Cultivating Student Voices: A Teacher’s Journey with Expression-Driven Teaching

Three years ago, Chris MacLean, a dedicated sixth-grade teacher at Dover Elementary, participated in The Practice Space's Youth Voice Advocates program. This initiative, aimed at advancing equity through Expression-Driven Teaching, involved a cohort of educators committed to fostering student expression during the pandemic and transitioning back into classrooms. Expression-Driven Teaching is a facilitation method that develops oral literacy, communication skills, and an inclusive environment to cultivate youth voices. Mr. MacLean, one of ten educators in the cohort, received intensive support over two years, focusing on integrating storytelling, debate, self-advocacy, poetry, presentation, and listening into classrooms to increase student engagement.

In this blog post, we catch up with Mr. MacLean to see how he's been integrating his learnings into his classroom and to glean new wisdom on the importance of student expression in academic spaces.

A Passionate Educator and His Vibrant Classroom

With eight years of teaching experience, Mr. MacLean's passion for education shines through in his bilingual sixth-grade class at Dover Elementary. His students, predominantly Latinos, exude pride in their cultural identity and demonstrate a strong sense of community and leadership. “My kids are great,” Mr. MacLean shares. “They have a good sense of identity, pride in who we are. They love to be a part of making the school a better place. They love to help out people. They love to learn, love to grow, love to have fun.”

Integrating Student Expression and Speaking Skills

Mr. MacLean integrates public speaking skills seamlessly into his curriculum. From show-and-tell sessions to structured debates and presentations on mathematical concepts, he fosters a supportive environment where students gain confidence in expressing themselves. He explains, “I tell them it's not going to be easy at first and that's okay. There's a word called grit. It's not easy at first but keep trying it out, keep doing it.”

Recognizing that public speaking can be daunting, Mr. MacLean emphasizes the importance of perseverance and practice. Through encouragement and gentle guidance, he helps students overcome their initial nerves, allowing them to blossom into confident speakers.

In Mr. MacLean's bilingual classroom, students are encouraged to present in both English and Spanish, reflecting the diversity of their linguistic backgrounds. By creating space for Spanglish and accommodating language preferences, he ensures all students feel empowered to communicate effectively. “Some of my kids have two presentations prepared, one in English, one in Spanish, and that's pretty cool. Most kids are stronger in English, but I also tell them to use Spanglish if they don't know a word in one language.”

Growth in Student Engagement and Collaboration

Reflecting on the years since his participation in the Youth Voice Advocates cohort, Mr. MacLean notes significant growth in student engagement and collaboration. With initiatives like student council presentations and mental health awareness campaigns, he has witnessed his students flourish as leaders and communicators. “Me going through The Practice Space Cohort learning all that stuff made it so that my class can work super well in groups. My class can work super well together. It makes all the other subjects great.”

One standout presentation involved students sharing their identity maps, fostering understanding and connection among classmates. This experience underscored the power of student expression in building a cohesive classroom community. “Kids like to be able to teach. It's cool when kids are experts at something,” Mr. MacLean observes.

Preparing Students for Public Speaking

Mr. MacLean goes about preparing students for public speaking by creating a judgment-free zone where students feel comfortable taking risks. He recounts, “At first, I had a kid cry in their first presentation. In her second presentation, it was about why this anime is better than that anime. Oh man, she was looking at everybody, she was confident, everything was so smooth. And it's because I let them know it's not going to be easy, but it'll be easier the more you practice it.”

He also runs the student council with another teacher, where students are involved in various public speaking initiatives such as presenting at city hall or giving school-wide presentations. “I want to help kids get tools and just be prepared for the future. Some of these kids are rock stars already.”

The Importance of Student Expression

For Mr. MacLean, public speaking is not just a skill but a tool for self-advocacy and empowerment. Through effective communication, students learn to assert themselves, hold others accountable, and strengthen relationships with peers and family. He believes that self-expression is crucial for personal and academic growth. “You need to be able to speak up for yourself. You need to advocate for yourself,” he advises his students.

Mr. MacLean’s advice to teachers who are nervous about bringing public speaking into their classes is to start small and be persistent. “Nobody's good at something the first time they do it. So it's like really try it out, like exposure therapy to get better at it. And a lot of times we make it fun. Like we say, ‘lights, camera, action!’ Then they do their bit. And it's a routine.”

Memorable Presentations and Future Plans

Mr. MacLean describes a memorable presentation where students shared their identity maps, revealing new insights to their classmates. This type of presentation fosters understanding and connection among students, creating a cohesive classroom community. Looking ahead, Mr. MacLean envisions more opportunities for his students to hone their public speaking skills, such as student-led mental health presentations and city hall visits.


Mr. MacLean’s journey with Expression-Driven Teaching highlights the power of student voice and public speaking in daily instruction. As educators, we have the privilege and responsibility to nurture student voices and facilitate meaningful dialogue in our classrooms. Through Expression-Driven Teaching, we can foster inclusive learning environments where every individual feels valued and heard. We can use public speaking as a tangible way to explore the intangible nature of identity, silence, and freedom of voice. For young people to develop the power of their voice, they need to believe that it is OK to be who they are and feel equipped with the self-awareness and techniques they need to assert, question, and reassert their ever-evolving sense of self.

To learn more about this approach, explore our book "Amplify Student Voices." Schools interested in having training from The Practice Space can contact us here.

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