An Imperative for Youth Empowerment

What is the missing element in almost all youth empowerment work today? It is an awareness of discrimination against young people.

We don’t like to hear it, but EVERY adult discriminates. While an increasing amount of people are concerned about racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia, that’s not what I’m talking about here. Today, I want you to understand that every day adults discriminate against young people – including YOU and ME.

Discrimination has many definitions, and one of them is the capability to discern difference between two or more things. It is in this way that adults constantly discriminate against young people. That’s not necessarily wrong or bad, but it is true. Adults who don’t discern the difference between them and young people generally have developmental restraints that limit their ability to discriminate. Again, discriminating against young people and being in favor of adults isn’t always bad; it simply IS. Accepting that reality is the first step to creating a more just and equitable society benefiting all people.

When adults don’t have the ability to discern the difference between young people and themselves, or when they either accidentally or intentionally blur or erase those differences, something is out-of-whack with them. Similarly, when the differences are hyper-exaggerated something is out-of-whack, too. Unfortunately, those two things are routine in our society today. 

Recognizing that reality is imperative for creating authentic youth empowerment. Otherwise, adults are simply giving lip service to young people and saying they’re equal, but acting in other ways. They are being disingenuous and inauthentic by going through the motions without any real meaning behind what they’re doing.

If you choose to see yourself or other adults as being devoid of discriminating against young people though your behavior, attitude, actions, and/or ideas, that is up to you. I choose to acknowledge that I’m discriminate against young people. Sometimes that that is a-okay, and sometimes its messed up. That’s me being honest, and this blog is meant I urge you to do the same.

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

The Purpose of Learning

Revolution is not ‘showing’ life to people, but making them live. A revolutionary organization must always remember that its objective is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation. – Guy Debord

I believe that ultimately, all learning should gather towards revealing who we are as individual people within the collective whole of humanity. Anything in life can be facilitated towards that learning by skilled teachers, and with time we can learn to facilitate that learning within ourselves. Understanding education within that space, life can be understood only as learning, no matter what the opportunities or oppression we face.

This leaves everything else as a discussion about process, and as the best teachers always seem to know, the journey is the destination. So whether the conversation is about standards, methodologies, assessments, or transitions throughout schooling, all of that’s about journeys and traveling.

In this light, discussions about meaningfulness are largely irrelevant. The meaning of an experience is a subjective thing. Because of that, it is arbitrary to talk about what is meaningful for learners or in schools. In a similar way, acceptability is arbitrary, too. That’s a dangerous thing to say, and I’m by no means accepting corporal punishment or drill-and-kill testing. But there are some students who would say that getting spanked and excessively tested are the best ways for them to learn. Because of that, the development of a personal sense of meaningfulness cannot be legislated or mandated in schools, if only because of its arbitrary nature.

What should be done instead is a re-envisioning of what the relationship is between teaching and learning, learning and life. What should be done is a thorough examination of our social norms and cultural outcomes. What should be done is to radically, wholly transform our entire educative process towards becoming a preparation for life as humans, rather than preparation for life as robots, products, or operators.

I want all learners everywhere to gain their humanity, win their lives, and hold themselves in right understanding in the world. That’s what schools should be for.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

The Meaninglessness of Tabula Rasa

Within the boundaries of the education system people share a thousand purposes for its existence. Some insist on the purpose of schools being to create better citizens, while others think its more productive workers. Others want to promote values and culture, while some want to build a secure future. Some people mix it all together, insisting school does all of that and more.

Within that messy blur, there’s a lot that goes missing. Unfortunately for students, most of them are missing an understanding of the purpose of their education. They are literally schooled within a vacuum, being taught as if they’re blank slates without their own conceptions for learning, teaching, and leadership today. The reality is that adults who believe that are completely misinformed. Those who work in schools and force students to attend schools who actually believe otherwise but practice this way are totally disingenuous.

The Blank Slate
These same teachers, principals, school support staff, and parents who believe that students are merely tabula rasa generally miss the point of education altogether. They are the ones who aspire to have and keep the things that are prescribed in life. Their roles in life don’t hold meaning for them beyond a paycheck or position, and a place to spend their time during the day. When they do get home, time they could spend with their loved ones is spent in recovery from standardized abuse, or at least numbing the boredom of life. These people anesthetize the pain inherent in their lives with television and alcohol, video games and sex, the Internet and food. They live controlled lives. Their cycles of living without purposefulness makes them question the meaning of life, let alone the meaningfulness of schools.

For a decade, I’ve been urging schools to consider the meaninglessness of being a student in schools today. Forced to sit in rows, learn facts through rote memorization, exhibit their mastery through standardized tests, and behave according to adult standards under threat of expulsion or imprisonment, schools are routinely harangued for what they inadvertently teach learners. Compliance, obedience, and authoritarian submissiveness are often cited as silent assassins of creativity in young people today.

This treatment as blank slates makes students yearn to identify the meaning and purpose in their lives.

Realities Students Face
Leaving seven to nine hours in school settings every day in order to return home where their parents are beginning daily recuperation from their workaday lives, young people face the prospect that after thirteen years of their daily conditioning they get to face the same realities their parents do, day in and out. However, devoid adult role models who live in fully meaningful, purposeful ways, children and youth are left to the devices of popular culture, mainstream media, and socio-economic norms in order to find their way in the world.

This forms a vacuum in society, a void where young people and adults lose their bearing on what matters to them, what matters to their families, and what matters to the world community as a whole. Entire generations have been raised without the prospect that there is a better life for everyone beyond the shallow materialism and hollow sentimentalism propagated by television shows, pop music, and junk magazines. Brought up to love conformity and honor authority, entire social classes reject the notion of transformative living or revolutionary thought.

Restlessness & Urgency
The value of meaningfulness is that it harbors within it an inherent hope, a prospect that all things can be better in all ways. Finding meaning means naming purpose, finding belonging, or identifying pathways for living in any of its myriad forms. Meaningfulness is, by its nature, a restlessness and a particular urgency that insists that life isn’t merely what is right in front of us, but something more, something deeper—or more so, that life is what it is, and that there is meaning in that, too. That’s the awesome thing about meaningfulness: it’s entirely up to each and every individual to determine what the meaning is.

Schools should aspire to nothing less than helping students discern the meaning of learning for themselves. This lives up to American author Ralph Ellison’s assertion that, “Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.” We can easily echo that sentiment and insist that learning is to be lived, not controlled; and education is won be continuing to play in the face of certain defeat.

And that’s the value of meaningfulness—the calling, the insistence, and the uplifting reality that everything means something. This stands directly opposed to the drab prospect that nothing means anything, and is the reason why I think we should teach meaningfulness today.

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

Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools

This is me facilitating a parent workshop in Yakima, Washington, in 2011.
When parent engagement is supported, students can truly succeed throughout education. Parents must be empowered to be fully partners with educators and students if education is going to meet the needs of the modern era. These Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools offer those guidelines.
5 Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools

1. Seek authentic engagement. 

  • Keep it real: Open the door for real parent engagement right now.
  • Learning to listen, validate, authorize, mobilize, and reflect on schools is important for parent engagement.
  • Seek nothing less than full parent-student-teacher partnerships for every learner in school.
  • Expecting action action means not letting any member of the school community be apathetic.

2. Foster mutual respect. 
  • Respect is mutual: You give it, you receive it. 
  • A culture of respect shatters stereotypes based on roles in schools. 
  • Parents respect educators who listen and engage in challenging action. 
  • A culture of respect provides all people the opportunity to act on their best intention for students and learn from their mistakes.
3. Provide constant communication.
  • Listen up: An honest and open exchange of ideas is crucial. 
  • Parents are best heard when educators step back and parents speak up. 
  • Educators are best heard when they are straight up and explain where they’re coming from. 
  • All people’s ideas and opinions are valuable and must be heard.
4. Build investment.
  • It takes time: Investing in the future is accepting that parents can be more engaged right now
  • Parents and educators must first set their fears aside and take a chance on each other. 
  • Educators must provide parents with the information, education and support they will need to succeed. They must also develop their own ability to engage parents. 
  • Strong parent/school partnerships require patience and courage.
5. Promote meaningful involvement
  • Count us in: Decisions about students should be made with parents and students. 
  • Educators need to support parents in taking on responsibility based on what they can do, not what they have done. 
  • Reflection helps everyone appreciate the importance of schools – for themselves, for students, for their communities. 
  • Parents and educators must hold each other accountable for all their decisions and actions. Everyone should continually challenge the impact of schools on students.
Where These Rules Came From

For all these years that I’ve had the privilege of advocating student engagement in schools, I’ve had a more important job that I’ve wrestled through too. Well, at least for the last ten years. The most important thing I’ve ever done with any of my time is be a dad, and that my most important job.

An vital part of being an active dad has been my daughter Hannah’s education. Being raised by two people who are passionate about learning, teaching, and leadership in schools, Hannah has had very strong advocates for her education since she entered preschool, and before. Her mother and I have constantly worked at keeping Hannah in learning situations that are not only safe, healthy, and whole, but vibrant and relevant to her specific learning style. This has meant a lot of personal wrangling and negotiation, but always with Hannah at the center.
For all these years I’ve been concerned with the reality that for as deeply vested in our daughter’s education as we are, the schools Hannah has attended have mostly been less-than fully capable of engaging us as parents. In the past, we have been pointed about not revealing our professional stakes as Hannah’s parents. That said, there are many missteps that I’ve experienced from Hannah’s teachers, school leaders, and other parents attempting to promote parent engagement.
That’s where these rules of parent engagement in schools were born – my work as a guerrilla researcher in human engagement, as well as my experience as a parent. Thanks for reading them, and let me know what you think!
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Well-Meaning Adults Are Undermining Young People

Things dropped by well-meaning adults still do what?!?

There are several ways that adults undermine young people. I have grouped them into three main categories: well-meaning adults, indifferent adults, and hostile adults.

This post is exploring the first category, well-meaning adults. They are determined to “help kids”, and can often be identified as progressive teachers, social workers, counselors, and parents. 
Assuming young people need as much freedom as possible, they aspire to always think “the best” of youth and want to be their “friends”. However, this is a disingenuous understanding because it ignores or denies the realities of present-day society. Any right-thinking adult would never give a completely inexperienced person the keys to a car and expect them to teach themselves how to drive.This is seen as a dangerous and irresponsible gesture that can lead to death. 
Well-meaning adults routinely presume the abilities of all young people are on par with all adults. No matter what age a person is, without experience, exposure, and education, all people do not have the same abilities nor capacities. These people inadvertently deny young people their personal needs, wants, and desires by over-estimating them.
The problem inherent in their position is that well-meaning adults undermine their own best intentions and denying their ability to truly help children and youth. Through an honest, engaged, and deliberate awareness of their preconceptions, these adults can be among the greatest assets in the lives of young people. However, without increased awareness of their conditioning and behavior, they are doing as much good as adults who are anti-youth.
Read More from Other Writers
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Demonstrating Cascading Leadership Among Students

The model I created about “Cascading Leadership” is my “process-ization” of a naturally occurring phenomenon! So there’s a lot to draw from in order to illustrate it. Working with a group of students last year in Seattle, I saw this “cascading leadership” flow quickly.

Focused on stopping youth violence among youth in their high school, this particular group was led by a pair of 18-year-old students who were set to graduate. Other students in the group were from throughout their high school (secondary school), with the youngest ones being 13 or 14. There were 15 students in the meeting when I was there.

One of the oldest students facilitated almost the entirety of the group’s 40 minute session. The other took notes and questions, and seemed to have the “behind-the-scenes” authority. In 40 minutes, the students did a short training on strategic summer communication to their peers, voting for the next year’s leaders, finishing plans for the end-of-year celebration, and reflecting on this year’s challenges and successes.

However, instead of those two student leaders talking the entire time, watching conversation throughout the session was like watching a great juggler handling a dozen balls in the air. One student volunteered to take notes while another showed them how; everyone engaged in brainstorming when a different student stepped forward to lead the key question period for that section; while students took student-driven reflection to a whole other space through its depth and brevity!

This was actually these students’ interpretation and actualization of the Cascading Leadership model! I’d trained them on it early in the school year. A few of the students humored me afterwards by going through this article with me and showing me how they did it:
  • Student 1 gives direct instruction, mentoring, and critique to Student 2: In this group, that meant training and facilitation by the senior students throughout the school year;
  • Student 2 provides instruction to Student 3: Roles in this group were designated according to interest, versus the age of the students, so younger students actually facilitated the reflection questions for the whole group;
  • Student 3 learned from Student 2 and led reflection for Students 4 and 5: When less-capable students were stumped, students with a bit more experience or knowledge were empowered to assist them in activities;
  • Student 5 was acknowledged for their role: All students were involved throughout the group’s activities, both within the 40 minute meeting and throughout the group’s operations in the rest of the school year.

As I propose in the model, this type of deliberate engagement among students in fostering student involvement not only increases student engagement, but ensures succeeding generations of students stay invested and maintains ownership over group activities.
I have taught classroom teachers, community youth workers, and government officials this model as well. It basically takes peer tutoring to the Nth degree, with students fully empowered to engage their peers by acknowledging their capacity for self-leadership by ensuring they have the skills, authority, and ability to drive their own learning and activities.
Cascading Leadership can help schools take student leadership to its fullest potential.

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

Core Beliefs Behind SoundOut

Founded more than a decade ago, the core beliefs behind my work with SoundOut are not unique. Rather, they were identified through workshops with 100s of students and teachers, and by conducting research into the history of education. They may be best summarized by researcher Alison Cook-Sather of Byrn-Mawr College in Pennsylvania, who wrote that,

“Because of who they are, what they know, and how they are positioned, students must be recognized as having knowledge essential to the development of sound educational policies and practices.” (2002)

When I work in schools, here is what I stand for: 

Belief #1: All students in all schools should learn how to make education meaningful. Many students express feeling subjected to education without understanding how they benefit from it. At the same time, many adults express frustration from the lack of student investment in learning. The connections between obtuse learning goals and static teaching methods often serve to further those negative perspectives, only pushing students further from success and teachers closer to abandonment. SoundOut programs and activities engage students as “meaning makers” within their own school, and throughout education.

Belief #2: Students need opportunities to apply learning in meaningful ways. Self-designed, place-based service learning encourages students to find purpose in broad lessons by contextualizing education. SoundOut’s projects embrace these approaches by infusing student learning with practical, applicable opportunities to change schools. Students see the affect of their learning as well as their action, additionally encouraging the same among their peers.

Belief #3: There is a need for equity between student autonomy and adult guidance. The divide between students and adults in society does not need to be replicated in schools, as evidenced in the most successful student-centered teaching methods. SoundOut positions students in equitable relationships with adults, as co-learners and colleagues, effectively allowing partnerships that can transform schools and the educative process itself.

These are some of my beliefs about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement. What do YOU stand for?

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

Student Voice Emerges In…

Student voice, which I define as any expression of any student about any aspect of education and learning, has many different expressions. As the movement to promote student voice advances toward the mainstream education conversation in the United States and worldwide, there are many different streams emerging in practice.

Almost a decade ago, I saw the emerge of these streams come out of the research database supporting student voice. This research showed that
many different areas of education were initially concerned with student voice, some stemming back to the 1970s and before. These studies examine student voice from many perspectives.

There’s a place where all this student voice comes together in a cohesive vision for schools, and that is what I call Meaningful Student Involvement, or MSI. MSI is a model for school improvement that strengthens the commitment of students to education, community and democracy. It re-envisions the roles of students in equitable partnerships with adults throughout the learning environment. It promotes student engagement by securing roles for students in every facet of the educational system and recognizes the unique knowledge, experience and perspective of each individual student. Meaningful Student Involvement acknowledges that student voice emerges in many facets of education

Student Voice Emerges In…

  • Classroom pedagogy—This is the crux of teaching, learning, and assessment in all schools. Teachers study, practice, and critically examine pedagogy, often identifying places where student voice can strengthen their practice.
  • School climate and culture—The environment for teaching and learning is determined by the climate and culture of the school. Student voice drives relationships between students, teacher and staff behavior, and the interactions between students and teachers.
  • Extracurricular activities—Student government, clubs, sports, and any other activity not directed by classroom pedagogy happens in extracurricular activities. The efficacy of out-of-classroom learning is determined by student voice.
  • Education leadership—Building principals, local and state boards of education, education agency staff, and federal politicians fall into this category. Student voice can better inform, consult, negotiate, and drive these decisions towards effectiveness.
  • Formal school improvement—Every K-12 public school in the United States is compelled by federal law to have a formal school improvement plan. Integrating student voice throughout this process can lead educators towards improved outcomes for all learners.
  • Public school reform action—Students around the world are asserting their voices into the national dialogue about education transformation, public school privatization, and other essential conversations by leading student organizing, participating in community-led school reform, and active protest movements.

Student voice is most emergent throughout these areas in six primary roles: Students as education researchers, school planners, classroom teachers, learning evaluation, system decision-makers, and education advocates. What differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from student voice, and perhaps the most important consideration, are the characteristics I identified early in my research.

Do YOU see an intersection between all the different types of student voice? 

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

Meaningful Student Involvement at Work: Monument Mountain Regional High School

“The most important thing about your question is that you actually want to know your answer.” The Independent Project is a school within Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Principal Marianne Young sought to, “Create a school that allows young people to be completely invested and to move every kind of human being through the same gate.”

Watch this video by Charles Tsai to learn more, and share this post with your friends and networks. More people need to learn about this project, based in a public high school and funded by a public school district. Powerful examples of Meaningful Student Involvement need to be shared, and labelled for what they are.

Learn more from our project site focused on student voice at

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

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