Coming Soon! The Guide to Student Voice, 2nd Edition by Adam Fletcher, founder of SoundOut.org. Coming May 2014!
The SoundOut Guide to Students on School Boards provides information, research, tips, and more about how to get students on boards of education. Written for SoundOut by a student activist and national advocate. Download your FREE copy of the Guide here!
There are a lot of people who want to change the world. However, many get frustrated because they don’t know what it takes.
After more than a decade of teaching people around the world how to do it, I’ve decided to share this list of key skills, abilities, knowledge, and dispositions. They’re based off my life as I’ve worked for social justice, and they are what I’ve seen consistently in my mentors, heros, and students. These capacities make the difference between people who talk about changing the world and people who actually change the world.
14 Capacities to Change the World
- Change Management—Successfully move people, leadership, and constituents through transitions and times of change.
- Humility—Develop and maintain a modest view of your own importance in public and personal perspectives regarding your efforts.
- Collaboration & Teamwork—Build and sustain the necessary group and cross-group cohesion and operations needed to maintain success.
- Conflict Management—Identify and successfully navigate conflicts and problems from an operational, day-to-day perspective.
- Decision-Making—Discern how, when, where, and why to make decisions, and how to help others make decisions, both on a micro- and meta-level scale.
- Diversity & Cultural Competency—Acknowledge, embrace, and enable all sorts of differences as powerful motivators and assets.
- Coaching—Guide, transition, and mentor others through their daily professional and personal challenges without attempting to teach or lead them.
- Motivating & Empowering—Meaningfully engage others in consistent, substantive, and sustainable ways?
- Personal & Professional Goal Development—Recognize your own goals and their relevance to your position, as well as help others do the same.
- Knowledge Management—Using diverse ways of identifying, developing, sharing, and effectively using the knowledge of communities, individuals, and organizations to change the world.
- Problem-Solving—Effectively, consistently, and realistically identify, address, critique, and re-imagine challenges.
- Training & Facilitation—Successfully identify and meet the needs of people through group training and individual learning.
- Verbal & Written Communication/Public Presentation—Engage the public through customer service and imaging.
- Personal Engagement—Foster your own connection to the work you’re doing, maintain that connection, and sustain the relevance of the work you’re doing throughout your own life, as well as help others do the same.
- Compassion—The ability to establish and foster empathy with people and places outside of your own personal or professional sphere.
- Systems Thinking—Seeing how small things that seem separated can create big things through complicated interactions.
If you’re really interested in these capacities, send me a message for my free self-assessment tool. I also provide training and coaching in each of these capacities for groups and individuals.
Let me know what you think in the comment section below!
There should never, ever be a grade, score, or test for student voice.
Reading over a recent report, the researchers suggested a measurement for student voice that accounted for participation and engagement, as well as depth and awareness. I was appalled, if only because of the asinine assumption that there is any student ever who hasn’t shared their voice about schools. That is simply not true.
ANY and EVERY expression of a student about school, learning, or education is student voice. That includes:
- Students who speak up in class and verbally express their responses to teachers’ questions. They are no more valid than students who never speak up. They are different, but they’re not better than other students at sharing student voice.
- Students who get into fights, pass notes, or text answers to tests under their desks. They are no less valid than students who wear suits and ties to share grandiose visions for education reform with adults. They are different, but they’re not worse at sharing student voice.
The reason for both of these is that both of them are examples of student voice. So are emails sent anonymously to schools, student government, research conducted, gossip, art murals, students presenting at school board meetings, graffiti on lockers, student leadership programs, student/teacher designed curriculum, students skipping class, and any other expression of students focused on schools, learning, or education.
The Problem with Praise
Adults tend to fetishize students who answer the right questions in the right ways at the right times. We put them on pedestals, place them in positions of authority over other students, and subject them to the utmost pressure to stay on the “right track” in adult-pleasing ways.
The problem with praising student voice is that it reinforces for students that there is a right way and a wrong way for students to express themselves about schools. There isn’t. Instead, there are alternative ways, each of which has a consequence. Currently, we don’t act that way because of adults’ fetishizing “good” student voice.
We do this for familiarity and consistency, because developmentally in the minds and hearts of adults, we yearn for consistency. Unfortunately, this goes against the grain of young peoples’ development, because, while they yearn for the acceptance of adults, they are seeking freedom and independence more.
Alternatives to Praising Student Voice
There is a different way.
The best position for student voice is to be unfettered and actively engaged throughout the school environment. This means that students should have a voice in how curriculum is developed; where schools are built; how teachers are evaluated; where education is evolving towards; when classes happen; why education is relevant; when they graduate; why teachers fail; where they learn most effectively; and so forth. There are so many places on the highest level of education.
However, there are more opportunities, chances for every student voice to be actively engaged throughout their days in school and throughout their lives outside of school, too. Students can share their experiences and ideas throughout classroom curriculum as a matter of good teaching practice, and student voice can be infused throughout classroom management activities, processes, and outcomes too. Building leaders can create particular opportunities for students to teach teachers about technology and culture in ways that position student voice as especially vital for teachers. Teacher coaches can help teachers understand the frameworks for meaningful student involvement that I’ve developed, and parents can engage their children in critical conversations about learning, teaching, and leading education, as well as voting and politics. Youth leaders can teach students about the importance of learning while learning from students themselves, while politicians can actually engage young people about education.
The opportunities for student voice are limitless because student voice itself is limitless. Are we ready to stop praising student voice, and to start engaging student voice in genuine and authentic ways instead?
Engaging students in roles normally reserved for educators, new opportunities for learning, analysis, and critical thinking emerge. Talking with students about the action they take is an important way to support their ability to make sense of what happens to them.
Putting language to experiences is a process we fine-tune over our lifetime, and through reflection we help students develop the skills they need to be successful educators.
How To Reflect
Reflection is an intentional process, and following are some important tips for reflection with students:
- Reflection is storytelling. Students are familiar with storytelling – the videogames they play, the books they read, and the times they spend with their friends are all filled with stories. Encouraging them to tell their stories of what happened engages them by helping them make meaning and place value on their experiences.
- Help students find the words they need. Reflection is best done as a shared activity that creates safe space and opportunities. Remember to appreciate their contributions and elaborate on them from your own memory.
- Ask specific questions. Help students talk and reinforce them by encouraging them to be specific and speak their truth. Rather than asking, “What did you do after school,” you might ask, “What did you find out on Internet?” Talk together about what students found most interesting.
- Talk with students during events to help with learning and recall. In addition to pointing ou specific details, educators can help students link what they have done with earlier experiences and knowledge. “This makes me think of that day when…”
- Follow the lead of students. Sometimes students cannot divide their attention between doing and reflecting. Be aware of the needs of students and wait for the right moment.
- Documentation can make reflection easier. Whether it is pictures of students relaxing or art students draw, a physical record helps facilitate meaningful discussion.
- Reflect early and often. Talk about what happened while the experience is still fresh, but revisit it later. The trip home is a good time to discuss what students learned at the city council meeting – and later you can write a story about it or review the pictures you took. Reflecting on your own reflections can lead to deeper understandings.
Meaningful student involvement cannot happen in a vacuum. Educators and students should take responsibility for learning through Student Voice by engaging students in conscious critical reflection by examining what was successful and what failed. Students and adults can also work together to identify how to sustain and expand the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement by effectively returning to the first step.
Other Steps of the Cycle
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Voice or Involvement?
However, a lot of my writing, research, and training has focused on listening to student voice that didn’t fit that description. It doesn’t fit because it’s sustained, authentic, learning-connected, and much more. By this definition alone, it is not student voice.
All this shows how students need new roles throughout the education system. Instead of being passive recipients of adult-driven education systems, Meaningful Student Involvement needs to be infused throughout our schools. This can happen in a lot of ways, and here are a few.
34 Ways to Meaningfully Involve Students
- Connect student voice with learning. Make sure that all student voice activities have genuine objectives that are tied to classroom learning. Guide activities as experiential learning, and ensure students learn about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what they learn from it.
- Go to where students are, and stop insisting they come to where you’re at. This means engaging students as partners in hallways, courtyards, through social media, and other places students are already talking about changing schools.
- Teach students about education in the broadest ways, including culture, geography, economics, history, and more.
- Help students understand different ways of seeing education issues.
- Train adults in schools about the difference between Students as Recipients and Students as Partners, and why that’s an important distinction.
- Help students understand democracy and education, including what they is, how they are interdependent on each other, who is involved, where they fail and when they succeed.
- Develop opportunities for students to share their unfettered concerns about their education with adults.
- Create formal positions for students to occupy throughout their schools and the entirety of the education system.
- Create classes with students as full partners in identifying, planning, facilitating, evaluating, and critiquing throughout.
- Co-design realistic, practical school engagement plans with every student in your school.
- Assign all students a student mutual mentor to introduce them to the culture and traditions of your school.
- Help students plan, advocate, and enact yearlong program calendars for schools.
- Engage students in designing and redesigning classes that serve them and their peers.
- Encourage nontraditional student leaders to co-facilitate regular programs with adults.
- Allow students to become active, full partners in school budgeting.
- Give students positions to become regular classroom assistants and facilitators.
- Partner together students to form facilitation teams that lead classes.
- Acknowledge students teaching younger students in lower age groups with credit and other acknowledgment.
- Co-create professional development with students for adults about issues that matter to them.
- Assign students to create meaningful classroom evaluations of themselves.
- Partner with students to create evaluations of classes, curriculum, facilitation styles, school climate, and educational leadership.
- Train students how to evaluate educators.
- Create opportunities for students to lead school committees, meetings, and more.
- Create positions for students to participate in district boards, school committees, and other education system-wide activities.
- Give students on district boards full-voting positions and equal numbers of positions with adults.
- Create enough positions for students to be equally represented in every school committee and meeting.
- Facilitate all education activities in ways that are engaging for all participants, including students.
- Help students create and enforce policies throughout the school.
- Partner with students in school personnel decisions.
- Work with students to organize public campaigns for school improvement.
- Create opportunities for students to join all existing school committees as equal members.
- Present school data and information so students understand why and how education can and should change.
- Position students to educate adults throughout the school community, including parents, leaders, policymakers and others, about challenges that matter to them.
- Encourage students with formal and informal opportunities to present their concerns.
The most effective practices are those that move beyond student voice and become Meaningful Student Involvement. No longer satisfied with tokenizing students, the roles of students are transforming roles throughout education. Schools are engaging students as partners in school change, implementing what I’ve coined as Meaningful Student Involvement over the last decade. In this capacity, students are becoming researchers, teachers, evaluators, researchers, decision-makers, and advocates throughout the education system.
The very best thing about all this? Its all backed up by research and practice from across the United States and around the world! For more than a decade I’ve been finding examples, collecting tools, and sharing best practices and findings from researchers, teachers, and students. I share it all free here on my blog and on the SoundOut website, free.
Check those out, and see my website for info about me!
Moving from rhetoric to reality, taking action is a substantive way to demonstrate the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement.
When Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” he was not speaking in a passive sense. Instead, he was calling anyone who is committed to making the world a better place to take direct action immediately.
The Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement embodies that idea by creating an active process that educators can use with students, or that student leaders can use with each other.
Moving Forward Meaningfully
Strengthened by the validation from educators they trust and empowered by the authorization of learning and positioning, students can move forward to take action and make change happen. As change agents, students can affect many different outcomes.
- People. Students can affect their friends, their families, their larger communities, and people around the world.
- Processes. They can transform the processes they are part of, including Systems of Care, education, social services, and juvenile justice.
- Places. Students can have positive impact on the places they occupy, such as their homes, schools, places of worship, and government agencies.
This action can happen through methods such as service learning, which connects meaningful school improvement activities to meaningful learning, and place-based education, where students apply powerful lessons about the places they live to real-world scenarios going around them at present.
Participatory action research, or PAR, puts students in the position to move from being the objects of research to being the researchers. In PAR, students identify the background learning they need to know about a topic; conduct activities to help refine their topic; develop research and evaluation; assess their findings; identifying solutions to the challenges they have identified; and conduct projects to overcome those challenges.
Forms of Meaningful Involvement
Action can take many different forms, including engaging students in leadership and governance in formal school improvement activities, as well as learning, teaching, and leadership activities throughout schools and the entirety of the educational system.
Ultimately, when educators promote Meaningful Student Involvement through action, they must be prepared to support students experiencing increasing and appropriate amounts of self-determination throughout their communities.
Action must focus on real world issues such as organizational funding, program design, or issues outside of Systems of Care such as overcoming the stigmatization of those receiving mental health care services. Effective, culturally relevant organizational structures that support this action will have rich environments for students and school improvement.
When asked what makes them feel engaged, students often report that they want action. Educators often say that Meaningful Student Involvement happens when they listen to students. Working around the Cycle can lead everyone involved to success, demonstrating the effectiveness of following this pathway.
The part of the process that supports the connection between action and listening is reflection.
Other Steps of the Cycle
- Listening to Student Voice
- Validating Students
- Authorizing Students
- Reflecting with Students
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Looking at the core of the word authorizing, the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement insists that educators provide students with the opportunity to author their own stories. This means being able to speak the truth, create our own myths, and learn the lessons life shares.
Educators often take for granted our ability to do these things however, whenever we want to. Students do not have the same privileges. Instead, students are routinely subjected to educator expectations for their learning, including what they learn, how they learn, where they learn, and when they learn.
Meaningful Student Involvement requires that we relinquish some of that power by actively finding out from students what they think they should learn, how they should learn, and so forth.
Educators also control where and how student voice is listened to. When a young person looks upset, stands up, shouts, and storms out of a meeting, the automatic reaction of educators is often to seek to punish the student for this behavior. However, that does not acknowledge that this behavior may have been a valid response for that particular young person. The thing said or done immediately done before their reaction may have been very threatening or harmful. Authorizing students means giving them the room to say what they will, how they will, where they will – whether or not it is convenient to educators can be completely irrelevant.
How To Tell Your Story
There are many ways educators can authorize students. Here are two.
- Positioning students to be able to share their ideas, actions, perspectives, knowledge, and abilities. This could be as low-key as creating ground rules that acknowledge the needs of students, such as getting up to stretch their legs when they need to or calling for a “fun break” when they need one. It could be as grandiose as designating half the positions on a nonprofit board of directors as full-voting student members. Both of these authorize students in different ways with the same outcome of fostering Meaningful Student Involvement.
- Learning about the things that matter to students is a powerful form of authorization. While it is true that you cannot make anybody learn anything they do not want to, once educators cross the hurdle of interest they have the obligation to enable students to learn uninhibitedly about the topics that matter to them. This can happen through skill training, knowledge-building activities, or by simply providing access to the tools they need to teach themselves, such as a computer connected to the Internet.
Challenges to Student Authority
Challenges to authorizing students abound. One persistent barrier may be funding: supporting students as they attend meetings can include transportation costs, feeding them lunch or dinner, and staff time to ensure preparedness and follow-through.
However, a wonderful aspect of the Cycle is that it is not contingent on money; instead, educators can vary their actions according to resource availability. If an organization is not committed enough to identify and obligate funds to support student committee members, educators who want to engage students can adjust their response to a no-cost alternative, such as developing an online blog where students can share their opinions about committee decision-making.
Other barriers to authorizing students exist, and should be appropriate acknowledged. They can be approached much the same way though, with the knowledge that adjustments at this point will be revisited at other points in the future as the Cycle keeps turning.
The process of authorizing students can seem very empowering. Without the next part of the Cycle though, much of the progress made so far can be minimized, or even irrelevant in their lives and in the world around them.
Other Steps of the Cycle
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It is as if students occupy a dichotomy in society where their voices are either completely worshipped or totally dismissed, and worse still, sometimes fully repressed. Media frequently place student voice on a pedestal, highlighting the “outrageous” things kids say or making the opinions and ideas of students into the flavor of the day in advertisements. At the same time, media regularly demonize students, labeling students as “super predators” who are apathetic about society, incapable of complex mental functions, and perpetually failing in school and throughout society.
Really Valuing Students
Truly validating what students have shared with educators requires that educators get past their preconceived ideas of what should happen and respond as authentically and genuinely as appropriate, and as possible. Validation alone can provide very rich rewards for students who say they do not feel acknowledged by educators. It provides a fertile ground for educators to show students that they see them, they matter, and that student voice affects them.
In a variety of institutions throughout our society educators rarely want to know what students think, feel, act, and understand. When it does happen, well-meaning educators often seem stuck in their assumed role of sage advice-givers and secret knowledge-holders. In addition to those behaviors, other educators automatically assume that validating students means just saying yes to them all the time. This type of permissiveness is disingenuous at best, as it can actively disable the ability of students to respond to adversity and challenge, and incapacitate their natural survival mechanisms that promote resilience and adaptation.
More Than Yes Or No
This means validating is more than just saying, “Yes.” Sometimes it means saying, “No.” Sometimes it means asking inquiring questions. One way to get to the core of any statement is to ask 5 Why’s. It could look like this:
“I want to eat a slice of bread.”
“Why are you hungry?”
“Because I skipped breakfast this morning.”
“I got in a fight with my little sister.”
“I spilled her bowl of cereal on her by accident. She was wearing her new outfit, and I was in a hurry to get food from the kitchen, so I rushed by her in there and bumped her by accident. I was running late for a meeting at school where there’s a boy I really want to talk to…”
…And so on. The 5 Why’s can provide a useful “drilling” technique in situations where you really want to know what students are thinking. There are other techniques, too. However, blasé or indifferent attitudes defeat student voice. Students frequently intuitively sense when educators do not authentically care about their perspectives. The idiom, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to,” applies here.
Listening to students and validating what they have said is just the start to the Cycle. The next step is authorizing.
Steps of the Cycle
Read on to learn more, or visit SoundOut.
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Listening to students is something that anyone who has regular contact with students thinks they do every day. Asking students when the last time was they actually felt heard can reveal some different opinions though.
Listening is the first step in the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement. Separately Students and Adults This happens for many reasons, not the least of which being that we routinely separate students from each other, and we keep students away from adults in their communities. Classrooms, student programs, and extracurricular activities all demonstrate how this type of separation occurs.
Keeping different age groups in different areas throughout different times of the day effectively implants and reinforces the inability of adults to empathize with students, and causes students to stay away from one another. In turn, people throughout education and across society can lose the ability to serve as appropriate role models, engaged educators, and purposeful co-creators of the situations and solutions we operate in all of the time.
Really Listening to Students
The first step to alleviating this painful reality is listening. When educators listen to students they demonstrate their commitment to the children they serve. When students listen to educators they show the power of personal connection by defeating the negative stereotype about their inability to relate to people who are older than them.
Listening is not just for one type of students, either: While streams often seek out the path of least resistance when running downhill, educators to students do not have to do the same convenience. This is the matter of seeking “convenient student voice” versus “inconvenient student voice”. Convenient student voice happens when educators seek students who say what we want them to, how, when, and where, and why we want them to.
Unfortunately, this does not usually turn out well students who have been historically disengaged throughout society. These students frequently share inconvenient student voice, whether through actions such as fighting, graffiti, or engaging in other negative behaviors; or through resistance in which they refuse to engage in activities designed to engage them.
Ways to Listen to Students
Challenge this negativity through deliberate activities designed to listen to students:
- Personal conversations, such as one-on-ones, email exchanges, phone calls, texting, personal counseling sessions, and instant messaging.
- Small groups, including group meetings, Google groups, student panels, classrooms, and small training sessions.
- Large groups, like social networking websites, conferences, student forums, and large training events.
Challenges to Listening to Students
It is easy to see how manipulation, tokenism, and alienation can defeat these avenues for listening to students. Some of the other challenges to listening to students include:
- The belief that “Kids are better seen and not heard.”
- The presumption that students are already listened to enough.
- Filtering, in which educators reword what students say to “make it make sense” to other educators
- The practice of picking on the voices that we want to hear, rather than those we do not.
In order to engage students these challenges have to be addressed. There are several ways to overcome them. However, the most important thing that educators can do is continue on the Cycle. The next step is validating.