If I had to guess, school played a central organizing role in probably 90% of my world when I was a teen. A few family things that weren’t around school, summer baseball (non-school), and maybe a couple of other small things rounded out the other 10%.
These things made school “sticky”, a place I wanted to be for a variety of reasons even when academics weren’t always one of them. Because of this, there was an opportunity cost for missing school (including, by the way, peace at home if I made poor choices).
But, the student cost calculus has flipped today. For this generation of students, 90% of their world is on, or directly accessible through, their phone or tablet or laptop, all of which go wherever they go. So, when they check their devices at the school door, when they can’t access their social networks, when they can’t just immediately Google anything they want to know, they experience a loss.
In other words, this generation of students experiences an unprecedented opportunity cost of going to school. (All I left behind was a television and a Nintendo. And, candidly, Days of Our Lives, Super Mario Brothers, and Techmo Bowl weren’t too much to sacrifice!)
While a wholesale sellout to technology is not the answer for schools, it is, in fact, our competition for student bandwidth. And, while blended learning and BYOD (bring your own device) strategies are key to improving the educational delivery system, they do not focus on the development of the whole student or the school as community.
As we push for ed reform and build new technologies to support it, we must remember that schools, when most successful, are more than just educational delivery systems. They must offer a broader value proposition for students, today more than ever.
If we are going to truly transform education, we must reduce the opportunity cost of going to school.
When you pick out your clothes for the day, do you check your almanac to see what you should wear?
No. More than likely, you check your phone’s weather app for a quick forecast and then determine your wardrobe according to this timely and (usually) more accurate information.
When you decide to walk the dog or go for a jog or a bike ride, do you check the almanac to see how nice it is outside, to determine if it is a good day to be out?
No. More than likely, you use your eyes and your experience to assess the situation and then grab the tools (umbrella, windbreaker, water bottle, etc.) that will help you make the most of it.
We don’t use an almanac for daily decisions because we have access to better information, more accurate, more specific, and therefore more effective data for guiding our choices and behaviors.
Like weather, school climate can change rapidly, or it may trend consistently over a longer period of time. It’s hard to know, unless we pay attention closely and check it in close time proximity to the decisions we make that are impacted by it.
But, in schools, we do a climate assessment once per year, if we do one at all. It generates massive amounts of data that, if we are lucky, we are given many months later - often after many of the students who actually completed the survey have graduated or moved on to new schools. The data report covers the broad range of topics that are a part of school climate - safety, relationships, effective teaching/learning, leadership etc. - in one big tome. It’s the school climate almanac (and often ends up in a filing cabinet or on a shelf somewhere).
Surely, for something as critical to our education system as school climate, we can do better than an almanac.
If school climate is created moment by moment and relationship by relationship, why does our data collection happen once per year?
In an age when students walk around with the power of Google in their pocket, how can we create new opportunities and more effective tools for our teachers, students, and administrators to create and support a positive school climate minute by minute, hour by hour? We cannot afford for school climate to be the by-product, a passive observation, of a school community at a moment in time. It should be a powerful, proactive, living and breathing educational tool.
If we want students to participate, we need to provide opportunities for them to participate.
If we want student voice, we need to create avenues to hear and capture it meaningfully.
If we want students to be leaders, we need to be willing to step back and let them lead.
Every day, adults use terms like voice, leadership, and engagement, and we design opportunities and programs based on them – but typically based on an indecipherable mash-up of what are unique and distinct concepts.
Several years back, seeking clarity, I sat down in an attempt to organize and articulate some of these terms more fully. I ended up writing the Continuum of Youth Involvement. I wanted to help adults get on the same page about what we really want, what we are really willing to give up, and what we can gain when it comes to the meaningful involvement of our students/youth.
After all, if we don’t know what we want from the start then we will continue to build programs and opportunities that don’t live up to our ill-defined aspirations (or perhaps surpass them in ways we are unprepared to see). If we don’t know what we are willing to give up as adults (power) then we will inevitably over-promise and under-deliver for the student in regard to their power. If we try to collaborate with youth and with other partners without clarifying our expectations, we will end up with little to show for our efforts.
For example, I have seen countless schools, community groups, and citywide youth collaboratives who all said they were interested in “student voice”. So, they work for days or weeks or even months together around this idea only to find out that one person, or an entire group, just meant that they wanted to survey youth, another wanted focus groups and a youth on the “youth voice” committee, and yet another wanted students to have an ongoing and unfettered say on important issues in the school and community.
After all that time and work, they realized they were never even close to being on the same page. Now what?
Days, weeks, and months of work go down the tubes. Adults are frustrated. Youth are confused. Energy and resources are wasted. The efforts of the group often get documented in a wholly un-actionable set of ideas, plans, and programs and most everyone returns to business as usual. Worse yet, adults are less likely to invest in youth voice again (even through a better process) and students are less likely to trust adults when they hear that term.
So, let’s commit to saying what we really want and are prepared to work for first. Let’s be honest about where we are and where we want to be along the Continuum of Youth Involvement.
If we don’t have many students participating, let’s start there and not talk about engagement yet. If we aren’t sure how to develop meaningful leadership opportunities, let’s start by listening to students and get their “voice” on what is important to them. We can co-create leadership from there. If engagement feels too abstract, let’s work with students to facilitate real leadership, which done well, will spur deeper engagement.
Before we can do what we say, we need to know what we are saying.
Unlearning is critical
This may seem odd as so many of our high schools struggle with students who read many grade levels behind, whose math skills are elementary, and whose writing is more understandable in a texting format than in a research paper. Logically and for years, we have invested in academic supports and remediation strategies early in high school to get students “up to speed”. But for many students, these interventions, while perhaps “catching them up” academically, do not generate the ongoing academic discipline that continues them on a trajectory of sustained academic growth and improvement. In other words, students may catch up, but too many just stay even or fall slowly (or quickly) behind again.
We are intervening with solutions that don’t address the root cause of the problem. As students fall behind and yet still get promoted along from grade to grade, yes, their academic pathway gets broken and confused. But, the more significant reality is that their developmental process gets corrupted. As students fall behind, many are developing a set of skills and a view of education and of their own development that is far more catastrophic than whether or not they can do Algebra at a given time.
The fact is that youth development is happening, even if it is youth development that does not support academic or other positive outcomes. It is happening in every minute of every day in every school. And, this youth development process is the medium upon which academics emerge and are carried along (or not).
While academic failure is what we assess and where we have intervened, when a student has fallen behind, it is often this developmental medium that has become fundamentally tainted. Make no mistake, students are developing a sense of work ethic when they figure out they can pass without actually doing the work. They are developing important social skills when they learn crafty avoidance rather than how to ask questions when they struggle. They are developing their sense of identity when we demonstrate we don’t value them enough to ask and persist in helping them develop a positive vision of the future and a pathway to get there. They are establishing their understanding of trust when they fall behind and the people and institutions that have failed them blame them.
And so, they bring this identity, these skills, this perverted sense of vision and trust into school with them as part of who they are.
If we want to invest in a meaningful way in catching these students up (academically and developmentally) and putting them on a sustainable path of improvement, we have to intervene by helping them unlearn much of what they know. We cannot wait for investments in early education to hopefully “trickle up” and manifest in high school improvement. We also cannot continue to try to patch complex adolescent developmental challenges with only academic interventions.
If our most struggling high school students are going to learn how to learn, they may first need to unlearn.
The Other Foreclosure Crisis
For roughly four years now, we have heard the far ranging reports about the housing foreclosure crisis amid the other challenges in the economy. The country has seen millions of families lose their houses and destroy their personal credit. Many of these families have lost the one significant asset they had as they worked to build their American dream. The impact of the foreclosure crisis has been deep and devastating and continues to resonate in many communities.
There is another foreclosure crisis, however, that is even more critical to our economy and to the health of our communities; and we still have not even talked about it. This foreclosure crisis has been wreaking havoc over generations, not just since 2008. It is an insidious foreclosure emanating from within the individual rather than imposed by forces from without. And, unlike housing, this foreclosure crisis shows no signs of moving in the right direction.
This crisis is the foreclosure by our youth on their own futures.
I was reading recently about “identity status theory” which proposes four statuses that help describe the degree to which a young person has committed to an element of his identity. While I don’t want to go into much detail in an area where I am less than a novice, I was compelled by one status presented in this theory: foreclosure. This is the state in which a young person has given up on an element of his identity without fully exploring it or truly understanding it. For instance, a young person has given up on becoming a college graduate even before he knows what it truly means or why it might be, or become, part of his self concept.*
With this theory in mind, it became clear that millions of students around the country, particularly low-income students and students of color, have foreclosed on their own futures (we often misrepresent it as lack of motivation). Their social, familial, and educational networks have instilled that certain jobs are not for people like them; that certain educational paths are not for people from their community; that certain dreams are not for families like theirs. And, these messages have been internalized and are guiding identity development. As a result, our young people’s time (hope) horizon becomes shorter; the potential importance and impact of good education decisions neutralized; and their personal motivation becomes more reflective of external influences and limitations than internal drivers and individual aspirations.
Given the poverty and isolation of many of our urban and rural schools, this state of identity foreclosure defines the landscape of a large part of our public education system – particularly those areas most targeted for reform. As a result, attempts at reform that fail to address this fundamental identity development issue will continue to make only peripheral improvements. Investing in education reform efforts that do not account for such basic youth development is sort of like investing in lawn care to stem the housing foreclosure crisis.
And yet, youth development is rarely mentioned in education discussions. We talk discipline instead of decision-making. We talk content and curriculum instead of self-concept and culture. We talk about teaching without paying much attention to how students learn.
When we invest in teacher training, are we doing so with a deep understanding of the physical, social, and psychological realities of our students? Are we sharing the latest research on the teen brain and developing education strategies accordingly? Or, are we training teachers to be facilitators of the education system?
When we invest in new curricula, are we doing so with new strategies that acknowledge students can Google anything they want to know? That they have access to content on their phones that my generation did not have access to at all? Or, are we merely plugging updated content into old and ineffective distribution models?
When we invest in new education technologies, are we developing and purchasing products that students actually want to use? That contribute to their identity development, motivation, and engagement in school? Or, are we investing in products that make sense for the institution and facilitate the system, but that students only use begrudgingly? Are our technologies developed with student interests or with adult interests in mind?
As so many of us seek to find a way forward in building strong public education, postsecondary opportunities, and a strong economy, we can no longer afford to ignore the fundamentals. If we are going to truly reform public education, we can no longer ignore youth development in schools. Left unaddressed, identity foreclosure will inevitably undermine any and all of our education reform efforts.
A must read: Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success by Mandy Savitz-Romer and Suzanne M. Bouffard
If Monet Visited My School
I recently saw an exhibit at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville entitled “The Birth of Impressionism” that visually chronicled the evolutionary process, the critical questions, as well as the outright revolutionary transgressions in the world of painting that gave us Impressionism. And, while it is now recognized and sold on everything from coffee mugs and calendars to umbrellas and t-shirts, Impressionism was a revolution that shook hundreds of years of practice and assumptions about art and its relationship with the artist as maker and the viewer as consumer. Among many other things, it democratized art.
As painters sought to capture a moment, a sense, an honesty rather than to narrate a story or promote a religious or social ideal; as they focused on a more common reality (often criticized as base) among the artist and his audience; and as they moved from the confines of the studio to the outdoors (en plein air), they sparked a new spirit in art that fueled Modernism’s evolution and continues to resonate into the 21st century.
When you look at a Monet landscape at sunrise, you can feel the warmth of the sun’s glow against the cool air coming off of the water as fishermen begin another day’s work.
When you let your eyes wander across a social scene by Renoir, you can feel the energy and hear the sounds of the place and sense what it is like to be there.
And, moving to Van Gogh and post-Impressionism, you can find yourself melancholy, uncertain, or otherwise unsettled by an energy you cannot seem to place, but feels very familiar.
Doing what art does, it got me thinking: what would it look like if Monet was around and set up his easel outside of schools to capture the morning scene as our students arrive? What spirit would he convey? Would it invite us in?
What if Renoir set up shop in our hallways between classes or perhaps during lunch? What energy would he capture? Would we want to be there?
What if Van Gogh sat in our classrooms? How would he twist and turn his strokes, morph his shapes, and structure his light to capture that familiar, but often unnameable sense of what it looks and feels like for students to be in our classrooms? Would we be unsettled?
Of course, the next obvious question is: why would we need a bunch of dead artists to capture this for us? What if our students could set up their own easels and capture the emotion and spirit of these moments for themselves? What would they paint? What color palette would they choose? Would they have the lightness and joy of a Renoir, or the ominous psychology of a Van Gogh? Would they capture the sleepy hopefulness of a Monet sunrise or the weighty somberness of one of his sunsets? If they were not painters, perhaps they could just draw or otherwise capture their sensibilities through words, spoken or written. What does it feel like for our students to be in our schools?
Beyond the test scores and attendance and graduation data, how does our environment, our school climate, that impression of being in a place and at a time, promote the success of our young people?
Alternatively, how does our school climate support and promote teacher success as well? What would they paint, draw or write to capture their own impressions?
Like the creative revolutionaries who set the stage for and gave birth to Impressionism, how do we evolve education, ask the critical questions, and have the urgency and fearlessness of transgression in order to truly revolutionize every school and every classroom? How do we redefine our notions of creator and consumer in order to democratize education and to co-create, capture, and share our impression of a positive school climate?
Power to Share
At a recent meeting of school administrators from across Wisconsin, we had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the opportunities and challenges related to involving students in their schools. We based this work on the Continuum of Youth Involvement (pdf). We considered the range of involvement from student participation to voice to leadership to engagement. We sought to understand the distinctions and to have candid conversations about where we had worked, where we were willing to work, and where we had the support to work along that continuum. One key clarification from the conversation is that where student voice has never been considered, we will struggle to dive into conversations and practices around youth engagement – at least systemically. We can always have the brave and creative outlier who manages to engage students deeply despite his/her broader school environment. But, this is not our goal. Our goal is the systemic inclusion and engagement of young people in their own lives and their own education.
Mirroring this discussion about students, we asked the group of administrators to consider the same Continuum of Involvement, but to do so with the teacher in mind – teacher participation, voice, leadership, and engagement. What does this look like in schools? What are the barriers and opportunities? Supports? What have their experiences been? The two conversations were very similar.
Involvement along the continuum for both teachers and students is about power and power sharing, both in the classroom and in the broader school community.
Reality Check: Teachers without power cannot share power with students.
And the logic continues that principals without power cannot share power with teachers and so on.
Those of us who advocate for student involvement at any level (whether in schools or elsewhere) would be well served to consider advocating similarly for the adults closest to and supporting our youth. Student/youth engagement is about a cultural shift in schools and communities, not about a program or the implementation of a distinct practice or new pedagogy. It is about a system of relationships.
Recent discussions and outright alarm about the consequences of bullying in our schools has spurred some larger questions about student rights and responsibilities in schools and our daily attention to detail in this regard. In other words, I guess recent tragedies have left me wondering: how did it get so bad for these young people without some awareness or intervention or support by either peers or adults?
On October 30, the American Civil Liberties Union in Nashville is hosting a Students Rights Conference for “high school students to talk and learn about student rights in schools and in the community.” The topics listed on their flyer include:
Freedom of Expression: Students’ rights related to speech, press, dress, the internet and texting.
Street Law: Students’ rights and responsibilities related to the police, the courts, and racial profiling.
Plus: experts on LGBT issues, privacy rights and religious freedom in schools.
Building this level of student awareness and capacity around their rights is core to the creation of more student-centered schools. And yet, I wonder how much schools themselves, specifically at the building level, know about student rights. For that matter, how much do parents and communities know about student rights? As someone who works for a youth organization, how much do I know about student rights? (Not much for my part I’m afraid.)
Perhaps even more critically, what are their rights beyond those explicitly defined by the Constitution? What about those rights more akin to concepts like dignity, respect, and the like? These are often the most nebulous of concepts and yet most of us agree they are most critical to healthy development and safe school environments.
Assuming we all agree that dignity and respect have their place in schools, how do we articulate what they mean as rights and how in the world do we enforce them as a practice? For that matter, how are student rights like dignity systematically communicated, trained, and made a part of the school operations and climate? Whose job is it to enforce and advocate and be a watchdog for the human and constitutional rights of students every day and in every school? What, if any, are the real consequences if student rights (particularly those that are not explicitly Constitutional) are violated?
I sincerely don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle to be an effective advocate for and with young people due to this lack of clarity.
For instance, have my rights been violated if:
I simply do not know where the line between bad practice and a violation of rights resides. I believe we need to clarify that line.
With no clear student rights, there can be no accountability. With no accountability, there is no way to build the collective and there is no target for positive change. If we are as a nation looking toward a new day and age in public education, where is this discussion (with students) of student rights in our national campaign to reform our schools?
Importantly, with defined rights also comes responsibility. So, on the flip side, where is the discussion (again with students) of student responsibilities in schools? What are the explicit, active roles students play in creating a positive school environment (and “staying out of trouble” and “passing” classes are not sufficient)? Are there any? Do they know it? Have they been trained and prepared with the skills and processes to carry them out effectively?
If we ever want to stop bullying, for example, it will only be through the power of students to take on this issue with a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities. As long as student safety, for instance, is someone else’s (an adult’s) responsibility, students will not see or understand their role as a solution to a problem that they very clearly know exists. There simply will never be enough adult leaders with enough ubiquity to match the reach and impact of peer-to-peer relationships among students. To secure the true dignity and respect of all students in schools (and all adults for that matter), we need to articulate what this means and share the responsibility for living it every day.
Students need to understand their rights and responsibilities. The entire education community needs to understand student rights and responsibilities. Together, we need to hold each other accountable for these rights and responsibilities.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If no one is watching and no one is listening to the rights of students, do they exist?
Power to the Pupil
No matter how long I work with folks or how much I believe we are on the same page, I occasionally still get caught off guard by a fundamental question about youth/student power. It dawned on me recently that I have had a number of these questions come directly back, or filter back circuitously, to me over the years, many times deep into a relationship. Co-workers, colleagues, partners, educators and even just friends have on occasion finally asked that ultimate question, or perhaps even offered it more as an assertion: “I know you talk a lot about the power of students, Anderson, but…I mean…they really don’t have power…(do they?)”
So, here we are; the fundamental question. And, to be clear, I want to thank, not criticize, those who are willing to voice their uncertainty; I just wish many times that they would do so earlier in our work together. Addressing this question together is the only way we can move forward effectively around youth and student engagement.
In response to this very legitimate question, I offer a few scenarios:
What would happen (and does happen) if the students in your community decided they had had enough of the over-suspension of black males in their school? 600 students decide to walk out and refuse to go to class until new policies are put into place. The school is effectively shut down.
Do these students have power?
What if students decided that they were sick and tired of their futures and their education boiling down to standardized test scores? They all decide to sit in on the test but not answer any questions. The school gets near a 100% failure rate as a result. The school, its faculty, staff and the central administration are now in academic crisis.
Do these students have power?
What if students decided that they had seen enough bullying of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gender youth in their schools by students and faculty alike and took their cause to the school board? They manage to get the district to add GLBT language into their school safety and anti-bullying policies. They establish a process and recourse for complaints and the implementation of new teacher training. They shift the climate of the school.
Do these students have power?
It’s hard to argue that these scenarios don’t present powerful students. What we see in these scenarios is student power organized and exercised and aimed at a clear target for change.
But, now the question is: in the absence of this level of student organizing (which admittedly is not as common as I believe it should be given the state of many of our schools), do students still have power?
To answer this question, it is important first to understand that latent power is still power. Fuel un-ignited is still fuel. But are student organizing and advocacy like these scenarios the only way students ignite power? Or, are we just ignoring the more ad hoc power they exercise every day that impacts our communities, the educational system and really every one of our lives in some way or another?
We spend billions of dollars every year and have rung the bell of a national epidemic to address the dropout crisis and to understand the failure of our urban schools. And yet, in our strategies for change and improvement, we don’t talk much about student power in this crisis (thus obviously failing to leverage it).
Students are choosing to walk away from our schools. That’s power. Students are choosing not to engage in boring and irrelevant curriculum. That’s power. Students are refusing relationships with teachers and staff that don’t respect their lives or understand where they come from. That’s power. Students are choosing to join gangs rather than after-school or extracurricular programs. That’s power. On the other hand, there are even more students every day who are choosing to stay in school, to study, to engage and to do myriad positive things in their communities, for their families and with their friends. That’s also power.
Choice is power. The fact is that students are making choices every day and their decisions impact nothing less than the direction of this country and its educational system. And, in regard to the exercise of student power, whether we adults accept, validate, lament or otherwise punish these choices is effectively immaterial. Power is power, and we’re not engaging it.
We cannot choose for our students to stay in school. They have to choose it. We can only co-create with students the spaces, the relationships and the opportunities for effective and informed choices. If this is not co-created, but solely adult-driven, it becomes coercive at best and compulsory at worst.
Our efforts to improve our schools and rebuild our communities must genuinely acknowledge and understand the power of our students without obscuring that power through our adult value judgments. Power has no innate value. Without this level of understanding, inclusion, and leveraging of collective power with students, we will never find the means to co-create change, but will continue merely to impose change that students will ultimately decide if they agree with or not. As we have heard a thousand times, they will “vote with their feet.” Students, in fact, will ultimately decide whether all of our efforts achieve success or are all for naught. They have the power.