A gentle breeze blows across my face and sunlight flickers through twinkling treetops as I paddle softly along a calm, shaded river in upstate New York. Laughing easily, I’m splattered with water from a joyous splash as a middle school principal cascades water in my direction. There are a dozen canoes around me, all of them instantly caught up in an easy water war that is as playful as it was predictable: I ended up capsized, and laughing hardest of all.
The year was 2007, and I was a guest of Giselle Martin-Kniep, the president of an education organization called Communities for Learning. She brought together 50 educators from all types of settings across New York state, along with mentors and guides of all kinds. These folks were gathered to co-learn about many things, including Meaningful Student Involvement. They came with the intention of growing learning communities to support their school improvement efforts, and the weeklong conference at a backcountry retreat center offers dynamic conversations, deep workshopping and challenging opportunities to grow. Playing in the water was a much-needed break.
As the years have passed, I have come to understand that the work of preparing adults to engage students as partners throughout the education system is a bedrock of Meaningful Student Involvement. After facilitating learning and projects with hundreds of schools in many ways, I have all-too-often left the building with the sensation that something didn’t work right.
Since starting my work in schools two decades ago, I have focused mightily on teaching students about the education system; worked with students and adults to establish safe and supportive partnerships that support co-work; facilitated evaluation, reflection and research to improve student voice in schools; and sought to inspire action in all levels of schools for all learners everywhere, all the time.
However, looking back on my successes and failures as well as the challenges and opportunities in my work, I can see that the entire time I should have focused on supporting adults more. My experience has taught me that in order to infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into the lifeblood of education, adults should have four traits within their character:
- Humility—Adults have to have the intellectual humility that allows them to not know everything in schools.
- Courage—Moving past tokenism and softball questions requires adults to be brave, bold and assertive over the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.
- Urgency—There is no waiting today. Young people are increasingly and astutely aware of the urgent need to change the world.
- Fun—Getting out of our heads and into our hearts can mean lightening up, loosening up and sharing our whole selves with our students. Meaningful Student Involvement needs that, too!
Playing in a canoe in a river in rural upstate New York more than a decade ago gave me insight that I’m still learning from today. In all this time, part of that learning has become obvious to me finally: Adults must be focused on, too.