Literacy and Meaningful Student Involvement

classroom bannerLiteracy is at the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. Literacy is more than simply reading; its understanding, interpreting acting on, assessing, and critiquing what’s been read, learned, reported, researched or promoted.

What It Is

For one hundred years, educational thought leaders from John Dewey to Paulo Freire encouraged teachers to consider the depth and breadth of literacy. Today, its widely accepted that everyone in society is affected by their levels of literacy in different areas, including their literacy in school knowledge; consumer consumption; social creation; family implementation; and cultural critical thinking. In schools, students experience varying amounts of true literacy education. Its been shown the amount of comprehensive literacy education are affected by the:

  • Political backgrounds of educators and politicians who make decisions for students
  • Socio-economic backgrounds of learners
  • Cultural influence over students’ families
  • and other factors.

According to UNESCO, “for individuals, families, and societies alike, it [literacy] is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.”

2013LearningthruMSIHow It Works

Literacy affects every part of every person’s life from the moment they awake to the time they fall asleep, and even the hours in between. Their level of literacy is a humongous determining factor for how comfortable, successful and rewarding those hours are. From the Internet to text messaging; from advertising to packaging; from cultural traits to personal behaviors; from law enforcement to legal jurisdiction, all communication is driven by literacy. Additionally, all politics is driven by literacy and the ability to critically confront power and authority throughout life.

In highly literate communities, there is a constant, healthy and substantial exchange of ideas and debate. Illiteracy can breed exclusion and violence.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

With its learning cycle and outcomes firmly based in research and practice, Meaningful Student Involvement can provide useful frameworks for teachers to engage student voice beyond simplistic and tokenistic measures. It can help administrators facilitate further inclusion for students throughout the education system. Ultimately, it can reframe discourse around learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

Rather than being a passive model for educators to simply implement in schools, Meaningful Student Involvement insists on literacy by positioning Student/Adult Partners in critical relationships with each other, with the frameworks, and with each other. The outcomes include highly personalized, high-ownership environments where students and adults co-facilitate each others’ personal growth. Educational literacy is a unique outcome of SoundOut’s frameworks; every school should include this as a goal of every students’ formal educational experience.

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Student Empowerment and Meaningful Student Involvement

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Student empowerment is any attitudinal, structural, and cultural activity, process or outcome where students of any age gain the ability, authority and agency to make decisions and implement changes in their own schools, learning and education, and in the education of other people, including fellow students of any age and adults throughout education. There are countless ways this can happen as well as many potential outcomes, all of which feature learning, teaching and leadership. Student empowerment happens in schools; child empowerment and youth empowerment happen outside of schools. 

How It Happens

Throughout our society, adults act as the apex (top) power holders, using adultism to enforce their power. This is true within schools, too, where adults are ultimately responsible for all activities, outcomes and processes. Student empowerment happens when adults share any amount of that power with students.

There are times when students can attempt to grasp the power of adults without adults sharing it willingly, too. However, these are fleeting because of adults ultimate grasp on power.

Student empowerment generally happens through student authorization and student action. Student authorization, which is part of the Cycle of Engagement, happens when students acquire the knowledge and positions they need in order to affect schools.

What Stops Empowerment

As reflected elsewhere on this site, there are many barriers to school transformation reflecting student empowerment. They include the culture of schools; structures within education; adults throughout the system; and students themselves. There are also many ways to overcome these barriers.

However, one of the barriers to student empowerment is the concept itself: By dispensing their power without discretion or well-informed intentions, well-meaning educators can actually do a moderate-to-severe disservice to students themselves. Placing students on a pedestal, the behind these actions is often that any power is better than no power, and that students are devoid of power within schools right now. However, that’s simply not the case, and learning about student empowerment before taking action can do a lot to improve students’ experiences with this approach.

What many educators are actually striving for is not student empowerment at all, but Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

When student empowerment activities are most effective, they reflect Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system. Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized through deliberate teaching  focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.

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Student Behavior and Meaningful Student Involvement

SoundOut workshop in Cheney, Washington
Students participate in a SoundOut workshop about student voice and classroom behavior in Cheney, Washington.

Student behavior and classroom management are consistently important issues to educators and students in the area of Meaningful Student Involvement, although for different reasons.

What It Is

Classroom teachers often report they want to use meaningful involvement as an incentive to make students behave better; students often report that if they were meaningfully involved, classroom behavior would not be an issue.

When considering the variety of issues that are tied together within student behavior, it may seem important to address it through school improvement approaches. However, what Meaningful Student Involvement promotes is consideration and understanding of the contexts of challenges in schools. This includes the overall issue of student engagement and the different ways different students are engaged throughout learning, teaching and leadership.

How It Happens

There are many issues to consider when thinking about student behavior:

  • What makes student behavior right or wrong? Who determines what is right or wrong?
  • What happens when students behave well? What happens when they aren’t doing well?
  • Should students sacrifice their happiness for good behavior?
  • When we expect students to behave well, do we limit expectations for them in other ways?
  • What informal rules do we expect students to follow?

When educators use rules arbitrarily and without learning objectives, students often see behavior as an artificial measure for their behavior. Similarly, when behavior is rewarded and made an example of, students can see it as a measuring stick for their intelligence and ability.

Meaningful Student Involvement can position students as co-learners with educators, allowing everyone in the classroom to learn and grow together. Student/Adult Partnerships in all grade levels can explore:

  • What counts as “good”?
  • Should we behave “good”?
  • Does “good” behavior earn us the outcome we want?
  • What outcomes can “bad” behavior get us?
  • What happens when two students can’t be judged by the same standards?
  • Can we learn our way to good behavior, or is it something we either do or don’t do?

With this type of inquiry-based learning through student behavior, classrooms and schools prove to be vibrant, vital and ever relevant for learners of all types, including the historically disengaged. Meaningful Student Involvement can allow the traditionally static relationships between learners and teachers to become more elastic, and that sense of ability to change everyone’s learning experiences, including students who traditionally get “in trouble”.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

Infusing Meaningful Student Involvement into classroom management has become a challenge in many classrooms. Mark Barnes, an author and the creator of the Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE) method, shares three simple steps for teachers:

  1. Create a workshop environment in your classroom that encourages the pursuit of learning and allows little time for disruption.
  2. Set the tone from the beginning of the school year by eliminating all discussion of rules and consequences by explaining that your learning space is built on mutual respect and the quest for knowledge.
  3. Keep activities engaging and behavior will never be an issue!

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Disconnected Students and Meaningful Student Involvement

There is a crisis of disconnection affecting students, teachers, classrooms and schools around the world.classroom banner

What is Disconnectedness?

Disconnectedness is the absence of any sustained connections in life. Disconnected students can feel separated from from learning, curriculum, peers, teachers, teaching, learning devices and more. They can feel disconnected from relevance, rigor, and relationships, as well as disconnected from their selves and their communities. This disconnectedness is at crisis proportions because almost every student in every school experiences it at some point throughout their education.

The Challenge

Disconnection is a challenge because it prohibits many things that are essential for school success, including student engagement, student ownership, student agency and more. Disconnected students literally cannot experience those things without proactive, positive and powerful experiences of Student/Adult Partnerships.

Opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. The relationship between meaningful involvement and disconnection is direct: Moving students towards active, authentic and substantial opportunities to reconnect to learning, teaching and leadership throughout education.

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Inquiry Based Learning and Meaningful Student Involvement

Iclassroom bannernquiry-based learning, or IBL, is an approach to teaching that can position Meaningful Student Involvement in the center of any topic, in any grade level. The essence of IBL is that it lets students work with a learning challenge until they fully understand it with learning activities and projects driving the process.

In classrooms where IBL is used, learning centers on challenging students to solve problems through problem-posing, experimenting, exploration, creation and communication. Instead of giving students a linear, straight path towards finding answers, IBL allows educators to guide, mentor and facilitate learning through well-designed challenges meant to engage students in identifying the tools or topics they need to learn to solve them.

You know you’re in an IBL classroom when there are:

  • Clear, deep and meaningful challenges facing students
  • Significant, sustained opportunities for student-to-student collaboration
  • Educators co-engaged in the learning process
  • Projects underway that address substantive issues

That last bullet point is where Meaningful Student Involvement can be infused tightly with IBL. Focused on real issues in education, IBL can a powerful driver for students to learn through involvement. Ensuring those projects meet real educational challenges ensures the transition from IBL being an average school method towards becoming a meaningful method for learning, teaching and leadership throughout the education system.


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Social Justice and Meaningful Student Involvement

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Social justice means making sure all people in all experiences have equitable economic, political and social privileges and rights. Social justice in education opens doors of access, opportunity, ability and empowerment for everyone, especially those who have been denied in the past.


What is it?

Social justice in education varies by the individual people involved and not involved; obvious and not-obvious culture; social class and economics; gender and identity; context and community; space and time. Social justice is often associated with listening to student voiceMeaningful Student Involvement actually relies on social justice by fostering equitable partnerships between students and educators.

Through classrooms, curriculum and culture, teachers, school leaders and politicians have used schools to control society for more than a century. With these tools, the advantages and disadvantages of age, class, gender, and race have been enforced, made deeper and sustained. Through social justice in education, schools have also and continue to liberate students and transform communities. Sometimes all of these things happen in the same educational settings at the same time.


Where does Meaningful Student Involvement fit?

Social justice can emerge through Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Students partner with adults to learn, teach and lead the education system.
  • Space is created for students to examine, dissect and build their knowledge of social justice and injustice in their lives.
  • Dialogue happens between educators and students about what social justice means, what it is and is not, and how it can happen in education.
  • Strategies for action are embedded throughout education that engages students as planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates in schools.
  • Power and privilege are manifested and how these influence their lives in their neighborhoods, states and countries.
  • Politics, power and relationships are revealed throughout education and government education policy-making by Student/Adult Partnerships.
  • Reflect on possible outcomes of learning, teaching and leadership throughout education that dismisses justice as a priority


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Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by passion and purpose. By making student voice more substantial with the following methods, teachers can infuse meaningfulness into learning, teaching and leadership. 

Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement

This deliberate connection ties together the strategies for meaningful student involvement with the purpose of education. Using these methods for teaching and learning can all educators to thoroughly foster substantial Student/Adult Partnerships and signify the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as opportunities for learners themselves evolve.

No single classroom method, approach, style or ideology encapsulates Meaningful Student Involvement, and that’s why SoundOut promotes the broad conception. However, several different methods can be used to enhance, enrich, encourage and enliven student involvement throughout learning, teaching and leadership. When infused with Student/Adult Partnerships, these methods can add up to classrooms and schools that are more meaningful than ever before.


These are just some methods for Meaningful Student Involvement. What would you add to the list? Do you have any questions, concerns or ideas? Share them in the comments section!

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Access to Higher Education and Meaningful Student Involvement

The issue of access to higher education is both affected by and affects Meaningful Student Involvement in a variety of ways.

What It Is

When higher education was available only to the rich and powerful, all other learners were forced to find advanced studies in other places, if at all.

Some people were lucky enough to find apprenticeships; others couldn’t learn any further than the lowest grades. This continued into the 1950s in the United States, when programs for veterans and the Civil Rights Movement provided more access to community college, trade school and colleges universities.

However, today there are still barriers to higher education for many people. Students who’ve experienced the power of Meaningful Student Involvement may face discouraging experiences attempting to get into higher education, or once they arrive there.

Where Meaningful Student Involvement Fits

A small student voice movement is emerging in higher education institutions across North America and Europe, and globally.

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Career and Technical Education and Meaningful Student Involvement

In the summer of 2002, SoundOut presented a series of professional development sessions on Meaningful Student Involvement in Career and Technical Education in a Western Washington school district.

Scott LeDuc, a master teacher/trainer with SoundOut, and myself spent two days with teachers in Spanaway, Washington, covering this powerful integration of new roles for students as partners with lifelong learning and livelihood education.

Here are the descriptions from the district’s professional development catalog. Participants may attend both sessions, but it is not necessary to attend both because they are not sequential.

Engaging Students as Partners in CTE

This session introduced participants to SoundOut’s nationally-recognized “Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement.”

Participants explored the main elements, principles, key characteristics, and barriers to engaging students as partners in CTE. Participants used our popular “Strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement” and learn about our evaluation tools.

Throughout the session, participants examined real classroom case studies where students were powerfully engaged through Meaningful Student Involvement to meet 21st century learning goals through CTE. Hands-on and interactive activities, practical exercises, and meaningful examples allowed participants to draw on their own knowledge and experiences to enhance student engagement in their classrooms.

Integrating Student Engagement into CTE

Participants in this session explored the relationship of Meaningful Student Involvement to 21st century learning goals. Focused on SoundOut’s nationally-recognized “Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement” and 21st century skills, participants identified how to practically incorporate these skills into existing classroom approaches.

The session were very interactive, emphasizing classroom applications and shared knowledge. With Meaningful Student Involvement as a recognized high-quality standard in schools across the US and Canada, participants explored how to infuse practical standards into their classroom design and implementation.

By the end of this session, participants gained new abilities focused on teaching 21st Century Skills, discovered new avenues to promote positive, powerful student behavior, and learned effective ways to integrate feedback from students into classroom activities. They also began focused planning to apply this new knowledge.

As SoundOut moves further into CTE, we learned a great deal from these workshops. Scott’s experience as a CTE teacher for over a decade matched a passionately commitment to move the field forward. These workshops built on past CTE and STEM-related work we have done, including working in the fields of technology education, student leadership organizations, and others.

SoundOut has always been about real world and real life skills, and we look forward to connecting schools to the tools and training they need to bring students on board as partners in this field.

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Students on a Pedestal

There’s a special place where students are placed in stark contrast to their roles in our daily lives. Typically, students of all ages are segregated from adults, compelled to follow rules and laws they didn’t make, and shown what to do with themselves through advertising, education, family life, and community norms. Nowhere along the way are they treated as full humans, capable of contributing to the larger world around them for their benefit and the benefit of others.

Until they get to that special place of being Students On A Pedestal.

From there, students are allowed to step above and beyond their peers. They can glimpse out across the lands and see the places where adults see. Their access grows and they become able to see where their age group peers stand, as well as some adults.

With an increased amount of education and opportunity, these students can grow still more powerful, acting as little adults who are controllers of their fates and masters of their domains.

In this strange upside down kingdom, these students can boss around and manipulate adults to get what they want. They drive conversations, control situations, and seemingly move mountains compared to their peers. With experiences as top performing students, athletes, musicians, scholars, performers, and more, they seem mighty.

Looking up at them isn’t a particularly pleasant experience for all their peers. Sure, some friends hold up the pedestal, putting their backs and hands to the column to ensure their friends’ security. Others step back and stare up in awe, wondering how that kid got that power, while others still throw rocks from the distance and try to knock that student off their pedestal.

The challenge for Meaningful Student Involvement activities is not to build pedestals for students. This is also called romanticizing student voice. It happens by positioning students as speakers at adult conferences; putting students in charge of the school board for a day; making some students shine while others throttle, stuck in gear without the resources and attention they need to move forward. Well-meaning educators perpetuate this by making formal student leadership opportunities distinctly for so-called Student Leaders. These students often already have a lot of access to the adult work, and are merely gaining more as their pedestals are made taller.

Solving the crisis of student pedestalling is going to take more than this article. Its going to take a commitment by every educator to stop assuming students need to be held up high above their peers. Instead, we must create opportunities for all students of all grades and all abilities to experience having the spotlight shine on them for who they are, rather than simply how we want them to be.

The real root cause of student pedestalling is adultism. We, as adults, have distinct ideas about who we want to be around and how we want them to behave, every single one of us. The students who shine through the morass of segregation and demonstrate their effectiveness at being adult-like are generally the ones we place on pedestals. The inverse is true, too: The students who don’t behave how we want them to become disengaged.

How do you treat students you particularly like or get along with? Do they stand equal to their peers and adults, or do they stand above everyone else? Putting students on a pedestal does no favors for them, and ultimately undermines your best intentions. Is that what you really want?

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