Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement (c) 2015 SoundOut.

Meaningful Student Involvement is not a stand-alone activity. Educators and school leaders commit to fostering Student/Adult Partnerships that transform the hearts and minds of school communities through initiatives that concentrate on the well-defined need to integrate roles for Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. Taking a whole systems approach to addressing that challenge, individual classrooms, whole buildings, or entire districts emphasize new designs, materials, processes, tools, policies, or any combination, in order to address multiple problems surrounding student engagement and student voice. These strategies should be integrated, dealing with key issues throughout the school community.

The graphic above illustrates the systems approach of Meaningful Student Involvement. It reflects three spheres of activity where I have seen and worked with schools as they integrate students as partners throughout education. They are the Core Sphere, which illustrates the places where Meaningful Student Involvement happens; the Nesting Sphere, which shows which activities I have consistently found foster Meaningful Student Involvement throughout the education system; and the Surrounding Sphere that emphasizes the elements of the education system that hold the keys to transformation.

This conceptualization is intended to represent two commitments: The first, a commitment to aligning Meaningful Student Involvement with systems thinking, and second, a commitment to demonstrating practical, pragmatic ways to move theory into action.

There are three Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement that should be recognized.

A. Core Sphere: Locations

The Core Sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement is comprised of several locations for where students can be engaged as partners in learning, teaching and leadership. While I have identified specific activities throughout the school where student voice happens, this specific sphere reflects a larger systemic approach to integrating students as partners throughout the education system. There are six sections in the Core Sphere that show where Student/Adult Partnerships are formed and affected.

A-1. Classroom Pedagogy

This is the crux of teaching, learning, and assessment in all schools. Teachers study, practice, and critically examine pedagogy, often identifying places where student voice can strengthen their practice. Pedagogy includes curriculum and informal assessments, as well as teaching styles and learning tools including technology and textbooks. Meaningful Student Involvement should be reflected in the ways teachers teach, classrooms are managed, and learning is assessed, starting in classroom and rippling throughout the entirety of the system.

A-2. School Environment

The environment for teaching, learning and leadership throughout schools is determined by many factors including relationships, relevance, rigor and responsibility. The environment includes relationships between students, including bullying and peer helpers, as well as student-teacher relationships, and relationships between every adult throughout education. Meaningful Student Involvement informs all relationships between students and adults throughout schools and the education system, from school counselors to principals to district staff to the state school board.

A-3. Extracurricular Activities

Student government, clubs, sports, and any other activity not directed by classroom learning happens in extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities include anytime a student spends in school when they are not earning credits, including clubs, sports and student government, as well as cafeteria time, library usage, theater and more. The efficacy of out-of-classroom learning should be deeply informed by Meaningful Student Involvement by embracing students as active drivers of activities, opportunities and outcomes through extracurricular functions of all kinds.

A-4. Education Leadership

Building principals, local and state boards of education, district and state education agency staff, and federal politicians fall into this category. Meaningful Student Involvement should be infused through equitable partnerships with education leaders, and should not negate, deny or otherwise silence any students. Leadership activities include building administration, teacher committees, district policy-making including school boards, state administration including grant administration, professional standards, building assessments, program reviews, and formal assessments of student learning. Decision-making efficacy, ongoing relevance and empowered outcomes can all happen through Meaningful Student Involvement throughout these processes.

A-5. Formal School Improvement

Every K-12 public school must strive to constantly improve, innovate and transform in order to meet the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s society. This includes data-driven assessments of school performance; qualitative evidence of student and adults’ opinions about school achievement; analysis and data; prioritization of issues according to research-demonstrated outcomes; whole school planning; student/adult partnered implementation; and ongoing monitoring by students and adults that re-informs the process of assessments. In order to do this, Meaningful Student Involvement is infused throughout formal school improvement plans and actions by integrating students as partners. This process can lead students and educators towards powerful outcomes for all learners.

A-6. Public Action for School Transformation

Students around the world are asserting themselves into local, state, national and international dialogues about education transformation and other essential conversations about schools. They are doing this by engaging as public citizens who are leading student organizing, participating in community-led school transformation and other active protest movements. Meaningful Student Involvement can be an engine of this action, serving to embrace and empower students through deep learning and substantive outcomes that sustain their roles throughout time.

The six components of the core sphere hold almost all activities that occur throughout education. That is because every adult throughout the education system can benefit from Meaningful Student Involvement. When adults throughout the education system realize and enact that, more and more students will have room to become meaningfully involved.

From here, it becomes vital to understand that Meaningful Student Involvement cannot happen within a silo or simply through one channel. Instead, when understood as needing nesting, the Core Sphere is seen as a poignant place to begin—not end.

B. Nesting Sphere: Actions

The Nesting Sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement is made of the roles through which research and practice consistently demonstrate positive, powerful outcomes. I call it the Nesting Sphere because these activities hold the Core Sphere intact by nurturing Student/Adult Partnerships in action, rather than just in concept. Meaningful Student Involvement is both conceptual and practical, and not simply an either/or dichotomy.

These six roles form a typology that can be infused throughout schools on both personal/individual levels, and the community/collective levels. They can be seen as both a progression through a linear continuum of action, and as a hodgepodge from a variety of perspectives that depend on where you are looking from. I identified them in my initial research on student involvement almost fifteen years ago. They are meant to reflect the vast majority of the times students said involvement mattered most to them.

I expand on each of these greatly further in the book; this section is merely an introduction.

B-1. Students Planning Education

When you are observing the second sphere, the first role you should understand is student as planner. Students of all ages are capable of planning a variety of activities throughout education. Any student can participate in planning on personal and community levels in activities that affect just them, or ones that affect everyone throughout a school district or beyond. The possibilities of students as planners align well with the first sphere, as each of those locations requires planning of some sort.

B-2. Students Researching Schools

The second role has to do with examining any component of education, from why it happens to how it’s delivered, and all points in between. This research can be practical, where Student/Adult Partnerships examine what is happening throughout education and why it is happening. Practical research generally includes questionnaires, surveys, interviews, observations and/or discussion groups. Students researching schools can also focus on theoretical research, where they read research archives, published academic journals and other sources to device their own theories about learning, teaching and leadership. 

B-3. Students Teaching Classes

The arch of time has consistently shown that French philosopher Joseph Joubert was right when he philosophized that, “To teach is to learn twice.” When students teach students, when students teach adults and when students teach themselves, they learn far more effectively than through any other approach. Whether focused on building skills or sharing knowledge, students can devise their own lessons plans or partner with teachers; they can deliver curriculum and facilitate coursework; they can co-teach, tutor, or self-lead learning. This is not just some students, either: it is every student. Every student has the capacity to teach and learn from themselves and other students. 

B-4. Students Evaluating Education

Stepping into roles as evaluators shows students they have substantive perspectives that others students and adults need and want to know. Students are already evaluating their schools every single day by showing up metaphorically and practically. Given opportunities to systematize and expand on those evaluations, they can help inform practical action and transform stagnate learning into active, dynamic and meaningful involvement for themselves and their peers. 

B-5. Students Making Decisions

Research has consistently shown that students want more opportunities to be involved in making substantive decisions about what happens to them in schools. Confronted with individual choices daily, students also want systemic decision-making opportunities that move beyond the A/B binary and towards the complex, real-world decisions made so often by adults for them. This can happen on every level throughout the education system, and effectively engage every single student as partners in the process. 

B-6. Students Advocating For Education

When they are first confronted with the picture of students advocating for education, many adults automatically assume there is no one better to stand up for schools than the beneficiaries. However, the challenge of this is that students often do not understand themselves to be benefiting from schools. Learning about things that matter to them and discovering ways to stand up for what they believe in is a lifelong skill that will enrich everyone, especially students in schools.

This six roles can wrap around the hearts of students and adults alike, weaving through their imaginations the possibilities and hopes of learning, teaching and leadership throughout schools. Concentrated by their alignment with a place in Core Sphere, these roles can invigorate and enhance the meaning of student involvement wherever it happens. However, they become truly enriched when viewed from the perspective of the Surrounding Sphere.

C. Surrounding Sphere: Realms

The outer sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement are the realms for transformation. Individually, each of these reflects a different way that summarizes the major areas of action. Collectively, they form a distinct pathway for students, classroom teachers, school leaders, education agency officials, and others throughout the education system as well as community partners. This sphere seeks to infuse student voice with power, purpose and belonging throughout the entirety of the education system, but does so by showing the main drivers in each location throughout schools. Each of these realms can become apparent to anyone who is observing them, when they know to look for them. Students can see the culture of schools in their everyday interactions with peers and adults; teachers can see the structure of schools in their pedagogy and practice throughout the day; leaders can see the attitudes of individuals in every location and activity throughout the system.

C-1. Culture

Apparent throughout the everyday functioning of the education system, culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable school community. Culture is shown in the ways people talk with each other; the nonverbal communication they use; the clothing they wear and the ways they decorate themselves, and more. The physical places throughout school systems reflect the culture of education, whether considering the hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, student commons, principals’ offices, school boardroom, or other places. If a space is highly formal, it might demonstrate a culture of tradition and determination. If a space is decorated with student art and graffiti, it might represent informality and looseness.

The culture of schools is reflected in student involvement. It is important to understand that culture is in the eye of the beholder also. If a classroom is filled with slouching, bored-looking students who are sloppily dressed and mumbling to each other, an adult may assume that the teacher is ineffectual and the students are disengaged. However, listening to student voice could show these same students are reclining comfortably while deeply engrossed in brainstorming and problem-solving a classroom issue.

Similarly, vandalism and bullying in schools is also an indication of whether students feel meaningfully involved or not. If Meaningful Student Involvement is apparent in school culture, bullying will be mitigated. All students of all ages are well capable of expressing themselves and their opinions, experiences and ideas in schools and about education in healthy and positive ways, given substantive opportunities to do that. Without those opportunities, students are left to identify ways to express themselves. While these may take the form of articles in the school newspaper or impassioned speeches at school board meetings, Meaningful Student Involvement these do not make. Instead, these are temporary and constrained expressions. So are vandalism and bullying in schools.

The culture of a school that has embedded Meaningful Student Involvement is distinctly reflective of that reality. The elements of Student/Adult Partnerships become increasingly obvious in every relationship between every student and each adult within a school building, and beyond that into the entire education system they belong to. The key characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement appear eventually will appear with such frequency in classrooms, hallways and throughout schools that they will be indistinguishable from the school culture. Needless to say, the very perspectives of adults will have transformed wholly, and every student in every school will be seen as a partner.

C-2. Structure

Where culture reflects the intangible, yet observable components of Meaningful Student Involvement, the structure of schools is made of the named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout an education system. The structure of the education system has traditionally appeared rigid, inflexible and hardened to the realities and needs of modern society. With compartmentalization of jobs throughout these old-fashioned structures, teachers were responsible merely for teaching the subjects they are responsible for; principals were responsible for managing their teachers; and others throughout the education system were similarly divided by purpose and outcomes. This worked in a society that treasured conformity and uniformity over creativity and entrepreneurship. However, coordination and communication between different players in these education systems was limited, and the real needs of students were wholly ignored. Standardized curriculum and assessments were the norm, and a fixation on efficiency increased classroom sizes while allowing a large percentage of students to dropout and/or be funneled through the school-to-prison pipeline. Regardless of their position in schools, students were always seen as the passive recipients of adult-driven planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy in schools.

An emerging structure in schools is focused on smaller learning environments. This approach allows more specialization to meet student needs or desires by giving educators more leeway to make decisions for themselves. A large urban school that once had 5,000 students might be split into four small schools, each one focusing on a different learning area, including a liberal arts school, a social good school, a technology and engineering school, and a performing arts school. This approach works to foster Meaningful Student Involvement rapidly and specifically among different populations of students. However, it can be expensive and limited by a district’s size or budget. Additionally, since there are no guarantees, these smaller schools can also use a traditional structure on their scale.

A third type of school structure overlays both of the previous types of structures—traditional and small schools—within a single school building. This can allow educators to act as experts in their own fields of teaching and leadership, while allowing students to experience Meaningful Student Involvement in teaching, learning and leadership. Without deliberate facilitation and high-level coordination by school leaders, struggles can emerge among students who are experiencing meaningful involvement, and there can be distinct senses of challenge and competition between the meaningfully involved and those who do not experience that meaningfulness. These challenges can be met though, as according Student/Adult Partnerships can nurture wide-ranging student engagement, while the structure of the school maintains its alignment with the school improvement planning process. 

C-3. Attitude

Attitude is made of the opinions, actions, knowledge and beliefs of individuals. The attitudes within an education-oriented environment are made of every individual within those environments. Attitudes determine the outlook a person has on the world around them, and as such they influence the course and outcomes of all teaching, learning and leadership throughout the education system. Attitudes belong to all layers of a person’s identity, whether it is their role in schools as a student, teacher, paraprofessional, janitor, school board member, or bus driver; as a member of a racial or ethnic group; whether a person is an English Language Learner, is fluent in multiple languages, or is a non-English speaker; and whether a person identifies as poor, working class, low-income, middle income or high income. Self-perceptions of academic achievement drive students’ attitudes, while adults in schools perceptions of professional efficacy drive their attitudes as well.

Student attitudes affect every component of their school day and educational experience. This includes their social standing, academic achievement, classroom and out-of-classroom behavior, as well as Meaningful Student Involvement. If a student has an attitude that allows for them to be in a partnership with adults throughout the education system, they will be much more effective than the student who is limited to believing they must resist Student/Adult Partnerships. Similarly, adult attitudes affect every component of Meaningful Student Involvement.

If students look around a classroom and do not see themselves, they will not have attitudes that will lead towards Meaningful Student Involvement. If adults throughout an education setting constantly use diminutive and limiting language about students or simply do not discuss students at all, they cannot foster Meaningful Student Involvement. When students feel threatened with punishment for expressing their perspectives, wisdom, ideas, criticisms and knowledge about schools and education at large, they cannot be meaningfully involved. If teachers constantly experience disengaged and apathetic students, they may not attempt to meaningfully involve learners in their classrooms. Students and adults need to work together to identify what attitudes look like when they reflect Meaningful Student Involvement. Planning for action should center on fostering the proper attitudes for Meaningful Student Involvement.

D. Habits of Meaningful Student Involvement

Fostering the attitudes needed to support Meaningful Student Involvement requires intention and action. The following attitudes form the habits of Meaningful Student Involvement. They reflect the highest attitudes and best potential individual habits required. In order to support every student in every school becoming meaningfully involved throughout every facet of the educational system, every part of the education system from kindergarten classrooms to the president of the country should foster these habits among students and adults alike.

  • Trust: Mutual trust is required, including trusting oneself and trusting others, whether its students trusting other students, students trusting adults, adults trusting students, or adults trusting other adults.
  • Inclusiveness: Intentionally reaching out to every student and every adult throughout a school or district or state agency should be a habit of all meaningful involvement.
  • Commitment: Everyone shares a commitment to build and support Student/Adult Partnerships for every student.
  • Reciprocity: Forming a habit of sharing with others what is shared with you is a key to meaningful involvement.
  • Challenging: Students should take on challenges throughout the educational process and across the entire education system by partnering with adults.
  • Equality: No student is more deserving or naturally needing meaningfulness in education than any other student.
  • Grit: Working hard to improve schools benefits each of us and every generation after us.
  • Learning: We learn valuable lessons we would not otherwise by serving our schools, communities and society at large through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Equity: Adults should not do anything to or for students; they should do everything with students, or create opportunities for students to do it on their own.
  • Transformation: Schools are places where students will continually grow and change, and because of this they will continually grow and change in order to support students. They will do this through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Humility: Students and adults are humble and accept that there are things about themselves and what they do in schools that can be transformed through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Accepting: Creating space for students to provide critiques instead of criticism requires adults become accepting of difference and acknowledging of ongoing change.

These attitudes are vital for individuals the education system to adopt, including students and all adults no matter what their roles. Our attitudes inform the deep beliefs every person has about teaching, learning and leadership—no matter what their age. These beliefs drive student and adult decisions and behavior in schools. The attitudes behind Meaningful Student Involvement are about looking at education in terms of creating value for everyone involved instead of adults alone. This is an engaging and necessary approach in today’s dynamic society that continues to transform every single day.

Summary

These three components form the surrounding sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement. They form the container that the core sphere and nesting sphere rest inside of. Without addressing these components, the other spheres will not and cannot be meaningful. I expand on these components in depth later in this book.

Each of these spheres is wholly interactive with the others, and provides a view into the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement.

 

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