SoundOut Ideas to Transform Schools: Ten BIG Ideas

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement
Adam Fletcher in Kentucky 2014
SoundOut’s Adam Fletcher presenting “10 Big Ideas” to educators in Kentucky.


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For almost 15 years, SoundOut has been working to improve schools in the United States and Canada. During this time, we’ve focused on three primary platforms: Student voice, student engagement and Meaningful Student Involvement. Based on our studies and practice, we have many ideas about improving schools. Following are ten of the most important ones.

  1. Infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into every school’s improvement plan, everywhere and for every student.
  2. Teach all students about education as a process, as an institution and as a democratic responsibility.
  3. Educate every teacher in every school about all aspects of students’ cultures.
  4. Create opportunities for students to co-lead federal, state and district educational policymaking.
  5. Establish every student as an active, empowered and engaged partner in every aspect of schools and throughout the entire education system.
  6. Engage every educator in exploring the roles of discrimination throughout education.
  7. Develop standard opportunities for all students to research education, in  either elementary, middle or high school.
  8. Promote widespread understanding of adultism throughout the education system.
  9. Foster policies, professional development, student training and other sustainable supports for Meaningful Student Involvement.
  10. Challenge all student tokenism in all education settings, everywhere, all the time.
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1. Infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into every school’s improvement plan, everywhere and for every student. Through currently existing programs and efforts, Meaningful Student Involvement can enliven, encourage and empower student/adult partnerships. Using the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement, educators and students can transform all parts of schools, including the culture and climate, the curriculum and assessment, the student support services, building leadership and extracurricular activities, as well as community connections and beyond. Learn more about school transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right nowAt Park Forest Elementary School in State College, the Lead Learner (aka principal) Donnan Stoicovy has been using Meaningful Student Involvement as a guiding principle for more than a decade. Her efforts have created an elaborately healthy approach to student/adult partnerships throughout the school’s curriculum and culture, encouraging every learner to become engaged, empowered and successful.
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2. Teach all students about education as a process, as an institution and as a democratic responsibility. Schools can begin empowering every learner by teaching them what education is, how it happens, how it affects them and what they can do to improve it by teaching students about education as a process, an institution and as a democratic responsibility. Like Toto running up to the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and pulling it back, students need to learn that school is not a mysterious process or unmovable force. Learn more about the purpose of schools.

Where its happening right nowSince the early 1970s, NOVA Project High School in Seattle, Washington, has been engaging students as partners. In the course of their learning, students explore their roles in the school and throughout the larger community. They become active in social change projects, lead school improvement activities and partner with educators and others in school decision-making.
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3. Educate every teacher in every school about all aspects of student cultures. Student cultures are as varied and diverse as the entirety of North America. Even within homogenized communities, there is diversity of thought, opinion and belief that isn’t obvious to the naked eye. Teachers should learn to envision, identify, foster, embrace and enhance student cultures, giving students the abilities they need to be themselves throughout schools. Learn more about student cultures.

Where its happening right nowEducators with the kid∙FRIENDLy project in Kentucky have been taught about student culture from students and SoundOut staff. Working with hundreds of classroom teachers and building leaders from the western part of the state, SoundOut helped educators learn about the diversity of students today, they different ways students perceive their educations, and a variety of ways educators can embrace student voice right now.
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4. Create opportunities for students to co-lead federal, state and district educational policymaking. Educational decision-making at all levels needs to include students as partners. Empowering and infusing student/adult partnerships into schools, its essential that students have opportunities to deeply affect, address, create and critique district, state and federal educational policymaking. With equal numbers of elected, full voting positions on school boards, regularly hired spots in education agencies, and appointed seats on committees, students will be seen and treated as partners, not only at school but throughout the entirety of the education system. Learn more about student voice in education agencies.

Where its happening right nowStudents on the Alberta Minster of Education’s Student Advisory Council have been informing the provincial Alberta Education agency as they plan and implement school improvement for more than 5 years. Affecting everyone of the provinces 61 school districts, the Council has shared opinions and ideas about dozens of topics with Ministry officials. Focusing primarily on the question of how to promote student engagement throughout education, the Council has influenced decisions on curriculum, teacher prep, and many other issues.
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5. Establish every student as an active, empowered and engaged partner in every aspect of schools and throughout the entire education system. Routinely asking the same students to be active again and again only perpetuates an ineffective vision for student leadership. New opportunities should be created and sustained for every student in every school, not just the convenient students in traditional roles. Learn more about traditional and nontraditional student voice.

Where its happening right nowFor almost a decade, Youth and Adults Transforming Education Together, or YATST, has been working to transform the entire education system from within. School-level teams work to study and transform their buildings, while the program works statewide to ensure student knowledge and ability is kept at top levels with training, networking and other activities. State-level officials stay in-touch with the program regularly, and recent legislation was passed to ensure longterm sustainability for the program.
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6. Engage every educator in exploring the roles of discrimination throughout education. Whether they are elementary class teachers, senior high literature teachers, building leaders, elected district officials or appointed state school board members, every educator has a responsibility to identify, examine, critique and denounce discrimination throughout education. This happens from the delivery of classroom content to the development of assessments; from behavior practices to parent involvement. Learn more about discrimination in education.

Where its happening right nowA growing awareness of adultism in schools is driving several national organizations to adopt new policies, approaches and programs. They include the Southern Poverty Law Center, which features a lesson plan about adultism on their website. This lesson plan is intended to help educators understand what they may consciously or unconsciously be doing in schools and how that affects students.


7. Develop standard opportunities for all students to research, plan, teach, evaluate, make decisions and advocate within the education system, in  either elementary, middle or high school. Every student should experience the depth and breadth of Meaningful Student Involvement throughout their education careers. Starting in kindergarten, all students should have gradually expanding and deepening opportunities to learn, grow and lead schools. Learn more about growing through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right nowWith a focus on whole school Meaningful Student Involvement, Jefferson County Open School has implemented a K-12 approach to education for more than 40 years. Students have opportunities to lead, partner and implement many parts of the educative process, as well as the school itself.


8. Promote widespread understanding of adultism throughout the education system. Adultism is bias towards adults, consequently resulting in discrimination against students. Adultism is present in the very assumption behind public schools, which is that all young people should be forced to attend. Continuing from there, adultism becomes obvious in school design; curriculum and assessment; teaching and classroom management; building leadership; state policy; and beyond. Learn about adultism in schools.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


9. Foster policies, professional development, student training and other sustainable supports for Meaningful Student Involvement. Every effort should be made and supported to address, identify and implement policies that support Meaningful Student Involvement, as well as policies that are barriers to student/adult partnerships. From there, new and rewritten policies should be written that emphasize Meaningful Student Involvement. Different approaches, ideas and abilities need to be implemented and evaluated, all centered on Meaningful Student Involvement. Learn more about policies affecting Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


10. Encourage Meaningful Student Involvement in all education settings, everywhere, all the time. When students, educators, administrators, parents and community partners are empowered with the knowledge of Meaningful Student Involvement, they are automatically charged with challenging status quo. Rather than just knowing about it, people who learn about Meaningful Student Involvement must feel compelled to do something about it. Standing still is simply no longer an option. Learn more about Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Whole School Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

2013LearningthruMSIWhat would whole school Meaningful Student Involvement look like? There are a lot of ways to picture that vision. Following is one way to picture all of it.

What It May Look Like

Imagine a school where democracy is more than a buzzword, and involvement is more than attendance. It is a place where all adults and students interact as co-learners and leaders, and where students are encouraged to speak out about their schools. Picture all adults actively valuing student engagement and empowerment, and all students actively striving to become more engaged and empowered. Envision school classrooms where teachers place the experiences of students at the center of learning, and education boardrooms where everyone can learn from students as partners in school change. (Fletcher, 2005a)

Components of Whole School Meaningful Student Involvement

Whole school Meaningful Student Involvement happens when every student in every classroom experiences Student/Adult Partnerships throughout their educational experience. Following are some components that may be included:

  • Classrooms: Classrooms that embody Meaningful Student Involvement can look many different ways. However, certain attitudes and characteristics soak through these places. The main thing that is evident are Student/Adult Partnerships, which every student and every adult involved in a learning environment can experience.
  • Teaching: Teaching is more than methods or attendance. Instead, its a combination of intention, ability and outcomes, and everything in between. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when all of these reflect the Principles of Student/Adult Partnerships and the Elements of Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Assessment: Rather than simply looking at the outcomes of teaching, learning and leadership, assessment should reflective a formative approach. Students should be at the center of their own assessment, too, with explicit instruction and direct opportunities to evaluate themselves, their peers, their classes, their schools and the entirety of the education system.
  • School Culture: The shared behaviors, actions and outcomes of students, teachers, support staff, leadership, parents and others form a school’s culture. Committing to engaging students as partners requires a high level of whole school commitment. Every partner in schools should be aware of these commitments and should demonstrate a high level of their own commitment, too.
  • School Climate: While some people have innate amounts of social and emotional intelligence, what they often sense in education is the school climate. ALL people are affected by school climate, which is made of the common feelings, attitudes, opinions, thoughts and beliefs of everyone within the school. If students are visibly disengaged, that is because educators, parents or others are too; vice versa is true as well.
  • School Committees: Comprised of various people from throughout the learning environment for a variety of purposes, school committees can address dozens of longterm topics, or many immediate issues facing a school. These bodies should make student involvement a high priority, deliberately nurturing opportunities, education and other avenues for Meaningful Student Involvement. With adjustments, they can be among the most direct ways every student can be involved.
  • Extracurricular Activities: Athletics, clubs and other activities that happen outside structured classroom time provide a lot of opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement. None of them is the exclusive domain for Student/Adult Partnerships though, including student government, honors clubs and ethnic clubs. All of those are opportunities, but so is being a library aide, peer mediator and even JROTC drill team member.
  • School Leadership: Principals, headmasters, assistance managers and other adult figures can foster Meaningful Student Involvement in many ways, including all the ones shared above and others. In context, Principals’ Advisory Teams, professional development, student body wide surveys, student training and other tools can foster Student/Adult Partnerships.
  • School Rules: All schools are governed by laws, policies and regulations from beyond them. However, they also develop their own rules. Meaningful Student Involvement can be infused throughout these rules, reflected in their structure and purpose as well as their creation and implementation. Since everyone in a school follows the rules, this is a great way to impact all students in every school.

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Understanding Student Disengagement

The Tree School in São Paulo


“Has a bad attitude…”

“Is uninterested in learning…”

“Slow and having low intellectual aptitude…”

“Lives in a bad neighborhood…”

“Lacks motivation…”

“Socially maladjusted…”

“Comes from a bad family…”

All educators are well-meaning in their intentions for students. Nobody wants students to fail, no matter how poorly they are paid, how discriminatory they may be, or how brief/long they’ve worked in schools, there is no teacher, administrator, support staff or other adult in schools who overtly wants students to fail.

Teachers, counselors, administrators and other adults throughout the education system genuinely want students to get good jobs and have successful lives. They create activities and opportunities, programs and entire organizations that intend to promote students success, in ways that many adults define it: Future-oriented, success equates to having good educations, nuclear families, and successful employment, which means a great paycheck and a powerful position.


Suspicious Students

Students who don’t aspire to that vision of success are looked upon suspiciously. They are given labels and stigmatized constantly, and their version of success is frowned upon by adults. These students are given many descriptions, and are oftentimes said to be:

  • Deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills
  • Disconnected or at-risk of disconnecting from home and/or school
  • Facing disabilities
  • Coming from low-income families
  • Experiencing past, present, or chronic homelessness
  • Living in foster care or transitioning out of foster care
  • Experiencing pregnancy or parenting
  • Having a criminal record
  • Being court involved
  • Being gang involved
  • Experiencing substance abuse

Unfortunately, these descriptions show how we’re misunderstanding student disengagement.


3 Ways to Understand Student Engagement

If we are serious about student engagement, we have to understand what really disengages them right now. Here are three ways to understand student engagement.

  1. Understand that ALL Students ARE Engaged in Learning Right Now—We Just Don’t Recognize That. With so many different avenues for educational engagement, including production, innovation, distribution, consumption, deconstruction and re-invention, the overwhelmingly vast majority of students are engaged in the learning right now. Advertising teaches students; parents, communities and neighbors teach students; afterschool programs teach students. All students are learners, right now. We might not appreciate what they are learning or how they’re learning it, or approve of the lessons being taught – but that doesn’t negate that learning is happening. We simply aren’t acknowledging that this is happening.
  2. Understand that Students are Engaged in Other Activities—We Simply Don’t Validate Their Importance. Even if they’ve dropped out, left home, or play video games all day, students are engaged in all kinds of things that are educational. They can be engaged in friendships, skateboarding, fashion, music, video gaming, cars and anything else in which they have a sustained connection. Because of that, they can also be engaged in things adults see as negative, like drugs, alcohol, sex and vandalism. If adults want students to become engaged in learning, we have to present them with something of equal or greater value to become engaged in—after we learn what they are currently engaged in.
  3. Understand that Students have been Taught to be Disengaged—And We Are Responsible for That, Too. Through television, at school, in their family lives, and throughout our communities, students are routinely taught to be disengaged. Parents and teachers constantly make decisions for students without students while politicians and business owners choose what students need without them, as well. However, a magic day comes when adults insist students automatically become engaged in what adults want them to. When that doesn’t happen we become frustrated and confused. Its no wonder why—imagine what its like for students themselves!

These are three ways to REALLY understand student engagement. If you want to engage students in schools, it is important to understand these ways, because every students experiences some part of them right now.


Why It Matters

When faced with students who fit the descriptions above, adults in a variety of roles make immediate decisions based on them. They decide what students’ behaviors, attitudes, ideas and beliefs are without ever talking directly with them. In many cases, employers, teachers, social workers and others decide these students are disengaged. Because of that, they brush past them in interviews, ignore them in classes, or release them from services that might be vital to these students.

Student disengagement is often presented as a viral disease that sweeps through particular populations of students, like those listed above. This is especially true when talking about high school, where disengagement leads to students becoming “failed learners”. This view is often presented with research by its side, including claims that student engagement in the economy is determined by the income levels of families of origin more than other effects. However, correlation is not causation, and a lot of this research is presented from a lopsided perspective.


How To Change It

If we really want to address student disengagement in schools, we have to really understand students. Here are three ways to do that.

  • Acknowledge Student Engagement in Learning Right Now. Look at these seven parts of learning: Innovation, Creation, Development, Distribution, Consumption, Deconstruction, and Re-invention. Every single student is engaged in at least one of these parts right now. Alas, schools might not value their learning engagement, but that doesn’t mean students aren’t educationally engaged. Students are educationally engaged if they are writing apps for cell phones; reading magazines during school; running a lawn mowing business; knitting scarves for their friends; buying the latest songs online; recycling soda cans to save the planet; or taking apart old TVs and rebuilding them into something else. If you want to change your understanding of students, start seeing how they’re engaged in learning right now.
  • Validate the Importance of Every Form of Student Engagement. If you aren’t happy with the ways students are engaged in learning right now, try seeing the other things they’re sustainably connected to right now. Learning is woven throughout their lives, and every kind of student engagement benefits every part of the education. That means if students are sustainably connected to sports, they’re learning; if they’re engaged in comic books, they’re learning; if they’re deeply committed to learning about any topic, they’re learning. If you want to understand students, validate the importance of every form of student engagement.
  • Acknowledge You are Responsible for the Problem, and can be Part of the Solution. No generation has created the challenges it faces, and none is solely responsible for creating the solutions. However, if more people are going to understand students, we need to recognize that each of us is partly responsible for this challenge—and for the solution. This isn’t some grandiose charge, either. Its an earnest call for practical, meaningful action throughout schools right now. You have to take that responsibility in order for things to be different.


These are important considerations for educators to keep in mind when they are trying to help students graduate; learn about social issues; train students to do a particular job; teach life skills to students; make policies and regulations for students; and much more. They should be kept in mind by programs, classes, organizations, curriculum writers, and others who promote student engagement.

When we work from these places, we will see dramatic improvements in student engagement. That includes better classroom outcomes, learning goals, lifetime prospects, and much more. If we fail to acknowledge these realities, a different future is waiting than anything that’s been anticipated.


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Cycle of Engagement © 2016 Adam Fletcher for SoundOut.

Meaningful Student Involvement Creates Student/Adult Partnerships

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

The seventh aim of Meaningful Student Involvement is to engage adults as allies and partners to students.

Today, schools routinely treat students as passive recipients of education, encouraging the perspective of students as empty vessels that need to be filled with teachers’ knowledge. However, there are alternatives. Some schools are using students as informants to tell them what students like and do not like; others are giving students the reigns to their learning and entrusting them with the keys to the castle of education. Meaningful Student Involvement is different from both of those approaches because it positions students as partners who are actively, wholly engaged throughout the entirety of teaching, learning and leading throughout the education system.

Meaningful Student Involvement does not cast students as the sole authors of their educational experiences. Research and experience have repeatedly proven that is not wholly beneficial to students or the democratic society we share. Instead, adults can have all kinds of roles in engaging students as partners, including facilitating, training, teaching, challenging, developing ideas, advising, mentoring, standing up with, or even standing up for students. (Bragg, 2007) Meaningful Student Involvement even encourages adult allies to do things on behalf of students when it is appropriate—and throughout the current education system, that is often the case. The challenge for adults within Meaningful Student Involvement is to not do for students what that can do with students.

Empowering adults to become allies and partners to students requires helping them see students as part of the solution, instead of seeing them as a problem to be solved. It is important to distinguish this difference, if only because it is foreign to many educators, administrators, parents and community workers focused on education. Seeing students as a problem to be solved is a deficit model that is entrenched in the belief that young people are not full humans. Instead, many adults throughout the school system today see students as “adults-in-the-making” (Kohn, 1993) who are not capable, desiring or deserving of the right to make decisions for themselves, let alone for other students.

It takes a deliberate effort for many adults throughout the education system to see students in a different light than what they have been traditionally cast. Colleges of education, education publishing companies, professional development trainers, policymakers and other facilitators of adult capacity building throughout the education system routinely demean, neglect, deny and incapacitate students. Wholly neglectful of the people they are charged with serving, these entities cannot be demonized for their roles in traditional student involvement, as they are merely perpetuating the larger culture they have inherited and the culture they are part of. However, if promoting Meaningful Student Involvement is going to be successful, all adults throughout the entirety of the education system have to become engaged as allies and partners to students.

This can happen by using the same efforts that engage teachers as classroom experts and parents as community partners, and expanding, innovating and transforming these practices to bring in other adults and to also include students as substantive contributors throughout all parts of the education system.

Questions to Ask
  • Can you envision having a 50/50 partnership with every single student you interact with every day, week, month, or year?
  • Are there different kinds of partnerships you are in with adults? Are all partnerships equal?
  • What gets in the way of engaging students as allies right now?

< Aim Six | Aim Eight >


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Social Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Social justice is effort specifically taken to rebalance the injustices faced by any group of people who are routinely, systematically and consistently disregarded and disrespected.


Growing up, my family experienced situational poverty and occasional homelessness. In my teenage years, once we had settled in the Midwestern United States, I was hired by a neighborhood nonprofit to co-teach in a summer program for young people who lived in Omaha, Nebraska’s public housing projects. The program, called “You’re The Star!”, was developed alongside Augusto Boal’s notable approach called “Theatre of the Oppressed.” My director, Idu Maduli, became a lifelong inspiration whom I sought to mold my work with young people after.

Idu instilled in me many things, not the least of which being a love of learning and teaching. I developed a deep appreciation for the history of the predominately African American community where I eventually grew up for a decade. I also learned the elements of social justice from my work with Idu. Social justice, which is the deliberate empowerment of oppressed people within a system of intentional or coincidental injustice, can be fostered throughout education in many ways. (Banks, 1998 ) Through its focus on social justice, Meaningful Student Involvement holds multicultural education at its heart.

From my young efforts in social justice education, I transitioned to youth development programs with historically disengaged children and youth. Working in out-of-school learning programs in low-income communities and communities of color, the places I mentored, tutored and taught often reflected my own upbringing in a socially, economically and emotionally depressed community. However, I was enthralled to facilitate student empowerment outside and within the education system. In my first AmeriCorps term, I worked with Kurdish and Iraqi refugee students in the Midwest. For the first time, I observed the elements that made successful student learning, and discovered intersections leading to student empowerment. Since then I continued exploring the topic, and today, I understand that student empowerment is the attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby learners gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of other people, including students and adults. (Vavrus & Fletcher, 2006)

That centers student empowerment and social justice in the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. I hold that the frameworks, considerations, concepts and applications explored throughout this book can affect every student in every school across every nation and around the world. As several others have posited, Student/Adult Partnerships are student empowerment and social justice in action. (Beane & Apple, 1995; Cervone & Cushman, 2002; Beaudoin, 2005; Mitra, 2006; Fielding, 2010; Beattie, 2012)

Considering my own background, it should come as no surprise that I merged my undergraduate studies in critical pedagogy with my graduate and professional studies focused on student voice. After studying works by Paulo Freire (Freire, 2004), Michelle Fine (Fine & Weis, 2003), bell hooks (hooks, 2014) and Peter McLaren (McLaren, 2003), Henry Giroux (Giroux, 2013) and others, I began examining some of my basic assumptions about student voice. I explored the reasons why student voice is so frequently qualified by adults, and saw how adults selectively choose which students to listen to and which to ignore, consciously and unconsciously. Looking for the faces of the low-income young people and youth of color I worked with throughout my career, I saw very few of them being invited to share their voices. Yet, as these young people (myself included) got in fights, cheated on tests, vandalized classrooms and dropped out of school, I also heard them call out. This was reinforced by other critical literature, too. (McDermott, 1998; Rubin & Silva, 2003; Cook-Sather, 2007)

However, it was my mentor Henry Giroux whose definition of voice resolved these differences for me. According to McLaren, Giroux says voice “refers to the multifaceted and interlocking set of meanings through which students actively engage in a dialogue with one another.” (McLaren, 2003)

Together, McLaren and Giroux built an early understanding of the potential for student voice to affect social justice in education. (Giroux & McLaren, 1982) Wanting to simplify and expand common understanding of student voice, I believe it is important to hold the intent of Giroux’s definition by holding a lot of different ideas and critical conceptions inside of the term. In my 2014 publication, The Guide to Student Voice, I wrote, “student voice is any expression of any learner, anywhere, anytime related to education.” (Fletcher, 2014) I continue to share that explanation and explore it throughout my work.

Social justice and student voice meet at the intersection of Meaningful Student Involvement, providing powerful, positive and purpose-filled opportunities for historically disengaged students to drive active, substantive and transformative change throughout education. Who can ask for more?

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