Students Have To Fix Schools

We hear it all the time: American schools are terrible and only getting worse. For more than 25 years, the country has been massaging the egos of educators, administrators, and politicians who think they know what’s best for young people and our country. Bill Gates and countless rich people have tried throwing money at solutions they want to see. Yet none of this has seriously improved our schools, and in some cases, its only made the situation worse.

In the meantime, there are more young people than ever before who are working steadily, progressively to fix schools today. They’re partnering with educators, community members, businesses, and others to move school reform forward and actually achieving real outcomes. Student engagement in school improvement has been shown to have powerful effects on every aspect of learning, teaching, and leadership in education.

Past the hype, beyond the media, and without biased research, evidence shows that when students improve schools, they are creating lasting changes, saving schools real money, and improving learning experiences for themselves, their peers, and younger students.

Five Ways Students Are Improving Schools

  • Students Are Leading Research. In elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, students researching education. Among countless subjects, they’re discovering student learning styles, identifying best practices in classrooms, and exploring structural changes in learning. First grader students in Cheney, Washington, helped teachers develop curriculum in their classroom to make learning more meaningful for both students and educators.
  • Students Are Planning Education. Budgeting, calendaring, hiring and firing, curriculum designing, and many other activities are happening throughout schools with students as partners. Students are also involved in some district and state education agency activities, and helping elected officials plan more effective schools. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have been voting members of the district level board of education for 25 years. In the same district, every advisory, curriculum, study committee and special force task includes students.
  • Students Are Teaching Courses. In all grade levels, students are taking the reigns of pedagogy by facilitating learning for their peers and younger students. They’re also teaching adults! Students are increasingly being engaged as essential teaching partners, and the outcomes are changing learning for everyone involved. In Olympia, Washington, there is a program that gives students classroom credit in return for helping teachers learn how to use complicated hardware and software in classrooms.
  • Students Are Evaluating Everything. Examining their own learning, identifying teachers’ strengths and challenges, exploring curriculum and climate in schools, and looking at ways schools can improve in strategic ways are all ways that students are driving school improvement in their own schools and throughout education. High school students in Poughkeepsie, New York researched their districts budget crises, conducted a student survey on the next years budge, and then analyzed the data and submitted it to the board which used it in its decision-making process. The board adopted it and saved more than $50,000 the next year.
  • Students Are Making Systemic Decisions. Joining school boards as full-voting members, forming student advisory committees for principals and superintendents, and getting onto important committees at the building, district, and state levels, more students are participating in systemic decision-making than ever before. In Stuart, Ohio, students at the local high school have and equal vote in faculty hiring decisions, choosing curriculum, and class offerings.

Between these five categories of action, deep change is happening. However, beyond the expectations of adults, students are working further still to improve their schools. Students advocating for education changes are organizing their peers and larger communities to create powerful, effective agendas that consistently and determinedly transform schools.

In order to broaden, deepen, and sustain these activities there needs to be a systemic, intentional pathway to engage all students as partners throughout the education system. More than a decade ago, I combed research and practice happening nationally and internationally to identify my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. Since then, these tools have been used around the world to promote these activities, and to build further beyond many peoples’s expectations. As I’ve written before, Meaningful Student Involvement is, “the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.”

6 Steps To Engage Students As Partners in Fixing Schools

Here are some steps anyone can take to engage students as partners in improving schools.

  • Teach students about learning. Learning is no longer the mystery it once was. We now know that there are different learning styles, multiple learning supports and a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. In order to be meaningfully involved, students must understand those different aspects as well.
  • Teach students about the educational system. The complexities of schools are not known to many adults. Theoretical and moral debates, funding streams and the rigors of student assessment are overwhelming to many administrators, as well as teachers and parents. However, in order for students to be meaningfully involved in schools, they must have at least a basic knowledge of what is being done to them and for them, if not with them.
  • Teach students about education reform. There are many practical avenues for students to learn about formal and informal school improvement measures, particularly by becoming meaningfully involved within those activities. Sometimes there is no better avenue for understanding than through active engagement in the subject matter, and school improvement may be one of those areas.
  • Teach students about student voice. While it seems intuitive to understand the voices that we are born with, unfortunately many students seems to lack that knowledge. Whether through submissive consumerism, oppressive social conditions or the internalization of popular conceptions of youth, many students today do not believe they have anything worth saying, or any action worth contributing towards making their schools better places for everyone involved. Even if a student does understand their voice, it is essential to expand that understanding and gain new abilities to be able to become meaningfully involved.
  • Teach students about meaningful student involvement. While meaningful student involvement is not “rocket science”, it does challenge many students. After so many years of being subjected to passive or cynical treatment, many students are leery or resistant towards substantive engagement in schools. Educating students about meaningful student involvement means increasing their capacity to participate by focusing on the skills and knowledge they need. Only in this way can they be effective partners, and fully realize the possibilities for education today and in the future.

Moving Forward

These aren’t the easiest steps in the world, as many adults and even educators haven’t taken these steps for themselves. However, in these years I have worked hard to share some of the things I have learned and written a number of materials designed to help. Here is a simple list of ways students can improve schools, and a separate list of ways adults can support students fixing schools. I’ve written a number of publications, too, including the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in Schools, the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum, and my latest and easiest-to-read book, The Guide to Student VoiceI also have dozens of free publications available on my website.

Another great advantage today is that several other organizations are working in earnest to promote ideas related to Meaningful Student Involvement. Aside from my program called SoundOut, there are groups like UP for Learning in Vermont, the Student Voice Matters website, and Student Voice Live!, an annual gathering of students talking about school improvement. Evidence supporting this work is growing too. The work of researchers like Dana Mitra and Alison Cook-Sather in the US, Michael Fielding and Julia Flutter in Europe, and the penultimate advocate Roger Holdsworth in Australia is moving all of this further faster than anyone could have anticipated.

Whatever your opinion about schools today, the case is clear that we must engage students as partners. What are you going to do?

Adam Fletcher is the author of several books and a consultant who has worked with more than 200 K-12 schools and districts in more than 25 states and Canada. Sign up for his newsletter by visiting adamfletcher.net.

 

34 Ways to Meaningfully Involve Students

Testing, curriculum, teaching styles, school evaluations… As the banner of student voice is unfurled around the world, we see more young people standing up in unprecedented numbers than ever before. They’re demanding what is rightfully theirs: Meaningful learning, deep school-community connections, and lifelong success on their terms. We’re just see a movement emerge like never before, and must keep pushing for it to grow.

Voice or Involvement?

In the context of schools, student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, about anything related to education. For a long time, people got that wrong by defining it only as things adults wanted to hear from young people. This still happens, over and over.

Students are routinely wrangled into adult-driven, adult-centered education activities and were only asked about things that adults are concerned with. We heard student opinions about topics like teacher accountability, student leadership, student activities, and student services in the name of student voice for a long time.

However, a lot of my writing, research, and training has focused on listening to student voice that didn’t fit that description. It doesn’t fit because it’s sustained, authentic, learning-connected, and much more. By this definition alone, it is not student voice.

Instead, it is Meaningful Student Involvement. I have found the most vibrant action is happening outside that old spectrum of student voice. Re-examining student voice, expanding it, and showing how we’re seeing breadth and depth happening specifically from student/adult partnerships, Meaningful Student Involvement is a wide-open avenue for school transformation that benefits all students and thoroughly moves learning, teaching, and leadership.

All this shows how students need new roles throughout the education system. Instead of being passive recipients of adult-driven education systems, Meaningful Student Involvement needs to be infused throughout our schools. This can happen in a lot of ways, and here are a few.

34 Ways to Meaningfully Involve Students

  1. Connect student voice with learning. Make sure that all student voice activities have genuine objectives that are tied to classroom learning. Guide activities as experiential learning, and ensure students learn about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they learn from it.
  2. Go to where students are, and stop insisting they come to where you’re at. This means engaging students as partners in hallways, courtyards, through social media, and other places students are already talking about changing schools.
  3. Teach students about education in the broadest ways, including culture, geography, economics, history, and more.
  4. Help students understand different ways of seeing education issues.
  5. Train adults in schools about the difference between Students as Recipients and Students as Partners, and why that’s an important distinction.
  6. Help students understand democracy and education, including what they is, how they are interdependent on each other, who is involved, where they fail and when they succeed.
  7. Develop opportunities for students to share their unfettered concerns about their education with adults.
  8. Create formal positions for students to occupy throughout their schools and the entirety of the education system.
  9. Create classes with students as full partners in identifying, planning, facilitating, evaluating, and critiquing throughout.
  10. Co-design realistic, practical school engagement plans with every student in your school.
  11. Assign all students a student mutual mentor to introduce them to the culture and traditions of your school.
  12. Help students plan, advocate, and enact yearlong program calendars for schools. 
  13. Engage students in designing and redesigning classes that serve them and their peers.
  14. Encourage nontraditional student leaders to co-facilitate regular programs with adults.
  15. Allow students to become active, full partners in school budgeting.
  16. Give students positions to become regular classroom assistants and facilitators. 
  17. Partner together students to form facilitation teams that lead classes.
  18. Acknowledge students teaching younger students in lower age groups with credit and other acknowledgment.
  19. Co-create professional development with students for adults about issues that matter to them.
  20. Assign students to create meaningful classroom evaluations of themselves.
  21. Partner with students to create evaluations of classes, curriculum, facilitation styles, school climate, and educational leadership.
  22. Train students how to evaluate educators. 
  23. Create opportunities for students to lead school committees, meetings, and more.
  24. Create positions for students to participate in district boards, school committees, and other education system-wide activities.
  25. Give students on district boards full-voting positions and equal numbers of positions with adults.
  26. Create enough positions for students to be equally represented in every school committee and meeting.
  27. Facilitate all education activities in ways that are engaging for all participants, including students.
  28. Help students create and enforce policies throughout the school.
  29. Partner with students in school personnel decisions.
  30. Work with students to organize public campaigns for school improvement.
  31. Create opportunities for students to join all existing school committees as equal members.
  32. Present school data and information so students understand why and how education can and should change.
  33. Position students to educate adults throughout the school community, including parents, leaders, policymakers and others, about challenges that matter to them. 
  34. Encourage students with formal and informal opportunities to present their concerns.

Research-Driven Action


The most effective practices are those that move beyond student voice and become Meaningful Student Involvement. No longer satisfied with tokenizing students, the roles of students are transforming roles throughout education. Schools are engaging students as partners in school change, implementing what I’ve coined as Meaningful Student Involvement over the last decade. In this capacity, students are becoming researchers, teachers, evaluators, researchers, decision-makers, and advocates throughout the education system.

The very best thing about all this? Its all backed up by research and practice from across the United States and around the world! For more than a decade I’ve been finding examples, collecting tools, and sharing best practices and findings from researchers, teachers, and students. I share it all free here on my blog and on the SoundOut website, free.

Check those out, and see my website for info about me!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Public Schools Aren’t Democratic

Being the autocratic, adultcentric environments that they are, public schools today are not democratic. They are existent within a society operating on democratic methods, and they (mostly) publicly allow every young person to enroll in them. However, on the whole, public schools are not led in a democratic fashion, are devoid of democratic teaching methods, and do not teach democracy in a systemic, deliberate fashion.

School leaders and educators routinely tell students that schools aren’t democracies, too. That pronouncement alone is terrible. It makes student voice, student leadership, and student engagement activities something other than democratic: tokenistic and belittling, some students see through them and are justly cynical or resistant to participating. 

Because of this, the argument that student voice is democracy in action is flawed at its core. In my experience working with hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, I’ve found that, relatively speaking, students who are chosen to share their voices in school leadership are generally not representative of the majority of learners. They generally have privileges that others don’t, including the academic achievement and fiscal background needed to allow them to participate, and to ensure their successful experience sharing student voice.

These students are generally what I call “traditional student voice”; that is, their voices are generally predictable and acceptable to adults. Through gross over-exaggerations about schools and the inability of education to meet their needs, many student voice representatives today don’t even address the basic concerns of low-achieving students, students of color, or low-income students in schools today. To the chagrin of many of my compatriots in the student voice movement, I regularly see and admit that the majority of traditional student voice representatives merely toe the corporate education agenda sold by mainstream media and the vast majority of politicians (as do their parents).

While all students’ voices have value for improving schools and transforming education, when adults hold up one set of students’ voices and make them reflective or representative of the whole education system that it becomes problematic. That’s true of nontraditional student voice as well as traditional student voice. While some educators pedestal convenient student voice, there are nonprofit organization programs that do the same with inconvenient student voice. They routinely uplift the voices of students of color, low-income students, underachieving learners, and others, offering those students’ critiques as a singular focus for school improvement.

In reality, this isn’t democracy either, as both position one group of students above others. While I readily acknowledge that all student voice is not created equal, I believe that in democracy all people ARE created equal. That’s an essential distinction, and shows why public schools aren’t democratic.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Adultism in Democratic Education

My child has attended learning environments operating with democratic education principles for the last seven years, and as her dad I believe I’m a partner with her in her learning. As a line-level youth worker, I worked to infuse democratic education principles into my own practice for more than a decade, and as a consultant, I have assisted more than 100 K-12 schools across the US and Canada as they’ve wrestled with these principles. As a student myself, my bachelors degree is from The Evergreen State College, a widely renowned democratic education institution. For the last several years, I’ve been an advisor to the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and have worked to help grow this movement nationally in many ways, including presenting several workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).

It is from this place of warm interaction, deep investment, and soul-filled appreciation that I share my concerns about adultism in democratic education.

Goals, teaching styles, rules, curriculum, budgeting, building design, behavior expectations… All of these things are determined by adults, for students, throughout schools and nonprofits. Even in well-meaning democratic learning environments, adultism often runs rampant and unchecked. Like the wildly fast undercurrent of a river that looks slow and smooth on the surface, adultism is deep throughout work done by adults for children and youth.

When they read this, some people will automatically dismiss it as an attempt to cast aspersions on their work. I don’t mean to demonize anyone. Instead, I want us to simply acknowledge the basis from which so much of this work operates, including democratic education in all its myriad forms. Understanding this basis can help people attempting to work within democratic education to truly create democratized spaces that are so woefully absent in our society today.

Where Adultism Surfaces in Democratic Education

It is important to recognize that there is no one, single, androgynous form of democratic education that all people everywhere adhere to. If my experience with IDEA has taught me anything, its that democratic education means many things to many people. Inside of that reality, I don’t want people to harbor the sentiment that simply calling something democratic education automatically means it is safe, free, and/or holistic. Just that notion alone makes democratic education adultist, as it reflects an adults’ perception of what young people want, rather than asking fully informed, fully invested young people what they want.

In some forms of democratic education, adults create specially isolated spaces for kids to “learn in freedom”. This is adultist on many levels. One reason for this is that learning environments that isolate young people from “real world” interactions by creating isolated experiences where young people have the capability to do whatever they want in the name of learning are actually expressing the will of adults. In our society today, we are installed with an inalienable number of rights because of our age. Intending to rectify a perception of diminished rights for youth, there are educators both in schools and outside schools who seek to create rebalance by instilling similar rights in the young people they work with—to an extent.

In a number of gestures, adults in schools and community organizations who adhere to democratic education grant young people the right to voluntary class attendance, voting through class meetings, and in some cases, “all aspects of the school” are led jointly by participants in these meetings. This is A.S. Neill supposedly dismissed early efforts to replicate Summerhill in the U.S., because he thought they were granting license, not freedom. He was wrong; they were granting the right to self-governance, not freedom. As William Deresiewicz so powerfully showed, that’s a premise of American democracy that’s been lost to the years.

Neill’s fetishizing of freedom for children has become the premise for a lot of democratic education today. Unforuntately, as the next IDEC will inevitably show in August, it is an international movement that’s reaching in twenty-nine directions at once, all without a unifying focus beyond the well-intended adults trying to change the world. Not unlike much of the society many of these activist-educators are working to change, much of the work they do is deeply infused with adultism.

However, the right to self-governance, when applied to children and youth, is wholly adultist, as are all forms of governance. Let’s be absolutely clear here: Adultism is bias towards adults, and so far as history shows, no form of governance has ever been proposed and enacted upon by children or youth. Rather than how many philosophizers and theorizers would define it, adultism is not merely discrimination towards youth. Instead, adultism is bias towards adults, and it is not always wrong.

In the case of democratic education, adultism informs its very existence. As Neill showed in his refutation mentioned above, revealing the very premise of our understanding of freedom is adultist since it was he himself who determined its necessity rather than the young people he worked with themselves. In other democratic education settings this is true, too, as so many program workers, educators, community organizers, and activists form their opinions of the world and then impose them on young people, calling them democratic education rather than allowing young people to form their own conceptions independent of adults’ influence, guidance, leadership, or facilitation. All schools, all nonprofits, all groups, and all movements do this.

The final important distinction to make about adultism in democratic education is regarding the difference between capacity and capability. Capacity is the ability a single person has to understand information, use it in doing something, and foresee the outcomes of that thing. Because of the ways that each person evolves, the boundaries of an individual’s personal capacity are largely unknown throughout their life and can only be seen on a person-by-person basis. In an important difference, capability is a specific level of skill, knowledge, or ability relative to a task. It is a continuum that is best measured by degrees in order to allow for according, appropriate, and just differentiation between people. In these ways, capacity refers to what could be, while capability refers to what is.

As the natural world around us routinely reflects, young people are not born with the capability to operate in the world around them. However, every child and youth has infinite capacity to live according to their own terms. The dilemma is that well-meaning adults throughout our field seem to mix up these two words, capability and capacity. They assume young people are capable of leading themselves whenever, wherever, and however they want to, without working to intentionally increase the capacity of young people to do this. This is a deep expression of adultism, whereupon adults assume that young people have the same capability as them simply because adults have the capacity to do it. This is an unjust assumption at best.

Alternatives to Adultism

In his novel Turn Coat, Jim Butcher explains, “No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story.”

I have found this is true of democratic education too, as with much of society’s work with young people in general. The fields of youth development, K-12 education, social services, counseling and therapy, and public health are all littered with heroes like this, people who are unjust villains trying to save the world. I am wholly responsible for this thinking myself, both as a line-level youth worker who held a variety of direct service positions with young people for more than a decade, and as a government administrator and consultant who has worked in all kinds of organizations across the U.S. and internationally focused on children and youth.

Democratic education, in all its myriad forms, can only be be anti-adultist by making young people fully equal partners. This means that in addition to the self-governance over educational operations, all children and youth of any age in any space has full ownership over fundraising, the mission, and higher levels of organizational operation through an equal or greater number of full voting positions on boards of directors for the schools and nonprofits that are practicing democratic education. In many states across the United States, those roles are fully against the law for young people to occupy. I am not saying that is right or fair, but that is the way it is. In other situations where young people can legally hold those positions, in organizations ascribing to the values of democratic education, young people are often thrown into these positions by well-meaning adults without the knowledge and skills (read: capacity) to fully contribute. This justifies adults’ rationale thinking that says young people have nothing of substance to contribute.

In the face of this discrimination, I have found that it is never good to falsely sooth ourselves into believing we’re being anti-adultist. Every adult practices adultism. By confronting the situations and naming what they are, I have found we can successfully challenge them from an informed place of critical awareness instead of a naïve place of self-satisfaction with status quo.

No Alternative to Adultism

From my own position of experience and privilege, I want to propose that there is no alternative to adultism. It is not one of the Big “Ism”s, like the racism, sexism, and classism. Most people define those “isms” as exaggerated beliefs focused on a group or category of people, and while we popularly refer to adultism this way, that’s not the right framework. As any bias towards adults, adultism forms a foundation of our social relationships.

There’s something askew in the thinking that all adultism anywhere ever is inherently wrong, bad, and eeeeevil. Nature habituates hierarchical relationships among many species in order to propel evolution forward. Given the absence of adults in their species, many animals simply die, while others live only to procreate. I will not abandon our young people to their own devices and defenses in the name of personal freedom, if only because I believe that with the rights I enjoy as a human being, there are inherent responsibilities I possess as well. One of them is to raise young people in ways that are just and fair, which is more important than free and unhindered. My adult privilege tells me so, and adultism informs that.

Rather than using adultism incorrectly to describe the discrimination young people face in democratic education, we should use the correct terms to identify why and how this reality is conjured, surfaces, lives, and sustains itself. Words like ephebiphobia, which is the fear of youth; pediaphobia, the fear of children; and adultcentrism, which is the belief that adults are better than young people; these words should be used throughout democratic education, instead of or along with adultism, which should only be used to describe bias towards adults. Paternalism, patriarchy, infantalizing, and even maternalism should be used accordingly, too, as each plays a unique role in democratic learning environments.

The continued usage of adultism without deep examination of its extended parts will actually be detrimental to the growth of democratic education. Using the misunderstood definition or applying it in a blanketed way across all discrimination facing young people reflects a lazy, irrelevant analysis that is inconsistent with the goals of what a lot of well-meaning adults say they want through democratic education practices and organizations.

Overcoming Naïveté

The concepts we’re looking for, I think, are within grasp. We are on the brink of a social transformation that insists on recognizing the evolving capacities of young peopleyouth/adult equity and social justice for children and youth. Democratic education can claim youth/adult partnerships as a cornerstone right now, positioning young people in substantive, rich relationships with adults in strategic, intentional, and deliberate ways. Every day, each of us can strive and enact justice with young people in our personal and professional relationships with all young people of every age in all locations we find ourselves.

This naïveté is at the core of democratic education today, and it can be overcome, if we’re willing to learn. Understanding that adultism is deep in our work, but not the only thing worth learning, is essential to this fight. I have found that by directly confronting adultcentrism, paternalism, and ephebiphobia I am compelling society towards becoming more just and fair for young people -and- adults; by fighting adultism, I am merely spinning my wheels.

Are you ready to take up arms against semantics and engage in a real struggle? It is time we address adultism in democratic education.

Student Voice Emerges In…

Student voice, which I define as any expression of any student about any aspect of education and learning, has many different expressions. As the movement to promote student voice advances toward the mainstream education conversation in the United States and worldwide, there are many different streams emerging in practice.

Almost a decade ago, I saw the emerge of these streams come out of the research database supporting student voice. This research showed that
many different areas of education were initially concerned with student voice, some stemming back to the 1970s and before. These studies examine student voice from many perspectives.

There’s a place where all this student voice comes together in a cohesive vision for schools, and that is what I call Meaningful Student Involvement, or MSI. MSI is a model for school improvement that strengthens the commitment of students to education, community and democracy. It re-envisions the roles of students in equitable partnerships with adults throughout the learning environment. It promotes student engagement by securing roles for students in every facet of the educational system and recognizes the unique knowledge, experience and perspective of each individual student. Meaningful Student Involvement acknowledges that student voice emerges in many facets of education

Student Voice Emerges In…

  • Classroom pedagogy—This is the crux of teaching, learning, and assessment in all schools. Teachers study, practice, and critically examine pedagogy, often identifying places where student voice can strengthen their practice.
  • School climate and culture—The environment for teaching and learning is determined by the climate and culture of the school. Student voice drives relationships between students, teacher and staff behavior, and the interactions between students and teachers.
  • Extracurricular activities—Student government, clubs, sports, and any other activity not directed by classroom pedagogy happens in extracurricular activities. The efficacy of out-of-classroom learning is determined by student voice.
  • Education leadership—Building principals, local and state boards of education, education agency staff, and federal politicians fall into this category. Student voice can better inform, consult, negotiate, and drive these decisions towards effectiveness.
  • Formal school improvement—Every K-12 public school in the United States is compelled by federal law to have a formal school improvement plan. Integrating student voice throughout this process can lead educators towards improved outcomes for all learners.
  • Public school reform action—Students around the world are asserting their voices into the national dialogue about education transformation, public school privatization, and other essential conversations by leading student organizing, participating in community-led school reform, and active protest movements.

Student voice is most emergent throughout these areas in six primary roles: Students as education researchers, school planners, classroom teachers, learning evaluation, system decision-makers, and education advocates. What differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from student voice, and perhaps the most important consideration, are the characteristics I identified early in my research.

Do YOU see an intersection between all the different types of student voice? 

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Youth Engagement in Democratic Education


Way back in 2008, I presented a few workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference. I had dabbled in the “DemEd” community for a few years by then, and this was my first push to really inject the movement I stand for: Youth engagement. While it seems antithetical for democratic education to be anything other than engaging for youth, as a student and parent who has experienced democratic education for years, I have experienced it to be otherwise. At IDEC I wanted to share those experiences with folks.
Now, five years later, I’ve continued to be involved in a variety of ways, both locally and nationally. However, what I’ve seen in the last several years has shocked me as I’ve become more alert to the reality of democratic education as its practiced across the country.

What I have seen is that youth engagement in democratic education is still expressly focused on youth as consumers of learning. In this way, they’re granted a lot more leverage than traditional learners: Allowed to design and determine their own learning experiences in many ways, all democratic education experiences generally give young people a lot of leeway in learning what they want.

However, the experience of owning the democratic education experience generally belongs to the parents of students, the adults on the boards of directors, and the learning environment leaders (i.e. teachers, learning guides, etc.), instead of students themselves.

Generally, students in democratic schools…

  • Don’t have a say over the budgets of their democratic schools 
  • Don’t control the facilities 
  • Don’t generally hire the teachers 
  • Don’t vote on the boards of directors 
  • Don’t make operating rules 
  • Aren’t invited to review grant proposals 
  • Don’t determine whether or not they actually go to the schools in the first place. 

Generally.

Generally, democratic education is still done to students or for students instead of with students or by students themselves.

While a lot of people are resolved that democratic education generally respects learners, gets past memorization and standardization, and moves away from forced learning, they don’t recognize the reality of most democratic education environments. That is, in this way of doing education that is done for and to students, we generally aren’t addressing the real issues that face students in the long run. Instead, we’re focused on the day-to-day experience of learning. By trying to make schools as affable and immediately gratifying as we can, we deny their ultimate necessity in the democracy we live in.

Democracy is not borne overnight on the backs of angels; instead, its an active, interactive, and hyperactive exchange of passion, purpose, and power that happens over vast time and spaces. The Butterfly Effect is fully actualized within democracy. That’s why its vital to infuse democratic education, and all education within a democracy, with Meaningful Student Involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement positions all learners as full partners with adults throughout the education system. Learn more about it here.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

SoundOut Workshop Topics

For more than a decade, SoundOut has provided training workshops and professional development for K-12 schools, districts, state and provincial education agencies, and nonprofit organizations concerned with education. 

The following workshops are for teachers, building and district administrators, school support staff, community youth workers, AmeriCorps members, youth-serving nonprofit staff, parents, community members, and students in grades 2 through 12.  All sessions are customized to meet the needs of diverse learners, including differences in learning styles, physical abilities, grade levels and cultural backgrounds, and address specific applications and populations. They can be customized and specialized for a variety of settings and audiences, too!


Focusing on practical examples and current research, workshops explore examples, pragmatic considerations, critical reflections and essential tools on any given topic. Depending on the setting and needs of participants, workshops are interactive, action-focused co-learning spaces that build on the knowledge and experiences participants currently have.


Student Voice 101

This workshop is for participants who want student voice to be heard and want to make it stronger in their schools and communities. After identifying current avenues for student voice in their schools, participants examine broad activities throughout the school that could embrace student voice. Action planning and resource-sharing then enable students to be the change they want to see in the world.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn the basics of student voice
  • Examine activities engaging student voice
  • Identify barriers to student voice
  • National PTA Student-Driven Education Policy Advocacy Training, 2010. 
  • Plan practical student voice activities

Advanced Student Voice 

Experienced participants examine a variety of tools designed to foster their critical thinking and project development skills. Participants learn about student voice activities across the nation, and explore particular ways they can implement powerful new approaches to meaningful student involvement throughout education.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn critical thinking skills
  • Utilize research-based tools to examine current activities
  • Envision new approaches to engaging student voice
  • Plan practical student voice activities
Student Leadership in Communities 
Participants learn about what skills are essential in community leadership. Skills in communication, cultural awareness, community organizing, and action planning are explored in depth. 

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Examine the purpose, structure and/or outcomes of community either locally, regionally, nationally or internationally
  • Learn practical oral, written and/or verbal communication techniques
  • Explore cultural diversity and cross-cultural engagement
  • Review community organization methods and implementations
  • Create action plans focused on social change
Transforming Learning through Student/Adult Partnerships 
Participants in this workshop learn how to identify adult allies, create meaningful partnerships between youth and adults, and how to challenge discrimination against young people.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn about roles for adults as allies to young people
  • Examine student/adult partnerships in action
  • Learn and utilize new vocabulary that builds understanding
  • Articulate a vision for student/adult partnerships
  • Learn about discrimination against young people and analyze its presence in education

Student Equity

Miami middle school students attending a student/adult partnership training, 2011.
What do students think about equity, and how would they change schools to make learning more equitable? This workshop engages participants in learning about equity from other students’ perspectives, and then defining and examining their own. Students then envision “schools of equity” where they can learn, grow and evolve from their perspectives, and compare their findings to the changes currently underway in their schools.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Explore the role of equity throughout education, particularly in leadership
  • Examine equity in relationships between students, educators and other adults
  • Determine opportunities to foster equity throughout the learning environment
  • Analyze potential barriers to effectively equitable relationships

Powerful Learning Projects

Students can and should design powerful projects that clearly demonstrate their learning. Participants in this session identify issues they care about, create dynamic project plans and develop meaning measurements to determine what they learned and how successful they are in their projects.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn the basics of powerful learning projects
  • Examine their experiences, environment and ideas for social change
  • Identify how personal perspectives relate to larger social movements
  • Learn about the history of student activism for educational improvement and/or social change
  • Utilize a culturally-responsive action planning process to plan learning projects
  • Develop rubrics for self-usage in order to assess personal performance

Service Learning 101

In this session participants learn the basics of service learning, including essential elements and project planning. After briefly exploring examples from across the country, participants plan projects that meet academic requirements while meaningfully serving their local communities.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn the elements of service learning, including curricular connections, student voice, community partnerships, reflection and civic engagement
  • Determine practical applications for service learning in their setting
  • Create service learning plans
  • Develop assessment rubrics

Advanced Service Learning 

Using past experience participating in service learning activities, participants can develop new perspectives to successful projects. This session engages students using powerful tools and specific examples of effective, engaging and empowering service learning projects. Students then conduct critical analyses of their experiences and plan alternative or entirely new approaches to service learning. 

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn about social justice, student engagement and/or community connections
  • Reflect on personal experience in service learning activities
  • Examine research-based findings from across the field
  • Explore recent innovations from a variety of settings
  • Design pragmatic and innovation approaches for implementation

Fun, Games and School Change

This session uses cooperative learning activities to help students define group mission, building cohesiveness and plan action. Participants may also learn how to facilitate activities themselves through our unique “transparent training” method.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Participate in activities designed to increase team-building, communication, and problem-solving skills
  • Learn basic activities to implement in other settings
  • Reflect on past experiences in cooperative learning and school change

More than Listening: The Cycle of Student Engagement

In this session participants learn about the Cycle of Student Engagement, a research-driven tool that can serve as a practical guide for student voice. Participants can discover dynamic new applications of student voice in curriculum, classroom management, building leadership and community partnerships.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Identify the differences between current and potential student engagement activities
  • Utilize an action-research process in order to reflect on their experiences
  • Examine potential implementations and practical considerations
  • Apply the tool across broad stakeholder populations

Climbing the Ladder of Student Involvement

From the “How to Engage Disengaged Students” Training
Participants in this workshop learn about the variety of options for involving students throughout schools. Determine whether students. Using research-based tools including rubrics and examples, participants examine current practice in their school and identify new possibilities where students can become partners with adults throughout the education system.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn the basics of meaningful student involvement
  • Examine past experience utilizing a tool
  • Develop a rubric to illustrate a range of opportunities within current settings
  • Explore a variety of implementations reflecting personal assumptions

Student-Inclusive School Change 

Participants learn how students can become engaged as partners in school improvement activities. Research demonstrating student successes, examples showing learning efficacy, and anecdotes illustrating impacts are coupled with practical tools that can be utilized throughout schools.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Examine current roles for students in schools
  • Explore stories from around the world reflecting the broad possibilities for student-inclusiveness
  • Determine avenues for inclusiveness within current constraints
  • Envision possibilities beyond current expectations
  • Develop action plans for immediate, short-range and long-term implementation

Exploring Roles for Students in Formal School Improvement Activities

Participants in this workshop explore how to transform learning to meet student needs rather than insisting students meet school needs. Exploring research, practice and personal reflection focused on different ways students can become partners, this session focuses on roles for students from the local classroom to the state school board.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Envision school improvement from the perspectives of students, rather than from those of adults
  • Learn the basics of school improvement
  • Explore current school improvement activities and plans
  • Identify new roles for students within current activities and plans
  • Determine extended possibilities beyond the present

Words as Reflections of Reality 

Seattle Student Engagement Academy, 2012.
This workshop explores the growing body of research that has identified students as the foremost stakeholders in education reform. Participants explore students’ perceptions of school improvement activities from across the nation. Barriers to student voice, strategies for classroom and building-wide success, and general perceptions of schools will all be explored.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Explore students’ perspectives of school, including learning, climate, lifelong aspirations and cultural differences
  • Participate in activities designed to solicit and empower student voice
  • Learn techniques that engage students as equals
  • Identify barriers to student voice and methods to overcome them

Creating School/Community Partnerships

Participants in this workshop explore how partnerships between schools and community organizations can help students graduate and give agencies new volunteer energy that promotes civic engagement. Creating effective partnerships, engaging diverse students, recruiting partners, managing youth volunteers and catalyzing community members can be central topics throughout the session.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Identify the need for school/community partnerships within their experience
  • Explore the range of possibilities for partnerships, including implementation, activities and outcomes
  • Examine important considerations for partnerships
  • Create action plans that utilize partners in a variety of settings

Intergenerational Equity in Schools

Examining the balance of power in classrooms, throughout schools and across the education system, participants in this workshop identify new opportunities for creating student/adult partnerships in schools. Participants also learn about processes for creating intergenerational equity, as well as activities, tools and important considerations.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Learn the basics of intergenerational equity
  • Identify ways to overcome potential barriers
  • Explore avenues and opportunities for fostering intergenerational equity
  • Examine the relationship between intergenerational/social/gender and other forms of equity

Engaging Nontraditional Student Leaders 

SoundOut offers ground-breaking, unique content.
Participants examine the current role of nontraditional student leaders in schools and learn about new avenues for engagement. Using a skill-based focus, participants explore how to create activities, create practical expectations and evaluate performance.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Explore the elements of student leadership
  • Identify nontraditional student leadership within current learning environments
  • Examine examples of meaningfully engaged nontraditional student leadership in multiple settings
  • Learn activities and approaches that foster engagement
  • Develop or co-create nontraditional assessments, including portfolios, presentations and other formats

Decision-Making in Partnerships

Educational decision-making affects students, parents, and educators personally, in classrooms, building-wide, district and state levels everyday without actually engaging all partners in the process. Participants in this workshop examine those decisions and explore new avenues for engaging each other as partners throughout the process.

The goals of this workshop are for participants to:

  • Identify the breadth of possibilities to engage partners in decision-making throughout education
  • Examine research that explores multiple roles for decision-making partners
  • Determine points of disengagement for partners as decision-makers
  • Learn new approaches and avenues that empower partners of all kinds to learn while leading 
To learn more about what we do in schools, visit SoundOut.org or call (360) 489-9680 today!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Convenient Student Voice -or- Inconvenient Student Voice?

From my research and experience working in with than 300 K-12 schools, districts, and state education agencies, I have identified two types of student voice in schools: convenient and inconvenient. Using these to teach students and adults about student voice, I have found this understanding can help people grasp which issues student voice can address through Meaningful Student Involvement.


Convenient Student Voice entails students saying or doing things that adults are comfortable with. When students talk about the non-curricular things that most directly impact them, such as cafeteria food, textbook conditions, or bathroom usage, they are generally offering convenient student voice. Convenient student voice usually comes from students who are already seen by the adults as positive role models in the schoola student leadership class, for instance, or members of the Honors Society.


Inconvenient Student Voice happens when students bring up ideas and taking actions that adults do not expect or are uncomfortable hearing. These topics can be those that impact teaching or governance at the school, or even be topics that some adults themselves want to discuss but fear bringing up due to the administration or other outside forces.  Inconvenient student voice often comes from students who are not seen as leaders by adults, or who feel alienated by the school, and it might come at times and places that adults are not expecting.  

Both convenient and inconvenient student voice are important to Meaningful Student Involvement, and both have a role to play in creating positive, powerful school change.



Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Beware Stagnant Student Voice

Over the last decade, I’ve seen a lot of student voice programs come and go. There have been special grants and interesting projects, meaningful attempts and passionate movements. All the while, student voice has grown in stature on the education reform radar while remaining on the back burner of the national conversation.

After researching and writing about Meaningful Student Involvement in the early 2000s, I went about conducting a series of projects across Washington, New York, Colorado, and in Florida. More than 10,000 students and adults in 100 K-12 schools have participated in SoundOut activities. I rested on those laurels for a while, believing that I was influencing change from the stories and outcomes I heard in many places. 

This month I’ve been scanning the research databases again. Looking across the field, I’m witnessing a compelling picture of emergence: The student voice movement is growing. More than ever, new programs, organizations, and campaigns are emerging designed to engage students in schools in creative, empowering ways. People are using language around student voice, student engagement, student leadership, Meaningful Student Involvement, and student empowerment. It is exciting to see. 
However, in my scan I’m also seeing a kind of stagnation set in as more people dabble and drive into this work. It’s happening as more folks settle on common definitions, “best practices”, and frequently-implemented approaches to engaging student voice. My research on Meaningful Student Involvement actually revealed this back in 2003, and I tried to call it out. I warned that practitioners were, in their well-meaning but poorly informed practices, positioning students as tokens in school improvement efforts. The frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement that I wrote were designed to challenge simplistic, convenient student voice activities by calling educators and students to a higher bar.

The activities get too comfortable, the reports look too familiar, and the participants act too similarly. The danger in stagnate student voice is that it becomes predictable and easy for adults. When this stagnation happens, it’s neither authentic student voice or effective student engagement. This is true because of the nature of young people in our society: They constantly change. Because of the varying dynamics of their realities, schools must always change, too. That requires deliberately engaging students as active, dynamic partners throughout their educations, which shows the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Today, I want to re-assert the bar offered through my research. However, this time instead of telling, telling, telling folks how to do it, I’m going to show through action. Stay tuned, and we’ll all go higher together.

Stop the stagnation! 

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!