Issues Addressed by Student Voice

Planning the winter dance, setting the price for Valentine’s Day candies, and deciding the new school colors are decisions some schools allow student voice to influence or even drive. However, Meaningful Student Involvement amplifies student voice much further than this. There are literally countless issues throughout the education system where engaging students as partners can be crucial for success, and yet rarely happens.

This SoundOut class is at work addressing issues in Miami.

There are countless issues that schools are facing and that are being discussed by people working in schools as well as those working for school change from outside schools, including politicians, community groups, and the media. Focused exclusively on school transformation, Meaningful Student Involvement catalyzes student/adult partnerships for education change. Students can be partners with adults to address these issues and many more through both convenient and inconvenient student voice. The following list is just a beginning of what can happen though.

  1. The Goals of Education and Student Success. Defining the purpose of schools focuses the direction of schools, teachers, and students. While some originally intended for public education to provide basic learning for successful democratic citizenship, others saw schools mainly as a way to support the economic workforce. Today, educational goals and “success” have become defined by student performance on standardized tests, in addition to measures like student attendance and graduation rates. While these might be part of the purpose of education, many school reformers are seeking ways to broaden the goals of education to include students’ social, emotional, and intellectual development, as well as helping students gain the skills needed to build a better and more democratic world. 

  1. Voice and Engagement. The question of who has control and authority in schools has long been answered with “leave it to the professionals,” meaning administrators and policy-makers. However, as more people push for participatory structures throughout the government, there are also efforts toward more participation throughout the educational system. Creating opportunities for meaningful involvement for students, teachers, and parents is growing in many communities, while the federal government is increasingly asking how and where nontraditional voices can be engaged in decision-making. Businesses, community organizations, mayors, and others want roles, too.  This is a topic that many people can rally around. 

  1. Curriculum. The question of who decides the curriculum in schools has a big impact on what goes on in schools. With influences ranging from textbook companies to politicians, and from school boards to businesses and more, schools and teachers somehow have to sort this out and provide a meaningful learning experience for students.  The federal government, along with a coalition of private organizations, is supporting the concept of “Common Core State Standards” that would create the same standards throughout the country, and many governors have urged their states to follow them.  

  1. Time in School. The length of the school day has been a popular topic for decades, and particularly in recent years. Recent brain research has shown youth have different sleep needs than adults, while it’s been popular to say that students in the US have less “seat time” than students around the world (as a matter of fact, this is incorrect: while students in some countries have more days of school than the US, most of those countries have shorter school days that actually results in less seat time). The length of the school year is also a consideration, as some advocates are determined to add more seat time by replacing traditional summer breaks with more frequent shorter breaks throughout the year. The amount of years a student needs to attend school is also an issue, as more public education leaders consider a “P16” system essential: pre-kindergarten through college graduation.

  1. Schedule. The schedule of a school often drives the learning and curriculum in the school.  The traditional 45-minute period of high schools, for instance, means that projects and activities are harder to do and fit within that time, as is traveling outside of the school for field trips or connecting with the community.  Block schedules often have 1.5 or 2 hour blocks of time for classes, which provides some of these opportunities.  Other schools provide classes for part of the time and give students self-directed learning time to pursue projects that earn them credit.  

  1. Out of School Time. Offering activities after school, in the evenings, on the weekends, and throughout the summer are common in some schools, while other schools do not provide them at all. Tutoring and mentoring, sports and extracurricular clubs, and other learning or social experiences are out of the norm for many students, as their families or their schools are fiscally incapable of participating. Schools and communities could come together to devise creative ways to offer these opportunities to all students, regardless of income.  

  1. Charter Schools. In most states that have them, charter schools are schools that are publicly funded and privately operated (outside of the typical school district), and which students and parents can choose to attend instead of the local public school. Charter schools are all different, some are experimental and innovative, while others are very traditional but with longer hours.  Studies are mixed about the benefit of charters, but the issue is becoming one that dominates education today.  Many political leaders are supporting the creation of more and more charter schools, while those opposed believe charter schools take the most engaged parents and students, leaving the least engaged to stay in the regular public schools.

  1. Class and School Size. The number of students to teachers, called “student/teacher ratios,” has been shown to affect how well students learn.  Many advocates call for smaller class size, while others claim size makes little difference.  School consolidation, where small schools in local communities are merged into a single large school for a large surrounding area, has been happening since the 1940s. Now many of those larger schools are being closed, such as in New York City, to create smaller schools.  

  1. Teacher Development. Thinking about what teachers learn and how they learn it is important to making schools work better. The idea is that more and better opportunities for support, mentorship, and professional development for teachers will lead to better teaching and improved teacher quality.  In some countries, teachers have far less teaching time than in the U.S., and have more time to plan with other teachers and observe the teaching of others.  Half of all teachers leave teaching within their first 5 years, and new teachers have a steep learning curve.  

  1. Teacher Quality. Teacher quality is one of the biggest issues being discussed now by teachers unions, politicians, and teachers themselves.  Many are saying that we need to determine who is a good teacher and who is a bad teacher.  What some are saying is that when students are not succeeding in schools at sufficient rates, it must be the teachers’ fault. While teachers certainly have impact on their students, outside factors are also a big issue, including poverty, home life, and the outside community.  Getting rid of teacher tenure (which gives teachers extra support from being fired) and firing low-performing teachers based on student test scores is the new approach taken by districts around the country.

  1. Technology in Schools. The issue of schools maintaining their relevance in the face of technological developments isn’t new. In the 1950s the US became engulfed with the Cold War, and schools were forced to innovate their educational goals with the supposed purpose of keeping America competitive with the Soviet Union. Today the issue of how to teach about technology in schools continues, as some schools limit access to the Internet, raising concerns about free speech, while other schools are increasing their use of technology in the classroom.  Virtual schools and online classes are becoming more and more common, and many educators believe the future of education is found in technology.  

  1. Special Education. The questions facing special education include the labeling of students, funding the support services that special education students receive, and “mainstreaming” special education students throughout the school population. There are concerns about disproportionate representation of males and students of color as special education students, as well as equal access to support for such learners.  Charter schools and other schools of choice are sometimes criticized for weeding out special education students since they have more leeway in which students they accept.  

  1. Funding Priorities. Traditionally funded by taxpayer dollars at the local, state, and (at a smaller level) federal level, in recent decades schools have actively sought funding from corporations, philanthropic foundations, and private donors as well. Funding basic education is an increasing issue in times when government support is waning, and as a result teaching materials and school buildings are becoming neglected or worn out. Teachers often purchase supplies out of their own pockets, or simply go without in communities where schools are underfunded. In affluent school districts students generally have access to better materials and teachers get paid high salaries, affording those students better educations. In turn, this reinforces the “academic achievement gap” that separates many students.  Calls for equitable funding are frequent, and have found mixed success.

These are some of the issues students can address in schools as you consider what to change and how to work with adults. By learning more about these issues and taking firm stands, young people can contribute to the conversation and take action in sophisticated, relevant ways that make you a partner in working with adults to improve your school.

Visit the SoundOut website for more information on issues addressed through student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Understanding El Che

Che Guevara is given a lot of room by my contemporaries, radicals and liberals alike. Because of his practical and applied radicalism, they regard him as a sort of martyr for all kinds of movements. One of my teachers, Peter McLaren, even wrote a book about Paulo Freire and El Che, comparing their leftist politik from a modern critical consumption.

However, in the standard American practice of parsing words from historical figures in order to prove a point, some of my people are misinterpreting Che’s words. A facebook friend recently did this, citing  the following Guevara quote in order to incite his peers to action:

Education is the property of no one. It belongs to the people as a whole. And if education is not given to the people, they will have to take it.

The challenge of El Che’s perspective here, in this quote alone, is that it positions “education” as an item, a product to be manufactured and consumed. This is one of the dilemmas of citing ideologists out of context. The perspective of this single quote isn’t what education is. Instead, education happens any time learning happens with purpose. That cannot be taken or given, and only comes from the people. If we keep positioning education as a commodity that can be bought, sold, and controlled by any force, we continue to surrender our ability to make, propagate, and promote learning with purpose.
We must not cut out the source from the fruit; an apple without a tree isn’t an apple anymore. El Che without the radically dispossesive nature of his philosophy is no longer El Che. 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Machiavellian Student Voice

“It is necessary for the prince to have the friendship of the people; otherwise, he has no resources in time of adversity.” – Machiavelli in The Prince

Picket signs held high into the glimmering sunshine shouted, “Fair pay, fewer hours!” and “Teachers work for YOUR kids!” Lined up in rows, the protesters chanted, “Our voice, our schools, teachers are no fools!” However, instead of seasoned older educators out walking the lines, these were middle and high school students working the rows.

One of the most popular ways I have heard teachers rebuke student voice is by saying they have no voice of their own, and that they cannot share with students what they don’t have themselves. Faced with deepening standardization throughout K-12 learning, they aren’t wrong, either. Much of the autonomy and innovation teachers had through the 1980s and 90s has been choked out of schools in the name of accountability, and teachers have routinely lost their abilities to make a difference in the curriculum they teach students everyday.

However, this does not mean that teachers have surrendered their ability and control within the average student’s learning experience. Instead, their locus of control has shifted from being in charge of learning and teaching to being classroom managers and teaching facilitators. Working from much more scripted curricula than any previous generation of educators, teachers today must focus on delivering those lesson plans. But they can do that through successful classroom management, effective teaching practices, and by establishing classroom cultures that are substantially different from their predecessors’ experiences.

Those cultures, that teaching, and that management is what can allow every classroom teacher the ability to foster Meaningful Student Involvement for every learner in their purview. While that might not equate to students being allowed to write curriculum or teach courses, that doesn’t mean that students should have to sit passively and simply receive the course of education without contributing to it themselves. It actually means the opposite: Since teachers must teach material they don’t feel responsible for, students themselves must have more opportunities to use their innate capacities to meet their own needs, the needs of their peers, and the needs of younger learners. That can happen through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Which brings me back to the teacher protest. I spoke with an educator recently who suggested that student voice is best heard on behalf of teachers, much like the protests where their teacher union had recently bused in students to picket. While a hundred teachers stood to the sides to watch, students overwhelmed the media with their chanting and flashy signs, and soon the union won new negotiations with the legislators who were threatening their livelihood.

This is an inherently tokenistic and belittling experience for all students, no matter who they are. This is because students:

  • Participate in classes where their voices are not part of the curricula
  • Experience “school improvement” that routinely neglects their capacity to contribute to change-making throughout education
  • Get measured according to standards they had no role in selecting
  • Attend buildings their taxes helped build without them having any role in choosing how to spend them
  • Are subjected to decision-making by elected officials who they couldn’t vote for
  • and so-forth

I fully support unions and advocate for their role in our democratic economy. I believe teacher unions serve a vital function within the education arena, and stand with them frequently. 

However, that does not give unions or teachers (or anyone else for that matter) the right to tokenize students and call that tokenism meaningful involvement. That is plainly corrupt. This Machiavellian approach to student voice is demeaning and dehumanizing, and ultimately serves to reinforce the ideology of education administrators and politicians who would label teachers and unfair, inept, or unsuitable for their jobs in order to undercut the hard-earned stature of their profession. Worst still, there are teachers who routinely cull favor among students not because they actually like or support them, but simply for the possibility they’ll “need to use them given the occasion arises.” (An actual anonymous quote from a teacher evaluation of a recent workshop I facilitated.)

Ethical educators are bound to resist any attempt to demean, belittle, or betray students, much as they are to do the same when their positions are attacked. Upholding the tenets of Meaningful Student Involvement will do nothing but strengthen the roles of teachers throughout education as we radically re-envision the possibilities, functions, and operations of public schools in our democratic society. Anything less is giving into the hegemonic approach of authoritariansim, adultism, and corporatism that is destroying our schools today.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Steal this Voice?

When people proclaim to want to hear others’ voices, they’re often assuming that those people don’t want to or are incapable of doing anything other than sharing their voice. This includes schools that want to hear parents’ voices, youth-serving organizations that want to listen to youth voice, businesses that want customers to make token choices, and politicians that want to engage constituents’ voices.

These organizations often ignore the ability or deny the desire of people to have meaningful input in the things that affect them most. The problem with this is that today, more people more often want authentic opportunities to become engaged in the activities throughout their lives. Authentic means real, whole, true, and meaningful. People want to share their music with the world. They want to help the President get reelected. They want to help lead school reform, have more consumer choices for their broad tastes, and design the streets they walk, ride, and drive on. People want in like never before.

We have the technology, both electronic and real-time, to make this happen. We have a growing capacity throughout the vast array of community leadership to be able to engage people in these ways. We have the ability.

What we need is a non-cynical commitment to humanity and its capacity to serve itself best. What we need is for determination and perseverance to overcome sarcasm and irony. What we need is hope. Hope that people love and care and know and do. Hope that humans have justice and peace in their hearts, and because of that they want to make the world a just and peaceful place- if given the opportunity.

Instead, the organizations that peddle voice are often the most cynical. They most frequently steal voice for their own purposes, selling the people they serve on the effectiveness of sharing their voice. “You’ll help guide us,” they tell us as they take our opinions and squirrel them away in the backrooms of file cabinets and unpaid interns. We know they’re stealing voice when there is little or no accountability for what’s been shared with them. We know they’re stealing voice when they wrote their statement beforehand and used the collected voices to bolster their thoughts afterwards. We know when they’re stealing voice.

What is needed is truth, accountability, reciprocity, and engagement. Genuine, authentic, real engagement. Nothing less will suffice.

10 Ways Past Stealing Voices

  1. Acknowledge the real actions people are currently taking right now to change their communities and our world, and see how those actions affect your organization.
  2. Foster genuine interest within your organization to actually engage with people beyond listening.
  3. Create interest among constituents- whether young people, adults, or seniors- to contribute beyond their voices.
  4. Position people in sustained opportunities to impact change as real doers and decision-makers.
  5. Educate people about the whole issue that affects them, not just what they already know.
  6. Open places for everyone to teach one another and be acknowledged for what they’re sharing.
  7. Go to people where they’re at and have earnest conversations with them instead of insisting they come to where you are for inauthentic listening events.
  8. Develop activities that integrate and ingratiate neighbors with each other.
  9. Give people real opportunities to research the issues for themselves and to share their findings with their friends, families, neighbors, and others.
  10. Share the benefits of authentic engagement with people.

Post Script

Are you a well-meaning but “guilty party” to what I described above? Maybe, like I have in the past, you’re trying your hardest and simply don’t know a different way. For years now, I’ve been writing to you to help you feel better about what you’re doing, I have shared dozens free websites, videos, and publications and done dozens of trainings for you, and I have provided free technical assistance to you. Now I’m going to stop that, at least for the remainder of this post.

If you’re with an organization that steals voice, or if you are any kind of a thief of voice, rest assured knowing that despite your best intentions the people who you’re stealing from know you’re stealing from them. You are the reason The Who wrote the song Won’t Get Fooled Again. You can do better than what you’re doing, and should stop resting on your laurels thinking you’re doing enough. We can never do enough to engage people in genuine, authentic, and real ways.

All people have the right to be more than given power by you. We have the right to be in the positions with the education we need to affect change throughout our lives. Nobody should be minimized because of your perception of their inability or your indifference to their interest. Blaming the organization you work for won’t work either, because we know that’s generally a hallow blame game that allows you to feel relief for your actions and opinions.

Nothing less will suffice.

If you’re upset, that is good, you should be. You should be upset with a system that set you up to fail. You should be disappointed with a program that was designed to manipulate, even inadvertently. Ultimately, you might even be mad at yourself- but that won’t serve much good. If you are angry with me for writing so bluntly, call me right now at (360) 489-9680. Let’s talk about this.

You’re a fighter- now get busy fighting.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

"Youth Voice" Isn’t Enough to Stop Youth Disengagement

Youth voice is not enough. Adults working to build communities with young people have learned that it is important to engage youth as self-advocates and peer teachers, community culture monitors, and youth organization cheerleaders. As youth organizations become more savvy, more youth are being effectively taught to challenge themselves, working with their peers to create safe and supportive environments for all people.

However, after more than 15 years of national interest in youth voice, many communities are still struggling to effectively address the problem of youth disengagement. We have to consider the reality of youth disengagement as a form of youth voice and the role of youth/adult partnerships in challenging youth disengagement. But we also have to acknowledge that youth voice is not enough.

Most people, young and old, value action. From our hunter/gatherer roots to present, there is often nothing more important to us than getting things done. Somewhere along the way, though, society decided that the loudest or most eloquent person in the group should be given a place to talk separate from everyone else. From Socrates to Abraham Lincoln, we have created pedestals and mantles on which we place these individuals, and we call that place “leadership.” Many youth organizations perpetuate that idea.

The challenge with many organizations’ conceptions of youth voice is that it is automatically associated with this traditional youth leadership model: Young leaders are nurtured to become adult leaders, and in many ways we carry forward the notion that youth leadership is only for certain youth.

Occasionally, well-meaning adults will try to engage nontraditional youth leaders in traditional youth leadership activities. When those experiences do not work out, adults feel justified shrugging their shoulders and simply give up on nontraditional youth leaders. However, when this reality is coupled with our hunter/gatherer roots, we can see why youth voice is not enough: Adults working with nontraditional youth leaders in “failed” youth leadership opportunities are generally taught to sit passively and wait for their turn to speak up. Despite that, the nontraditional youth leaders take action, whether it works for adults or not. This is when youth voice becomes inconvenient.

Effective social change requires direct action. It is important that everyone working for social change sees youth as a piece of that action but not the whole pie. My experience working with communities across the country and research on youth voice has shown me that there is a five-part process for meaningfully involving all partners. Following is an explanation of how my cycle of engagement can be used to engage nontraditional youth leaders.

Part 1: Listen to all youth. Families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the well-being of our communities. However, the most important partner is often the least engaged: connecting all youth as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners including traditional youth leaders, is essential. Adults must hear youth experiences with injustice; their ideas about social change; their wisdom about creating safe and supportive communities; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership in general. These experiences and ideas and their wisdom are essential to effectively engaging not only youth, but also all other partners. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to “speak by listening;” social change opens the door for adults to demonstrate to nontraditional and traditional youth leaders that they are our partners.

Part 2: Validate perspectives. The historical structures of communities require adults to give permission to youth. In the old “youth empowerment” concept this meant always saying yes. Today things are different. We know that validation does not always mean saying “yes.” Instead, it is important to sometimes say “no” or “maybe,” and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows adults to connect with young people across the board.

Part 3: Authorize change. Sometimes the straightest path to creating change is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize youth is to give them permission to tell their own stories through positions and education. They need the education and the positions that will allow them to effectively change the world.

Part 4: Take action. Young people are not the only partners who require action. With demanding modern schedules adults want to hear more than just words too—they want to do something. However, one of the points of this cycle is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of this cycle provide that framing. Don’t take action without the other parts.

Part 5: Reflect on learning. Reflection allows all partners, including young people, to look back on what they have done, make meaning from it, and apply what they have learned to the next rotation of the cycle. An easy framework for reflection is

  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what: What happened?
  • So what was the point of that?
  • Now what do we do with what we have learned?

Keep in mind that these different parts are a cycle though, so as they come around to completion, we use our reflections on learning to re-inform the process of listening to partners.

Social change requires more than youth voice: it needs action. The Cycle of Engagement is one tool in the Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit that can engage young people and adults as partners in creating a whole new world. Let’s use it together.

CommonAction is available to train, coach, speak, and write about this topic across the US and Canada. Contact Adam to learn about the possibilities by emailing or calling (360) 489-9680.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The Art of Dangerous Times

We are living in increasingly dangerous times. Surrounded by the politics of neoliberalism and the death of democracy, young people are becoming increasingly agitated by the apparent ineptitude of the government and economic forces to create long-standing justice; more so, they are becoming aware as never before of the effects of the government and corporations on their lives.

The bar is being raised in many ways, and the danger is becoming imminent as never before. One glaring example came across my radar recently. In the 1990s, when I was transitioning from local youth activism towards global systems change work, I was inspired and motivated by artists like Ben Harper and Public Enemy. They were mainstream musicians who pushed unpleasant messages onto the masses, and I appreciated them, listening for inspiration and reminders when I needed them.

Today I saw a video for Kanye West and Jay Z’s new single, “No Church In The Wild.” The song, which focuses what is right and wrong in the world, is teased by the visceral video. The visuals used pull the viewer into a riot, complete with masked protesters and shielded riot police and horse riding, club wielding cops.

Combined with the danger of these times we’re living in, the world’s most famous and successful rappers have effectively capitalized on the tension of the moment. Their paranoid lyricism, androidian beat, and hyper-crumpy chorus suck us into a painful world where the words of Dr. King have become irrelevant, and the present is disruptively ruled by grim militarism, painful corporatism, and hopeless anarchy. This is the art of the dangerous times we’re living in, and it may either prove prescient, motivating, or irrelevant. Only time will tell.

Write a response and let me know what you think of the video.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The REAL Youth Revolution

Ten years ago I began an international campaign to revolutionize the roles of young people throughout society. The Freechild Project was born in the steely fires of my career in local and national youth work, and I was ready to fight. For more than a decade I crisscrossed the country and traveled the world promoting youth-driven social change. Today I’m happy to report that I’ve learned that the REAL youth revolution isn’t a revolution at all- its a transformation. And it’s not just about youth- it’s about youth and children and adults and the whole world. It ain’t happening tomorrow, and it didn’t stop yesterday- its happening right now.

It turns out that as our society continues to transform through technology, young people are on the bleeding edge of what is actually happening. Where adults have long spoke of globalism and interconnectedness, children and youth growing up around the world right now are experiencing that in real time. The transformation at hand is deeper though.

Instead of just inheriting whatever stuff adults chose to hand to them, youth today are actively creating and co-creating the worlds they want to live in right now. They are not waiting for permission, education, or even laws to catch up with them- they’re just going, right now. That’s the REAL youth transformation, and luckily, it’s happening right now.

We need to get on board with what’s happening. Adults need to work with young people, unite in interdependent solidarity, and encourage and support this transformation. Check the Freechild Project website and join our Facebook page to learn more.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!