Listening to Student Voices on Identity Safety

Area(s) of Focus: well being
Division(s): Intermediate
Level(s): Grade 7, Grade 8

Ontario has been gravely concerned with school safety since 2007. The Listening to Student Voices on Identity Safety project aimed to improve school safety by interviewing Grade 7-8 students and holding International Day of Pink activities.

Listening to student voices promotes student wellness and safe identity. An overview of press coverage of student safety in Ontario schools reveals that school boards have been gravely concerned with safety in schools since 2007[1].  The effects of bullying on children’s well-being has been brought to public attention by the Canadian press because of an increasing number of student suicides and student suicide attempts in Canada[2][3][4]. These are tragic events linked to Identity Safety issues.[5] The Accepting Schools Act [2012] requires Ontario schools to promote a positive school climate that is inclusive, accepting of all pupils, and prevents bullying[6]. Recent events in Ontario show that school is not always a safe place[7].

This project aims to improve school safety by listening to student voices to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence the development of students’ self-concept.

[1] School Community Safety Advisory Panel, The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety, January 2008




[5] School Community Safety Advisory Panel Road to Health report


[7] Taekema, Dan (2016). “9 stabbed at Dunbarton High School in Pickering, girl, 14, arrested,” Toronto Star, Tuesday, February 23, 2016. Retrieved April 1, 2016 from

Team Members

  • Sheilagh Knight

    Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

  • Stacey Cohen

    Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

  • Stephanie Wittemeier

    Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

  • Susannah Parr

    Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

  • Nancy Thomson

    Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board

Professional Learning Goals

The Listening to Students Voices on Identity Safety project aimed to increase intermediate (grades 7 and 8) teachers’ understanding of the factors that influence personal and school safety. By engaging students in teacher-facilitated dialogue, intermediate teachers at C.R. Gummow aimed to get an overview of the mental health, positive emotional development and safe identity of 175 intermediate students (about one-quarter of the school’s total population). In addition, the project aimed to promote student wellness by engaging students in discussions around wellness and engaging all students in International Day of Pink inclusivity learning activities.


Activities and Resources

Activity #1: The book Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn, by Dorothy Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas provided the impetus for the Listening to Students Voices on Identity Safety project. In early December 2017, the Intermediate Wellness Team held a one-day Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting in order to discuss the concept of Safe Identity and to develop a “What’s Up?” interview questionnaire on student wellness. At this meeting, the Wellness Team also decided on a selection process for interview candidates, a tentative schedule for interviews and focus groups, and International Day of Pink 2018 learning activities.

Activity #2: In early January 2018, a letter was sent to the parents and guardians of five (out of seven) intermediate classes to inform them of the opportunity for students to participate in the Student Wellness Project interviews. Two sample questions were included in the letter so parents/guardians could better understand project goals. Parents were also thanked for supporting this school initiative. In early February to early March, teachers carried out the wellness interviews with 44 students who volunteered to be interviewed.

Activity #3: On March 23, 2018, a second Intermediate Wellness Team PLC meeting was held in order to review the questionnaire results and highlight the patterns that stood out in the data gathered. The wellness team then chose questions to be discussed by the focus group, the date for the focus group meeting and how to select focus group participants. Ideas were also put forth for the International Day of Pink (April 11, 2018) learning activities, including an anti-bullying dance presentation, student art, fund-raising for the Attawapiskat First Nation, and a movie promoting a better understanding of diversity and equality. Movie suggestions included Bend It Like Beckham, Prom Night in Mississippi, Standing Up, Radio and Remember the Titans. The Ontario Teacher Federation (OTF) Wellness Conference to be held in late April was also highlighted as an excellent opportunity for future learning on student wellness.

Activity #4: On March 29, 2018, 17 intermediate students participated in focus group discussions around four wellness/identity safety questions. In groups of four, they discussed four key questions: How can we help students not be tired at school? How can we promote student happiness at school? How can we promote safety in the hallways? How can we build community at school? Students then reviewed the learning activities proposed for the International Day of Pink. They suggested that the following songs be featured: “True Colours” (from the movie Trolls), “Mean” (by Taylor Swift), “Human” (by Christina Perri), “Rise Up” (by Andra Day) and “What About Us?” (by Pink). Students also suggested that the following videos be featured at International Pink Day: I’m Truly Sorry (short bullying movie, 2017), the cartoon short Anti-Bullying Awareness: It’s Up to You (2015), Anti-bullying short film: The Bus stop (2017) and Laugh at the Fat Kid (2004). Two focus group students wrote an acrostic poem about diversity. The focus group meeting closed with suggesting names of student artists who could create posters illustrating this poem at the International Day of Pink celebration.

Activity #5: On April 11, two intermediate students acted as MCs for the International Day of Pink learning activities. These included a warm introductory welcome and “Hello” from the Cobourg chief of police, Kai Liu who welcomed students in Chinese and English, and thanked students for their leadership in organizing International Day of Pink. A minds-on “What Does Pink Mean to You?” pink ball toss got students thinking about equality, bullying and the right to be oneself at C.R. Gummow. An anti-bullying dance group then presented to the strains of Jojo Siwa’s song Boomerang which highlights the importance of resilience. The International Day of Pink Art Committee then presented their D-I-V-E-R-S-I-T-Y poem: “Different Individuals Valuing Each Other Regardless of Skin, Intelligence, Talent and Years.” Students then watched two educational videos, the Ad Council’s Love Has No Labels video and The Rush (Shaw TV) documentary on Pink Shirt Day featuring Travis Price and Jen Schaeffers. Students then danced to Bruno Mars’ song “Just the Way You Are” which focuses on acceptance and love of self (being “amazing just the way you are”). The International Day of Pink celebration also included a 2016 Andra Day ESPN Black History month video featuring the song “Rise Up” and photos of the historic struggle of Afro-Americans for equality. The celebration closed with two groups of Grade 8s who spoke about Jackie Robinson and Mohammed Ali’s philosophies of life and resilience in the face of historical challenges facing Afro-Americans. The last part of the International Pink Day celebration included the showing of the movie Radio which highlights the true story of the emotional and mental health challenges facing a racialized man with disabilities and his allies in the world of sports in a white-dominated society which was gradually coming to favour inclusiveness.

Activity #6: C.R. Gummow teachers were invited to suggest books which promote equity and diversity which could be ordered for the C.R. Gummow Library. About 60 books, including two Aboriginal History and Realities in Canada teaching manuals, were ordered. In order to assist with developing positive self-concept among youth in Attawapiskat, the Intermediate Wellness Committee researched Cree-English books which might be useful to the Kattawapiskak Elementary School Library, using the Strong Nations Publishing website. On May 11, 2018, the book list was sent to the principal of Kattawapiskak Elementary School. Purchase of the books is pending approval of the list.

Unexpected Challenges

The Intermediate Wellness Team intended to interview 50 intermediate students, 10 from each intermediate class participating in the project. In the end, we interviewed 44 students because one of the intermediate classes was a split 6/7 class with only 14 Grade 7s. Ten people did not volunteer from that particular class.

One of the team teachers selected the people that she felt most needed to be interviewed. In this instance, it is hard to say whether the type of data collected would be as authentic (e.g. “really open”) because it was less voluntary.

Enhancing Student Learning and Development

First and foremost, listening to student voices provides students with the opportunity to enhance their self-esteem and courage at an age (pre-adolescence/early adolescence) when identity is still being formed. For example, one student who is usually very quiet in class spoke about her anxiety during the interview process. Later in the year, this same student was able to confidently present a whole health project on anxiety to her classmates.

The “consciousness-raising” about student personal mental health was also very positive. Students spoke openly about sometimes feeling uncomfortable in the hallways, about suffering from anxiety or depression, and being brand new at the school, trying to fit in and make friends. They also mentioned the need for more student leadership opportunities at our school, stating that our school needed a ME to WE social justice group and other (non-sports) clubs.

During focus group discussions, students from across grades 7 and 8 had the opportunity to get to know one another, developing a greater sense of community and friendliness in our big school (student population of approximately 750). Students felt very positive about being able to have a voice in creating positive school change. They asked, “Will we be having another one of these [focus group] meetings?”

By engaging in small and large group discussions, students in the focus groups became conscious of specific issues facing students. Students mentioned safety problems on the stairwells due to the large student population and suggested “rotating recesses” (where grades 5-8 go out for recess, followed by K-4) as a solution. They tackled the student “tiredness” issue (mentioned by a full 34 per cent of interviewees) and suggested the following solutions: a later start time for school (8:45 or 9:00, as compared to the current 8:20); allowing students on the yard before school in order to get “energized” (currently students must stay on the pavement before school begins); the tough “back-to-back” scheduling of “heavy” subjects such as math and history; the need to make classes as engaging as possible; minimizing the amount of homework; earlier bedtimes for kids; and creating family rules regarding cellphone/gaming use.

The organization of International Day of Pink activities gave a large group of student leaders a sense of being able to create social change. In particular, two students were uplifted by being given the opportunity to be masters of ceremonies for International Day of Pink. In addition, a sense of well-being was created for many other students whose accomplishments were highlighted/showcased at the International Day of Pink. The pink ball toss gave students the opportunity to think about gender and equality, bullies and abuse, and the “power of pink” role-modelled by Travis Price. The students who wrote the acrostic poem on diversity and the artists who illustrated it raised student awareness about the need to respect unique identity. The Grade 8 students who spoke about outstanding Afro-Americans delivered a message of inclusivity and “success in spite of struggles.”

Less visible outcomes among the whole intermediate school body include the development of life-long values such as acceptance and kindness towards those who are “different” but equal. Long-term outcomes which are currently difficult to measure also include the effect that positive role-modelling will have on students’ positive image of self and the development of their ability to accept their own “shortcomings” (e.g., mental health, physical appearance, academic difficulties) and development of a “personal tool box” of humour, patience and resilience to gradually address them.



Target audience Forum for sharing Content Format of presentation
C.R. Gummow Staff April 6th 2018 staff meeting Interview Results Powerpoint followed by Q & A
C.R. Gummow Staff Staff meeting, date to be determined Focus Group Recommendations Powerpoint followed by Q & A
OTF TLC Wellness Learning Community Google + Basic Premise for Project

Article on Wellness

Ontario teachers Teach Ontario, future date Project Description & highlights Blog
Newspaper readers Toronto Star or Globe & Mail, future date Identity Safety & Project highlights Newspaper article

Project Evaluation

The Listening to Students Voices on Identity Safety project was a resounding success from both a teacher and student learning perspective.

The Intermediate Wellness Team teachers really appreciated the opportunity to discuss and gain insight into student well-being through the one-on-one interviews and tabulating the data.

Highlights of the insights that we teachers gained:

  • One-quarter of Gummow students are new to the school and this effects class formation dynamics (students can form cliques if always remaining with one group as they go from grade to grade)
  • There is a higher level of stress/less happiness among Grade 8s than among Grade 7s
  • Tiredness is a significant (34 per cent) problem in our intermediate student body

In answer to the question “How do you feel every day when you come to school?,” many students (66 per cent) displayed a positive mindset. Some students showed a neutral (e.g., neither positive nor negative) mindset (18 per cent) or negative mindset (16 per cent). When one out of three students is not in a positive mindset, this has major implications for teaching.

In answer to the question “Who makes you feel good or safe?,” students mentioned family (38/44 respondents, 86.4 per cent), friends (21/44, 47.7 per cent) and teachers (14/44, 31.8 per cent) as their main support network. This suggests that families are very functional, student-to-student relationships are quite strong and that teachers are doing a good job promoting safe identity.

Quotable Quote: “I feel pretty safe at school. I have anxiety [but] I know there are people who can help you.”

The interviews brought to staff attention that there is some degree of discomfort/lack of safety in the hallways. Students commented on the sheer number of people in the hallways and stairs, which poses a safety challenge. As one student remarked, “There are a lot of people in the hallways and some people push you.”

The interviews were an opportunity to listen to some of the student voices around mental health. Anxiety and depression were the most commonly mentioned challenges at C.R. Gummow.

Quotable Quote: “Last year it started in April. I was depressed. It got worse in the summer, so I just stayed home because my parents were working. I started getting better. I got medication. It’s helping. I can talk to my mom … reach out to people. There are people who can help you and they are qualified to do so. Try to explore who you are (e.g., sexuality or gender identity). Just learn who you are and be who you are.”

In response to the question “How do you deal with difficult situations?,” 27/44 students (61.4 per cent) had a strategy, 15/44 (34.1 per cent) of students did not have a strategy, and 2/44 (4.5 per cent) did not comment. This suggests that teachers need to assist students with developing coping methods to deal with challenges they encounter.

For the students, participating in the interviews was a conscious “reasoning through” their identity and safety at C.R. Gummow. Contrary to online surveys of well-being, “in-person” interviews allowed students to provide nuanced, complete and “deep” feedback.

Students voiced the following important opinions about their happiness:

  • Support groups for mental health are needed at C.R. Gummow
  • More clubs (e.g., drama club, computer club/anti-bullying club), not just sports, are also needed as leadership opportunities
  • Having a “Joke of the Day” could lighten up the school atmosphere
  • Students should have the freedom to express themselves/disagree with the teacher
  • Students should have a stretch half-way through assemblies when they are long
  • Vegetarians should have “veggie” options for Pizza Day
  • Students would like to bring back chocolate milk even though it has lots of sugar in it
  • Students would like to be able to choose their own subjects
  • Students would like to have gym three times per week
  • Students would like to listen to music at appropriate times during class
  • Students would like to be able to use phones at one of the lunches
  • Students would like more comfortable chairs
  • Students would like better locks on washroom stalls and change rooms
  • Students would like more hands-on work in math and science (e.g., experiments)
  • Students would like to be able to wear hats indoors
  • Students think Grade 7-8s can/should make Buddy Benches for our school
  • Students would like more benches outside
  • Students think that vandalism should be reported (e.g., in washrooms)

Students also talked about community-building with great insight, suggesting the need for following at C.R. Gummow:

  • Be respectful/don’t make conflict over small stuff
  • We should all be friends
  • Team-Building Day (e.g., do improv)
  • Visit Another Class Day
  • Eco-Day
  • On class trips, mix English stream-French Immersion stream boys and girls
  • Survey students about English-French
  • Orientation Day/Games Day for Grade 7-8s: play group activities so people can get to know one another
  • House System – meet once or twice a month to do shared activities across grades

The students’ enthusiasm and leadership displayed at International Pink Day was another very palpable measure of success. A core team of about 35 students worked to make International Pink Day happen, including the tech team, MCs, art committee, dance group and Enlightenment Awards presenters.

Lastly, the International Day of Pink consciousness-raising learning activities were very favourably received by both teachers and students. It was a pro-active means to promote anti-bullying, identity safety, equal rights and gender equity.

What We Would Do Differently

On April 16, the Get Real Movement (NGO based in Toronto) visited our school and told stories about inclusivity/lack of inclusivity. They did an exercise with students where they privately wrote down one thing they were grateful for and one thing that they were challenged by. This data provided a great deal of insight into our students’ mental health and identity safety. In a future “What’s Up?” interview questionnaire, it would be good to include a “Gratitude & Challenges” question.

Resources Used

The book Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn contains the eight rules for building identity safe classrooms, observations about who historically has tended to “not belong,” descriptions of the “warm” versus “cold” teacher, and many other valuable observations about identity safety.

The OTF document The challenges of measuring well-being in schools: A review prepared for the Ontario Teachers’ Federation examines how to measure well-being. Of particular interest are pages 14-21 which look at teacher responsibilities in implementing wellness strategies.