Becoming the Problem

For a long time it seemed to me that the problem was aging out: Every youth becomes an adult. At some point after that, adults become voters, workers, and taxpayers. It appeared that in that process most lost touch with their own experiences as children and youth. They develop indifference towards young people today, and even as they become parents, they get more adamant about their righteous discrimination against kids. Those who do take careers as youth workers, teachers, counselors, and in other kid-focused occupations often go even deeper, using their discrimination against children and youth to justify adultism and adultcentrism.

Well, time has afforded me different perspectives, or at least compassion for other adults. Alas, even from that view I can still see that in some ways, all adults are the problem- in much the same way that in some ways, given the right conditions and experiences all domestic animals could transmit rabies to adults.

I have recently been challenged by a few different adults for the perspectives I take on schools and the education system. These types of debates can exhaust me; however, I know they’re essential to keeping me in check, and I appreciate them.

My friends, colleagues, and acquaintances do this because I put myself out there. So I want to put this big fat disclaimer out there: I know that I might be the problem- in much the same way that all adults are.

That’s me simultaneously taking responsibility AND couching my culpability in the blanket of social ills. I need a paycheck, so sometimes I work for dubious issues; I want published, so sometimes I tone down my rhetoric.

However, there are places I won’t back down from. I’ll expand on those in my next post. In the meantime, it’s important to me to state that my own perspectives are informed by my own experiences as a young person and as an adult; as a learner, a student, a teacher, and as a friend to children and youth; and as a father, an uncle, a cousin, a son, and a brother. Every single person has unique experiences, and you don’t know what informs my thinking because of that.

Maybe instead of challenging we can simply accept; maybe instead of negating we can inquire. Let’s go together into the brave new days ahead of us.

— This is Adam Fletcher’s blog originally posted at For more see

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

A New Vision for Students in School Reform

The following is a vision for schools, written in response to the National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform, a project of the American Association of School Administrators and ASCD. After 10 years of working with K-12 schools, districts, state agencies, and national education organizations across the US and Canada focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, I am confident in saying the following vision is absolutely essential for school improvement. Here’s why: 

The essential partner in school reform- students- are not routinely, systemically, or systematically engaged in the process of school reform; more so, their role is continuously relegated to that of “recipient.” Their roles must change in order for ANY school reform to be effective. The change that is required is the fostering of Meaningful Student Involvement

The greatest challenge facing schools today is not the literacy deficit or even the achievement gap, as tragic and real as both those are. The single problem plaguing all students in all schools everywhere is the crisis of disconnection. It is disconnection from learning, from curriculum, from peers, from adults; it is disconnection from relevance, rigor, and relationships; it is disconnection from self and community; it is simple disconnection. While it doesn’t only affect schools, is does plague schools in a special way.

The cure to disconnection is meaningfulness. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. Meaningful Student Involvement can happen in any location throughout education, including the classroom, the counselor’s office, hallways, after school programs, district board of education offices, at the state or federal levels, and in other places that directly affect the students’ experience of education. Real learning and real purpose take form through Meaningful Student Involvement, often showing immediate impacts on the lives of students by actively authorizing each of them to have powerful, purposeful opportunities to impact their own learning and the lives of others.

As we see increased interest in the entwined topics of student engagement and student voice throughout schools, it becomes easy to misunderstand the relationships between these topics and Meaningful Student Involvement. Student voice is any verbal, visual, or other expression learners make regarding education. This can include students sharing their life stories in class, or graffiting on the hallway wall. Student engagement is the outcome of learners’ emotional, social, cultural, psychological, or other bonds towards school; it is a feeling. 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. It can be said, then, that Meaningful Student Involvement strengthens, supports, and sustains student voice in order to foster student engagement for every student in every grade in every school.

Over the last 10 years more than 350 K-12 schools in dozens of districts across the US and Canada have used my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement to reconsider their approaches to learning, teaching, and leadership in schools. Following are six hallmarks of Meaningful Student Involvement that form my new vision for students in school reform.

Hallmark #1: School-wide Approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement. All school reform measures include opportunities for all students in all grades to become engaged in education through system-wide planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy, starting in kindergarten and extending through graduation. This includes a variety of opportunities throughout each students’ individual learning experience as well as those of their peers; within their school building; throughout their districts, and; across their states.

Hallmark #2: High levels of Student Authority through Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system. Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized through deliberate teaching  focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.

Hallmark #3: Interrelated Strategies Integrate Meaningful Student Involvement. Students are incorporated into ongoing, sustainable school reform activities through deliberate opportunities for learning, teaching, and leadership throughout the educational system. In individual classrooms this can mean integrating student voice into classroom management practices; giving students opportunities to design, facilitate, and evaluate curriculum; or facilitating student learning about school systems. In the Principal’s office it can mean students’ having equitable opportunities to participate with adults in formal school improvement activities. On the state school board of education it can mean students having full voting rights, and equal representation to adults. Whatever the opportunities are, ultimately it means they are all tied together with the intention of improving schools for all learners all the time.

Hallmark #4: Sustainable Structures of Support for Implementing Meaningful Student Involvement. Policies and procedures are created and amended to promote Meaningful Student Involvement throughout schools. This includes creating specific funding opportunities that support student voice and student engagement; facilitating ongoing professional development for educators focused on Meaningful Student Involvement; and integrating this new vision for students into classroom practice, building procedures, district/state/federal policy, and ultimately engendering new cultures throughout education that constantly focus on students by constantly having students on board.

Hallmark #5: Personal Commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement. Students and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit, visible in learning, relationships, practices, policies, school culture, and many other ways. Meaningful Student Involvement is not just about students themselves; rather, it insists that from the time of their pre-service education, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, counselors, and others see students as substantive, powerful, and significant partners in all the different machinations of schools. When they have this commitment every person will actively seek nothing other than to fully integrate students at every turn.

Hallmark #6: Strong Learning Connections Within Meaningful Student Involvement. Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by classroom learning and credit, ensuring relevancy for educators and significance to students. This deliberate connection ties together the roles for students with the purpose of education, thoroughly substantiating student/adult partnerships and signifying the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as learners themselves evolve.

This new vision for students provides all people in schools, young and adult, with opportunities to collaborate in exciting new ways while securing powerful new outcomes for everyone involved, most importantly students themselves. The impacts Meaningful Student Involvement has are only beginning to be shown; with time, expanded practice, and investment, I am convinced that this vision will fully demonstrate not only the efficacy of the practice, but ultimately, of education, community, and democracy itself. There can be no lesser goal for any school, nor should their be.

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

Connecting Youth Rights and Youth Involvement

There is a moral imperative inherent in youth rights and youth involvement. Rather than seeing the situation as a purely charitable consideration, or a civic responsibility, I believe it is a soul-wrenching mistake to deny young people the full rights of citizenship, effectively making them second class citizenry. That’s because denying anyone is wrong.

It is from this place that I want to propose an economic strategy to bring awareness and conscientiousness to the related, but not identical, movements for youth rights and youth involvement. The youth rights movement is primarily concerned with securing more civil rights for youth – the rights to voting, better education, etc. The youth involvement movement focuses on the same, but more along the lines of systemic integration that focuses on more youth councils, more youth forums, youth research, youth teachers, etc. The commonality between these two movements is that they both focus on participatory rights for young people, rather than the right to protection, which is what many old-line children’s rights organizations focus on.

Because of this commonality of these efforts I propose that the connection between these two movements be made more explicit and drawn more acutely. This would mean identifying the key principles that connect the two arenas connection, and drawing out the opportunities for collaboration and communication.

Later I will post a draft set of principles I am proposing in order to begin this dialog. I’d love to know what you think!

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

How Should We Engage Kids of Privilege?

The Internet, television, the mall… there are so many forces that apparently distract young people in America today. How do we go about engaging young people with access, authority and what seems to be power in creating positive, powerful social change?

As I wrote about yesterday all youth need to be actively engaged in this work of positively changing society, no matter what socio-economic stratus they come from. Engulfed by the rigamarole of popular society, many young people appear to be without a care for the world. They seem disconnected and unenthusiastic about the prospect of changing the world; rather, they’re concentrated on the immediate and the selfish. This is not intended to be an indictment of a generation or social class; rather, I base these observations on what many of the 1000s of adults I’ve worked with over the years focused on the topic of re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society.

Before we address a problem we must name it. I believe that children and youth who are surrounded by stuff are faced with a more dire situation than we credit them for: given their inability to see the world beyond their immediate wants, they are effectively suffering a deficiency of interdependence, and are deprived the joy and authentic connectivity of community. It’s as if their neural receptors for empathy were severed young, or smothered as they grew. Maybe the televisions and computers and gameboys and new clothes and pantry constantly full of food and toys and stuff simply stifles the sense of urgency, connectivity and responsibility all people are inherently born feeling. At the same time, a growing number of these young people go forward with the successes of our culture: They become student council presidents and football captains; they lead service learning projects and vote when they’re 18. Others never connect in these ways, instead becoming young socialites or technology gurus, each of whom may be substituting deep connections with the temporary rush of the newest and latest friend or gadget. 

That said, there is a way to spark the connectivity of social change within the hearts and minds of these young people. In my experience it’s easier with children: closer to their hearts, many harbor a desire to see beyond themselves by connecting with the lives of others around them and the well-being of the planet they live in. Starting at this age, parents can foster awareness and connectivity by actively role modeling what engagement looks like for their kids. 

As young people get older they’re increasingly encouraged to disengage: the hypocrisy of spending 10 years of their schooling learning about the society around them without being allowed to actively engage with the society around them because they’re segregated into age-isolated schools is not lost on youth. More than role-modeling, these youth also need active, deliberate and meaningful opportunities to connect with the world they live in in proactive and positive ways. This means not simply presenting things to do – there are plenty of things for youth to do – but actually using the incentives of whatever institution you’re working in to do it. In schools teach social responsibility to students; in community centers develop youth involvement initiatives. Give classroom credit, provide stipends and public recognition, and do whatever is needed to get youth through the door. But once they’re there, don’t rob yourself and our world the opportunity to allow these young people to make meaning of the world they’re part of.

Young people are conditioned to respond to the world around them, just as we are as adults. Dr. King once said, “I am what I am because of who we all are.” That wasn’t true simply for his positivity and power; it was also true for his flaws and foibles. Young people are who they are because of who we all are. Let’s do something about that.

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

Why Should We Engage Kids of Privilege?

Why should we try to engage young people who have everything they need already? For a lot of the time I was growing up my family struggled to meet it’s basic needs, and although we usually had food, water, shelter and clothes, there were days and weeks where we went without. As I’m growing older and my socio-economic status is changing though, I’m finding myself increasingly surrounded by young people who grow up without want for toys, let alone basic needs. Why do these youth need any of my energy?

In a society that relies on social inequities in order to perpetuate negative economic patterns, there is no apparent end to the oppression faced by the disenfranchised. I am under no illusion that there are grave inequities and there are apparently frivolous injustices; however, in a world with limited time and ability to affect the great numbers with a message of hope and ability, we must start anywhere and go everywhere. With that thinking I believe that the work of enriching the lives of young people of privilege gains value, as long as it’s rooted in building consciousness and ability towards fighting oppression. All young people regardless of socio-economic background need to learn about the oppressive forces they perpetuate and suffer under; whether this focuses on racial, gender, age, economic, sexual orientation or other inequities, everyone needs to learn the realities that face us in this world. In learning the realities that face others and identifying the roots of the situations they find themselves in everyday, young people of privilege can become allies in the struggle against oppression, and grow in their ability to sympathize rather than pity those who are different than them. Dr. King once wrote,

“True altruism is more than the capacity to pit; it is the capacity to sympathize. Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.”

As Dr. King frequently said, and folks like Paulo Freire, bell hooks and others continue to insist, we need a soulful revolution based in love. Building the capacity of all young people to engage in this work should be our mission. The question of how to engage these youth is for a different post; here I’m only trying to answer why we should. Share your thoughts…

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

Seeking Passionate Young Activists!

Forwarded by request:

If you are a high school senior committed to activism and defending civil liberties in your community, then we have an opportunity for you: the ACLU is now accepting applications for the 2010 ACLU Youth Activist Scholarship Program. For those of you who don’t know the ACLU, they are our nation’s guardian of liberty, working daily in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties that the Constitution and laws of the United States guarantee to everyone in this country.

Now more than ever, young people around the country are taking a stand for their rights, as well as the rights of their peers. Despite the adversity they face in their efforts, these passionate young leaders refuse to back down! Every year, the ACLU honors and celebrates these civil libertarians through an opportunity to participate in the Youth Activist Scholarship Program.

In this year’s program, 15 high school seniors will win a $7,000 scholarship towards their first year in college. Scholarship recipients will also attend the “Youth Activist Institute” at the ACLU National office in New York City, where they will hone their activism and leadership skills and learn about civil liberties directly from the ACLU staff. The program is a great opportunity for young leaders to meet other activists from around the country and be recognized for their accomplishments!

Check out the ACLU National website, where you can find more scholarship information and read about last year’s scholarship winners and their remarkable achievements towards civil liberties, tolerance, free speech, and equality.

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

School-Mandated Community Service

Over at the National Youth Rights Association forums there is a conversation bubbling about school-mandated community service. I couldn’t help but enter the fray this morning as the convo drifted from labeling service as socialist to promoting the idea with caveats. The following is adapted from a response I shared there:

In my experience I have found that school-mandated community service is generally intended to help students get out-of-the-classroom learning experiences while contributing something to the greater society they are members of.
I’m afraid that too many schools mandate it without ever really teaching why and how it matters. When I have helped adults in schools think about it these types of projects they usually think they are helping improve the public perception of young people, which could be something youth may appreciate. Think about it: Smashing the popular perceptions of youth being narcissistic, apathetic, and/or indifferent to the problems in the world around them cannot be that difficult when there are young people out in the community actually doing things that make the community a better place to live.
We have all heard about the ways volunteerism has shot up in today’s generation of youth. The last election cycle we celebrated the increased #s of voters among the youth who can vote. And increasingly we’re hearing about students who are actually improving their schools, improving their communities and improving the world we live in. Did these trends happen out of nowhere? Do these behaviors get established by accident? I would suggest, as ugly as it may seem, the school-mandated community service may at least be partly to blame for this reality.
Instead of seeing mandatory community service as an oppressive mechanism of the state designed to thwart and otherwise repress young people, is there a way young people can re-envision their role and challenge their schools to make those experiences substantive and meaningful? I think so. Teach me.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Intro to Youth Rights

Download my FREE ebook, A Short Intro to Youth Rights, today! 

A million years ago somebody wrote something about the “inalienable rights of humans”, meaning that there are just certain things that everyone should be able to experience, do and have in their lives. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was the first international statement to use the term “human rights”, and has been adopted by the Human Rights movement as a charter. It is short, and worth reading in its entirety — a summary would be about as long as the document itself. The European Convention on Human Rights is the first international document that gives individuals the right to take governments to court based on human rights abuses. Human rights in the United States are protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United States judicial system.

Somewhere along the way somebody got the idea that children and youth weren’t protected by these documents; or worse still, they were protected but since those rights are routinely violated there needs to be specific statements that address their rights. A few years ago when I created a Wikipedia article about children’s rights I found that the literature about these rights was all over the place; however, I agree that children’s rights generally boils down to wanting to do three things:
  1. Protect young peoples’ access to particular things like food, clothes, shelter, education, etc. These are usually called provision rights.
  2. Make sure that young people are safe from abuses, including physical, mental, and psychological abuse. These are protection rights.
  3. Give young people the opportunity to make, direct, evaluate and critique decisions that affect them throughout society. These are participation rights.
This is a big, broad definition, and a pretty modern one. Probably at the very beginning of it this conversation was narrowed down to exclude any idea of actually expanding the rights of young people. Zoomed in on protecting the basic human needs of children, this children’s rights movement – seeing all young people as in need of protection from discriminatory and abusive treatment – came to dominate advocacy for young people.
In the 1960s and 70s that came to be seen as not enough. A youth liberation movement emerged around the idea that young people of any age could and should have the full and complete rights of all adults, and not just the limited ideas that were pushed around by well-meaning adults. According to those youth rights activists, children and youth of all ages should be allowed to vote, work, drive, own property, travel, have legal and financial responsibility, control their own learning, and have a guaranteed income. There were even more far-out elements of this platform that called for all young people to be able to use drugs and have sex without restraint. Some of these radical ideas were clearly differentiated from the youth rights movement, although some of the platform continues to influence individuals and organizations today.
In the mid-1990s a youth rights movement emerged on the Internet calling for society to pay attention to several parts of this platform. Today the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA) has emerged as the most influential and effective organization promoting this platform, and their positions on age discrimination, curfews, behavior modification camps, the drinking age, driving age, economics, education, emancipation, entertainment, free speech, status offenses and the voting age have been sought out in a lot of different public and media venues over the last 10 years.
Today the youth rights movement continues with varying agendas and purposes. There are dozens of organizations and programs committed to convictions that young people have the right to free speech, sexual education and safety, foster youth rights, youth involvement, and much, much more. At least one annual conference heralds youth rights exclusively, and more areas than ever are concerned with youth rights than ever before. Activists around the United States are challenging discrimination against youth by holding protests, producing publications, going to court, and creating pro-youth climates in a variety of communities and institutions.
The gulf between the intent and activities of the youth rights movement and the children’s rights movement continues to grow. Traditional children’s rights advocacy organizations continue adult-driven, adult-centric change focused on benefiting children’s basic human rights; youth rights organizations are generally focused on expanding the current civil rights of youth and challenging discrimination against youth. Young people themselves, as well as adults who were youth rights activists, are winning court cases, taking influential jobs, and serving their communities in a variety of ways that continue to promote youth rights agendas, all without the multi-million dollar budgets and high influence of the people involved in the children’s rights movement.
As the youth rights movement reaches into the future, I think it’s important to ask if it is healthier to have a single, unified movement, or a movement coming from many directions asking different things. Is there a new agenda for youth rights in this millennium, or is the agenda set 40 years ago still useful? Do the factors of race, class, culture and education influence youth rights and youth activists? Is there a wider alliance beyond youth that the youth rights movement can find allegiance with? Having answered many of these questions for themselves, I believe many youth rights activists can continue to influence and steer legislative, judicial and cultural change into the future.

Youth Development, Youth Service and Youth Rights

Somewhere out there in the Ether there is an tussle among youth workers. In this battle of wills and ego, its youth development versus youth service versus youth rights. I was historically engaged in this discussion; however, over the last few years I’ve come to seen this non-dialogue as passé and even trite. It now seems almost silly to me to contrast the three; now I have a different vision.

Let’s compare definitions:
  • Youth development is “…the ongoing growth process in which all youth are engaged in attempting to (1) meet their basic personal and social needs to be safe, feel cared for, be valued, be useful, and be spiritually grounded, and (2) to build skills and competencies that allow them to function and contribute in their daily lives.”*
  • “Youth service refers to non-military, intensive engagement of young people in organized activity that contributes to the local, national, or world community. Youth service is widely recognized and valued by society, with minimal or no compensation to the server. Youth service also provides opportunities for youth development, youth voice and reflection.”*
  • “Youth rights usually refers to a philosophical stance that focuses on the civil rights of the young. This is counter to the more traditional perspective held by child rights’ advocates that emphasizes youth entitlements, a viewpoint that usually rests on a paternalistic foundation… [Y]outh rights organizers seek equal rights with adults by having young people play central roles in crafting their own strategies and campaigns to change their status.”*
All that said, I’ve come to see the three of these as part of the same continuum of action. Without youth development, youth rights become the same pedantic conversation that only benefits those young people who already a lot of rights and access and authority and involvement. Without youth service, youth development represents a vertical and didactic relationship between youth and adults that is neither mutually beneficial nor arguably wholly beneficial for young people themselves. Closing that loop, youth service provides a “responsibility mechanism” for advocating more effectively for youth rights. It provides a logical “a+b=c” argument for folks who maintain that with rights comes responsibility, and given today’s generation’s proclivity for service, the conversation should be easy.
The interplay and entrainment of those issues among one another is not a complex analysis; more so, its rather simplistic in the grand scheme of things. However, it does allude to the more intricate nature of my own philosophy today, and why I’ve moved away from the competitive stance assumed among many advocates. Somewhere within these issues and actions, and the myriad others I’ve identified over the last nine years of my study in this field, there is a deep connectivity that transcends and enlaces all different perspectives into one spectacular phenomenon. I have been working for years to crystalize this vision into a thesis, and it is coming.
These ideas and inspirations are pouring forth lately, and I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on any of these ideas. Thanks.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

History Versus the Future?

In today’s body slam match its history versus the future. Weighing in at 5 million pounds comes History, carrying the brunt of civilization on its back, including wars and famine, as well as enlightenment, society and knowledge. In the opposite corner, weighing in at a mere 129 pounds, is The Future, who has broad prospects, possibilities and hope in its support crew.

This morning I’m thinking about the relationship between the historical children’s rights movement with today’s youth rights movement. The two sound like they are from different planets at times:
  • Youth rights vanguard like the National Youth Rights Association call for the need for youth involvement and the expansion of youths’ civil rights to include voting, driving, drinking and other important issues. They rarely approach basic human rights, although collectively there is a growing sophistication that is bringing that into play.
  • Children’s rights titans like the Children’s Defense Fund and Save the Children calling for young people to have their basic needs met, namely food, shelter, water, clothing, education and health. They rarely vere towards youth engagement, although the topic is gaining popularity. 
There has been both agreement and disagreement in the past, and I have shown some of the connections and disconnections before. My friend and ally Alex Koroknay-Palicz and I have frequently talked about the differences. He emphasizes the difference between the inherently paternalistic perspective of the CR advocates and the empowering perspective of YR advocates. While I see that and readily acknowledge it, I don’t think we have to have an either/or perspective about this. At the core of the whole conversation is the remote prospect that yes, they are calling for the same thing – we just need to find the common ground.
There was a time when these two perspectives hadn’t diverged. In the 1970s Beatrice and Ronal Gross wrote a book called The Children’s Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People, and it was a uniting clarion call for folks ranging from John Holt to Marion Wright Edleman. Powerful statement. But that force was lost somewhere in the 80s when As Soon As You’re Born They Make You Feel Small: Self Determination For Children was printed and sold in mass production in cities around the US. This booklet really served as a primer for youth liberation, and threw down the gauntlet between the two movements. NYRA picked it up after that, and has practiced youth-driven, youth-led and youth-motivated action since.
With the weight of history on their backs many young activists today know they’re standing on the shoulders of giants. The future awaits, too, as 5-year-olds today are being raised knowing they have rights to the basic and essential human rights – which include involvement. Let’s get to work helping the two ends meet, because even if we don’t they’re going to. 
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!