Students Speak Out on Ideal Schools

A student presenting at a SoundOut Speak Out event.

Lately, I’ve been inspired by the work of Charlie Kouns and David Loitz through Imaging Learning. Working in a handful of locations across the country, they’ve been having powerful conversations with students about what, where, why, when, and how learning happens best for them. I really admire their passion, and I think what they’re doing is important work.

Following is an activity from the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum that I first wrote in 2007 after running a series of SoundOut Speak Outs across the country. From my conversations with Charlie and David, I think the Speak Outs were similar to the Imagining Learning series.
This activity can be used in a variety of settings, and provides a structured, replicable process teachers, youth workers, and others can use to get students thinking about their ideal schools.

Feel free to use it, and if you copy it into anything printed please give me credit. CommonAction is always available to facilitate a session focused on this activity, and many others in our tool belt. I’d also (easily, gladly, and strongly) recommend that you consider hosting an Imagine Learning session!

Activity: Ideal Schools 

  1. Break students into teams of 4-8 for groups of 8 and larger. 
  2. Give each team a large piece of paper and provide each group with a collection of creative materials, i.e. markers, pens, color pencils, etc.
  3. Ask each team to draw the outline of a school in the middle of the paper. They can make it any size, depending on how important they think the school building is to learning. 
  4. When their outlines are complete, teams should work together to draw an image of their “ideal school” without using any words. Encourage students to fill the paper with characteristics or abilities that an ideal school would have. For example, they might draw big doors on the school to indicate the ability for students to learn outside the building, or fill the rest of the page with other places students can learn. 
  5. Ask each team to present their creation. As students report out, create a master list of characteristics as each team reports back. 
  6. Reflect on the activity by asking:

  • Which characteristics do you think are most important? Why?
  • Are these realistic? Why or Why not? 
  • (If in a broke-up class) How do you feel about the ideal school the other teams came up with?
  • Do you have any concerns?
  • Would you add anything? 

Keep the drawings hanging around the classroom to remind students what they are striving for.

I believe these types of conversations are an entryway to Meaningful Student Involvement, creating vital views of what students think about schools. However, the conversation shouldn’t end there. If you’re interested in learning more about what’s next, check out the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum or check out our education catalog

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

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

Machiavellian Student Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Student Voice

Intentionally locating student voice can happen within classroom curriculum, classroom management, extra-curricular areas, building climate, community government and more!

A lot of people are misunderstanding student voice and student engagement these days. Well-meaning educators and politicians are attributing all kinds of peculiarities and particularities to these terms, melding them with notions about student leadership, student achievement, and school communities as a whole. From more than a decade experience promoting these concepts throughout K-12 schools I have come to understand how important it is to be clear about the vernacular we use.

Student engagement is the sustained connection a learner has to the topic, teacher, students, school, or educative process they’re engaged in. This connection can be psychological, social, emotional, physical, or otherwise, so long as it’s sustained, which is to say that it’s “continued or be prolonged for an extended period or without interruption.”

That allows us to understand that student voice is any expression of any learner about education, learning, schools, and all things related. With this understanding its easier to see how student voice should be integrated throughout the educational system through my Frameworks of Meaningful Student Involvement. To differentiate between the various terms thrown around, I define Meaningful Student Involvement as “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.”

All of these definitions lend themselves easily to a formula: Student Voice can lead to Student Engagement through Meaningful Student Involvement. However, minus the capacity to contribute to whole school improvement efforts, teachers and students may feel stymied in their attempts to promote Meaningful Student Involvement. There are practical, pragmatic ways every learner can be engaged through Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s why it’s important to locate student voice throughout schools.

One of the things these Frameworks illuminates is a typology of Meaningful Student Involvement. In this post I want to discuss different locations of student voice throughout schools. Where Meaningful Student Involvement shows how student voice can be engaged through education research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy, this model shows where student voice can be located throughout schools.

The very first location of student voice in schools is classroom curriculum. Curriculum, which is the stable of all of learners’ experience in schools, is an increasingly standardized location where student voice can be strategically situated in order to engage students. This allows teachers to position students’ attitudes, experiences, beliefs, ideas, actions, and outcomes as central to learning. By identifying the central role of classroom curriculum in student voice, schools can re-position student leadership by moving it from the purview of “eloquent” or “gifted” students towards the experience of the proverbial “every student”. This can allow learners to invest in learning, deepen their experience of curriculum, and secure the power of learning throughout their lives.

The second location for student voice in schools is classroom management. Simple activities designed to prevent, intervene, or respond to challenging student behavior can give appropriate and necessary credence to student voice. Doing this can position learners as essential contributors to substantive activities within the normal learning environment of the classroom. In turn, this allows them to understand themselves as essential actors, which allows their transition from passive recipients of adult-led education towards student/adult partnerships promoting learning, teaching, and leadership for all.

Building climate is made of the “characteristics of schools, including the physical structure of a school building and the interactions between students and teachers.” Engaging student voice in building climate doesn’t mean handing over the keys to the car to the kids for them to learn to drive; it means acknowledging they’re already driving building climate, whether you admit it or not. Meaningful Student Involvement calls for educators to move from passively allowing students to drive school culture to actively encouraging it. While doing that, schools can use the Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement to substantially enhance that student voice.

While it seems obvious that the expressions of learners drive extra-curricular activities, it is not always true that is the case. In the case of most clubs, teams, and other activities, its important to position the Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement directly on top of the activity to ensure fidelity. This allows us to ask many essential questions, including when, where, how, and who is engaged in the activities.

In community schools student voice can serve as a perfect avenue for substantiating community connections throughout the education system. Place-based learning requires this substantiation, and the best service learning programs do the same. Serving as more than mere puppets of well-meaning school administrators and teachers, students can be true liaisons between the school and the community, allowing the school to capitalize from all of any communities’ inherent assets, apparent or hidden.

All these locations of student voice do not matter if they’re not acknowledged or drawn upon. They don’t allow for apathy or disregard by educators, either. They do challenge teachers and administrators to get honest about their desire to teach, lead, and learn with students. From that place all things can change, always, throughout every one of our schools for every student. That is Meaningful Student Involvement.

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Adam Fletcher is available to train on student voice, student engagement, Meaningful Student Involvement, and much more. To talk about the possibilities give a call to Adam at (360) 489-9680.

Four Kinds of Student Voice

Student Voice is all the rage in some schools today. Teachers are listening to Student Voice in classrooms, school improvement programs are infusing Student Voice in reform efforts, and education leaders are rallying Student Voice to support their efforts as never before. Even community based organizations are concerned with Student Voice, working with young people to make their opinions, ideas, knowledge, and actions heard by adults who are indifferent.
However, not all Student Voice is the same. Research has been adamant about identifying where and how students differ in their attitudes, opinions, expressions, and experiences in schools. Since that’s the case, how can Student Voice be the same?
Student Voice is any expression by any young person relating to any part of learning or schools, for any purpose. Many well-meaning adults who advocate for Student Voice are often inadvertently talking about what is convenient for us as adults.
The Four Kinds of Student Voice

1. Convenient Student Voice happens whenever adults know who is going to speak, what is going to be said, where its going to be shared, when its going to happen, and what the outcomes are going to be. Adults might not have written the script, but what’s going to be said is no surprise to them. This can include students sharing their opinions on a topic in class, speaking to the school board , the principal’s student advisory council, and the student researcher program. It can also include the traditional student leaders writing letters of protest to the school newspaper, the student actors holding a protest for better theater equipment, or the service learning program at school.

2. Inconvenient Student Voice is when students express themselves in ways that aren’t predictable. They share ideas, shout out thoughts, take action, reflect harshly, or critique severely. They write, draw, graffitti, paint, play, sing, protest, research, build, deconstruct, rebuild, examine, and do things that adults don’t know, understand, approve of, or otherwise predict. Inconvenient student voice can be graffitting on lockers, texting test answers back and forth, bullying, or protesting teacher firings.

3. Traditional Student Leaders are students who are generally going to be successful in any school anywhere. They are well-adjusted for traditional learning environments, with learning styles and dispositions towards adults that make them amenable towards the structure, style, form, and function of schools today.

4. Nontraditional Student Leaders are students who may or may not make it through school. They don’t necessarily adhere to adults’ expectations for their behavior or attitudes, and they don’t set the examples that adults want them to. Instead, they may incite their peers into laughter, form gangs, or otherwise be contentious, appearing disregarding towards adults.

The difference between these kinds to Student Voice depends on location, position, and circumstance. A student’s race, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, or other identities frequently determines whether or not Student Voice is heard, engaged, interacted with, approved of, or denied, ignored, or penalized.

My work with SoundOut has taught me that there is much more Student Voice happening than adults ever approve of, and that inconvenient Student Voice is all over. Its a matter of whether adults actually want to hear it.

What do you think? Where does Student Voice have a role in your school, convenient or inconvenient, traditional or nontraditional?

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

New Workshops Available!

New Workshops Available for 2012!

Are you looking for powerful learning opportunities for your organization or community?

Do you want to engage deeper, more powerfully, and more effectively than ever before?

Hi, Adam here. As the founder and president of CommonAction, I am glad to report that we are available for booking throughout 2012! With a dynamic, responsive, and engaging team of consultants and trainers, we are ready to assist you and your community this year. 

Here are some comments people have shared for my past presentations: 

Adam Fletcher facilitating in November 2011.
“One of the most gifted, principled visionaries today, Adam empowers people of all ages and backgrounds to pursue authentic engagement in all sectors of society.” – Wendy Lesko, author of Youth: The 26% Solution

“We continue to receive positive comments about how instructive and entertaining you were! Your work in the area of youth engagement is so critical, and we are fortunate for your commitment and your leadership.” – 
Elaine Matthews, senior vice president, North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center

Our team at CommonAction is available to travel to communities across the United States and Canada to provide hands-on, practical, and powerful speeches and workshops. Our activities are customized for each community we visit and each topic we cover. Here are some examples:
  • The Human Engagement Academy 
  • Finding Your Heartspace—The Engine of Personal Engagement
  • Transforming the Roles of Young People Throughout Society 
  • Six Steps to Social Change
  • Our Only Hope: The Future of Community
  • Student Engagement: Frameworks for Learning Passion through Partnership 

Here’s a list of our past clients, and here are some photos and recommendations from our past events. Contact me today for more information about what CommonAction can do for YOU.

Contact us!
Adam Fletcher
(360) 489-9680
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!

Student Voice and Student Engagement as Trojan Horses

I have a number of concerns about how I am seeing “student voice” and “student engagement” used in K-12 schools, education administration, and other settings that should benefit students to share their voices. One set of concerns I have I’m calling “Trojan Horse Strategies”. I call them this because in this approach educators and advocates give students a carrot by listening to their voices, and then these same adults turn around and blatantly use student voice and student engagement to forward their political agendas without concern for what students are genuinely seeking…

Want to read more?

A Fear of Students?

I don’t write this lightly. After all these years of teaching educators and education administrators about student voice, student engagement, and my frameworks of meaningful student involvement, I’m led to believe there’s something more insidious behind the reluctance to not engage students as partners in learning, teaching, and leading in schools. I’m led to believe that there is a pervasive fear of students among adults in the education systems.

Sharing my frameworks, which focus on integration, efficacy, and sustainability for meaningful student involvement, I frequently have seen an almost knee-jerk reaction. Teachers and principals and counselors all recoil against the notion that students of any grade and any ability can be full partners with adults. They tell stories, collected from years of experience, about the incapabilities of learners. They focus on the few students who’ve routinely disappointed/upset/frightened them, and generalize across all their experience as if all students have this inability.

Education leaders, namely the building leaders, district and state administrators, and elected officials who guide schools, scoff when introduced to the notion of meaningful student involvement. And I’m talking about my decade-plus experience in small meetings and gigantic conferences, safe places and very public platforms. The reaction is almost always the same: No way!

To be fair, my advocacy for engaging student voice doesn’t stop with student government, using technology in classrooms, or other tokenistic gestures. I am talking about the full-scale integration of students as partners in curriculum, classroom management, building culture, and educational leadership. I am challenging the dominant paradigm which is satisfied with the placated, suffocated segregation of students fro mainstream society, who in the meantime are suffering from inadequate skills and knowledge preparation for their future- not ours.

It’s kind of ridiculous.

Our public schools are on the brink of whole scale irrelevance, and we’re ignoring the very people who could fix the problem, the very people who are most affected: students themselves.

The fear of young people is a tricky phenomenon that positions students as the habitual “Other”. This role makes them different and alien to adults. It’s both dehumanizing and fetishizing, as adults see students as too foreign, too far out to support. This is why school levies are failing at a rate American society had never seen before. This is why the sneaky tendrils of privatization are reaching further into public schools than ever before.

Adults must reclaim our children and youth, not by insisting they be more like us, but by acknowledging their birthright, affirming their inheritance, and reinforcing our own support for them. We need educational campaigns that teach adults about our connectivity and caringness for young people, and how that’s beneficial for all of society. We need social and cultural opportunities for young people and adults to work together to generate and transmit culture and society together.

We need to reclaim our futures, together.

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

Bill Ayers and Democratic Education

A colleague recently asked what I think about Bill Ayers and his role in democratic education.

Bill Ayers, like all the education celebrities, offers the challenge of notoriety: if we could examine his role regardless of his history, his politics or anything else, whenever he opens his mouth he risks representing more than himself. Instead he suddenly becomes the voice of many. I see that happen repeatedly, and since we can’t distinguish his celebrity from his history or politics, and for the sake of saying it, I don’t honestly see him as the mouth of democratic education. 

I read Education Week and Educational Leadership, and when he’s mentioned there its simply with regard to his professorship and other notoriety. The good part about democratic education is that it is a widespread movement, and I thoroughly disbelieve it can be encapsulated by any one person or organization, Bill Ayers or otherwise. 
If I believed that, I wouldn’t be as engaged with the democratic education movement as I am, primarily because there are organizations that aren’t universal. I guess I’m saying to forget about Ayers – he doesn’t represent me or what I’m working for. Also, about his past, I am almost wholly dismissive, as he has roundly
dismissed it and the educators I know have moved past it, as well.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!