How to Get Past LISTENING To Students

Schools must get past listening to students. Its a starting point, but as I’ve taught with my Cycle of Engagement for almost a decade, its just a start. As ethically responsible educators and advocates, we have a responsibility for getting past listening and towards action. Find out how in this post. 

Do you want to transform schools with students? Awesome! Listening to them is a starting point, but its only the beginning. Following are five steps to student engagement in school improvement.

Step 1: Listen to Students. Teachers, families, counselors, and other adults have a direct stake in the health and well-being of students in schools. However, the most important partner is often the least connected: students themselves. Connecting students as partners and hearing their voices, at par with other partners, is essential. Adults must hear students’ experiences throughout schools; their ideas about improving schools; their wisdom about creating effective schools; and their beliefs about learning, teaching, and leadership throughout the education system. Not only are they are essential to effectively engaging students, but also every other partner in school improvement. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire wrote that educators must learn to “speak by listening;” school reform opens the door for adults to demonstrate to students that they are our priorities.

Step 2: Validate Students. The historical structures of schools require people in positions of authority to give permission to students, parents, and others who wish to help improve schools. This does not always mean saying “yes;” instead, it is important to sometimes say “no” or “maybe,” and always to ask more questions. Inquiry is acknowledgment, and it builds relationships and allows teachers, principals, and others to connect with partners across the board.

Step 3: Authorize Studnts. Sometimes the straightest path to creating lasting, effective school improvement is the one that looks wiggly. To authorize is to give students permission to tell their own stories, and partners want that permission. They need the knowledge and the positions that will allow them to effectively change schools.

Step 4: Take Action with Students. Students aren’t the only ones who needs to see action in school reform. With demanding modern schedules, families and community members want to hear more than just words—they want to do something. However, one of the points of the Cycle of Engagement is that action does not happen in a vacuum; instead, it has to have context. The other parts of the Cycle provide that framing.

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

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

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

Discover powerful roles for students and ways to move from listening to student voice towards Meaningful Student Involvement at!

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

Charter Schools Destroy Democracy

The story of charter schools in Washington State is intense. It spans several introductions in the Legislature, involves the voting down of the approach by citizens three times, is foisted up by education organizations and politicians bank-rolled by large foundations that are dismantling public schools across the United States, and generally disregards the education and well-being of students beyond their roles as tokens in the struggle.

The Challenge

Yesterday, an editorial was published in the Seattle Times by an editor of Rethinking Schools who is an education faculty at the University of Washington-Bothell. Dr. Wayne Au writes,

Charters underserve English-language learners and students with disabilities; they do not keep accurate track of student data, such as who is on free and reduced lunch; their governing boards regularly lack public accountability; they have also reached levels of racial segregation not seen since before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that legally ended “separate but equal” schooling — prompting the NAACP to issue a statement in 2010 opposing charter schools.

This is a large part of my active discouragement of these places at every turn: Charters are the wolves in sheep’s clothing, being pitched by businesspeople in farmer’s costumes. They are insidious for many reasons, several that go beyond the professors concerns. In a report from the Institute of Education Sciences of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, a part of the US Department of Education, it was stated that,

On average, charter middle schools that held lotteries were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving math or reading test scores, attendance, grade promotion, or student conduct within or outside of school. Being admitted to a study charter school did significantly improve both students’ and parents’ satisfaction with school.

This means that charters are more effective at creating the perception of change in schools, rather than change itself. Knowing that they are not held routinely held accountable the way public schools are, it is no wonder why they consistently look better.

Performance is only part of my concern thought.

There is a reason why foundations are not pouring money into private schools and sending students there by droves. Charters are systematically, routinely designed to siphon money from the public school system by diverting public support and target it towards private interests. The lesson charter school advocates, including foundations, politicians, and lobbyists are promoting is that having public accountability is a failure, and private innovation is the only way to go.

Anyone who cares about democracy and social justice needs to see the truth of charters: They are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. There’s a reason why the U.S. was the first nation in the world to consider them seriously, and why only deeply capitalist countries are adopting them.

Charter schools are baaaaad news.

I agree that there is always more room, but I do not agree that charter schools have absolutely anything to do with it. Charter schools are a false choice forced on Americans as “The Only Choice”, insofar as they represent an extreme departure from the democratic nature of public schools and an isolatory uplifting of capitalism as an ideal.

The Solution

There are great strides that can be taken to reinvent public schools.

  • Actively engage all students as partners throughout the public education system in order to foster authentic, meaningful school reform. Dismantle that old system created for the industrialists of the 19 century. 
  • Redesign all learning for the 21st century. 
  • Dismantle the meritocracy that hires only teachers from schools that teach the old methods. 
  • Empower parents and communities to provide elders and teachers from life experience, new science, oral historians, and those who will share whole, uncensored versions of history. 
  • Allow all children to regain their natural curiosity and recover from oppressive, authoritarian institutions. 
  • Allow teachers to be creative and help design public schools with parent advisory board approval.

I adapted this list from a friend who suggested all these things can only happen through charters. I’m disinterested in any so-called “innovation” that ultimately detracts from the public nature of public schools, particularly along the lines of private and charter schools. In my experience of working with public schools over the last decade to foster innovative policy and practice, private and charter schools have proven to be ineffective models to hold against the realities public schools face.

We need a concerted effort to refocus our public schools along those lines by inserting public will into public schools. The same public will can eviscerate the influence of corporations on the machinations of public education, particularly on the political and administrative sides. Politicians and public education administrators have succeeded in veiling the high level functions of public schools from the public, and we need to pull back that veil to understand what’s happening there- instead of abandoning it, and the individual classrooms that echo what goes on in the upper echelons. That will take a radical approach to democratic ownership and the wholesale engagement of parents and communities, and that is what many charter school advocates are calling for. Public education is capable of providing this, so long as we, including residents and citizens and parents and voters and children and youth, stand for it and tell politicians that the public controls public schools, not corporations or private influence. 

We need a thrust of public-driven innovation in public education, not the further privatization of public institutions of private benefit. That’s exactly what charters are, and what they do: benefit few at the expense of many. We need to reinvigorate the role of public education. We need public democracy schools that use democracy to educate about democracy, and not otherwise, which is what a lot of so-called democratic schools do.

A public education promotion campaign should be designed to counter the poor perception the public has about public schools. They have been smeared by mainstream media, politicians, and corporations for decades. They have also been called out repeatedly by parents and students who had horrendous experiences in public schools, and public schools have not responded. It is time to reclaim the positive powerful potential of public schools. It is not merely a “PR campaign” that is needed, either. Labeling truth-telling about public schools as “PR” is fighting cynicism with cynicism. We need a campaign to educate everyone about the fragile balance our democratic society walks, and the essential role public schools play in maintaining that balance.

The solution is not to abandon public schools en masse. It is easy to hear the loud, upset, concerned, and disenfranchised voters wagging their fingers at teachers, shaking their fists at principals, and bawling out their students when they do not get good grades. I do see students continue to leave schools in growing numbers, pushed out for economic, racial, and cultural reasons that should be addressed. I do see middle-class, white, suburban parents taking their children out of public schools more frequently. These situations are not the problems. The problem bears repeating:

Charters are trojan horses for destroying democratic society. 

And nothing less. We need to stop them, now.

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

Service Learning versus "Activist Learning"

From the late 90s through the 2000s, I participated in a number of service learning programs across the U.S. Some were hyper-local, such as the program in Taos, New Mexico, focused on building cultural and social connections between the Taos Pueblo and youth in the neighboring town. I worked at the state level in Washington, helping administer a Learn and Serve America grant that went to dozens of subgrantees across the state. I also worked nationally with the Points of Light Foundation and the Corporation for National Service promoting service learning.

Along the way I saw patterns of educational abuse that were extremely disconcerting for me. In the worst cases, young people were being taught the missionary perspectives of the European conquistadors who believed they knew best for those they were to have been serving. Other times, students were extremely tokenized, made to seem as if their presence was all that was needed, while their actions, opinions, ideas, and knowledge was trivial or meaningless.
From that position, in 2006 I drafted an introduction to “Activist Learning”. In this intro I wrote that,

Activist Learning is an intentional strategy for creating knowledge characterized by taking action to realize just relationships that transform unequal power structures in our personal, social, political, environmental, spiritual, and economic lives.

I was clearly reacting to the pressures of poorly implemented service learning. However, I thought it was essential to problematize the position I saw many service learning programs occupying, and provide an alternative conceptualization.
Today I know that there are many, many high quality service learning programs across the U.S. and around the world. There are a number of criteria and assessments available to young people and adults in service learning programs, and a plethora of good examples of service learning challenging the missionary perspective I was railing against. 
The problem today presents itself to me in a deeper way. Instead of poor programs, I see now that there are poor perspectives, activities perpetuated by well-meaning but ill-prepared practitioners who want to do the right thing, but are wholly incapable of that because of the assumptions and ideas they hold. It is these people who I want to target with the considerations of Activist Learning, if for no other reason than to challenge their thinking.
What do you think? What are the next steps that are necessary to develop service learning, and does a consideration need to be made for a new pedogological norm focused on “Activist Learning”?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Schools Change The World, For Better Or Worse

Adam’s Note: A few weeks ago I was thinking about my daughter, school reform, the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Elizabeth Warren video where she ranted about Republicans so effectively. The following is what I arrived at after reflecting on it all for a while. By way of preparing you for the introduction, as anyone who knows me knows, my daughter is very important to me. She and I talk about monkeys a lot.

Part One: The Basics of Society

We’re all descendant from monkeys. Somewhere along the way someone got it into their head that, hey, let’s work together to make life easier for each other. The monkeys started handing each other twigs to pick their ants out of the ant hill, they nurtured each others’ offspring, and eventually, with some twists and turns, they evolved into homo sapien – humans, us. About 12,000 years ago we got together and started forming societies. Some societies moved towards towns and cities, and others stayed within loose knit communities. This is where society came from.

Before forming societies, humans were engaged in intrapersonal exchanges of confidence and cooperation. We began trading “this” for “that”, and “that” for “those”, until we had some of this, that, and those. These exchanges generally were not seen for what they were. It took until 1916 for a West Virginia educator named L.J. Hanifan to call these them social capital. This social capital, which requires “goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy, and social intercourse” (Hanifan’s words), was basic requirement for societies to develop and grow. Any fiscal capital exchange, i.e. personal services, or property, or cold, hard cash requires the exchange of social capital before hand.

Social capital is what is exchanged when you help the old lady cross the street, have a conversation with the mailman, or drop coins into the Salvation Army tin at Christmastime. Teachers grow social capital among students habitually as they teach manners, encourage kindness, and infuse community service into their curriculum. The wonder of teaching social capital is that teachers have actually served to underpin another essential component in society that is called the social contract.

The social contract is a generally unspoken exchange occurring beyond the immediacy of social capital. It is a swap, too. But this time it is a trade on a grander scale, one that considers trading personal rights for social abilities. When social capital is interested in exchanging personal pleasantries or doing favors for neighbors and strangers, the social contract is more concerned with trading our individual right to defend our interests (thus police and the military exist) for the social ability to leave relatively peaceably within our borders.  

Recently, the Democratic candidate for a Massachusetts United States Senate seat named Elizabeth Warren caused The Wave to go around the Liberal Stadium when she chastised Republicans for their indifference to the social contract. She said,

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Here she was talking about the apparent indifference of Republicans towards the social contract and preserving social order. Given my political inclination and her vast experience as an attorney and law professor, I believe Warren knows exactly what she is talking about, which were the basics of society.

Part Two: Social Engineering

Throughout my own 20-year career as a community educator and advocate, I have come to understand that deepened connections among young people and adults throughout our communities are key to the survival of democracy. It is from this perspective that I am interested in social capital and the social contract. I believe both of these happen through social engagement, and that is why I am concerned about our society.

Evolution has often been painted as a competition: From a random starting point every species is aiming to propagate their own kind at the expense of all others. Sociologists, economists, and even politicians will at times insist that competition is the root of all progress, and that from the chaos of living in the woods with our monkey relatives we only progressed because of competition. Darwin’s theory of evolution, “survival of the fittest”, and all that.

This is where society collides with schools. In his 1932 primer on genuinely authentic democracy education called Dare the School Build a New Social Order, radical educationalist George Counts wrote, “All education contains a large element of imposition, a case which is inevitable and in the existence and evolution of society, educators have a major professional obligation.” This “major professional obligation” centers on more than simply imposing curriculum, although that is a component of it.

Counts was describing the ways that teachers teach society to students, because that is what teachers do. The ways teachers teach, the topics they teach, the ways they describe the topics they teach… all of these prescribe precisely how young people learn to attach to the world around them. Counts was suggesting that if teachers teach authoritarianism and consumerism, then children and youth will become oppressed consumers.

This negative reality played out long before Counts delivered the speeches that comprised his 1932 book. For more than 100 years of public schools, and massively so in the last 11 years of “school reform,” increasing pressure has been put on competition to become the predominant methodology used in teaching. By fetishizing competition in educational processes, as a society we have squeezed the enthusiasm, joy, and simple pleasure of learning from our schools.

This competitive pulse has led to the exhibition of public education as a liability dressed up for the public as a commodity, at best. At worst it is seen as somebody else’s problem, a NIMBY situation that doesn’t affect the students we are apparently so concerned with. The results of this false positioning are being felt throughout our marketplaces, our governments, and our communities. It becomes most apparent in our personal lives, where many of us feel no deep connection to ourselves, let alone the people closest to us.

The cost of integrating the competitive approach throughout learning, teaching, and leadership in schools is the end of authentic student engagement in learning. Competition single-handedly obliterates the inherent desire of young people to learn and growwhich all children and youth have, despite socio-economic, cultural, or other background. Schools today, which rely on competition, are killing students’ desire to learn.

In turn, absent their desire to learn and grow, young people are experiencing a declining exchange of social capital. They are not experiencing the invaluable, positive, and powerful interchange between cultures that schools once nurtured. They are not learning the deep, meaningful background that schools could be teaching. Do not mistake my analysis though: I have great hope that children and youth will persevere; I just do not believe that schools are doing what they can to assist in that effort. Instead, they are perpetuating the competition and further stifling the possibilities we need them to actualize.

As social capital continues to dwindle at school, we see teachers increasingly encouraging young people to withdraw from their investment in the social contract. This is the worst possible scenario. Absent the substantive social discourse schools could nurture, teachers inadvertently teach that the social contract is not effective.

Part Three: Social Change

This reality gives our society the possibility for two real futures full of social change. The first is the worst:

In this scenario, as social discourse continues to unravel, our politicians loose their capability to arrive at a rational point of debate. This becomes increasingly shadowed throughout mainstream society, as the media hyperbolizes all aspects of the news, and commerce is loosed of the tense arrangement between producers and consumers. In this scenario, every child, woman, and man must defend for themselves, and in no time we distinguish the social contract, those spoken and unspoken norms governing our every move. A type of social malaise is contracted throughout society, and the former agreements shared in the social contract become null and void. More than becoming irrelevant by maintaining status quo, institutions such as schools become negative catalysts that increasingly drive the devolution of society into the hearts and minds of the nation’s citizenry.

In the second scenario, there is a revolution. This is a revolution of intent, as it challenges many of the basic assumptions underlying our society. It demands that the rights of all people are honored and cherished, defended and demanded by all people, for all people. It sees that the equality of the rights of the planet and all it’s creatures by honored, too. It places top emphasis on the conscious creation of social capital among all people as it propels the social contract into the forefront of society for examination, deconstruction, re-examination, reconstruction, re-envisioning, redevelopment. The overall demise of complacent acceptance and passive receptivity becomes the norm throughout society as the exchange of social capital becomes hyperbolic. Uncountable people from every walk of society emerge as massively active, infinitely invested players on the local, national, and global scale. Heroes are not required, as the everyman becomes the everypersonthroughoutsociety, and all people everywhere activate in a radical demonstration of human potential.

It may seem as if we are already deep into the first future. Luckily, the second has become emergent, and is being led by young people themselves. As Westerners revel in the American Fall and it’s great potential for social upheaval, our young sisters and brothers in the Middle East have known that we are on our way since the Arab Spring of 2011. There is much more ahead, and young people will and should continue to lead the way. They are rebirthing the social contract and revitalizing social capital, creating a new exchange and embarking on a strange adventure that has it’s roots in the Civil Rights movement, the Labor Movement, the Women’s Suffrage movement, and further back still. Most importantly, young people taking action to reinvent their schools and society have their roots in authentic democracy, exactly where they belong.

In Dare the School…, Professor Counts got blunt about why teachers should endeavor to something more than capitalist competition:

“If we now assume that the child will be imposed upon in some fashion by the various elements in his environment, the real question is not whether the imposition will take place, but rather from what source it will come… That teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction… It is my observation that the men and women who have affected the course of human events are those who have not hesitated to use the power that has come to them.”

What Counts did not see was that young people have their own power, independent that of teachers. And while many youth
—not all, but many—have given up their power, many have not. Succeeding generations have shown us that those young people will not give it up, either. They young people continue to assert their power and do their work regardless, with their peers join them eventually. That is what the Arab Spring proved, and the American Fall is demonstrating right now.
Today is the day that students and teachers step up and meet the demands of the future of democracy and start teaching the social contract with intent. Many teachers—not all, but many—have given up their power. Classrooms need to be environments that foster investment in the social contract. Social capital needs to be deliberately invested in and built. Authentic democracy needs to be lived. Authentic engagement needs to be the goal. And a new social order is what the schools need to build.

Our world—and our young people—demand nothing less.

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

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 Learn more at!

The Roots of Meaningful Student Involvement

“Meaningful student involvement” is my theory that when young people participate in equitable student/adult partnerships that are substantive and engaging for learners, the education system will more effectively meet its myriad goals. I first explored this concept in 2003 in my Meaningful Student Involvement Idea Guide for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2005 I wrote the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change at the request of the HumanLinks Foundation. In it I explained that, “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.” 

At the beginning of my work in 2000 it was difficult to identify a cohesive body of work around the roles of students in schools. Research on student engagement had been growing over the previous 20 years, and is still highlighted by the findings of Fred Newmann. He found that student engagement occurs when, “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.” His 1992 book, Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools examines several schools’ responses to the nature of student involvement and participation in classroom curriculum everyday. Later Newmann developed a set of standards based off this study he called “Authentic Instruction.” Check out the criteria he proposed:
  1. Students construct meaning and produce knowledge,
  2. Students use disciplined inquiry to construct meaning, and 
  3. Students aim their work toward production of discourse, products, and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school.
I immediately found Newmann’s findings provided an essential contextualization for the question of why meaningful student involvement matters in school change efforts. At the same time I was studying critical pedagogy extensively while finishing my bachelor’s degree at The Evergreen State College, heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks and Peter McLaren, among others. I was also footed in the pioneering work of organizations like Youth On Board and people like Wendy Lesko, as well as the experiences of the 1000s of students I’d worked with in schools and community settings across the country.
All this in mind, I began to apply Newmann’s criteria to the question of how students themselves views the different roles they occupy in schools, as well as how adults view those roles, their possibilities and their limitations. 
Examining other literature I began to identify emergent patterns in their findings about what students said about schools. My desk became covered with sticky notes as I gathered accounts of student involvement in schools across United States and around the world. These stories came from What Kids Can Do, the Youth Activism Project, and my own gathering activities where I culled items from newspapers, interviewed students and teachers across the country, and went to schools where I was told great things were happening. I was also working at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction as their first Student Engagement Specialist, a position created for me to workshop with K-12 teachers and students focused on student voice and promote student involvement throughout school decision-making. Along the way I was head-checked on every wrong assumption I made, and grew exponentially from the exposure I had to administrators, teachers, and students reacting to the early implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
From all this I began to identify trends and patterns emerge. They grabbed me and urged me to call them out. First I saw Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation echo inside schools. Then I identied my frameworks for meaningful student involvement: First the typology, then the Cycle of Engagement, and eventually enough emerged to write my Meaningful Student Involvement series. While reception of meaningful student involvement hasn’t led to a particularly exuberant national movement as I’d originally hoped for, since 1995 dozens of districts, local schools, independent school improvement organizations, and colleges of education have used my work to inform their school reform activities. Along with several state departments of education the U.S. Department of Education has used meaningful student involvement to promote school connectedness. This work has taken hold in several different places across the country. Additionally, I’ve connected with practitioners around the world, particularly in Australia and England.
These are the roots of meaningful student involvement. At some point in the near future I’ll explore some of the future growth I’m plotting, including some of the essential partners who are coming forward and some of the ideal situations I’d like to be positioned in the future.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Schools as Community Centers

Making schools into community centers by opening buildings for 16-hour usage per day, seven days a week makes sense. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is the latest proponent for the seemingly exceptional shift. On Charlie Rose recently he laid down the line, and its good to hear the federal government coming out on the side of communities.

For youth liberationists this may be a tricky call to arms, primarily because it calls for more exposure to these apparent institutions of oppression. However, I am not a liberationist. I am a radical inclusionist, and in this way I believe that any opportunity to transform the adultcentric decisions made everyday throughout our society into being inclusive of young people is a good thing. Now, its not enough to simply decide to let kids come and play or read or eat or hang out or otherwise just linger in schools after school – although I know that is exactly what more than a few young people in this country need, which is a safe and supportive environment to spend with caring adults. I know that. However, I also know that these young people (which included me as a youth), and all young people, need more than just involvement – we need opportunities to become engaged. They need a chance to build that sentiment towards their communities, towards their families and schools and places of worship and neighbors and peers and all these places where we need them desperately to become more than themselves. 
Barack Obama recently reminded us of the urgent necessity of education by proclaiming that, “When you drop out you’re not just giving up on yourself, you’re giving up on your country.” Schools are one avenue for learning that we should uphold and strenghten, day and night, to secure meaningful, successful learning opportunities for all people of all ages. Now, while we’re into making them open day and night, let’s talk about making schools meaningful
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Educational Refugees

There is a place where any discussion about democracy and youth comes around to schools. Like traumatized escapees, many adults remember the worst from their experiences: horror stories about teacher treatment, terrorism by bullies and popular students, and/or alienation or homogenization because of who we were or what we did. In having serious, substantive conversations with students about schools, I have found their ability to be constructive with their concerns to pale those of young people themselves. 

Because of this we have disjunctive relationships between young people and adults where adults commonly idealize their experiences in schools and youth commonly disparage theirs. Conversely, the adults who authentically remember their schooling tend to loudly remember it, while the youth who actually enjoy schools quietly do so. Consequently, when these adults decide to take action they go to another extreme by creating new schools and thoughts of schooling that reflect their values that are informed by their experiences.

The outcome of those developments often takes the form of homeschoolingunschooling, freeschooling or deschooling. Deschooling is a process in which the structures of schools, including curriculum, named teachers, classrooms, buildling rules and bells are completely taken away from a person’s life. When originally used by Ivan Illich in his seminal Deschooling Society, the word “deschool” was intended to serve as a metaphor; however, its expanded and become something of a movement. The Freeschool movement, which I’ve participated in through our local Olympia Free School, is an attempt to “democratize” learning by allowing anyone to teach any topic and anyone to attend any class. Finally, unschooling is the process of learning without the rigid structure or systemization of schools. 

All of this is to show that we’ve created a new kind of refugee camp, where educational refugees can find rest, relaxation and comfort among like minds and kindred spirits. A good thing in a stigmatized, polarized society; however, in this era when we appear to be moving towards something of a new social contract featuring consensus, is this type of reactivism appropriate? Only time will tell. 

In the meantime, let’s reflect on our own experiences and starting envisioning where we can go together. Then we’ll be moving ahead.

P.S. – Here is a great activity that guides students through reflecting on their school experiences.

You Might Like…

Freechild Activity for YOUR Classrom

I think I’ve mentioned the new series on youth activism coming out from the Capstone Press? Last month I finished consulting on a four book series for middle school students, each focused on topics like social justice, the environment, and animal rights. Well, I’m excited to note that I just found out that McGraw-Hill, a major publisher of school curricula, has devised part of a classroom lesson plan based solely off The Freechild Project website!

In five questions students are asked to read through the site and vital the answers to a variety of questions, including…

  • What is the Midnight Forum and what does it use hip hop to do?
  • Why do older adults and teens make good allies?
  • What are some examples of ways students can get involved in the decision-making process at their schools?

This type of exercise does a few things for Freechild: first, it legitimizes the intrinsic value teachers find in the website by enshrining it in curriculum; second, it legitimizes the value students place on the website by engaging them in using it within the formal boundaries of the classroom. While its true that there also drawbacks, I think the usage is primarily positive.

Find the entire plan here. And please let me know how YOU are using Freechild in your classroom or youth program. Thanks!

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

My Review of “Eliminating Corporal Punishment”

Eliminating Corporal Punishment: The Way Forward To Constructive Child Discipline was edited by Joan Durrant. This is my review for The Freechild Project website.

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 period; hold an uncomfortable position; stand motionless; kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones; retain body wastes; perform strenuous exersize; or ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice… THIS IS CORPOREAL PUNISHMENT. Anytime a young person is subjected to this treatment they are being abused. These forms of abuse are the cruelest, most unjust, and most ineffective treatment young people can receive.
I can hear Alex’s voice right now: “That’s sentimental crap! Those people just want to babysit kids without giving them a chance to run their own lives!” Alex is the head of a large national organization that proponents the rights of young people to, well, run their own lives. His is a noble cause that I fully support, and that I agree with most of the time – except now.

Earlier this year the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, released the seminal publication available for anyone interested in securing the most basic right of any person today: that is, the right to live in peace. While it sounds simplistic and naive, violence is a daily reality for almost every young person in the world today. There is physical violence, like war, family abuse, bullying, and gang violence. There is mental abuse, like parental abuse, teacher abuse, or verbal put-downs. But there is also the abuse of being neglected everyday by the institutions that purportedly are designed to empower children and youth, such as schools, hospitals, and governments. There is violence hurdled through popular media, like television shows, songs on the radio, and video games. And there is the violence that surrounds young people everyday, 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 paper…

These abuses add up. As the book notes, “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.” There is 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.

That is why this book is so important. For the first time my Americanized eyes are beginning to fully comprehend the global imperative any ethical person faces when dealing with the situation of young people today. That is, we must stand with young people to change the situations that they face, and that our world faces. While I’ve always believed that, I’ve never been fully able to describe why – until now. Now I’m beginning to understand the larger picture.

By situating its premise in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or the CRC, Eliminating Corporal Punishment serves as a powerful international wake-up call, shattering any formerly sentimentalist or naive perceptions about the need to fight with young people for their rights. The 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 world- minus the US and Somalia- and even they have signaled their intent to sign on. There is no other convention, consensus, or constitution in the world that is more widely accepted.

So the majority of global society aggress that corporal punishment is a significant premise social change. I believe that corporal punishment is the root of all discrimination in society. Sure, its premised on the hatred of young people, on adultism, on the self- and cultural repression of childhood… and its exacerbated by dozens of other factors, including socio-economic class, gender, race, ethnicity, and more… but I wouldn’t have been able to confirm that for you without this book. Today I understand that corporal punishment is at the heart of all this, and more.

What this book essentially does is provides an astoundingly comprehensive, yet relatively simple summary and analysis of corporal punishment, its background, and the effects and outcomes on our society. Then it carefully proposes culturally-relevant, socially-progressive responses to developing holistic, caring, and supportive responses to discipline that all adults – parents, teachers, youth workers, and others – can stand to learn from. A variety of illustrative anecdotes and a massive research scan all confirm that this is the most powerful, positive change that can possibly affect young people in around the world today.

There is so much I can say about this book. My own copy is almost completely marked-up on many pages, and I have dog-eared dozens of pages to reference and return to in the future. I would strongly suggest this book to anyone who wants an introduction to corporal punishment; to anyone interested in understanding the larger societal influences, impacts, outcomes, and forces at work behind corporal punishment; to anyone who wants to discover the international affects of corporal punishment; and to anyone who wants to understand the relationships between corporal punishment and adultism, ageism, and discrimination of all sorts. In short, I highly recommend this book to anyone who cares. I would even recommend it to Alex.


Order Eliminating Corporal Punishment: The Way Forward To Constructive Child Discipline at