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.