Hard Lessons In Student Voice

Today I was talking with some program administrators from a state education agency about student voice when one of them brought up doing “fishbowl”-style activities with students and adults. I remembered some hard lessons about student voice, and I want to share one story with with you here.

How long can adults expect to keep student voice bottled up?

When It All Comes Back On You: Hard Lessons in Student Voice

Yammering and going on about how great they felt, the room came to a hush as I began talking. Gathered around me was a group of 10 students who were excited about changing their school, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Two days earlier, I’d asked for nontraditional student leaders to join me as co-facilitators and data evaluators for a student forum at their school. Working with their small, rural school district’s lead school improvement facilitator, we’d secured the school leadership’s verbal commitment to incorporating student perspectives on what needed to change in their school into their formal school improvement plan, the plan mandated by No Child Left Behind and enforced by the state.

This was the seventh school I’d worked with in the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Partnering with a state education agency, several districts, and a university, with fiscal support from a local foundation, I felt we were ready to address the issues facing incorporating Meaningful Student Involvement in school improvement in a substantive way.

After working out the kinks in a few schools, I thought I’d struck on a relatively easy formula for these Forums. Beginning early in the morning on the first day, I led a teacher’s meeting. During this session I talked to the almost every teacher for the middle and high school students I’d be working with. I shared my early Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement with them, walked them through the process, and took questions. Sharing some initial hesitations, as a group the teachers gave verbal approval for the process ahead.

In the next two hours I facilitated intensive readiness training for the student facilitator/evaluators. Learning about student voice and school improvement, we then reviewed the process ahead. In two days, we’d spend 90 minutes with each grade level in their small school leading a SoundOut Student Voice Forum. In each session we’d brief the participants about school improvement, and then ask them to answer four simple questions:

  • What do you love about learning?
  • What would you change about learning?
  • What do you love about your school? 
  • What would you change about your school?

They answered these in small groups using Mr. Sketch markers and flip chart paper divided into quadrants. Students were encouraged to be frank, honest, and meaningful in what they wrote. There were just few guidelines presented, including one that came from my early morning session with teachers: Focus on characteristics, not characters. I didn’t want to know the teacher’s specific names that students were complaining about; I wanted to know what behaviors the teacher had that were worth complaining about. That also went for specific classrooms, topics, and other identifying features- especially in a small school! The sessions weren’t intended to threaten or target anyone; instead, they were meant to identify the practical concerns of students.

Gathering up nine hours of facilitated responses, the student facilitator/evaluators and I retreated to a room at noon on day two. Spending two and a half hours leading data aggregation with these students, we discovered a variety of hopes and dreams, frustrations and failures at their school. I encouraged the student facilitator/evaluators to identify the trending data, and from that to develop a quick report-out for their peers. They identified the top five answers to each of the questions for each grade level, and shared the overall topic concerns for the whole school. Remember that every student in grades 7-12 participated in the Forums.

Beginning by leading the students in a quick, interactive activity, I turned the floor over to the student facilitator/evalators. They walked through the data, written freshly on flip chart paper for the audience, which included every single student in the school, all the teachers, and the school support staff. After a half hour, they were finished. The audience clapped, some students stood and whooped, and the students were released for the day.

Reconvening the teachers with their principal, I began by handing out in-depth copies of the data sets we’d collected. Almost immediately teachers were disapproving. A physical education teacher said kids shouldn’t be heard, and an older teacher asked something to the effect that students didn’t have anything meaningful to add to their class, so why should they listen to what students have to say about schools. And so on. The principal stepped in to defend the process for a moment when the district superintendent piped up. Essentially, he said that he’d been mislead by the district school improvement facilitator. He was disappointed by the process and the outcomes, and doubted they’d use the data presented. “We can’t trust students with this responsibility.”

It wasn’t long after that I received the most heartbreaking email I’ve ever received. Risking his own mental and emotional safety, a student from the facilitator/evaluator team sent me an email to report of the treatment him and his peers received from the teachers in the week after I’d left. He said that several teachers had said derisive things to their classes, and that more than one had been specifically punished by a teacher for their participation in the facilitator/evaluator team. Reporting back to the superintendent, I received the reply that teachers made their own determinations of how to treat their students, and that while the teachers were disappointed by what was shared with them in my report, nobody had specifically retaliated against students. “That’s what you get for giving students a voice!” he said, and that was the end of our conversation.

Its been a decade since I launched the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Since the Forum I described above I have worked in hundreds of other schools across the US and Canada. I have worked with student/adult partnership teams, provided thousands of hours of professional development to educators, and consulted dozens of programs doing spectacular work for student voice. However, I’ve never led another SoundOut Student Voice Forum.

Examining the assumptions behind the Forums that led to the breakdown I described here, I have identified a few sticking points. First, I realize that I should have worked harder to assure the district’s investment in the process of engaging students in school improvement. Rather than simply relying on the school improvement facilitator, which was a state-funded position to support this failing district, I should have handled relations with the district and the building directly. I should have worked harder to protest students’ anonymity in order to ensure their safety.

Ultimately, I could have gotten deeper investment from parents. One of the greatest levers that exists in public schools is the lever of democratic control: Public schools are responsible to be responsive to voters. If public schools do not look the way voters do not want them to look, voters are responsible for their condition, and for changing them. I made a map of How Decisions are Made in Schools, and I encourage you to read it.

In the meantime, I have stayed strong and continued to work. Working more deliberately to secure adults’ interest and ability to engage students as partners, I have also strove to engage parents as partners in student voice work. The levers of policy change, procedural transformation, and the transformation of classroom, building-wide, and administrative practices throughout education have been worked for too. These are hard lessons I have had in student voice. I hope you can learn from themand maybe teach me a thing or two, too!

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

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

Seattle Youth Media Camp

Participants from the 2012 Seattle Youth Media Camp.

Last spring I started exploring the possibilities for Freechild to get involved with a youth-led program this summer. In April, I struck a partnership with Social Moguls, a program created and led by Sekai Senwosret, CommonAction’s vice-president. She connected me to What’s Good 206, a youth-led video program that created regular features for YouTube. I provided a training for the What’s Good 206 staff and crew, and we formed a partnership.

Shortly after making that connection, in May I negotiated a special expansion of the partnership CommonAction has with Seattle Public Schools. Working with their Service Learning Seattle coordinator, Lois Brewer, our three organizations birthed the concept of the 2012 Seattle Youth Media Camp. We decided to reinforce the mission of Cleveland High School, which is my favorite school in Seattle.

Focused on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics), the school’s almost 700 students are almost all African American and Asian, with only a 4% white student population. Its the most obvious outcome of segregated public schools in Seattle. In spite of almost 100% of the school’s teachers meeting federal guidelines as “highly qualified”, the school consistently scores abysmally on standardized tests. The school is on Washington’s list of “persistently lowest-achieving schools.” The list goes on from there, with media smearing the school for not responding to injections of money or support from the district, state, and feds.

Because of all this, I decided Cleveland is an excellent location for our youth-led education approach. Working with college-age facilitators from Widescreen Eye Films, the Seattle Youth Media Camp is in week two of action. In our 10-day program at the school, we’re teaching students about critical media literacy, teambuilding, action planning, and film production. Service learning is weaved throughout the entirety of the program, along with self-identity, community connections, and more. The students are designing, writing, filming, editing, and presenting their own film to the community this Friday.

This represents a convergence of CommonAction’s main youth outreach programs, The Freechild Project and SoundOut. Presenting the changing roles of young people throughout society as an approach to programming in a school setting, the Seattle Youth Media Camp combines engaging youth in social change with practical classroom learning goals. We’re excited, honored, and hopeful about the future of this work, and I look forward to reporting more soon.

Adam’s Note: Much love and respect to all the folks involved with operating the 2012 Seattle Youth Media Camp, including Austin Williams, Alyssa Piraino, Sun Kim, Young Ho Kim, Sekai Senwosret, and Lois Brewer! Thanks for having me on board y’all!

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

Why Adultism Must Stop

Just over 200 years ago, sociology was born. As a science, it hadn’t existed before that in any substantive way. Within 50 years, sociologists had imposed their scientific conceptualization onto education, which emerged as a field in the late 19th century. Pedagogy, which is the science of education, didn’t exist until then.
Both sociology and pedagogy are the driving forces of how our society “sees” children and youth today. Both were developed by adults for the purpose of perpetuating society. They inherently believe that in order for society to continue, young people had to be controlled. That means that society is based on adultism.
Adultism, which is bias towards adults, discriminates against children and youth. It insists that the ways adults “see” the world, including their ideas, experiences, actions, interactions, and judgments, are the only or most valid and valuable perspectives. In other words, only adults matter.
Adultism has structured families, communities, cultures, and societies for time immemorial. It isn’t a recent phenomenon. The usage of social institutions to perpetuate adultism isn’t new, either: Churches were long used to control the behavior of young people; which in turn allowed Church fathers to control the behavior of adults through patriarchy and paternalism. Adultism made their jobs easier.
Adultism makes the jobs of adults today easier, too. 
Without having to think about it, teachers, youth workers, and even parents can control young people. They dispose of wisdom, extol the virtues of manners, and enforce their conceptions of the world onto young people through education and punishment, legislation and rules. 
The question becomes whether, in a technologically and evolutionary progressive world, adultism is still an effective mechanism for perpetuating society. Particularly in these times when society itself is in flux, proving to be a malleable and subjective tool for social organization, we must question whether it’s wise to continue to rely on adultism as a tool for social organizing, if only because young people have proved to be:
  1. Dynamic actors rather than static audience (They DO things instead of just watch them);
  2. Socially responsive instead of culturally deviant (They’re making a better world instead of a worse one);
  3. Highly effective creators instead of ineffectually passive consumers (Preaching doesn’t working- making does.)
These realities provide an opportunity for adults to reconsider the ways we see and interact with young people. More importantly though, they challenge us to reconceptualize society’s conceptions. Are we going to continue being driven by outdated modalities, or rise to the occasion we are faced with? Another way to say that is, Are we going to let old rich white guys who’ve been dead for a century or more control us today?
We need new realities starting today, and adultism must stop now. 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

Adultism In Schools

    The following post is adapted from my book, Facing Adultism, and focuses on what adultism looks like in schools.

Adultism Is The Reason

Adultism is the reason schools exist. When children and youth packed factories, farm fields, mines, and service jobs around the western world in the late 19th century, many adults could not find jobs. This caused adults to rally against child labor and for public schools. A lot of adults said they wanted to end children ending up on the streets without an “occupation”- especially after newspapers reported that was the case. Schools suddenly became popular as places where young people could have productive experiences throughout the day. In the early 20th century they were made compulsory in many Western nations. Moving children from compulsory labor occupations into compulsory learning occupations without their input, ideas, or contributions in any way paved the way to the state of education today. That was just the first effect of adultism in schools.

More Than Neglect

In nineteen states across the U.S. corporal punishment is legal in schools. Corporal punishment is any physical punishment administered to students. This includes spanking, slapping, smacking, pulling ears, pinching, shaking, hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles. Corporal punishment also means forcing a child to stand for a long time or forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position. It can mean forcing a child to stand motionless or forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones. Corporal punishment can also mean forcing a child to retain body wastes; forcing a child to perform strenuous exercise, or; forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice. In schools where students received corporal punishment, students often have no format to appeal such punishment. They frequently do not have the ability to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the claims made against them, and they may not have the ability to raise concerns over the severity of the punishment being administered for their presumed violations.

Corporal punishment may be one of the most obvious physical impacts of adultism, but it is not the only one. One hundred years ago, because of the influence of Italian educator Maria Montessori, educators began paying attention to the physical apparatuses young people were expected to learn with. Their desks got lower, the chalkboards were holdable, and drinking foundations were built at their height. These types of accommodation ended where young people were expected to stop interacting with adults. School board meeting rooms were built for adults; school counselor offices were built for adults; cafeteria food preparation areas were built for adults. Even in high schools students are expected to be “of average adult height” in order to operate learning instruments such as microscopes, computers, and other devices. Research suggests that within in school students comprise an average of 93% of the human population, with adults accounting for the other seven percent. There is an awful lot of accommodation of that  seven percent!

Discrimination By Mandate

Adultism is apparent when large numbers of young people of any age are not allowed to congregate, cooperate and coordinate. Schools today are rooted in age segregation that disallows young people from socially and educationally interacting with each other. With few formal opportunities to socialize, young people may learn to distrust their peers and seek the approval of adults only. Some adults in schools lose the ability to distinguish between conspiracy and community, and they make continuous efforts to keep students from interacting with each other in schools.

Adultism drives adult behavior throughout schools, as well as a lot of student behavior. Teaching styles frequently represent adults’ values and skills rather than young peoples’ perspectives and capabilities. Adults determine what is valuable for students to learn and how young people need to demonstrate their learning. They enforce inequities between students and teachers in everyday behavior, too: When teachers yell at students, they are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe learning environments. Ultimately, students in schools are subjected to their parents’ and their teachers’ assessments of their performance in the classroom, and have no formal input into grading or graduations. Searching for adult approval in order to receive the most praise or achieve the best grades, students routinely appease adults with sufficient class work without actually engaging in the content being taught. They find solidarity with the adults who control their classrooms while betraying the trust of their peers as they tattle and compare each other.

Undermining Purpose

Finally, and perhaps ultimately, adultism undermines the very purpose of educating students in schools. Student engagement has been shown to directly affect academic achievement. When students experience adultism, their engagement is severely affected in negative ways, no matter the environment. Classroom management, learning activities and student discipline are all affected by adultism, in all grade levels. In response to all of the bias towards adults throughout their educations, some young people completely acquiesce to adult expectations. Others completely abandon or apparently rebel against these expectations by routinely performing lowly in school through behavior or academic achievement, and through dropping out. Dropping out of school is the ultimate impact of adultism in schools.

In addition to those such as Montessori, who was almost uniquely oriented against adultism in schools, educators have rallied against adultism in schools without naming it as such for more than a hundred years. Massively influential, thought often misunderstood, American school philosopher John Dewey constantly promoted a curriculum for schools that was footed in student realities instead of adult conveniences. He once wrote, “Nature wants children to be children before they are men… Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them.” This situates him squarely on the side of anti-adultist teachers. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose theories on teaching oppressed people continue to inform school change, justly sought authentic learning for students, too. His attitude could be summarized by his singular belief that, “the educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees.” This positions the student as the holder and determiner of learning, and that is anti-adultist. While some theories address students’ roles indirectly, and others head-on push against the overbearing domination of adults, in schools, all are valuable as allies in this struggle.

It is because of all these realities that adultism makes schools today ineffective in every way.

Is there anything you’d add, take away, criticize, or expand on?

Get Walking: Why Your Life Can’t Wait

Adam’s Note: I originally wrote this in 2008. Still fits, so I’m going to share it with you!

When I was young I thought education was an A + B = C journey. As an adult I have found there is more than one way to learn what I need to know in order to make a difference. Powerful experiences as a youth activist led me to want to earn a bachelor’s degree in community development. That should have changed when I was thrown out of college at the age of 19.

Fortunately, it did not.

Going to college wasn’t an easy thing for me in the first place. As a child my family moved constantly, and when we eventually settled down I found myself growing up as a low-income white kid in an African American neighborhood. After becoming the only one of my siblings to graduate from high school on time, I knew I had to go to college. Nobody taught me about financial aid, and after a semester I was not allowed back because I didn’t know how to pay the bill.

Luckily, I had enough gravitas not to let that stop me from continuing on my education – only now I had to get paid for learning. A nonprofit in my neighborhood hired me to run after school activities and a late-night basketball program. Then there were jobs at a nature center, a drug treatment center, as a living skills instructor for high-risk youth, and as a challenge course facilitator. I served two terms in AmeriCorps with Kurdish and Iraqi refugee children in the Midwest and as a challenge course director for high-risk youth in the Pacific Northwest. The federal government hired me to promote service-learning in northern New Mexico, and when I was hired as the youth ambassador for Washington State’s education agency I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree, eight years after I had started it. I went on to start a national nonprofit organization, and today I am a successful consultant and freelance writer focused on youth engagement for schools, nonprofits and government agencies across the country.

What I know now that I didn’t know when I was younger is that there is no linear path in learning: you don’t just start here and go there. Instead of doing what television shows told me to do, I had to figure out what matters to me, and when I did that I discovered why there is an book about education called, We Make the Road by Walking. That title best describes my education: I only learn what I need to know by actually doing what I want to do.

If you want to learn about changing the world, that is what I want you to do: Go volunteer or get a job, and by doing it you will discover what you need to learn next. We make the road by walking – so please, get walking! The world can’t wait any longer.

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

Stop Beating Kids: Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools

  • Spanking
  • Slapping
  • Smacking
  • Pulling ears
  • Pinching
  • Shaking
  • Hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles
  • Forcing a child to stand for a long time
  • Forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position
  • Forcing a child to stand motionless
  • Forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones
  • Forcing a child to retain body wastes
  • Forcing a child to perform strenuous exersize
  • Forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice

THIS IS CORPORAL PUNISHMENT. All corporal punishment is child abuse, and child abuse teaches students nothing. 19 states in the U.S. still allow corporal punishment in their schools, and this must stop now.

“Bullying is enough of a problem among students; the teachers shouldn’t be doing it, too. There’s nothing positive or productive about corporal punishment and it should be discouraged everywhere.” Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY)

Anytime a young person is treated this way they are being abused. These forms of abuse are the cruelest, most unjust, and most ineffective treatment young people can receive. While including both, corporal punishment goes beyond adultism, beyond adultcentrism, and straight to child abuse. 
The most basic right of any person today is the right to live in peace. 

While that may sound simplistic or naive, violence is a daily reality for almost every young person in the world today. Physical violencewar, family abuse, bullying, and gang violence; mental abuseparental abuse, teacher abuse, or verbal put-downs— and child neglect surround young people. These are all forms of violence. The institutions that are purportedly supposed to support our children and youth, places like schools, hospitals, and governments, abuse young people. In their homes young people face violence through popular media, like television shows, movies, pop music, and video games. And violence surrounds young people in many ways that we don’t see, seeping into everyone’s hearts and minds without us being aware of it: another bombing overseas, another vicious attack on public funding, another slander against youth in the news.
This abuse adds up. According to a United Nations study,

“Corporal punishment of adults is prohibited in well over half the world’s countries, yet only 15 of the 190-plus nations have prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including in the family.”

It’s a statistic like this that leaves little wonder in my mind about why young people appear “apathetic” and “disenchanted” with a world so intent on numbing them to pain, hatred, cynicism and violence.
Luckily, our North American eyes are beginning to fully comprehend the imperative any ethical person faces when dealing with the situation of young people and violence today. We are beginning to stand with young people to change the situations that they face, and the situations our world faces. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) boldly declares that,

“Young people must be meaningfully involved in promoting and strategizing action on violence against children… Children… need to be well informed about their rights, and fully involved in the life of the [community and] school…”

This call situates corporal punishment as a fully-authorized premise for social action in 198 countries around the worldminus the US and Somalia, who are the only non-signatory countries. Canada and Mexico have signed on. There is no other convention, consensus, or constitution in the world that is more widely accepted than the CRC. So the vast majority of global governments agree that corporal punishment is a significant premise for social change, and we agree that young people should help lead anti-abuse efforts.

I believe that corporal punishment is the root of all discrimination in society. Premised on the hatred of young people, on adultism, on the self- and cultural repression of childhood, corporal punishment is made worse through dozens of other factors, including socio-economic class, gender, race, ethnicity, and more… Corporal punishment is at the heart of all this.

Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act
In 2010, Representative Carolyn McCarthy, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill called “Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act” in the US House of Representatives. The bill would impose a ban on all public and private schools with students that receive federal services. Learn more about the bill, and support it. I do. 

Stop beating kids.

Resources on the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act

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

Empower Students to Turn Around Schools!

Another abysmal year for academic achievement has flown by. Test results released here in Washington state and across the country show that K-12 public schools are failing in hordes. With a gridlocked Congress and state legislators strapped for cash, where to turn? To the students!

That’s right: Let’s empower the very people we aim to be teaching with the ability to turn schools around! After more than 100 years of being subjected to the whims of adult teachers, principals, administrators, and school boards, I am nominating that we put the students in the driver’s seat and see where they take us.

This isn’t a proposal on a whim, either. After 10 years of working in local schools, districts, and state education agencies across the U.S. and Canada to promote student engagement, I have seen the increasing power of effectiveness of students as they become more savvy within the education system. My research has shown me there are districts that have regular student boards of education who are fully empowered to make changes to school policies. While we’re all familiar with the popularity of student-led self-evaluations, a growing number of schools have student-led evaluations that impact teacher performance ratings and pay. Still other schools are engaging students as education researchers, summer schools are hiring students as teachers, districts have roles for students as curriculum planners and classroom evaluators, and there are even states that have positions for students as full-voting members of their state boards of education. I have discovered all of this, and seen a lot of it in action.

Since the beginning of the modern school reform movement educators have been duped into believing there is inherent value to allowing our public education system to be governed by technicians. Test-makers, curriculum writers, and state evaluators are nothing more than education technicians. They are the people who should be learning from what teachers do, rather than dictating what teachers do. Instead of that, teachers are routinely relegated to the back seat and made into mere pawns of the schools they work in. While that sounds like a soulless, harsh analysis, it’s not the worst of it. Students themselves are on the short end of the stick, as they are treated like nothing more than succeeding generations of test subjects. Without their consent or their parents’ direct knowledge of what is going on, young people in public schools are made to fulfill whatever whim the technicians present next.

I want to turn that paradigm on it’s head, and luckily, there is growing evidence that not only is this needed, it is happening right now. A growing commitment of educators to engage students in school improvement activities is evidence of the changing trends in education that will ultimately empower students to turn around schools. This is the best news in education yet, and the highest hope we can have for meaningful student involvement.

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

The Purpose of Schools

I am an advocate for radical democracy, which focuses on creating inclusive, engaging, empowering, and connecting together all aspects of community for all people, regardless of gender, social, political, cultural, economic, educational, and other differences. My advocacy for radical democracy includes education, which is any process for learning, and schooling, which acknowledges a socio-political agenda for education and transmits those perspectives to students. In my belief, all public schools should support the purpose of engaging all people in democracy as much as possible. That means that if we’re teaching math, it should be for the purpose of strengthening democratic engagement. If we’re teaching science, it should be for the purpose of strengthening democratic engagement. If we’re teaching art, debate, gym, or ethnic studies, or anything, we should be teaching it in order to strengthen democratic engagement. If we cannot explain how the topics taught in a public school strengthen democratic engagement, then public schools should not be teaching these topics.

There are those who do not believe in schooling of any sort, public or otherwise, including John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich. Illich’s treatise Deschooling Society is based on the premise that our society’s primary education methods create compliant, complacent, and inadequate social actors remains popular, as does his contemporary, John Holt. Holt, a teacher, maintained that all young people learn better without any boundaries.

“Unfortunately, we English teachers are easily hung up on this matter of understanding. Why should children understand everything they read? Why should anyone? Does anyone? I don’t and I never did. I was always reading books that teachers would have said were “too hard” for me, books full of words I didn’t know. That’s how i became a good reader.” – Holt, J. (1967) “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.” in Norton Reader An Anthology Of nonfiction. (2004)

Recently more advocates are coming out against schooling, including Lauie A. Couture, who believes “children are born to learn everything they need on their own.” (Luckily, despite the title of his recent book Against Schooling: For An Education That Matters, renowned critical pedagogue Stanley Aronowitz still believes in schools.) Unfortunately, many of the folks who are against public schools specifically, or schooling in general, are recoiling against the education they experienced as young students, or against the popular media-driven conception of schools. This is terrible and terrifying, if only because it’s these same media engines that are driving the demise of democracy in general.

This is a dangerous trend. In a time when democracy is being dismantled and repackaged for consumption by an array of corporate forces, there need to be more critical advocates who are in the struggle to reform and transform public schools, not fewer. Young people need to be strategically, deliberately, and meaningfully involved in the struggle to improve schools, and sought after as vital agents for school change, not simply as passive recipients of whatever adults decide is best. In this way, they can also be advocates and actors in the transformation of the educational process, moving it away from the historic isolationary and consumptive learning processes many schools propagate and towards an engaging, equitable, and integrated future that can benefit all of society, and particularly radical democracy.

I am the product of a mediocre public education with teachers who were overburdened and disconnected from their students. The public schools I attended were not good, particularly for students from the racially segregated, socio-economically discriminated neighborhood I grew up in. I am the only one of my four siblings to graduate on-time, the only one to go to college, and one of the few members of my extended family to attend college. Maybe it was our free school lunches or middle and upper-middle class teachers, but things in my schools didn’t work for me or my family, or many of my friends and their families.

Now, public schools have let down my daughter’s education, too. Recently her mom and I decided to take her out of the public elementary school she attended because they simply were not capable of engaging her unique educational gifts. The number of students and the pressures to perform forced the school to attempt to label her and entrap her in “special attention” because they had no recourse for a student who wasn’t interested in conforming to their learning expectations, conveniently.


I will continue to struggle and strive for their improvement, reform, and transformation. Not a month goes by where I’m not sitting at the table with public school educators and administrators learning the realities from their perspectives. Not a week goes by when I’m not listening to students tell their truths about learning in the system. Not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about making public schools better with the hope of making radically democracy better. Not a day.

Join me in reinforcing this perspective on the purpose of schools. They are vitally necessary for the success of the democratic experiment this nation is engaged in. They are vitally important for the future of freedom and hope. Public schools are vitally important. Let’s start acting like it.

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

An Open Letter to Teachers, especially Mr. Roach

Dear Mr. Brian Roach, and Other Teachers Who Might Read This:

I read your blog post on the ASCD website called, “Teacher: Dictator or president?“, and I want to reply directly to you, and directly to the question you pose in the title. Let me start by saying that I believe teachers are something more important than either role, and in their jobs they possess the powers to transcend these boxes; I believe that teachers are Teachers.

First, an illustration: The United States’ unique experiment in democracy has led us down a lot of roads that were bumpy and twisted, and others that were smooth and relatively easy-driving. Public schools have been a combination of both. With regards to learning efficacy and equal opportunity, we seem to be driving on a jeep road in the dry mountains of the high plains in southeastern New Mexico. A growing number of young people were never prepared to start the drive in the first place. There are treacherous turns where students fall out of the truck, careening over the edge into some sort of oblivion where most drivers are afraid to go. Cresting the mountaintop, learning gets high-centered on consumerism and the vehicle has been taken over by businesses whose maps aren’t the same as ours. Looking out over the view, jeeping down the mountainside means a lighter load, unfulfilled expectations, and sadness for those we left behind, those who couldn’t make it to the top. When the jeep gets back to the ranch, there is renewal among the mourning, and preparations are made for another drive.

Please note, Mr. Roach, that in my analogy there aren’t entangled notions of classroom control and authority with democracy and totalitarianism; doing this confuses the central purpose of schools. The purpose of schools is not to control students. The purpose of teachers is not to be benevolent, or strict, or managerial. The purpose of teaching is not to enforce compliance. Anyone who believes otherwise is singlehandedly defeating the intention of the great American purpose in public schooling.

Public schools are the institutional embodiment of the democratic ideal fought for by the revolutionaries that founded this country. No question, that is their purpose. We live in an age when we continually dilute their purpose with marketplace priorities, especially exacerbated by the corporate forces controlling curriculum and testing, universities, prisons, and increasingly, teacher professional development. These private entities see their greatest gain in the increased privatization of public schools, which in turn encourages teachers such as Mr. Roach to demean their own profession, and view themselves as the rulers of fiefdoms.

Well, Mr. Roach, you are wrong.

In your role as a teacher, you are neither a dictator or a president. You are not in control of the young people who occupy the seats in your classroom. “You’re not the boss of me.” Rather, you are a teacher: A chosen steward of learning whose privileged experience has led you to foster a climate to encourage succeeding generations of The Great Democratic Experiment. You are lucky, Mr. Roach! And while it’s too bad that too many teachers see it as otherwise, you don’t have to!

Teachers don’t have to pose classrooms as hierarchal, singularly controlled structures that students must learn to conform to. Instead, you can re-imagine your classroom as a unique learning experience for each student, where learners can experience student/adult partnerships built on equity, opportunity, and commitment. This is the difference between teachers and rulers: Teachers don’t do to students what students can do for themselves; rulers do. I want to implore you, Mr. Roach: Don’t rule your classroom – teach it. That’s the only way our future as a democracy is going to survive.

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

Students as Partners in Learning: Interview with Adam Fletcher

Students As Partners In Learning: Adam Fletcher Talks About Meaningful Student Involvement

©2008 Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2008 edition of Education Northwest and online at http://www.nwrel.org/nwedu/13-03/features/partners.php.

Adam Fletcher knows what it’s like to have his “voice” stifled. As a high school student from the wrong side of the tracks in Omaha, he tried to convince his principal and teachers to let him organize a schoolwide Earth Day recycling effort. Repeatedly rebuffed, he did it anyway and was rewarded with a two-day suspension. Fletcher, who admits he had a “challenging” secondary school career, later channeled his activism into founding a series of nonprofits—SoundOut, The Freechild Project, and the now-defunct Common Action. From Seattle to New York to Boston, he coaches schools and districts on how to partner with students for school change. Over a cup of herbal tea at an Olympia, Washington, cafe, Fletcher talked to Northwest Education about meaningful student involvement and engagement.

Q: First of all, how do you differentiate student involvement from student engagement?
Involvement is a mechanism for learning, instead of an emotional reaction like engagement. I can involve you, but I cannot make you feel engaged—that’s your choice. “Meaningful” is the key word here: Meaningful involvement leads to that engagement, without assuming the student already feels that way. [Involvement] is an avenue rather than an outcome itself.

When you think of meaningful student involvement, what does it look like?
Meaningful, effective, and successful student involvement has to be authentic in the same way we talk about authentic curriculum or assessment. It’s relevant, has tangible outcomes, and foreseeable needs. I generally break it down to six key characteristics:
  • A schoolwide approach, in which student voice isn’t just limited to one activity, one day, one time. It’s seen as being part of the entire school environment.
  • High levels of student authority, meaning students have the opportunity to not only say what they feel, but adults validate their ideas and authorize them to act.
  • Interrelated strategies, which goes back to schoolwide approaches; students are part of ongoing school improvement through learning, teaching, and leadership activities.
  • Sustainable structures of support, so student involvement isn’t just a flash in the pan; also, sustainability is all about reaching beyond the student body and bringing in the whole community.
  • Personal commitment, which means educators and students aren’t just involved because it’s an academic requirement or because their friends do it; there’s an internal drive or motivation.
  • Strong learning connections, which build a learning component into student involvement.

How much of this depends on having strong leadership and how do you get over the fact that—as with many school reforms—when the leader leaves, the program dies?
I’ll be really frank with you. One of the dilemmas of student involvement is that it’s about culture change as much as structure change. Those two have to happen in sync. The other dilemma is that schools aren’t isolated—they don’t exist in a vacuum. So, no matter how we’re treating a student inside one classroom, for one period, we still have a community where young people are often excluded. That much said, one of the keys to sustainability is that student involvement does require a change agent to get started. And, the champion has to be an adult, working with young people. That’s because the role of the adult is inherently longer lasting than the role of any single student. The places where I’ve seen long-term meaningful involvement is where it’s become as systematized as possible. It’s not just a singular event, but part of the policy of the school.

If it’s not possible to embed student involvement long-term in the structure and culture of the school, what can an individual do right now?
For teachers, curriculum is a great place to start. You can build meaningfulness into your curricular approach so it embodies what you’re looking for from student involvement as a whole and so it reflects your students’ daily personal lives and connects to real-world outcomes. Classroom management is another great opportunity. Meaningful involvement there can be taken from a constructivist bent. So, rather than assuming your students have never experienced meaningfulness, you can help them plumb their school experience by saying, “Hey, where has geography ever meant anything to you? When has math ever meant anything to you? What has that looked like for you, and how can we incorporate those ways into our class?”
If you’re a building administrator or a school counselor, it becomes a different picture. You have to build in that cycle of listen, validate, authorize, mobilize, and reflect. If we build that into all the different school roles, that’s how school culture changes. The most important thing anyone in schools can do is to envision students as partners, and then act that way.
Obviously school improvement is a big issue today under No Child Left Behind. What do you see as the student’s role in helping to design and implement school improvement efforts?
The student has to be a full partner, and I’m not just speaking about this in a theoretical way. One of the things research does show, emphatically, is that the success of school improvement has to be borne out on the shoulders of students. Students have to illustrate school success: We know schools are improving when students demonstrate the outcomes we seek, particularly when academic achievement turns around. The other thing we know—from Fred Newmann’s research on engagement—is that the student has to be engaged in learning for that academic achievement to come to fruition. So, the ultimate role of the student in school improvement is as the partner.
Currently, some schools talk about students as consumers. I think addressing the role of student as consumer is really cynical because it reduces the learning to consumption: You come to the store, buy what you need, and leave. Meaningful involvement calls for a higher purpose for schools. Let’s see students as generators of knowledge, co-makers of culture, and co-facilitators of learning. These are the roles students need to have in school improvement, and we need to see them as full partners throughout the process.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!