “turn shark” phenomenon and it happens in classrooms everywhere. At an early age, children learn who will speak up in the group. And often, after the “right answer” is shared, the teacher moves on. This can lead children to internalize that someone else in the group will always speak, so there’s no need to take the time to think or take the risk of being wrong. When this fear or reticence happens, teachers’ efforts to encourage children to share their ideas and thoughts are undermined.

These experiences are all too common in early learning environments and are the inspiration behind Leading for Children’s Carousel method. Adults, like children, need time to think, and space to express ideas. In team meetings and professional learning experiences, sometimes one voice dominates what should be an open exchange of ideas. Sometimes we hold back from expressing ourselves, fearing that our ideas won’t be “good” enough. Sometimes we gravitate toward our friends, inadvertently leaving others out.

Executive Director, Judy Jablon, and Director of Programs, Nichole Parks, had a conversation about how the Carousel method builds equity in our group interactions.

Using the Carousel Share to Hear All Voices

1. Introduce the carousel and offer a prompt. For example, if the topic of the meeting is preparation for upcoming family conferences, you might say: “Take a moment to think about a word or phrase that captures how you want families to feel when they leave the conference for their child.”

2. All group members (including the facilitator) take a few moments to think and write their thoughts.

3. Prepare to take notes on each group member’s contribution. When each person speaks, jot the key idea they share alongside their initials. Encourage group members to take notes as well so that they have documentation of everyone’s ideas.

4. Invite the first person to share, using the person’s name.

5. Continue until everyone has had a turn. The facilitator can invite each person to share or use the “bounce” technique, where the person who finishes speaking invites the next person to speak. Let everyone know that there is no back-and-forth conversation between each share so that all ideas can be heard first.

6. After every person has had a turn, invite the group to pause, review their notes, and reflect on the common themes and diversity of perspectives shared.

Judy: The idea for the Carousel arose in the midst of facilitating a workshop. I had invited each group to explore a different question related to our topic for fifteen minutes and to prepare to bring an insight back to the whole group. As I observed the room, I was struck by an interesting observation: in several groups, someone began the conversation and more or less “held court” throughout the fifteen minutes — another person chiming in and the initial person responding. It was as though the first speaker became the “leader” with others offering responses to the initial’s persons remarks.

In the workshop that followed immediately after, I decided to try an experiment. Curious to see if people might benefit from some time to think, I offered the group a prompt and suggested they take 2 or 3 minutes to do some quiet, written reflection before beginning the conversations. With the hope of witnessing more expansive sharing of ideas, I posed this direction: now that you’ve had time to reflect, please go around the table, each person sharing what was written, not chatting in between turns. After everyone has shared, discuss the common themes. While not every table group followed the directions I offered, I was surprised to see how many more people spoke and how much deeper the conversations were in each group. The Carousel method was born!

Nichole: My first experience with the Carousel was as a participant. At first, I listened to the instructions, and I planned to write down what I thought and then pass, rather than share when it was my turn. What I found was that there’s accountability built into the Carousel. After everyone had their thoughts on the table, it felt respectful that I share too. It made me feel more of a partner with them, and it created equity. As we hold space for every voice to be heard, we also address the tendency for some to feel: “I’m too afraid” or “I’m too cool to play.”

JJ: I recall a story that highlights the power of every voice and equity. Sharon, a woman in her forties and a paraprofessional in a public school system in Arkansas, came to me at the break and said, “Judy, today was the first time in my life that someone wrote down my ideas. That feels so good.”

NP: I always watch for the moment when people pause to write. When I first introduce the Carousel to a group, there are always people who don’t write at all. Over time, I begin to see heads go down, brows furrow, or heads closer to their paper. We find that people develop an appreciation of their own thoughts, become more willing to document, and think before they respond. People begin to listen to each other, gradually listening with real interest, and then they begin to take notes about what others are saying. The Carousel is a way to model reflection, intentionality, and respect. We say, only share what you wrote, and we invite people to be concise.

JJ: In speaking recently with Iheoma Iruka, she discussed the importance of stable, thriving organizations, promoting dignity, and creating a cohesive community. The research tells us that children do better when there’s lower staff turnover. Staff turnover happens when people don’t feel like they belong. In contract, people will stay in a program for a long time, even though the wages may be low, because the feeling of belonging, being listened to, and respected is both satisfying and empowering. With the Carousel, we model the feelings of belonging, respect, and we believe it can improve program climate by creating trust and inclusivity.

NP: It’s powerful when the adults in children’s lives have their voices heard. Sara, a mom in our Learning Network with the University of Wyoming, was excited that she would get to learn from educators. What she actually experienced was recognizing that she had wisdom and could influence work to create equity for children in Wyoming. Jacqueline, a Learning Network member in Mississippi would not speak in the group when we first began. In the Carousel she often passed or offered a word or phrase in a very quiet voice. In a one-on-one conversation with her, she was demure, soft-spoken. However, as the Learning Network continued, and she began to see that her colleagues were interested in her ideas, she began speaking up and really using her voice.

JJ: I think about Paulo Freire who wrote about the culture of oppression and the idea that the community holds the wisdom. Or Shirley Brice Heath, who looked at participation structures in white middle class America and the idea of someone being the keeper of the answer. I remember writing in Building the Primary Classroom and describing the difference between sitting a circle or someone standing at the front of the room with everybody focused on that person. Position influences power dynamics.

NP: This also gets at more equitable group interactions by helping people who tend to dominate the conversations cultivate their self-awareness. Once they experience the Carousel, it’s on their mind, and it’s more easily applied to other areas. It’s also about the transparency and replicability of the approach. When we were on a small group call in Alabama, for example, the director said that she’s going to use this strategy in her team meetings. Not only is the Carousel equitable in the moment, but it is transferrable because we’re making it so transparent.

The Carousel is a way to hear everyone’s voices and build equity in your interactions, whether in your team meetings, professional learning experiences, or in the classroom. If you’d like to get started on using the Carousel, here are some tips:

Think Impact — Make sure everyone in the group understands and commits to the carousel process before getting started; make the steps and the why transparent. Even if a group has participated in a Carousel before, share the why and how-to build familiarity and shared understanding.

Cultivate Self-Awareness — If, as a facilitator, you feel a need to control the conversation, take a step back and allow the group to shape the process.

Nurture Relationships — Write down names in the group before a meeting. When you can attribute words to the person sharing, it illustrates that you’re listening and builds affinity with the group.

Refine Communication — Share your thoughts, even if you think someone else shared a similar idea or expressed it better. We get a sense of others’ thinking by how they express themselves.

Activate Curiosity — Use the Carousel to listen to things where people have expertise. Don’t ask a Carousel question about developmentally appropriate practice. Keep your prompt broad so that everyone can be an expert. For example: what do you remember about being a child? What games did you play?

Let us know how it goes!

References

Erickson, F. (2004). Talk and social theory: Ecologies of speaking and listening in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Judy studied with Professor Erickson as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. She learned the phrase “turn shark” from him as he described the children who were comfortable with the interaction style of the teacher and quickly learned to compete for a turn while others remained quiet for fear of making a mistake.

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Judy Jablon and Nichole Parks

Leading for Children is a national nonprofit that empowers adults across the early childhood ecosystem to be leaders and learners.