Youth Engagement On Purpose

When youth engagement happens, does it happen on purpose, with intention and by design, or is it simply an organic, authentic personal experience that can’t be forced by outside sources?

Youth-serving programs, projects and organizations constantly wrestle with how youth engagement happens. Through my years as a line-level youth worker, evaluator and consultant, I’ve found that the equally important questions to answer are why youth engagement happens and what youth engagement actually is. The purpose of youth programs is as important as how the youth programs happen.

Some organizations talk about topics like education or workforce development or environmental restoration as being their purpose. Others will explain that themes like community building or social justice are their purpose. Neither topics or themes are real purposes though.

Instead, purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists. That’s why Nietzsche wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In our field that can be interpreted as, “Youth who understand why they are engaged can live with however that happens.’

The purpose of youth engagement is to rebalance the disengagement of youth throughout society. Its not that youth aren’t engaged; all youth are engaged everywhere, all the time—even if adults don’t agree why, where, when, how or who they are engaged with. Instead, its that youth often aren’t engaged in the things adults want them to be engaged in, in the places adults want them to be engaged, with the people adults want them to be engaged with, doing the things adults want them to do for the reasons adults want them to be engaged.

As ethical adult allies, educators, parents and others, we have to admit that. Adultism is at the heart of youth engagement activities, programs and organizations, too. For whatever reason, our motivation to stop youth disengagement or youth engagement in risky behaviors or anything other than what adults want, is adultism—bias towards adults.

Having a hard time understanding that? Look at the causes we engage youth in:

  • Anti-smoking and anti-vaping
  • City planning
  • Anti-drug use
  • Teacher evaluation
  • Safe sex and abstinenance
  • Cancer prevention
  • And so on…

None of those causes are inherently bad or wrong. However, all of them are driven by adult agendas. Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activities in those causes is a problem though, because it places the onus on youth for not having been engaged in those causes prior to our activities. Its not the fault of youth that they haven’t been engaged in your cause—its adults’ faults they haven’t been engaged; its adults’ goals to engage them in these causes, and its adults’ outcomes that are going to be measured in these activities.

Using youth engagement as the justification for youth activity, no matter how well-meaning you are, is inherently adultist.

If you want to identify the real purpose for your youth engagement activity, program or organization, look at the intention behind your supposed purpose. Are you seeking to end environmental racism, build cultural ownership, stop institutional sexism, or challenge civic apathy? Are you designing public spaces with youth, building tiny houses for homeless youth, fostering cross-racial connections or sustaining meaningful student involvement in your education system?

Look beyond how you’re doing these things. Look past where they’re happening. Look into when you’re doing activities. Examine who you’re serving, for real. Explore why youth engagement is the goal. The design of your activities, the action plan, your SMART goals and your activity objectives will tell you the truth.

Then, and only then, will you be able to engage youth on purpose.

 

You Might Like…

 

Adam Fletcher in Seattle, Washington

Adam Fletcher Advocating Youth Engagement in Communities

The crisis of disengagement facing youth today is shameful. There are so many issues youth can become active in and so many actions they can take our communities have no reason not to engage every youth and every adult everywhere all the time. But somehow, they don’t. Adam Fletcher works with nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations to build youth engagement throughout communities.

Following are Adam Fletcher’s tools for youth engagement in communities. Contact him.

 

Adam Fletcher’s Tools Supporting Youth Engagement in Communities

Adam Fletcher’s Books

  1. The Practice of Youth Engagement
  2. Facing Adultism
  3. The Freechild Project Guide to Youth-Driven Programs

Adam Fletcher’s Free Publications

  1. Youth Engagement in the Economy
  2. A Short Guide to Holistic Youth Development
  3. The Freechild Project Youth Action Guide
  4. A Short Intro to Youth Rights
  5. Youth Voice Toolkit
  6. Youth Engagement Workshop Guide
  7. Guide to Cooperative Games for Social Change
  8. Washington Youth Voice Handbook
  9. Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People

Adam Fletcher’s Website on Youth Engagement

Adam Fletcher’s Articles

Adam Fletcher’s Services Supporting Youth Engagement in Communities

 


You Might Also Be Interested In…

 

Click here for Adam Fletcher’s resources onAdam Fletcher promotes youth engagement in schools

ECOsystems or EGOsystems of Education?

Systems of Youth Engagement by Adam Fletcher
CLICK HERE to read “Systems of Youth Engagement” by Adam Fletcher

 


To say that schools are changing right now is a gross understatement.

Between technological, social and cultural transformations happening right now across the U.S., there are new trends becoming apparent everywhere, schools included. This paper puts the massive changes happening throughout the education system into context to help readers understand what’s happening, and why its happening.

 

 

Lots have said it, many see it, but few have called it out: for a century, our education system has revolved around ego. As we become an evermore interdependent and transparent society, this is inherently at odds with the future. This article explores the former EGOsystem of education and identifies an emerging ECOsystem taking its place. It also shows what the future might look like.

 


An EGOsystem of Education

When I first started working in education 15 years ago, I discovered quickly that educators in schools are most often the ones who school worked well for. After barely graduating from high school and taking eight years to get my BA, it was glaringly obvious to me that I was surrounded by former star students and others whose learning styles, socio-economic statuses and cultural backgrounds were being perpetuated by the system. This formula generally holds true for politicians who make educational policies as well as social service staff who support student success outside of schools.

These students often go on to work in schools as teachers and administrators; in districts as administrators; and in state education agencies as program directors, assessment officials and curriculum experts. They are successful in their careers, embraced by their institutions, and generally, reveling in the ways things are. If they are aware of how things are going for students who are most often failed by schools, they see these learners from a position of noblesse oblige, looking down on them from on high.

The system that created these workers has engendered particular school cultures that ensured succeeding generations of familiarity. Despite technology and social changes of many sorts, in many schools, learners who time travel from a century ago can find similar patterns of teaching, classroom management and testing. This is because the education system revolves around the ego, which is a person’s sense of self-importance or self-esteem.

 


Four Phases of Transition

Educators have relied on fulfilling their sense of self-importance and building their self-esteem through their work for more than 100 years. Through my studies, I have seen four phases in America’s education system.

The EGOsystem/ECOsystem dynamic as illustrated by Adam Fletcher

 

1) The Control Phase

Initially relying on a high control environments, schools were initially places where teachers controlled students. The Control Phase looked like this:

  • Teachers could literally physically abuse students for not complying with their every intention.
  • Students who innately complied with teachers were awarded with increased amounts of autonomy and access to learning opportunities.
  • Educators sought to wrangle authority from communities and parents by illegitimating self-education and learning from life.
  • Education policymakers make child labor illegal at the same time legal and cultural systems were created to ensure government authority over learning and teaching.
  • The Control phase radically dismantled community-based and home-based learning opportunities, secured the function of a controlled curriculum, and imposed the meaning of grades and scores on students.
  • Voters supported this model enough to enable schools to emerge as a dominant force in society.
  • The Control Phase relied on the EGO of educators, as it enabled teachers to control large groups of students with minimal enforcement.
  • Administrators were able to control massive groups of students with few teachers, and were capable of ensuring teachers success through compliance.
  • The Control Phase served to break down the EGO of students in order to ensure students would learn what educators wanted them to. Academic honor societies were available only to the highest achieving students and student governments were almost nonexistent.
  • This phase displaced young people from their positions in communities, positioning them as dependents of schools for their learning. It attempted to strip students of self-leadership in order to secure the role of adults as leaders in learning and teaching.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools dependent on control. This phase evolved towards the Competition Phase. People who benefited from the Control Phase of American education saw the transition towards the Competitive Phase as logical, predictable and favorable progress.

 

2) The Competition Phase

With time, schools became high command environments that relied less on forcefulness and abrasion and more on leveraging authority for outcomes. During the Command Phase, schools looked like this:

  • Students were compelled to participate in classes because of government orders and nothing further.
  • The Competition Phase sought to essentialize schools by making graduation diplomas requirements for workplaces.
  • Conversely, during this phase post-high school opportunities were minimalized for non-graduates.
  • Voters initially supported this approach because they saw that when more people succeeded at schooling, more people succeeded in their careers; more successful careers led to more successful communities, which led to better schools.
  • In the Competition Phase, pragmatic acceptance reigns as students, educators, administrators, policymakers, politicians, parents and voters become acclimated and accustomed to the EGOsystem that has formed within the education system.
  • As schools became judged for their success according to graduation rates, students EGOs were recognized as helping motivate academic vigilance. This phase saw the widespread prevalence of honor societies and student governments in order to satiate those EGOs.
  • With the decreased emphasis on teacher EGO in the classroom, this phase saw the emergence of powerful teacher unions that ensured the authority of educators.
  • Student connections outside classrooms were ignored or seen as irrelevant to teaching, learning and leadership in schools.
  • This phase positioned students as the subjects of teachers, securing the hierarchal relationship between adults and students in schools.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an EGOsystem in schools reliant on competition. This phase evolved towards the Connection Phase. People who thrived in the Competition Phase were threatened by the transition towards the next phase and saw it as the devolution of schools.

 

3) The Connection Phase

When social change insisted, schools modified their approach to include connection between students, among educators, within the curriculum and throughout the education system. During the Connection Phase, schools looked like this:

  • Rigorous demands imposed on schools coupled with decreased school funding led to increased attempts to ensure community connections with schools.
  • Cross-curricular approaches to teaching and learning were recognized as essential in some areas.
  • Student connections outside classrooms were recognized and mass amounts of homework were assigned to utilize out-of-school time.
  • Students work and family responsibilities outside school time were dismissed.
  • The EGO of students becomes central with honor rolls, honor societies, extracurricular clubs and other student voice and student leadership clubs being perceived as elite or otherwise disconnected from mainstream student populations.
  • The EGO of educators is struggling due to having diminished authority throughout the education system.
  • In the Connection Phase, placing self above all others is the norm. opportunists have the most authority as they maximize connectivity in order to ensure their personal gain.
  • The EGO of education policymakers is peaked from their increased authority over educational outcomes and avenues.
  • The EGO of education textbook, assessment, preparation and advocacy organizations is peaked from their influence on education policymakers.
  • Voters become resentful from subsequent generations going through failed phases of American education and stop supporting schools with levies and pro-public school advocacy.
  • This phase fosters a sense of independence with an awareness of the larger whole.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools contingent on connection. This phase evolved towards the Collaboration Phase. People who benefited from this phase saw the emergence of the Collaboration Phase as a relief from the pressure of connection and competition.

4) The Collaboration Phase

Today, we’re in the midst of moving from EGOsystems towards ECOsystems of education. This movement is happening through collaboration fostered by technology, social change and other evolution that holds great possibilities.

  • Connectivity is recognized as key to successful learning, teaching and leadership with all partners recognized for their potential, purpose and power.
  • Students are recognized as full partners in learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.
  • While technology was initially frowned upon, connections among students outside of school time became an imposition on classrooms. Educators were essentially required to recognize student connections outside of schools and the effects they have within schools.
  • In the Collaboration Phase, placing self above others is becoming increasingly unacceptable as more people identify with the whole.
  • Students who work and have family responsibilities are recognized for the legitimacy and authority of their learning outside school time, and receive high amounts of support to ensure their successful academic growth.
  • Academic learning, liberal arts and community living skills are recognized with equitable authority throughout the lives of young people.
  • The EGO-driven era of education ends as learning is recognized and embraced as a community-wide, lifelong endeavor for all people everywhere all of the time. This leads to the ECOsystem of education.
  • Voters reinvest in education because of the re-asserted vitality of schools in the health and well-being of democratic society.
  • This phase nurtures a sense of increasing interdependence with strong awareness of the effect of individuals on others.
  • All of these factors weighed together to create an ECOsystem in schools revolving around collaboration. This phase is currently evolving and emerging. Everyone in society should benefit from the emergence of the Collaboration Phase and will embrace the ongoing evolution of learning, teaching and leadership.

The emerging ECOsystem of education is harder to see than previous phases. From my work in schools and throughout communities over the last 15 years, I have seen some aspects of it becoming apparent. Following is an exploration of some patterns that are becoming apparent.

 


An ECOsystem of Education

Right now, there’s a new picture of schools that is coming into focus. Across the horizon of testing, standardization and the school-to-prison pipeline are learning, teaching and leadership opportunities for all people everywhere in which love prevails and pessimism stops. With beautiful balance between critical thinking, cultural uplifting and participatory infrastructure, learning mirrors life in a balanced, holistic way that honors difference, embraces hopefulness and builds through equitable partnerships among everyone involved, regardless of their ages.

When considering the ECOsystem of education, its important to remember what constitutes an ecology. An ECOsystem consists of the interdependent and interacting components of a learner’s environment. There are living elements like teachers and other students throughout, and non-living elements like the building, computers and textbooks. Air and light cycles through an ECOsystem, as well as talking, music and paper ripping. Material elements also cycle through an ecosystem via cafeterias, heating plants, and other pathways.

 


New Realities

As the ECOsystem of education continues to emerge, we will need new guideposts to know where we’re at. In the 300+ schools I have consulted over the last decade, the following three trends represent the new realities in education. These can serve as guideposts to ensure students, educators, administrators and others are on the right track to ensure the healthy, whole, successful and sustainable transition underway.

New Learning

While more students opt to learn from home, more schools rely on BYOD and tablets-as-textbooks, and classrooms integrate more with communities, schools will have fewer and fewer options for retaining students in desk chairs. Instead, they will be forced to embrace disruptive learning technologies of all sorts, including experiential education, service learning and integrate CTE that positions elementary and middle school students in applicable, pragmatic problem-centered learning to address real world challenges.

With more adults actively infusing throughout the school day as both co-learners and co-leaders with students who are transforming communities, the role of student will be actively redefined. No longer the plaything of classroom tyrants, students will be recognized for their essential role in the American democracy as the foundation and implementation of lifelong civic identity and engagement. Students of all ages will freely co-learn, co-teach and co-lead communities in quintessential learning communities that are infused with vigor, vim and vitality.

New Teaching

By actively taking control of the things they want to learn, students are actively moving from being the passive recipients of teaching towards becoming active partners in learning and leadership. Each individual student will develop and implement their own course of learning from their youngest years in schools. Learning about their roles as active learning partners, they will also assume more responsibility throughout their communities for teaching their elders. In turn, today’s teachers will continue towards become learning coaches and facilitators to the willing. Students will gain full authority through true interdependence, and communities will become fully integrated throughout their local education systems.

New Leading

The effect of dispersed learning and teaching are already rippling throughout the education system. Technology is actively pushing students out of the forced irrelevance of age- and interest segregated classrooms and towards their broader communities, while schools have to reach deeper towards their local communities in order to cover budgets. This is drawing students towards meeting real community needs through authentic leadership and away from falsely important student governments. In turn, this is forcing schools to reconsider engaging those students in educational leadership. In the ECOsystem of schools, education uses all members of the community in order to drive, transform and sustain learning. Students become researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout communities, which in turn recognize their legitimacy as contributing members of society.

This rekindles community investment in education, which further enriches the educational environment. Racial inequities are eagerly addressed by communities, and the school-to-prison pipeline is dismantled. Every student creates their own learning plan with strategic systems of learning supporting their implementation. Restorative justice engenders new cultures of respect, trust and ability throughout schools, while nutrition, school buildings, athletics and other activities become safe supports for learning and teaching. All of this happens through new leading.

 


Forward

As schools move forward through the phases, a natural ECOsystem of learning will emerge. There is a growing awareness of this transformation. Some people see a complete destruction of traditional, EGO-driven schools, while others see an ongoing evolution towards ECOsystems of learning, teaching and leadership. If we deliberately identify the systems supporting education, we can make this shift intentionally.

As the entirety of the system moves forward, there will be resistance and denial. People who’ve upheld the first and second phases will resist the inevitably of this transformation, while others who’ve embraced the third and fourth phases might actually deny the need for the system to move forward. Those who resist and deny are actually representing the EGOsystem of education that has become entrenched by the powers that benefit most from the EGOsystem. However, truncated by the inevitable transformation fostered by ongoing social change, its inevitable for the EGOsystem to die.

In order to move it forward, its important for educators, students and others to make an honest assessment of where their own personal expectations lay; where their schools’ realities are; and what the gap is between those two areas. Schools will never do more than we are willing to do in them. If a person is young, then its imperative to establish genuine expectations for their own experience. This comes through reflection and critical thinking. If a person is older, its vital to engage in critical self-analysis as well as self-engagement in a project for school improvement. For anyone, its important to get active. Research what exists right now. Work with others to plan for alternatives. Teach people about options, no matter what age you are or they are. Evaluate and critically examine what exists, what could exist and what the gap is between those two spaces. Get involved in decision-making wherever there’s an opportunity, including on committees, in forums and in other spaces. Finally, everyone must advocate for the future of schools and the emerging ECOsystem of education. This has to be brought forth on purpose, and the only way to do that is to encourage individuals, organizations and communities to move towards the ECOsystem on purpose. Advocate for that.

Learning is a beautiful, nature and evolutionary approach towards expanding our human potential. The ECOsystem of education moves us towards powerful possibilities for all students everywhere all the time. You should come with.

 


Related Articles

 

 

Command and Control Schools

4th+grade

Today, I toured a middle school in the region where I live. Listening to an adult school leader explaining the school to me, I heard several the cues that routinely concern me:

  • “Our students don’t have problems”
  • “We don’t allow students to have social time”
  • “There is routine homework in every class, every day, all year long”
  • “We maintain strong communication with parents”
  • “We have a strong culture of respect for adults here”

These are all signs of a “Command-and-Control School.” These are highly structured, highly demanding and highly adultcentric places featuring rote memorization, rigid adherence to standardized curriculum and gross overcommitment to testing and assessment.

Command-and-Control Schools…

  1. Regard students are problems that need to be solved;
  2. Think adults have all the answers to solve students-as-problems;
  3. Don’t see students as full humans with rights and responsibilities;
  4. Disagree with the ability of parents and students to be equitable educational partners

I raise these issues because they are the antithesis of Meaningful Student Involvement. When I began studying schools for signs of student voice in 2000, it took me several years to discern the patterns in which students said learning mattered to them. However, when they came forward, I identified these Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement as the keys to moving education forward. They centered on the notion that schools must become places that actively engage students as equitable partners with adults throughout learning, teaching and leadership across the entirety of the education system.

 

Meaningful Student Involvement Schools…

  • Treat students as the problem-solvers of global, local and personal problems today and in the future;
  • Foster equitable student/adult partnerships that position everyone, everywhere, all the time as active learners, teachers and leaders, regardless of their age;
  • Engage every student as a full human with unique abilities, challenges, opportunities and knowledge;
  • Support the entire ability of students and parents to become engaged throughout the entire education system.

 

What To Listen For

I know I’ve found a school that’s on-point when I hear the antithesis of what I heard today:

  • “Our students meet challenges head on with adults who empower and support them”
  • “Our teachers work with students pace teaching to meet every student’s learning needs”
  • “Students actively engaged in learning throughout their lives, and schools support them where and how they choose to do that”
  • “We engage students and parents as equitable partners everywhere, all the time”
  • “We have a strong culture of mutual respect among students, between students and teachers, and throughout our learning environment”

When I hear those things, I hear meaningfulness.

I have been writing about whole school approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement lately – I’d love to hear what you think.

 

Adultism is... 1) Bias towards adults; 2) Addiction to adults; and 3) Discrimination against youth

An Interview on Adultism

Recently, a youth activist in the UK wrote to me with some excellent questions about adultism. I loved responding to him, and I think we have some excellent conversations ahead of us. I want to give you a peek into what was exchanged. Let me know what you think?

Question 1: Why does youth-based ageism matter to you, both personally and from a broader societal perspective? 

Growing up, I experienced homelessness, generational PTSD, generational alcoholism, and situational poverty. After beginning youth work as a teenager, I discovered a realm of youth advocacy focused on youth rights. Beginning with the analysis that youth aren’t granted rights and freedoms enjoyed by adults simply because of their age, in my early 20s I examined my own professional practice and discovered that I’d perpetuated this discrimination against youth in my youth work. My own professional journey took a critical turn at that point, and I’ve never looked back.

Since then, I’ve studied the phenomenon of adultism in-depth, writing dozens of articles and a book about it called Facing Adultism. I’ve also led workshops with hundreds of youth and adults across North America and in Brazil over the last 15 years. Among my findings, I’ve discovered some radical trends that are disturbing. Rather consistently and regardless of setting, adults appear to be consistently predisposed to the actions, ideas, words and opinions of other adults. I call this bias towards adults adultism. Adultism seemingly happens everywhere, including many places that exist simply to serve children and youth, including schools, after school programs, youth centers, summer camps, and in childcare facilities, as well as businesses that serve young populations, including stores, healthcare, and restaurants. On a very basic level, the problem of adultism in democratic societies is that it inherently undermines and ultimately dismantles democracy. We basically spend 18 to 25 years of a person’s life telling them to be passive recipients of hierarchical, authoritarian decision-making, and then one arbitrary day we bestow them with the mantle of Voter and pray they have faith in democracy. That disjunction doesn’t sit well with most people, and easily explains why so many people are disaffected by voting today.

In a more complex way, I believe adultism is the conditioning that permits all other discriminations to co-exist throughout our societies. From infancy we’re taught in subtle and overt ways that adults are dominate in our worlds. At the same time we appropriately rely on them for food, clothing, shelter and security, we’re conditioned to accept their control over our appearance, attitudes, education and behaviors. Through this control, adultism opens the doorways for oppression through sexism, racism, hetrosexism, classism, and many other biases and discriminations, allowing each of us to both become oppressors and the oppressed. This has massive effects throughout our societies that are grossly underexamined.

Question 2: Is youth-based ageism entrenched in politics/culture/society? What are the consequences of it?

Bias towards adults is thoroughly entrenched throughout the entirety of society, including politics and culture, and education, healthcare, law enforcement, familial relations, community structures, government, economics, religion and spirituality, the arts, and even crime. This bias towards adults, and the discrimination against youth which is consequential, disallows all young people of every age from fully realizing their own capacities, personalities, abilities and interconnectedness. This continues until the time when society stops disallowing them to do so. This means that any contributions that children and youth could make to a better world for all people; any economic contributions they could make; any education they could become truly passionate about; any subject which they could master; all of this and so much more is thwarted because of adultism. The youngest people in our society could make the greatest contributions, if only they weren’t continually denigrated by adults simply because of their age. Mozart was five when he composed his first minuet – not bad for a kid. Imagine what any of us could do without the shackles of adultism.

Question 3: What would you argue is the main factor that prevents pro-youth organisations, such as the UK Youth Parliament and perhaps US equivalents, from being more effective than they are?

I would suggest that adultism is the main factor that prevents youth-serving orgs from being more effective, and that adultism uses money as a lever to control the structures, attitudes and cultures of those organizations. There are strong financial incentives that exist in order to enforce adultism. These fiscal constraints are the most powerful force that ensures the sustained habituation and enculturation of adultism in all of its forms throughout our society, especially within youth-serving organizations. Whether these organizations are working in hyper-local settings on the familial, neighborhood and community levels, or in national or international forums, all of them are generally constrained by the authority and ability granted to them by money. The simple fact is that there are absolutely no funds anywhere that actively support the elimination of adultism, or any steps preceding that. Because of that, each of these organizations choose the routes they need to follow in order to most effectively meet their funders’ expectations.

For instance, the UK Youth Parliament chooses politics as its avenue to serve youth. In these politics they follow the pathways which grant them the most ability to affect change on behalf of their constituents. That means that if a bill is going to be fought effectively, it might require a little adultism here and a little adultism there, which is acceptable in order to fight that bill. Similarly, a well-meaning teacher in a public school might know in her heart that student voice should be infused throughout her classroom, with students making and enforcing rules, cowriting and critiquing curriculum, administering and evaluating assessments, and so-forth. However, she also knows her headmaster placed a book in her hands, gave her a URL for student testing, and she must do what she’s told to keep her job. A little adultism here and a little adultism there, and she has a job again next year.

Question 4 and 5: What’s the solution for schools? And what are solutions beyond the school remit?

Schools must stop existing simply to promote academic achievement, and instead adopt the understanding that their singular purpose is to engage students in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities. Academics is one avenue to student engagement, but only one. There are dozens of ways to engage learners, and schools should be held to the highest account for engagement, simply because that does not happen anywhere else in society. That’s because student engagement is the sustained connection a student feels towards something, and schools should be responsible solely for fostering that feeling. Who is in charge of whether or not a student becomes engaged in something? The student, and the student alone. Who can help facilitate whether a student becomes engaged in learning, teaching and leadership throughout their own lives and their communities? Educators. Student engagement would be the ultimate goal for schools because nowhere else could do it quite the ways they do.

Beyond schools, there are countless avenues towards a more successful society for all people, regardless or because of age. Starting with full suffrage for all people regardless of their age, I believe it extends towards complete citizenship for all people with equitable roles, responsibilities and rights accorded to people because of their ages. Teaching, reinforcing and uplifting the notion of interdependence is vital, too, as it can help both young people and adults understand complex social understandings in a concrete, tangible way. In his last book published, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “When we get up in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap created by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world.” I believe that same sentiment must be translated on the age issue. I don’t think we have a case of youth versus adults here, Tom. Instead, this is an issue that’s endemic in Western culture and its tearing us apart. We can work past this, given the right mindsets and resources.

 

Again, this was just the start of a long conversation. Let me know what you think and whether you’d like to read more!

 

Love Among Those Seeking Voice

Students in São Paulo occupy a school. #ocupaescola
Students in São Paulo occupy a school. #ocupaescola

 

In these strident times when big headlines constantly dash across the news, it can be hard to see the love. The media paints every protester as angry and every different person as foreign. Locally, we argue over outcomes while we fight for the same pots of money.

Today, I got an update on a project I’m following in São Paulo, Brazil. You might remember that I spent some time there last year. I was brought there by the spectacular Lilian L’Abbate Kelian to talk about youth power, and thankfully, she’s kept me up to date on what continues to grow there.

This month, students throughout the state of São Paulo have occupied their schools in a large scale effort to get students a seat at the school reform conversations underway there. Taking over more than 90 schools, students are taking care of the spaces, continue providing services, and are attempting to negotiate with government education leaders. A judge has ruled their actions constitute a policy dilemma and not something for police to worry about; unfortunately, this hasn’t kept police away everywhere, and some of the students have been threatened.

All that is a simple, dry account of the work of the soul that these students are engaged in. They are feeling passionate, engaged and empowered to take drastic steps. They are demonstrating their sense of ownership and belonging in places they care deeply about. They are showing us love for their schools!

It gets better.

Today I received news that there is love among those who are struggling to find a voice. The MST, a movement of rural workers without land in Brazil, has decided to donate 1.000 liters of milk, 500 gallons of grape juice and 1.000 packets of chocolate milk to the students in order to support their occupation. At least five schools will receive the products of these farmers.

In São Paulo today, they are saying,

Long live the struggle of the students!
Long live the agrarian reform!
Long live the public school and free of quality!

That is love among those seeking a voice.

Related Article

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Continuing to Learn from Meaningful Student Involvement

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement
Want to learn more about this? Send me an email for an exclusive article! adam@soundout.org

Since 2002, working through SoundOut, I have worked with more than 10,000 K-12 students and educators in schools across the United States and Canada.

Over the last year, I have been a bit consumed by writing the Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook. Its my complete compendium of what I have learned about engaging students as partners throughout the education system.

In my reflections, I have found four themes constantly emerge from my projects. These are lessons for me that I will continue to teach people into the future.

  • Unacknowledged capability: Students of all ages, identities, achievement levels, and social backgrounds are fully capable of becoming partners throughout education, but are rarely engaged in equitable partnerships that allow them to take action.
  • Untapped wisdom: Students have a lot to say about the schools they are attending and the education they’re receiving, but rarely feel like adults want to hear what they say.
  • Undelivered invitations: Students are almost never invited to participate in school governance, educational research, learning evaluations or substantive decision-making about classroom instruction, school improvement or educational leadership.
  • Unmet human resources: Adults are craving more human resources throughout schools, but rarely consider students as potential partners who could lighten the load and secure success.

I have tried hard to document dozens of cases of Meaningful Student Involvement and describe how handfuls of students are engaged in planning, researching, teaching, evaluating, making decisions, and advocating for their own learning, as well as throughout the education system as a whole. In each case, these lessons shine through. They also shown through my own projects in dozens of states and a few countries. Its a consistent pattern, yet fraught with hope.

As I assess my big ole picture of student/adult partnerships, I am left wondering about how important Meaningful Student Involvement will become to the education system. We cannot be satisfied with tokenizing students, or simplistic attempts to listen to student voice. Instead, we want to transform all of learning, teaching and leadership.

Onward we go!

Youth participating in a summer camp facilitated by Adam Fletcher

Are You REALLY Committed to #StudentVoice?

Adam training youth at Eastern Washington University in 2012.
Adam training youth at Eastern Washington University in 2012.

Are you really committed to engaging student voice?

If you’re an educator, administrator, policymaker or adult ally to student voice anywhere throughout the education system, you need to check yourself. We all do.

When working with students as an ally, its important to keep the focus on them instead of shifting it from them to us as adults. We should not, must not and cannot use students to say what we want them to. More than simply being unfair, adults who use student voice for our own agenda are being dishonest and unethical.

Here are eight questions all adults can all ask ourselves to find out whether we’re genuinely committed to student voice.

Student Voice Commitment Test

  1. Do I believe all student voice matters?
  2. Do I believe every learning relationship matters?
  3. Do I believe students aren’t incomplete?
  4. Do I believe total responsibility for learning must be shared with students?
  5. Do I believe students know things?
  6. Do I believe in equity, not equality, between students and educators?
  7. Do I believe schools need to be about learning, teaching AND leadership?
  8. Do I believe student voice requires more than just talking?

Next Steps 

If you answered an unequivocal “yes” to all eight of these questions, you are genuinely committed to student voice.

If you answered “maybe”, “sometimes” or “kinda” to any of these questions, then you are on the road to commitment. I’d recommend you order my book, The Guide to Student VoiceIt provides a short, but deep intro to the depth of student voice.

If you answered “no”, “never” or “not a chance” to any of these questions, but you want to learn more, check out my free ebook, Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change.

No matter what you do, consider doing something right now to engage student voice. They aren’t waiting for you, and if you personally don’t do something right now, schools are going to continue their slide towards the future by becoming more and more irrelevant to learning, teaching and leadership throughout our society.

How to Recruit Youth Today

TPOYEadvert

Youth have many choices to make today.

Let’s say that you’re 18 years old. You left school before graduating, and your friend’s mom is letting you stay in their garage.

You have many choices, and they’re stacked like this:

  • Apply for jobs
  • Break into a car to steal something
  • See if your old girlfriend wants to have sex

What’s going through your mind right now?

Curiosity floods your brain. Even if you’re not sure you can get a job, you know its something you should do, compared to stealing something or having sex. You know what the right thing to do is, but you’re not sure why this job application would be different from any others.

If you truly wanted immediate satisfaction, you’d find an easy car to break into, right? Or you’d give that girlfriend a call. You wouldn’t even take a glance at the job form.

But that’s not how we are built when we are young people.

Years ago, I consulted with an organization that taught youth adult living skills for students who dropped out of high school. They would take high risk (high hope) youth around local colleges and show them three types of programs: One offered job training and job placement; another offered a GED, job training and placement; and another that helped them earn a diploma, get into college, through college and placed in a career. And then they were asked if they were interested in the college program.

You bet they were. You would be, and so would I—we’d all be curious about what allowed people to get into and through college if we never knew it.

Youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison

Simply opening a youth program doesn’t make youth attend it. We’re clear on that, right?

That’s because youth choose your program in a vacuum or by comparison.

Let’s look at choosing youth programs in a vacuum.

Say a teenager decides to smoke weed in her free time. She’s been taught about the dangers of drugs, has a stable home with two parents and has a bright future ahead of her.

She’s not asking why at this point in time, because she has a of joint in her hand given to her by her best friend who is sitting right across from her, so she’s making a decision in a vacuum.

The same vacuum concept applies to your youth program, too.

Let’s say you’re passionate about using theater to empower youth. You launched an afterschool drama program for teens in your neighborhood that lasts two hours every night, and youth aren’t showing up.

Sure, they looked at the flyers you posted around the neighborhood and sent home to parents. If they talk to you, you’re incredibly exciting.

When you pour over your grant application and promotional materials, everything screams for youth to come through the door, and yet they aren’t. They are working in a vacuum.

However, when youth look at your program flyer, they see the date and time and think of all the other things they could do, even if we don’t acknowledge those things. Youth who sit on the couch watching TV are choosing that, as are youth who spend hours surfing the Internet with no purpose.

Would you have more youth showing up if they could playing video games? Theoretically speaking, yes. So why not add video game time? Or better yet, offer video games and offer pizza every day? Would you have more youth show up then?

You see what’s happening here, don’t you? As the frivolous things increase, your desire for the program goes down. That’s because you’re no longer working in a vacuum – you’re working on comparison.

You’re comparing your original program focused on theater with every other activity that was added onto it. And you compared your interest in theater to your interest in video games and pizza.

Right now, if you’re still determined, you’ll not only focus on theater, but you might even choose a specific style of theater you’re passionate about, like street performing or children’s theater.

But there’s a reason for that, and its called—and it’s called comparison.

Two distinct choosing phases

When young people choose anything, they’re almost always going through two distinct phases. The first phase is when they consider choices in a vacuum. Youth have been told to go to a program by their mom or teacher, but they have no clue why they should attend.

With all these options staring at them, young people simply pick the most immediate thing that fulfills their needs.

Using the ever-popular Maslow’s Hierarchy as a framework, it’s easy to understand why, after they have their survival and safety needs met young people aren’t automatically selecting to spend their time in your program.

You could start promoting your program on the basis of belonging. You could start telling them what it will do for their esteem. You might even appeal to their desire to make their hopes come true through your program.

But when you start illustrating those benefits clearly, young people are no longer working in a vacuum. Instead, they are comparing the benefits of what your program offers with what they’re doing with their time right now. They are comparing your organization to their friends, families and neighborhoods. They are even comparing the benefits of your program against each other by choosing which is more important to them according to Maslow’s Hierarchy.

If you make the case, at some point they will compare playing video games, eating pizza or smoking weed to your program—along with everything else at hand. Then it dawns on them that the most unusual thing they can choose, your program, is also the most beneficial—but now it doesn’t seem so unusual.

The best thing to do—attend your program—is now the most obvious thing to do, and they will choose it, but only in comparison.

So, how should you promote your program?

If your program operates where few others do, you can stop trying to be everything to every youth all of the time. Instead, focus on one thing and do that thing excellently.

If you’re competing for the attention, energy and time of young people then you’ll have to play by their rules. Listen to them, validate what they’re saying, authorize them to do something, take action and reflect on it with them.

However, if you have a lot of time where you’d offer your program regularly and you’re looking for something else to do to serve youth, then you can have several versions of your program or other programs to offer. Young people can then move from comparing your program to other programs in the neighborhood toward comparing your program to other programs you offer.

For example, if you run a theater program, young people can choose from your agency’s theater program, which is short and fun, and your fiscal education program, which is longer and more intellectual.

Even in a very competitive neighborhood where your program is competing with other youth programs, gang membership, ample youth jobs and sitting around the house, you want to create a situation where they have stopped considering everything else and are now choosing from your organization’s range of programs.

If you’re offering a program where there’s nothing else like it in your community, then there’s still a reason for creating a comparison structure.

Youth will look around and choose whether to get involved based on how you appeal to their needs according to Maslow’s Hierarchy — even if they’re comparing apples to oranges.

For example, if you were to recruit for a program on outdoor education and a program on service learning, they aren’t particularly similar. Yet, the benefits of one program influences how youth look at the benefits of the other program.

And even if a young person selects one program your organization offers this time, next time they may move to your program, depending on your ability to benefit them.

Create that comparison

Whether you’re recruiting youth for a photography course, youth employment program, interpretive dance workshop, or GED classes, the one factor to remember is that young people either choose in a vacuum or in a comparison structure.

You want to get them to compare. Once you’ve gotten them to pay attention to your program, you should then have a series of benefit comparisons on your own flyer and website.

Create that comparison. Even if you don’t have a range of programs yet, get started moving in that direction today.

When you do, you can still list (or decrease) the list of benefits to appeal to youth. Remember that they want to make choices, and they do not want to be told what to do.

It’s at that point that youth comparing benefits becomes a strategy, by discouraging them having a knee-jerk reaction.

And it’s at that point that you getting youth through the door en masse. That will make you—and the youth you work with—a lot happier.

The Hidden Curriculum of Student Voice

yp

Student voice teaches students and adults. If you agree with that idea, then you’ll want to learn about the hidden curriculum of student voice.

Tucked into the heart of this is the understanding of the hidden curriculum of schools. The hidden curriculum of schools shows us that there are the things we teach on purpose, and then there are the things we teach inadvertently, accidentally, by coincidence, or simply without stating what our intentions are. Things like having seats in rows and students raise hands are part of the hidden curriculum; deeper though are things like teaching about wealthy, Anglo-centric males in history to low-income girls from communities of color. This can teach these students that the contributions of poor people, brown and black people, women, and their communities are lesser than those of wealthy white men. In turn, this can teach inferiority and reinforce oppression throughout society. These types lessons are part of the hidden curriculum of schools, teaching students lessons explicitly acknowledging they are teaching students lessons. The hidden curriculum is part of all curricular areas and every teaching methodology.

Student council, student leadership classes, and other student programs do similar things.

In the case of student voice, schools actively teach students to hide, hold, and change their voices according to the expectations of adults. We do that through a variety of subtle and overt mechanisms that stifle, suffocate, mimic and manipulate students. These include honor roles, attendance, rules, and punishments that are all among the many overt ways we pummel the natural and innate desire of young people to learn. Other examples include having middle class teachers in low-income communities; segregating young students from adult learners during formal learning activities; and using grades and test scores to dictate success. Still other examples include teaching some students, but not most, about student voice; to engage a few students in powerful roles not traditionally for students; or excusing the “right” students to go to the school district offices while leaving every other student behind. All of this has the cumulative effect of changing student voice, or stopping it all together.

Among many lessons, these practices teach students:

  • Their authentic voices are bad and that adults must approve of what they are saying;
  • “Learning” must be hard and doesn’t require student desire or feedback;
  • In order for learning and student voice to be valid, it must be accepted by adults.
  • Above all, students must seek adult approval for all “valid” forms of student voice

 

If a student does not follow these lessons, they are punished with punitive, coercive and largely arbitrary judgments and actions bestowed upon them by omnipotent adults. Censure, suspension and expulsion await student voice that does not conform.

All of this teaches students to hide, hold, and change student voice in schools. There are a lot more subtle gestures, but this is meant to kind of introduce the notion of the hidden curriculum that informs student voice practices.