“I loved that we had a voice in this class. Kids need to be listened to and they are in this class. I usually feel that my teachers and other students don’t care about me or anyone else, but in here they do.”
I keep this quote from a former leadership student above my computer as a reminder of the power of young voices and insights. Before I became an administrator, I taught leadership classes to high school students. Usually a mix of ages, ethnicities and school connections, my leadership scholars provided an excellent audience for experiments in youth-driven curriculum.
Each trimester, students would choose an area of school to improve. The group began creating an “ideal” school by deciding what aspects we wanted to improve. The students changed, but the ideal schools they envisioned shared similar characteristics: they were open, airy and clean; the teachers cared about kids and their subject areas; and, of course, the food was good. The projects ranged from tackling a pervasive litter problem to proposing an open campus at lunch. Granted, we could only get so far in one trimester, but it was amazing for me to see the power of students coming together to work on an initiative that truly mattered to them.
I was lucky to teach a subject that lent itself to student-driven projects. But I often wonder how we can expand this idea to other subjects. I see too many kids who are disengaged by school simply because they are tired of education being something done to them rather than done with them. I’m guilty of this too. I remember many times standing in front of a class teaching them something that I felt was valuable only to see their eyes glaze over with boredom. When I got it right, however, it was amazing to see a student who was completely checked out of his other classes come alive when given the opportunity to work on something he truly cared about.
Adam Fletcher, educator, speaker and founder of the FreeChild Project, provides a rubric for assessing youth voice in the classroom. Fletcher advocates for student-teacher partnerships to promote student engagement. Soundout, an organization advocating meaningful student involvement in schools, also provides an excellent overview of working with students as leaders.
This doesn’t mean we let students drive all the time, but imagine the power of giving them more choices in what and how they learn.
By partnering with students, we can work to create the type of schools where students truly want to be. We can start that process one classroom at a time.
Ryan Fear is a high school dean of students