SoundOut students brainstorming their definitions of student voice.

Stop White Supremacy in Student Voice

“NO RACISM ALLOWED,” announced a loud banner across the school’s entrance. I’d come this high school in Michigan to train the new SoundOut Student Equity Team, and was greeted by a handful of students.

Seattle students at the SoundOut Summer Camp
A group of high school students in a SoundOut training.

As we walked through the hallways on a winter day in 2018, I listed to stories from the students about their work to challenge white supremacy in the education system. It was an alternative high school for historically disengaged learners in a mid-sized urban school districts. The students led training for their peers and teachers, and the building was known for being progressive. It was an inspiring experience.

During our workshop focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, the students talked openly about white supremacy, white fragility, willful ignorance, whitesplaining and all bias, especially discrimination and hatred against Black people, American Indians, and other people of color. All sophomores and juniors, they shared that in their careers as students they’d experienced these realities directly as racist slurs, white supremacist curriculum, the school-to-prison pipeline and other hate-filled, explicitly discriminatory activities in schools. However, they also said that white supremacy poisoned their experiences from their youngest years through micro-aggressions and other toxic behaviors by teachers, principals and other students, including being facetious, making light, being condescending, gaslighting and otherwise demeaning, belittling, or insulting Black people, American Indians, and other people of color.


White Supremacy in Student Voice

Do your student voice activities reflect these traits? These traits are damaging to both students of color and white students. They reflect predominant white culture, and should be addressed and dismantled through Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Perfectionism, instead of a culture of appreciation
  • Sense of Urgency, instead of realistic workplans and outcomes
  • Defensiveness, instead of understanding that school cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse
  • Quantity Over Quality, instead of fostering processes and quality goals in your planning
  • Worship of the Written Word, instead of accepting that there are many ways to get to the same goal
  • Paternalism or Adultism, instead of making sure that all students know and understand who makes what decisions in the class, program, school and education system
  • Either/Or Thinking, instead of noticing when students use either/or language and pushing to come up with more than two alternatives
  • Power Hoarding, instead of including power sharing in your class, program, school and education system’s values statement
  • Fear of Open Conflict, instead of handling conflict before conflict happens and distinguishing between being polite and raising hard issues
  • Individualism, instead of honoring students based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals
  • Progress is Bigger, More, instead of fostering deep impact, meaningful processes, and holistic outcomes of all involved
  • Objectivity, instead of realizing that every student has their own world view and that every student’s world view affects the way they understand things
  • Right to Comfort, instead of understanding that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning

Adapted from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001


The reason I was there was to learn with them about how Meaningful Student Involvement has no room for racism. Ultimately, we resolved that white supremacy should be canceled from every student voice activity of any kind. These students were determined to immediately and completely address all white supremacy in their schools, whether from other students expressing internalized racism, or from educators who were resistant or ignorant of their own indiscretions and hatred for students of color. They were determined to make their school stop being racist.

Unfortunately, in my experience working with hundreds of schools nationwide, this isn’t the case across the United States. A lot of well-meaning but poorly informed student voice activities inadvertently reflect an overwhelming trend towards white supremacy, including featuring white student voice as representative of all student voice; homogenizing student leadership and acting as if small elite groups of designated student leaders can represent large swaths of the student body effectively, and otherwise diminishing the capacity, power and possibilities of African American, Latino/a and Hispanic, American Indian and other students of color to share their voices in positive ways throughout the education system in order to affect curriculum, learning, teaching and leadership.

Worse still, most of the current practices in student voice clearly and wholly minimize and undermine the tremendous ways that students can be meaningfully involved in the entire functioning of schools, including the teaching of classes; research of educational practices; planning curriculum, calendars and policies; evaluation of learning, teaching and climates; decision-making at all levels; and advocacy for what students themselves believe in.

SoundOut Student Voice Team at Cleveland High School, Seattle WA
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington.

The potential of students becoming substantively involved in determining the course of their own learning, let alone leading the entire education system, is regularly dismissed by educators who claim the lack of students’ abilities, skills and knowledge is the undoing of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, more than twenty years of research clearly shows otherwise.

I am beginning to understand that these concerns are merely convenient cloaks for “keeping kids in their place.” By denying their roles, adults everywhere are working hard to ensure the status quo is maintained. Today, however, we know this is merely the defense of white supremacy everywhere. In order to confront our collective racism, white supremacy, willful ignorance, and ANY bias against students of color, every school with every grade everywhere across the country must shift to Meaningful Student Involvement immediately.

Spaces for Student Voice
These are the spaces where student voice should be engaged throughout education.

Fostering the characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement is the first step in this process. Moving towards re-conceptualizing the roles of students throughout the education system is further down the line. Ultimately, we must establish the role of the Public Student, whose sole purpose is to actualize the potential of democratic society be becoming an educated, engaged member of the world around them through learning, teaching and leadership.

Are you ready to stop white supremacy in education? The first step is to stop white supremacy in student voice. What are you going to do next? Please share you thoughts in the comments below.


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Adam Fletcher speaking in Kentucky in 2014.

2020-2021 SoundOut Workshops

SoundOut facilitates learning activities in K-12 schools across the United States and Canada! During the 2020-2021 school year, we’re providing highly interactive, action-oriented online workshops focusing on…

MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT

  • Engaging ALL Students in Meaningful Ways
  • Students as Partners in School Improvement
  • Infusing Meaningful Student Involvement throughout Education
  • Ending White Supremacy in Student Involvement

STUDENT VOICE

  • How To Engage Student Voice in Schools
  • Empowering Student Identity
  • Building School Leadership through Student Voice
  • Moving from Student Voice to Meaningful Student Involvement

Want to learn more? Call our office at (360) 489-9680 or contact us.

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SoundOut Student Voice Team at Cleveland High School, Seattle WA

Students Stopping COVID-19

Students can help schools face the challenge of COVID-19.

As educators and leaders navigate COVID-19 (coronavirus), SoundOut encourages schools to foster student/adult partnerships to address the challenges facing schools right now. 

With that in mind, we call on classroom teachers, building leaders, district officials and others to engage the power of students to address the coronavirus. 

Students can…

  • Partner: Partner with educators to make decisions affecting students
  • Communicate: Make posters, videos and more to promote healthy actions
  • Inform: Inform peers with positive action and messages through social media
  • Build: Co-create webpages about COVID-19 for schools and districts
  • Research: Students can research quality resources for schools to learn more

Educators can…

  1. Take Action: Have create learning projects focused on preparing for the spread of coronavirus.
  2. Share Examples: Share student-created projects including posters, videos, webpages and more that students create in partnership with teachers, school leaders and communities in addressing coronavirus.
  3. Keep Going: Keep students active creating empowering messages and helping educators and administrators prepare for COVID-19, and keep sharing.

Working with adults as partners, students can help schools overcome the challenge of COVID-19. Have students helped your school so far? Share your examples in the comment section below!

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Elsewhere Online

Student activists occupy a school in São Paulo, Brazil

Students as Activists

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Getting mad, fighting pointlessly against adults or simply acting out can stifle student voice. When students organize for school transformation, they can fight together with unified voices for social justice and against unfairness in education. Engaging students as activists can be an empowering learning experience that transforms education in deep ways.

There are many things activists do. Picketing, surveying, protesting, letter writing and different ways of activating to change schools can be powerful levers to make a difference. Student activists can act alone, or with other people to produce immediate results, all affecting their local schools, districts and state education systems.

Examples

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This is an example of student voice graffiti

Responsive Student Voices

Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington

SoundOut defines student voice as any expression of any learner about anything, any where, anytime related to learning, schools or education.

Responsive student voices challenge adults to listen in new ways for what’s happening among and within students RIGHT NOW. It offers critical, assertive and direct expressions of learners about what is current and essential in their experience. This article explores what it looks like in practice.

Understanding Student Responsiveness

Exploring what a situation, example, tradition or outcome means to them, responsive student voice positions young people as substantial contributors and partners in the school improvement process. Their visions are honored; their experiences are centralized, and; their wisdom, knowledge, ideas, opinions and values are respected.

Although on first glance it might look the same, responsive student voice is different from typical student voice in several ways. SoundOut has found it is distinguished by immediacy, relevance, intensity and response.

Adults often don’t understand or immediately dismiss the hyper-intense expressions of students in schools. Labelled as distractions or viewed as “inconvenient,” here I introduce “responsive student voice” as a new way of contextualizing spastic-appearing but still essential wisdom, knowledge, actions and ideas from students.

Examples of Responsive Student Voice

This is an example of student voice graffiti
Student voice expressed through graffiti can take a lot of different forms.

Responsive student voice can have a lot of different appearances and expressions. They can include:

  • Student Speakout—At this event, student or adult facilitators can create space for students to speak their piece about what’s happening within a school. Focused on creating a safe and supportive environment for student voice, these events can respond to the most urgent issues at hand.
  • Fighting—Appearing as bullying or unchecked expression, fighting can be a powerful form of responsive student voice that tells educators a school feels unsafe, students feel vulnerable, and communication has broken down, along with many other lessons. Students make themselves heard; adults often simply respond with punishment. Fighting result in intentional community-building and much more.
  • Letters to the Editor—Writing about specific, critical and urgent situations with realistic suggestions for substantive action can be a direct way for student voice to be heard.
  • Graffiti—In spaces where learners cannot address adults, educators, administrators and others directly, strategic graffiti can provide students with an obvious, impactful voice that is otherwise stifled. When the art reflects current issues students face in schools, this can be a very impactful avenue for responsive student voice.
  • Learning Projects—Educators can create spaces for students to express themselves while learning through active, expressive learning projects within classrooms. Its essential for these projects to grant credit and for educators to acknowledge that sharing student voice about education is a valid way to learn.

Because of the confrontational appearance of some responsive student voice, it is important to understand that responsive student voice is often not intended for adults to hear; instead, its meant for students to speak out to each other. However, as responsible educators we have an obligation to listen between the words and make sense of what might seem senseless.

Listen for responsive student voice and respond to this article in the comments section below.

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Obstacles to Student Voice

SoundOut Student Engagement Rubric

Students, educators and advocates constantly search for ways to evaluate the efficacy of their efforts to engage students. After more than 15 years of experience, the following rubric was developed by Adam Fletcher for SoundOut.org to serve as a personal status check to recognize whether or not student engagement is successful.

This rubric shows the challenges and rewards for different ways student engagement happens in schools.
This is the SoundOut Student Engagement Rubric by Adam Fletcher for SoundOut.org. It shows the challenges and rewards for different ways students are engaged in schools.

When coupled with the SoundOut Ladder of Student Involvement, a powerful 1-2 system for evaluation emerges.

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Typical Engagement? Students on School Boards in the U.S.

Originally published in Connect, Volume 2011, Issue 187.

A recent study reported that as much as 92% of any individual school building population in the U.S. is comprised of students, with adults accounting for only 8% of the total humans in any given school. There is a growing concern for the vastly underutilized majority as well as the unjust nature of decision-making in schools as people everywhere struggle with how to make schools more effective for all students.

At the same time, through our observations and study, I have determined there are more than 500 school districts across the United States that engage students on boards of education in some way.

As part of my work through SoundOut, I provide technical assistance and training to districts that are interested in systematically engaging students in education policy-making. I have researched more than 40 years of involving students as school board members, and follow national trends carefully. This article is a report and analysis focused on the growing interest in the practice of engaging students through boards of education, both at the state and local levels, across the U.S.


There are several types of practices that involve students with school boards.

The lowest bar is simply and routinely asking students what they think about school board policy-making issues. This can be a formal process mandated through policy, conducted through online surveys or in-person student forums. Another practice is to require regular student attendance at school board meetings. Both of these are generally seen as non-meaningful forms of involvement, as they do not require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that
of “informant”.

Higher up the ladder is the practice of having student advisory boards that inform regular school board decision-making. This is the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. BSAC, which is coordinated by the administered by the district office in partnership with a nonprofit called Youth on Board, offers student perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their respective schools about relevant citywide school issues. In addition to personal skill development and knowledge building activities for their 20-plus members, BSAC students have strongly influenced district policy-making about cell phone usage, truancy, and reducing the drop out rate. They also have regular dialogues with the district superintendent and school board members.

The Denver, Colorado, Student Board of Education is a group
of 30 students who represent the15 high schools in the city. They are charged to serve as leaders in their schools and represent all students at the district level. Students create projects that affect their local schools and report back on them to the district. They have also created a curriculum that is used in several high school leadership classes. However, these students have to ask permission to speak to their regular board, and that does not happen frequently. According to a recent local newspaper article, the district has trepidations about giving students a regular voice in school policy-making. An attorney with the Denver School District was quoted saying, “The law does not provide for a means by which to create a student position on the board, whether it’s a voting position or not.”

One of the main issues in student involvement in boards of education is whether students are legally allowed to sit on boards, and if they are allowed, whether they have a full vote akin to their adult peers. A 2002 study posted on SoundOut identifies laws regarding student involvement on state and local school boards in 39 states out of 50 states across the U.S. The results vary:

  • As many as 16 states have laws allowing students to sit on school boards at the state level, with no vote
  • 20 states allow the same at the district level
  • Six states disallow either entirely, while seven allow full student voting on the state and district levels

Despite being allowed otherwise in those seven states, only California and Maryland actually have full-voting members on their state boards of education. Both of those states have highly influential student organizations that openly lobby for student voice.

The California Association of Student Councils, founded in 1947, proudly proclaims that all their programs are student-led. One of their most powerful activities is the Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education, or SABLE. Each February, SABLE convenes in the state capital to set education priorities and share them with key decision-makers. They have a direct audience with the Senate Education Committee, and their influence helped form a position for a full-voting
student member of the California State Board of Education
, whose position was created in 1969. They gained full voting rights in 1983, including closed sessions.

The Maryland Association of Student Councils has similar impact in their state, with a student member serving in a regularly elected position annually.

As I have written before, I have more than a decade working with hundreds of schools across the U.S. and Canada to promote meaningful student involvement. Among the things I have found is an inherent dilemma in the type of special positioning students on school boards receive. The dilemma is that while an extremely limited number of students gets an opportunity to share their voices with adult decision-makers in the system, this type of “convenient student voice” is generally conducted at the adults’ convenience and with their approval.

In a growing number of states, the status quo of being excluded does not suit students themselves anymore. Currently, a disjointed but growing movement is seeking to increase the authority of students in school policy-making and decisions.

In Hawaii, there has been a nonvoting student representative on the state board of education for more than 20 years. However, a recent proposal would eliminate the position. A Facebook page sought to maintain that role.

In my home state of Washington, a group of independent students worked with the state’s Legislative Youth Advisory Council to lower the voting age for school board elections to 14, which, while not necessarily installing students on school boards, would give them a concrete say in education policy-making.

In Maryland, where students already have a role on the state board of education and in many district boards, in counties across the state there are active campaigns to increase the effect of student voice, with students calling for a full and regular vote in education policymaking. There is even an instance in Maryland where an 18-year-old named Edward Burroughs was elected to his local school board through regular office after running an effective campaign.

These examples allude to the process of what I refer to as engagement typification, where the roles of students are repositioned throughout the education system to allow Meaningful Student Involvement to become the standard treatment for all students, rather than something that is
exceptional. Consistently positioning students as in special positions doesn’t allow adults, including educators, administrators, or parents, to integrate students throughout the regular operations of the educational system. While seeing their peers as school board members is enticing to a number of students, most are disallowed them from seeing themselves as regular and full members of the leadership and ownership of education, or as trustees for their own well-being.

That is what differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from other attempts at student engagement and student voice: Positioning students as full owners of what they learn. Involving students on school
boards is a step in the right direction; the next question is whether anywhere in the world is ready to go the full distance.

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UnifiEd Student Voice Team

Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the UnifiEd Student Voice Team has been advocating for school transformation since 2014. Focused on improving K-12 learning in Hamilton County, students have worked with parents, school board members, educators and others to affect classrooms, create school programs, and drive policy change affecting thousands of learners.

Action and Outcomes

Student-created surveys were developed and administered by the Student Voice Team to over 450 Hamilton County high school students in the 2018-19 school year. These showed that students’ top priority for school improvement was in the area of mental health.

For instance, during the summer of 2019 the UnifiEd Student Voice Team researched how to implement best practices in mental health in Hamilton County Schools. At the beginning of the school year, the students’ advocacy resulted in the creation of a student support center in a local school.

In 2001, the Hamilton County School Board added a student member to their board. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, students from UnifiEd’s training programs Student Voice Team joined the board, ensuring student voice was empowered and capable of positively impacting district policy-making. Before then, the Student Voice Team worked with the school board attorney to update the system-wide bullying and harassment policy.

Approximately 30 high school students from across HCDE have been trained as organizers within their schools by UnifiEd staff.

Student Voice Team member at STEM School successfully advocated for the adoption of bylaws for its Student Support Senate to clarify the group’s role and bring awareness of its purpose to more students.

Students were a significant portion of respondents to the APEX equity survey, which identified the most urgent inequities in our schools and informed the work being undertaken by APEX Action Teams.

After the Student Voice Team successfully implemented a student Principal Advisory Council at Lookout Valley Middle and High School, students continued working on implementing Principal Advisory Councils in other Hamilton County High Schools, too.

Through the years, the UnifiEd Student Voice Team impacted individual schools and the district, making student voice a driving force for school improvement throughout Chattanooga and beyond.

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Elsewhere Online

SoundOut for Communities

Profession Development for Students on School Boards and School Board Members

SoundOut teaches school board members how to engage students on school boards. Our training focuses on a variety of roles for students, as well as the skills and action school boards need to take to on-board students and sustain their meaningful involvement. This training has happened in Michigan, Washington, Vermont and Alberta. 

Download our flyer »

Contact us for information and call (360) 489-9680.

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2019-2020 School Workshops

SoundOut facilitates learning activities in K-12 schools across the United States and Canada! During the 2019-2020 school year, we’re focusing on…

STUDENT VOICE

  • How To Infuse Student Voice in Classroom Learning
  • Empowering Student Identity
  • Building School Leadership through Student Voice

STUDENT ENGAGEMENT

  • Curricular Strategies for Student Engagement
  • Transforming School Climate
  • Engaging Disengaged Students

MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT

  • Students as Partners in School Improvement
  • Infusing Meaningful Student Involvement throughout Education

Download our 2019-2020 SoundOut School Workshops flyer!

Want to learn more? Call our office at (360) 489-9680 or contact us.

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