Engaging both students and adults, we facilitate hands-on, interactive and practical workshops. Meaningful materials and engaging activities help participants identify opportunities, create potential and identify real avenues for students on boards.
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. Last week I had a chance to visit Madison, Wisconsin, where they are doing exactly that.
Over 24 hours in two days, I sat with more than 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.
I 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, I 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, I had the opportunity to learn 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?
I also work directly with district staff focused on youth engagement. We had a communitywide 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. I was 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.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity that I had there! It’s been a fascinating 20 years of doing this work, and Madison is help me to begin to envision the future that’s a head for me as meaningful student involvement continues to grow.
Back in 2000, I was working as the first-ever student engagement specialist at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In the course of my work, I conducted a scan of activities across the United States, Canada and around the world through which students were improving schools. I found a lot of terms used frequently and interchangeably, like student empowerment and student leadership. I also found a few terms that weren’t talked about much that I wanted to explore.
One of those terms was student voice. Generally used as a synonym for student actions to change school or in curriculum as students sharing their experiences in class, this term fascinated me. Packed with potential, I read through the scant amounts of studies, articles and other literature available then and decided that the term was a cloak of sorts: Instead of being authentic, genuine or substantial, student voice was often slapped on any information adults were seeking and students were replying to.
I wanted to differentiate that types of student involvement. Talking with educators and students around Washington state, I found the phrase Meaningful Student Involvement to be useful, and ran with it.
Differences between issues
Student voice is any expression of any student, anywhere, at any time related to schools, learning and education. Meaningful Student Involvement is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.
Doesn’t necessarily change education
Doesn’t require schools to change
Doesn’t require adults to change
Doesn’t require students to change
Meaningful Student Involvement…
Is systemwide action for school improvement
Fosters deep student/adult commitment
Requires whole school transformation
Supports deep learning by students and adults
Expands possibilities for students and adults
Surely these two areas overlap, and it can be said that student voice is a foundation of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, on its own, student voice doesn’t not require, obligate or otherwise compel schools to be difference. The research-driven Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement do require substance, purpose and outcomes beyond appearances.
Moving from here to there
Are you a K-12 school teacher who is interested in shifting their perspective from student voice to Meaningful Student Involvement? Maybe you’re a school leader, principal or headmaster who wants to engage students as partners in formal school improvement processes. Perhaps you work in a state or provincial education agency, or a local or regional school district. Are you a K-12 student who is ready for something more?
Elements to transformation
My work with more than 300+ K-12 schools in dozens of districts across the United States and around the world has led me to understand there are certain elements to transforming student voice into Meaningful Student Involvement. People in any role can build a team to move these elements into place. Here are what they look like.
Celebrate. As students move closer to partnership with educators and further from being the consumers of schools, its essential to move their values to the forefront. One of these is celebration, which can allow adults in schools to lift up success, challenge being overwhelmed and support the ongoing evolution of schools. It can also let student creativity, enthusiasm and capacity for joy to come to the forefront, rescuing adults from our own cynicism.
After helping launch hundreds of Meaningful Student Involvement projects, these are the elements that have come clear to me as keys for transformation. What do you think matters most? I’d love to read your feedback in the comments below – please share!
Every day, every student all around the world should experience meaningful involvement. It doesn’t have to be special, unique, different or exceptional. It also doesn’t have to be a standardized experience.
Here are 5 ways daily meaningful student involvement can happen.
Morning meetings—Every morning, there are grade school teachers that host morning meetings with their classes. In the middle and high school levels, these could be adapted as mini-meetings, or even interpreted as advisory classes. Morning meetings can give students space to share their ideas and knowledge about classes and school, and can open dialogue to promote student-adult partnerships.
Advisory—Research supports student advisory classes. These can be innovative, creative spaces where teachers can re-imagine traditional relationships between teachers and students, and among students themselves. Many schools have used advisory classes to build communication, solve problems, and establish a positive, supportive school climate.
Student voice—For a long time, student voice was treated only as a way to listen to students in big school decision-making, and as the vehicle for making students read school newspapers. However, today we understand that student voice should be integrated throughout teaching, learning, curriculum and evaluation matters. When students see themselves and hear their voices in everything taught throughout schools, schools improve.
Restorative justice—More than simply being a discipline procedure, restorative justice is a new approach to establishing, sustaining and re-inventing school culture. Students work as partners with adults in schools to communicate, solve problems and establish a nonviolent, nonhierarchal way of being. It requires a day-by-day commitment by everyone though, and is maintained through constant adherence and frequent renewal.
Service learning—Infusing the positive, powerful potential of students throughout school improvement to foster successful learning and teaching can happen through the dynamic approach known as service learning. Think of project based learning focused on others’ well-being instead of our own, helping to lift up schools and make them better for everyone! Embedded in every curricular area are thousands of examples, with many dedicated to making schools better places.
Meaningful student involvement shouldn’t be an exceptional experience for just a few students in particular schools reflecting certain circumstances; instead, it should be the daily reality for every learner in every school, everywhere, all of the time.