Meet Them Where They’re At

Recently, I was called to a meeting where it was requested that we BYOD, Bring Your Own Device. It seemed ridiculous to me at first, as I thought that people who were inclined to bring their own devices already would. But when I got there, we were led through activities that could only be done online with a device. People without a device—a phone, tablet, or laptop—were left out or had to mooch off their neighbor.
There is absolutely no way I’m advocating for this in youth programs, even though I’ve seen it in some. Its ignorant, privileged, and genuinely excessive to assume that young people, no matter what social strata they’re from, have the capability to access technology in the ways adults want them to, whenever they want them to.
However, one of the most effective ways to engage young people is to meet them where they are right now, rather than insist they come to where we want them to be. This happens in one of two primary ways:
  •  Literally—Rather than have programming at your facility, have programming where young people in your community already spend their time. If they spend a lot of their afterschool time at a neighborhood park, hold programs there. If they spend time at other nonprofit programs, hold programs there. Same thing with shopping malls, gyms, even homes. 
  • Figuratively—In activities, attitudes, and culture, rather than insisting young people act like you, behave like you, think like you, and do think you do as an adult, you can meet them where they’re at by using the technology they use, interacting with the culture they absorb, and utilizing the values and attitudes they hold. 
Both of these require adults to step out on a limb. They mean that we have to step outside the relative safety of our defined programming spaces, our intentional curriculum, our social class or culturally-accepted practices, or our adult-biased attitudes. In order to do any of that, we have to acknowledge and accept that our way may not be the only way.
More importantly though, this approach shows us that we can work together with young people. That lays a foundation for establishing real partnerships with children and youth, and opens the door to creating substantive, sustainable opportunities for young people to become meaningfully involved throughout the operations of the programs that target them every day.
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Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

In Defense of Public Schools

A decade ago, I first that public schools, which are the heart of our democratic society, are by example teaching students nothing about participating in a democracy.

That was at the beginning of the age of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the draconian federal school funding law which mandates standardized teaching, learning, and evaluation across the United States. That law continues today relatively unabated by the Obama administration.



Today, more than 12 years after the instillation of NCLB, a revolution is working against the anti-democratic nature of the process of public education. It is completely apt and necessary, and more people are getting on board with it every single day. This revolution has many sides, and the one I’m rallying against today is the demonization of public education brought about by advocates like John Taylor Gatto, who wrote, “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”

This little revolution actually began back in the 1990s, with peak teachers of that era coming from the 1960s and early 70s. They were the last of the “free” teachers, grinding their idealism into their students, who are today’s parents.

Their idealism enabled the parents of students today to see for the first time exactly what schools are doing to their children. Because of this, like never before, we as parents can see our kids pushed out of learning by overly-rigorous, anti-creative, dehumanizing educational practices.

The parents who don’t share that particular analysis or outcomes are leaving simply because it doesn’t seem right for children to experience non-democratic learning in a democratic society.

In turn, adult voters whose children have graduated or who never had children are divesting in public education by routinely voting down public funding levees and electing anti-public education candidates. Students are responding too by dropping out, either physically or mentally, by simply completing school without ever attaching to learning.

At the same time, corporate profiteers have raided public education by jury rigging curriculum and testing to meet standards set by politicians who are owned by corporations who are driven by profits. The extensions of this corporate-political-industrial complex include the school-to-prison pipeline and the American service industry, both of which are reliant on schools to fail.



All of this says little or nothing of students themselves, who are responding en masse. Growing up in routinely racially segregated learning environments with vast inequities according to their race and socio-economic statuses, well-to-do white students from wealthy families are systematically set up to succeed, while their counterpart students of color and low-income white peers are tracked to failure – routinely. With a small proportion of students set up for that success, the vast majority are mired in measures of failure, all the while more enticed by the fruits of a free society than any students in many generations.

“Successful” students experience access, ability, and engagement through modes of technology that have no place within public schools today, while the “unsuccessful” students struggle more against falling in the holes created for them than ever before. I know all of this not only because I have studied it and lived alongside schools during these transitions, but because I have experienced it, first as a student and a brother, then as a state education worker, then as a school consultant, now as a dad.

AND there’s more to the situation than all of that.

The situation is cynically ironic: these places, which are the heart of our democratic society, are teaching young people nothing about democratic living. And yet, they are, and we don’t notice. Its actually what we don’t notice that we’re not advocating for, and without that advocacy we’re loosing democracy right now, if only because corporations want it that way because they stand to make more money from our divestment in public schools and our disinterest in educating in a democracy.



On the whole, we don’t notice that public schools are the bedrock of democratic society: politicians don’t refer to them as such, teachers don’t embrace them that way as a whole, and students don’t learn that without the very presence of a free, universal, and public education our democratic society would cease to exist. We don’t remember what FDR taught when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The preparation he spoke of was not specifically teaching young people through democracy; it was simply the practice of education within a democratic society.

On the whole, we don’t recognize that the situation of “democratic” in schooling for a long time was simply defined by those three terms I used above: Democracy meant FREE, as in accessible without cost; UNIVERSAL, meaning that all young people could attend, not just the ones who were selected at will; and PUBLIC, meaning that there was a system of voting by voters which established, ensured, and sustained the free and universal components of schools. That’s the only way that democracy was seen as relevant to public schools for a very long time (both before and after John Dewey, if you’re an education nerd).

By these three criteria, the backlash that educators, education leaders, and politicians are beginning to sense, squelch, and plainly resist is apropos, if only because they thought they were doing their jobs, and rightly so, because they were.

But when that definition of Democracy changed to mean broad personal efficacy, active participation, and systemic transparency, schools simply couldn’t keep up, and its being made more challenging for them to catch up. That isn’t to sound apologetic for schools or the education system, either. The ways they’ve behaved in response to these transformations, including becoming highly autocratic, obfuscating public knowledge, and colluding with corporate interests, are deplorable. They necessitate critiques by people like Sir Ken Robinson, who said, “Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies.” This is absolutely true and evidenced in the responses of public schools to transformations in the world around them.

In the meantime, technology is leading a cultural transformation which is mandating social transformations which are [going to] drive institutional transformations in the United States and elsewhere. One of the transformations is that public schools must reflect modern conceptions of democracy.



President John F. Kennedy, who constantly reminded Americans to be active in the world around themselves, challenged that, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The ignorance of people who would work to eliminate public schools on the backs of them not being democratic enough undermines the entirety of this democracy.

So, while we’re tearing at the infrastructure and teachings of the public education system, we should keep the purpose, intent, and ability of schools in mind. We have to remember that Democracy is stronger and more aligned to the cultural transformations we seek than any other system of governance. Schools can, should, and must continue to be the greatest purveyors of that understanding. THAT is what I’m fighting for in schools, and nothing less.
The question of WHY public schools today are so compromised isn’t particularly addressed here, beyond noting that corporations benefit from them. Dewey gave two answers that expand on this. The first was obviously related, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”. The second is the premise for all my work: “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Socially, culturally, economically, and morally conservative people work to maintain status quo constantly; Dewey’s contention shows why exactly they fight against the empowerment of young people, and why I fight for it. 


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Rediscovery the Library

So much has been written about student voice in these last 5 years that it’s threatening to make the SoundOut Student Voice Library a bit obsolete. However, this is still an essential source for key early writing, research, and publications related to student voice, student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement. Enjoy!

SoundOut Student Voice Library -

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

5 Steps to Integrate Youth

Nike, Levi’s, and a lot of other brands that sell things to youth have realized that the secret to marketing to youth is personalization: Let them help design it, and young people will spend a lot for it. At the same time, many websites allow young users to develop sophisticated personal profiles, letting them connect their friends, identify with organizations and causes they want to be affiliated with, and personalize the look and operation of the website to suit their personal tastes. According to a recent expose by CBS News, “In 1983, companies spent $100 million marketing to kids. Today, they’re spending nearly $17 billion annually. That’s more than double what it was in 1992.”

In the face of this, young people routinely experience the rest of society being done to them and for them, instead of with them or by themselves.

I believe children and youth are not the consumers of their lives. However, it is clear to me that marketers (again) have one up on all adults who work with young people. Rather than following their direct lead, I think there are lessons we can learn from them. Here are 5 steps to integrate youth.
5 Steps to Integrate Youth

1) Educate yourself first. Recognize that all young people are segregated everywhere, all the time. I wrote a series of articles for The Freechild Project Youth Voice Toolkit such as “Guidelines for Youth Voice” and “Creating a Safe and Supportive Environment for Youth Voice” that can teach you before you work to build youth integration in your community.

2) See all young people. Read a piece about youth voice and young children and the role of youth engagement for infants and children I wrote on the CommonAction blog. In the history of children in the US, a lot of it focuses on the suffering of young children. But a few historians actually acknowledge that even young children have always been important to the well-being of the United States. That’s even more true today than ever before.

3) Invest in your own development. You don’t have to spend money on advertisements or developing apps. Instead, invest in time by attending trainings, conducting social media activities, and taking deliberate actions to integrate young people throughout your community. Find out what CommonAction Consulting can do with your organization or community.4) Strengthen youth involvement. If you want young people to be integrated, you have to involve them throughout every part of your community. That includes planning, research, facilitation, training, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy. Learn how to do all this and more from the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum.

5) Everywhere, all the time. When businesses want to sell things to young people, they ingratiate themselves throughout the lives of children and youth, in their clothing, video games, and other places. We must take according steps without overspending on technology or t-shirts by taking steps to integrate young people throughout their communities. Learn about Hampton, Virginia for a great example of what this looks like.

There are many other steps to take, but integrating youth is an essential responsibility we should all take on. These are some ways to do that.

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Elements of Successful Community Engagement

The nature of community programs continues to evolve.

More than ever, nonprofits, government agencies, and other programs are being challenged to transform their goals, activities, assessments, and resources in order to motivate, educate, and engage people beyond simple participation. In a time when many communities are stuck in a malaise, community programs require a realignment to grow beyond what they’ve done.

Appearances Matter

People appear to have more options with what to do with their time, making it ironic they need community programs more than ever. However, the technology, recreation, sports, faith-based activities, and opportunities to earn income that were present just a decade ago simply aren’t in many communities anymore.

Considering these dual realities of increased need and decreased opportunities, it is absolutely vital that nonprofit and government program providers get earnest about successfully engaging all people in their programming.

After more than a decade promoting community engagement across the US and Canada, I have found what works and doesn’t work for engaging all sorts of people. These lessons have to be deconstructed and reapplied in each community, because all communities are different.

I have read the research, worked directly with people, and struggled through many projects focused on community engagement. Following are some elements I consider essential to successfully engaging all kinds of people in community programs.

Elements of Successful Community Engagement

  • Focused – Instead of meandering through purposeless activities and focus-less personal activities, every program session is designed to be a concise, deliberative engagement of multiple intelligences, broad perspectives, and varying experiences. Successfully engaging people remains the central goal of all activities, and is the focus of every program.
  • Supportive – Youth and adults alike are committed to working together without fear of retribution or alienation. All people are partners with each other in community programs, and everyone works together for the common cause of engaging more people throughout the community.
  • Engaging – The experiences, knowledge, ideas, and opinions of people are validated and substantiated with meaningful learning experiences that infuse everyone with a new capacity to visualize, analyze, create, and engage themselves.
  • Critical – As co-learners within a community of learners, all people provide vital insight in the learning and teaching process for their peers and facilitators in community programs. These democratic interactions are actively encouraged and supported by all members.
  • Transparent – There should be no mysteries about what the purpose of the community program is, or what the outcomes of the activities will be. Community programs should offer numerous ways to make goals, outcomes, and activities fully understandable to people.

These are not simply the keys to successful community programs, nor to successfully engaging people. They are the elements of successfully engaging people throughout their communities all all sorts of programs. Its important to consider that these programs and their organizations are unique and different, and these elements are recognized for paying attention to that.

With these in mind, you can go forth and make a difference in the lives of the people you serve through your activities.

Want to talk about me doing a workshop for your organization or community? Get in touch!


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2013 Seattle Service Learning Symposium

Join CommonAction and others for the 
Saturday, February 23rd, 2013

You’re Invited! 

Join School Staff, Community Partners, and National Service Members for Networking, Exploring Development & Implementation of Service Learning, Youth Engagement, Community-School Partnerships…

Agenda Includes…

  • A welcome by Superintendent José Banda
  • Service Learning 101
  • Building the Field from Within: Learning from Local Youth Engagement Practitioners
  • Youth Adult Partnerships: Strengthening Service Learning
  • Getting Your Ducks in a Row: How to Plan Science Service Learning at your School
  • The Teen Outreach Program: Effective Youth Development through Community Service Learning
  • Community Development: Following the Lead of Young People
  • Service Learning through Social Entrepreneurship in the Classroom & Community 
  • and MORE!


The first-ever Seattle Service Learning Symposium Youth Institute is coordinated by CommonAction, and will address three main questions:

  • What is service learning and why do we do it?
  • How can I do a great service learning project?
  • Can I change the world with service learning?



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

30 Ways Students Can Be Partners in Schools

Anti-testing, pro-Common Core, anti-school closures, pro-teacher accountability… As the banner of student voice is unfurled in an increasing number of education arenas across the U.S., we’re seeing young people stand up in unprecedented numbers to demand what is rightfully theirs: High-quality education. Yet, just as this movement is beginning to pick up steam, its getting derailed from its true potential, which is student integration.

Wrangled into an adult-driven, adult-centered field, when sharing student voice, young people are often only asked about things that adults are concerned with in schools. Like never before, we can hear students’ opinions about topics like the achievement gap, charter schools, privatization, rural education, violence and safety, and year-around schools. They’re rallying outside state capitals, speaking in school board meetings, and demanding change specifically from students’ perspectives.

However, many of these perspectives are blinded at best.

The very organizations, programs, and agencies that are engaging student voice are oftentimes blindsiding their targets. Without concern for authenticity, ability, or desire, these student voice activities are focused on listening to “students in the raw”, meaning learners who haven’t been taught about what they’re trying to change. Programs often remove students from their communities or schools, sit them in a room, and drill into them the importance of an issue that adults have determined they need to hear student voice focused on. They teach them the adults’ perspectives, or they teach them nothing at all. After that, they ask students to stand up for that issue, and with or without being conscious of it, students eagerly comply.

Students need new roles throughout education. Instead of being passive recipients of adult-driven education schemes, students need to be active partners in schools. This can happen in many ways, including:

30 Ways Adults Can Engage Students as Partners in Schools

  1. Train students about multiple perspectives regarding issues in education
  2. Train educators about the difference between Students as Recipients and Students as Partners
  3. Help students understand the education system, including what it is, how it operates, who is in it, where it fails and when it succeeds
  4. Develop opportunities for students to share their unfettered concerns about schools and education with adults
  5. Create formal positions for students to occupy throughout education 
  6. Create curriculum with students as partners in identifying, planning, and critiquing 
  7. Co-design learning plans with every student
  8. Assign all students a mentor to introduce them to the culture and traditions of the school.
  9. Help students plan yearlong school day calendars that affect them and others 
  10. Engage students in designing and redesigning schools
  11. Encourage nontraditional student leaders to co-teach regular classes with adults
  12. Allow students to become active partners in school budgeting 
  13. Give students positions to become classroom teaching assistants 
  14. Partner student teams to teach courses
  15. Acknowledge students teaching younger students in lower grade levels with classroom credit
  16. Co-create professional development with students to teach teachers about students
  17. Assign students with create meaningful classroom evaluations of themselves
  18. Partner with students to create evaluations of classes, curriculum, teaching styles, and schools
  19. Train students how to evaluate teacher performance 
  20. Create opportunities for students to lead parent-teacher conferences
  21. Create postions for students to participate in curriculum selection and design committees
  22. Give students on school boards full-voting positions
  23. Create enough positions for students to be equally represented in every education committee and meeting
  24. Help students create and enforce behavior policies 
  25. Partner with students in school personnel decisions
  26. Work with students to organize public campaigns for school improvement 
  27. Create opportunities for students to fully join all existing school committees 
  28. Give students data and information so they understand why and how schools are changing
  29. Allow students to educate policy-makers about challenges in schools 
  30. Encourage students with formal and informal opportunities to present their concerns
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 on this blog and on the website, right now! You can also read the research-supported Meaningful Student Involvement publications I’ve written free

Check it out. If you have any questions, want to talk, or need a trainer or speaker for your next event contact me. You can email me at or call 360-489-9680. If you storm ahead on your own, awesome! You’re not alone…
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Youth-Driven Programming Dos and Don’ts

Interested in owning your own copy of these dos and don’ts? Find them in our new…

This is a short checklist for Youth-Driven Programming. I wrote it for nonprofits, schools, and other organizations that want to ensure their activities are meaningful for young people. You can own your own copy of the dos and don’ts by purchasing a copy of our new book from! ORDER YOUR COPY NOW.

If you want to learn more about Youth-Driven Programming, contact our office today by emailing or calling (360)489-9680.

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

Paulo Freire Photobiography

The Paulo Freire Institute in São Paulo has released Paulo Freire – Educar Para Transformar-fotobiografia. It is a beautiful new publication available to read and view for free. Written in Portuguese, we encourage all of our readers to take a flip through it. 

Here at CommonAction, including The Freechild Project and SoundOut, our efforts are guided heavily by the insight, challenge, and promise of Freire’s work. In a sentence, he summarizes our approach: “Education is not the act of consuming ideas, but of creating and recreating them.”

Flip through this book and see what inspires us so greatly.

Paulo Freire – Educar Para Transformar-fotobiografia  

Enjoy! And let us know what you think about Freire’s legacy today.

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

Stop Calling For Student Voice

  • Students tapping their pencils on their desks, texting answers to tests back and forth, and throwing pencils into the ceiling tiles… 
  • Answering questions when asked, participating intently in classroom discussions, and having focused small group conversations… 
  • Teachers integrating students’ stories from their own lives into classroom curriculum, students teaching each other about complex concepts out of class, and students providing solicited critiques of teachers to improve the style, form, and substance of classrooms…
  • Fighting in the hallways, passing notes during class, smoking behind the school building, and skipping class to go to the movies…
  • Students giving testimony about cell phone usage at school board meetings, researching the effects of the school to prison pipeline, and rallying their communities about school funding issues…

ALL OF THESE are student voice. They happen every day in schools, at all grade levels, and with all kinds of students. While some are warmer and fuzzier than others, and while each of us wants to see some happen and not others, all occur at some point every single day.

Last week I called for adults to stop just listening to student voice. Instead, we need something more than that. When done alone, listening to student voice is merely a pacifying activity designed to drown out the din of 100,000,000 young people surging through the veins of the education system yearning to become powerful, effective learners.

What all students in all schools everywhere need is Meaningful Student Involvement, or MSI. MSI embodies the deliberate re-envisioning of the entirety of the education system in order to integrate students as partners in learning, teaching, and leadership.

MSI moves beyond student voice through the pragmatic, intentional integration of students as partners throughout education. calls teachers- the frontline of all schools- to the carpet and demonstrates practical, pragmatic processes they can use to move beyond listening to student voice. It insists that administrators- the working backbone of all education- to stop doing to students what they can do with students. It positions parents as partners with their children and calls the community to task by showing how they can support real learning beyond volunteering and donations.

Finally, and most importantly, it stops selling students short by saying that their words are enough- because they’re not. Instead of giving the keys to the car to the 16-year-old and telling them to teach themselves to drive, MSI opens the hood and shows students how the engine runs. It strategically teaches them the skills and knowledge they need to become mechanics throughout the education system, as well as designers, operators, owners, attendants, and ultimately, drivers. MSI shows emphatically that students themselves should drive education, the entirety of it, with adults as partners.

Stop calling for student voice, because its already been done before, and its already there. Our schools need Meaningful Student Involvement.

Other posts from this series include:

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