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.
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
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 adultsto 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.
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.
SoundOut offers ONLINE training about students on school boards, including professional development for adults and student workshops.
In a climate where more attention is being paid to student voice in the classroom, many are asking how school boards might approach incorporating students into their work in a way that goes beyond inviting someone to report on Homecoming festivities.
Bring SoundOut to your school district or conference for a workshop dedicated to understanding the power of student voice and the possibilities of student representation on the board of education. Adam Fletcher, a leading expert on student voice and representation, explores the benefits, challenges and opportunities for engaging students in the work of boards in a deep and meaningful way.
In our sessions about students on school boards, participants…
Learn what student voice is, what it does, who it is for and how it happens;
Explore roles for students on school boards, including activities, topics and outcomes that are appropriate for them;
Understand how students are engaged on boards, including recruitment, training, maintaining and evaluating their roles, and;
There are communities in the United States where young people are working with adults to lift up the voices of students and infuse meaningful student involvement throughout education. In November 2018, SoundOut had a chance to visit Madison, Wisconsin, where they are doing exactly that.
SoundOut staff worked with at with more 150 middle and high school students, classroom teachers, district administrators, and community supporters. We explored a lot of dynamics related to meaningful student involvement: who is involved, how they are involved, where they are involved, when they are involved, and why they are involved. We named new reasons to engage more students, everywhere, all of the time, and we discussed ways that it worked before for engaging students in meaningful ways.
SoundOut led several workshops, including one with students at Capital High School. These are students involved in alternative learning programs, and many are deeply involved in meaningful ways throughout their school. Their principal is a staunch supporter of student voice, and the teachers who are working with students are really dedicated. In this workshop, SoundOut and district staff learned from students about their visions for the future of their school, and the education system in general. We explored some of the roadblocks they faced in their work, and we began unpacking new possibilities for things they could do around the school. It was very powerful.
Sitting with educators, administrators and several students on a new district wide student voice group, SoundOut learned about powerful racial equity work happening in the district. There were questions regarding the effect of general use voice work and it’s impact on work being done to promote African-American youth voice particularly. Does one outweigh the other?
SoundOut also worked directly with district staff focused on youth engagement. We facilitated a community-wide learning opportunity for almost 100 students and adults to learn about meaningful student involvement. During the session, there were a lot of collaborative activities, brainstorming sessions, and planning opportunities for individual schools to begin to take student voice to heart in their school improvement planning and regular activities. We were fascinated to discover all of the ways that student voice is already at work in Madison, and to help plant the seeds for more work to be done.
“Thank you again for a wonderful two days, rich with enthusiasm, growth, and thought-provoking conversations!”
– Hannah Nerenhausen, Ed.M., Family, Youth & Community Engagement Coordinator, Madison Metropolitan School District
It’s been a fascinating 20 years of doing this work, and Madison is helping SoundOut to begin to envision the future that’s ahead as meaningful student involvement continues to grow across the United States and around the world.
Recently, I spoke with a friend and colleague in California about student voice in her state. Sharing the many, many examples on the top of my head of what is happening in the state, I am reminded of the positive, powerful potential of students who are making change in their schools everywhere. California has experienced that transformation for decades now, and I want to highlight some of what’s happened there.
Finally, for three years from 2012 to 2014, the National Student Power Convergence drew together high school and college student organizers across the country in Oakland. Dream Defenders, Moral Monday arrestees, high schoolers resisting school closings and police brutality, statewide organizers from Ohio, New York, California and beyond came together to trade tactics and experiences, elevate disenfranchised voices, link struggles from different regions to build something bigger.
Students in Oakland created a high school. Alternatives in Action High School was founded in 2001 when students worked with adults to design, write, and submit a petition for a charter school to the Alameda Unified School District Board of Trustees. After a unanimous vote of approval, the school opened. The school’s Charter was subsequently renewed again by unanimous vote of the Alameda Unified School Board in 2006 and 2011.
SoundOut has worked in several schools throughout California, too. The San Rafael City Schools has hosted the SoundOut Summit, a school improvement opportunity designed to empower students to transform the learning, teaching and leadership at schools in their district. We partnered with a national nonprofit called Generation YES to provide Powerful Student Leader training at 50 middle schools in the Central Valley, and we provided technical assistance to Oakland Public Schools to build their Meaningful Student Engagement program.
There is a lot more history in California, including student voice activism and Meaningful Student Involvement in K-12 schools going back to the 1920s and 30s. However, I’ll cover that in separate article. For now, please share anything you know about in California in the comments section, and share this article with your networks!
Statewide Student Voice
There are student voice programs, activities and organizations working across the entire state of California. They’ve had powerful successes, made lasting change, and created foundations for education transformation that will be felt for generations.
There are local-level student voice organizations, campaigns and activities transforming schools throughout California. Illustrating the meaningful involvement of students throughout public education, these entities have taken student voice to new heights in terms of sustainability, substance and outcomes. Some of these programs include:
SC-YEA, or South Central Youth Empowered through Action in Los Angeles. They are developing the next generation of activists capable of leading their peers and impacting public policy in their schools and community. By hosting chapters on high school campuses across South LA, SCYEA aims to amplify the voices of students in education decision-making. They launched a campaign to hold schools accountable for A-G course requirements, and also recently pressured the local school district to repair and build new schools with a $2.4 billion school bond, and to add $153 million dollars for additional school repairs previously overlooked in their community.
Youth Together works throughout the Bay Area to empower student voice in broad ways that impact students in schools everyday. One of their most recent projects was a Listening Campaign led by students to highlight issues students face in schools right now, and to develop student-led solutions to those issues.
Coleman Advocates organizes low-income high school students of color in San Francisco through a program called Youth Making A Change. Since 1991, thousands of students have led advocacy efforts to stand for and win innovative programs for San Francisco’s high schools and students. Their successes include Wellness Centers and SF Youth Vote, as well as landmark policies to close the racial achievement gap.
Other organizations that engage students in actively transforming K-12 schools include Innercity Struggle in LA and the Alliance for Education Justice, which works statewide. There are also student-driven school transformation activities being led by California Youth Connection; Sacramento ACT; RYSE Center (Richmond); People Acting in Community Together (San Jose); Families in Schools (Los Angeles), and; Khmer Girls in Action (Long Beach).
More Student Voice
There are powerful activities happening across the entire state, some helping every student in every community; others focusing on Black, Brown, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islanders; while others help GBLTQQ students and others, too.
One of the most systemic efforts happening in California today is in the Oakland Public Schools, where they have had a number of efforts focused on what they call “Meaningful Student Engagement” on and off for more than a decade. Some of their programs include Meaningful Student Engagement Leadership Teacher Community of Practice, where Leadership class teachers support each other in fostering the conditions for students to be meaningfully engaged in shaping school culture and climate; an All City Council (ACC) Governing Board, which seeks to amplify student voice by serving as a bridge between adult decision makers and the student body, and; Youth Voice with Continuous Improvement, through which the district provides technical assistance with the formation and democratic election of School Governance Teams. They support middle and high school students to participate on School Site Councils and the District-Wide LCAP Student Advisory, too.
Is it legal for students to be represented on school boards in Canada?
Do Canadian school boards always have student voice in mind?
How many students represent student voice in Canada?
For the first time, one publication is answering those questions. The SoundOut Guide to Students on Canadian School Boards is the first nationwide summary of this movement, and its now available FREE from SoundOut!
North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, is my alma mater. Coincidentally, they made strides in student voice advocacy long before I ever got there. Here’s what I have uncovered.
Starting in the late 1960s, students at North High School in Omaha, Nebraska, struggled to promote student voice in school. By the time I was attending the school in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was none of that movement left. But it 1972, student advocates within the school leveraged a conversation with the principal into a plan for building-wide student representation in serious school issues, including budgeting, hiring and firing, curriculum and more.
The students’ plan entailed creating new functions for the extant student council in school, and ensuring the student council more effectively reflected the student population.
While the attached article sounds optimistic, there’s little evidence this plan was either implemented, or if it was, whether it was sustained for very long. However, this does sound a positive note for history, and implies the future is only getting better! Imagine how strong the student voice movement was in 1972 that an urban high school in Omaha, Nebraska was compelled to engage student advocates in serious problem-solving.
SoundOut is excited to share this piece by Lilian L’Abbate Kelian and Iara Haasz about recent student-led activism in São Paulo, Brazil!
Occupy Schools: Students in São Paulo Demanding A Role In Improving Education
Written by Iara Haasz and Lilian L’Abbate Kelian, November 19, 2015 (São Paulo, Brazil) — On November 10, 2015, public school students in São Paulo State started a movement to occupy their schools when the São Paulo government began forcing an agenda to restructure of schools that didn’t include students as partners.
The proposal would affect 311,000 students and their families; and 74,000 teachers in 1,464 schools. It was announced by the State’s Educational Administration in September. According to São Paulo State Secretary of Education Herman Voorwald, the proposal is based on a number of studies and statistical data with the goal of improving the quality of education. The main idea is to reduce the complexity of school administration by separating schools into three levels: “Ensino Fundamental I” (ages 6 to 10), “Ensino Fundamental II” (ages 11 to 14) and “Ensino Medio” (ages 15 to 17).
Education experts agree on the idea that education system restructuring is needed, but also agree that the government proposal must be widely discussed. However, neither the proposal or the studies supporting it were made public.
Starting on October 6th, students in São Paulo have been demonstrating in order to pressure the São Paulo educational administration into making the proposal’s details public. Protests intensified starting October 25th, when the educational administration announced the closure of 94 schools. The fate of these schools is unknown.
On November 10th student activists occupied 2 schools, Fernão Dias Public School and Diadema Public School. The following day the educational administration announced their willingness to negotiate with student activists. However, negotiations failed when students didn’t accept the requirement that they leave the schools and go to the state administration building. Instead, they sought for government representatives to come to the schools to negotiate. Shortly afterwards, the government ordered military police to vacate the Fernão Dias Public School. However, a judicial order prevented that the police entered the school. According to the judge, the student activists’ occupation is a public policy issue and there is no threat that justifies police action.
Since then the student activists’ movement has grown, with 70 schools currently occupied. Unfortunately, police violence towards the students is happening, especially in the outskirts of São Paulo. The student activists have secured the support of parents, educators, journalists, lawyers and human rights activists.
November 11, 2015 (Sã0 Paulo, Brazil) The following is a public statement written by student activists who are occupying Fernão Dias Paes School:
We started to organize after the government’s announcement of the restructuring and closing of schools. Since the 6th of October, we are organizing demonstrations seeking dialogue about the way the process was being done. After not being heard by any instance, we saw in the idea of occupying a way to enhance the voice of the students.
If we are the ones being restructured we must take part in this process. We, students, excluded from the restructuring process will be affected by spending cuts resulting from these measures. All participants in this occupation are high school students. We entered yesterday, November 10th, in the morning and prevented the entrance of teachers and coordinators. We held an assembly with only students and decided to occupy the school.
Our struggle is the struggle of all students. We will not accept any proposal that does not encompass all state schools affected. In the dialogue with the government there was no negotiation. During the occupation there was no initiative from the government to negotiate our claims. Remediation only confirms that public education today trains cheap labor. Not to oppose this is to accept the precarization of public education.
Occupying schools is another strategy to struggle for education. This occupation remains only with the solidarity of collaborators. To continue the struggle we need to come together and occupy the schools and thus achieve our goal: Prevent the Restructuring.
Against the restructuring, lets occupy the schools! For better education!
The government came hot and I’m already boiling
The government came hot and I’m already boiling
You want to defy us? I don’t understand
Against students? You gonna lose F
ernão, school for struggle Diadema, school for struggle
In the following video, a student activist shares how the regional director of education called some parents to speak with her at the government education office. After elaborating on why parents do not represent the student movement, she says parents are aware of that and won’t be complicit in the government’s attempts to derail the student activists. After being told that the regional director agreed to meet with the students at the school at 7:30am the next day, the student activists woke early to prepare. However, the regional director of education didn’t show, instead calling the parents to her office instead of coming to the school. The student says, “if she wants to talk to us, tell her to come here to the school and we will talk with her.” You can watch the video at https://www.facebook.com/FisicaDaRepressao/videos/927708653983799/
Despite mainstream media’s reports to the contrary, student activists occupying the Fernão Dias Public School take care of their school. They prepare the meals, organize the cleaning and keep the school in order. In mainstream media, the student activists are being called vandals. You can learn more at https://www.facebook.com/jornalistaslivres/videos/328137493976801/
The Tree School is one of the most dynamic, engaging educational projects SoundOut has ever been introduced to. Located in the southern part of Bahia state in Brazil, it moves beyond the constructs and definitions of normal schools, including student voice and student engagement, and fully embodies every aspect of Meaningful Student Involvement.
The first The Tree School was formed in Southern Bahia with thinkers, artists, and activists from the quilombola movement, the Landless Workers’ Movement and Palestinian refugees. They wanted to activate community-based discussions around exile, right of return, identity construction and subjectivity building. They were also concerned with reflecting and understanding the role of education as a liberating and democratizing tool.
The Tree School is first and foremost a gathering place of people around a tree perceived as a living being. The tree, with its characteristics and history, is the device that creates a physical and metaphorical common territory where ideas and actions can emerge through critical, free and independent discussion among participants.
All students choose to come to The Tree School on their own – it is a fully consensual school. It is based on non-hierarchical relationships between adults, children and youth. With everyone co-learning, co-teaching, and co-leading the entire school all of the time, the Tree School directly addresses social oppression, cultural alientation, student segregation and more.
SoundOut visited The Tree School’s exhibition as part of the 31st Bienal of São Paulo. It was an inspiration and celebration of the power of democracy, community and education serving powerful, purposeful goals for everyone involved, and beyond.
A Brazilian art collective called Contrafilé partnered with Campus in Camps, an experimental educational platform based in Dheisheh refugee camp, Palestine. Focused on decolonizing knowledge, they wanted to foster trans-generational learning environments that are not confined within the traditional walls of academia. Working across across different forms of knowledge, they also want to integrate aspects of life and dialogue with the larger community.
The Tree School, a spectacular .pdf book about the experience of people directly involved in The Tree School. Inspiring, honest and authentic, this publication contextualizes Meaningful Student Involvement in a larger project of democracy-building through community and education. Highly recommended.
The Tree School, a powerful art installation in São Paulo focused on learning, education and democracy. Completely altering the observer/observant dialogue, it encouraged interaction, meditation and more.
Contrafilé, the Brazilian art collective that co-launched The Tree School.
Campus in Camps is an experimental educational program based in Dheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem Palestine.