This is the expanded Q&A interview with Anderson Williams that appears in Volume 25, No. 1 of the Youth Voice issue of the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network Newsletter from page two.
Q: On Page 1 of our Newsletter, you reference what led you to create the youth voice framework Understanding the Continuum of Youth Involvement. You say that the Continuum can help educators avoid some of the common pitfalls in executing youth engagement initiatives. What are they?
A: I think the reality is that when you look at the examples in the Continuum, you’ve got young people making a broad range of decisions, and implementing [projects] based on those decisions. There can be a couple of places where you can fall short: one is offering young people who’ve never practiced decision-making the opportunity to make decisions, and then expecting them to do it with 100% success—that’s one problem. And when the project is not successful, adults rescue the students so that the students don’t ever understand consequences, or feel accountability for their decision-making. They either aren’t allowed to fail at all or are allowed to fail in an unproductive, unsafe way. [If students are going to fail], it needs to be in a safe environment where they learn and understand not just the results related to accountability, but the nature of the decision-making that got them there. So it’s failure without learning, and that’s another pitfall that really pushes young people away. Failure with learning isn’t really failure. It’s learning.
Q: What constitutes a safe environment for students?
A: It’s about trusting that somebody has your back, that somebody shares your interests, and trusting that somebody can tell you the truth in a way that’s respectful and is about learning, and shared goals. It’s all of those things that you’d expect in any trusting relationship—whether that’s within a family, in a community, the workplace, or if it’s a teenager in a school.
Q: Is there a temptation for an instructor to jump to the “Engagement” column of the Continuum and try to start there instead of building up to that achievement?
A: The way that I use the Continuum--and the reason I created it—was to say “be honest about where you are and start there.” The Continuum is not designed as a hierarchy: it’s a strategic growth map on how to get to engagement. Because if young people have previously only been participants, they’re not ready to be engaged fully; you don’t have a relationship there to engage them successfully and effectively. [Young people] haven’t developed the tools, practices, or understanding of “cause and effect” with decisions, accountability, results, work and rework, and all of the things that go into being engaged. You aren’t ready and they aren’t ready
Q: What do teachers and students need to keep in mind when venturing into a youth engagement initiative?
A: It would be a stretch to take someone who was, say, a successful assembly line employee, and suddenly make them CEO of the company and tell them to “go do it and bring everybody else along.” It doesn’t mean that an assembly line person couldn’t become CEO, but you don’t make that jump without some investment, practice, and learning over time because the skill sets are different—even though the context is theoretically the same. How you engage in the classroom requires a lot of different skill sets on the teacher’s part, but also on the student’s part, too. Youth engagement is not just a change in practice for the teacher, but a change in practice for the young person, as well. And that’s why on the Continuum, the emphasis on accountability is detailed for both teachers and students at every level of the work.
Q: But a student can’t expect that engagement will be a component of every class they attend every day, can they?
A: That’s the reason why youth engagement needs to be a core strategy in education. And that means that engagement isn’t something that happens in one classroom—it happens across the educational environment. And that’s one of the pitfalls to [youth engagement] efforts that have burned teachers— and principals and administrators—who have put their necks out to engage young people. [Youth engagement] has not been systemically understood as a strategy for educating young people. So, it hasn’t really been safe for adults or young people trying to make it happen.
Q: If engagement is part of one class a student takes, and not part of another, couldn’t that cause a student to become further disengaged in courses that don’t embrace engagement? Doesn’t every instructor want to be the “cool teacher” who’s always able to engage their students?
A: I’m glad you brought that up, because youth engagement is not about “cool.” That’s a misconception. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what engagement is, and it’s a conversation I’ve had many times with adults. Kids know which of their teachers are trying to be “cool,” and trying to be their friend—and those aren’t the ones they’re engaged with. With the kids I’ve worked with, I made sure they understood that I wasn’t their “friend,” [but their partner and supporter in whatever we were trying to accomplish.] I’m generally a friendly and easygoing person, but in this relationship, the engagement [with my students] was about a shared goal, discipline, and solid, trusting relationships—we were working together on something. I always told them I would work as hard for them as they were working for themselves. But, that as soon as I was working harder, we would have to stop and assess our relationship, focus, and work together. Students may like some of those “cool” teachers, but if they’re not teaching them, they know it, and they’ll call you on it. It’s really important to note that engagement isn’t about popularity, it’s about effectiveness. Students are smart and intuitive about this.
Q: The teachers I remember from high school and college whom I learned the most from, they were all pretty serious about what they were
A: Authenticity is absolutely at the core of it. If you think about who your really great teachers were, although some of them might have been cool, some of them were absolutely not cool. There is research out there that talks about how the nature of the teacher-student relationship guides and determines how effective that learning environment is, and what subjects kids end up being drawn to. And it’s not necessarily the subject, but how it’s being taught, and how you and the teacher engaged in that learning together.
Q: You’ve pointed out in our conversations that there’s a difference between a “youth” and a “student.”
A: We have this really bizarre structure where we call a 15 year old kid a “student” from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and from 2:01 p.m. to 6:59 a.m. the next day, he’s a “youth.” The role of student and the role of youth are fundamentally different. They have different expectations. The adults they interact with behave differently, have different training, and provide different opportunities. And what adults do in the “youth” world and what they do in the “student” world typically don’t connect. So we create these multiple systems because it’s how we’ve approached things historically, rather than thinking about what does it mean as a city, for example, to provide good opportunities for youth to grow up here?
Q: So these terms aren’t interchangeable?
A: In no way, shape or form except that [you’re] referring to the same kid. Teachers don’t learn about youth development, youth development people don’t know what’s going on in classrooms, afterschool programs aren’t tied to what’s going on in schools, and [adults] in the classroom don’t know where kids are going afterschool.
Q: Service-learning has become a popular way to engage students. Is that an effective way to introduce students to youth voice and engagement?
A: It certainly can be. I’ve seen service-learning in a variety of forms: I’ve seen it where a box is checked and where the kids only participate and do what they are told, or, at other times, where the kids have only nominal voice, and still others where service-learning is transformative, where there is true engagement. Service-learning as a tactic for youth engagement can be really transformative—for student and teacher—with the right approach and philosophy behind it. The devil is in the implementation details.
Q: Going back to a term you referred to earlier: how do you introduce students to the concept of accountability?
A: If you watch young people interact with each other, there’s a whole lot of accountability [because] they’re approaching each other from an equal power position. There is a sense of mutual responsibility. It reminds me of a quote I read somewhere to the effect of “accountability is what is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Students don’t have much responsibility in school. The structure of education leaves them only accountable to sit down, stay out of trouble, and [get good] test scores. They’re not responsible or being held accountable for offering ideas to improve the school, to help prevent bullying, for mentoring younger students in their school. They don’t see their role in creating a positive school climate or maintaining the cleanliness of the school. Without any real responsibility, they are merely held accountable for taking the test, making the grade, be a decent kid and stay out of trouble. If they don’t do those, then there may be consequences.
Q: You often hear students complain that they’re never going to “need” a certain course or area of study because it will have no bearing on what they want to do in life after high school. Why is youth engagement important in a longer view?
A: Youth voice and engagement is about relationships, about learning how to navigate institutions, and learning how to communicate with adults, now and as young people move forward in their education or even careers. How do you ask good questions? How do you deal with uncertainty? Ambiguity? How do you have the confidence to connect with others when you’re on a strange campus that you’ve never been to before? How do you make decisions? All of these things have to do with how engaged you are in school, and in life before you get to college, for example. There are kids who are returning home from college because they’ve never been in an uncertain situation, or in a place where adults weren’t controlling the environment. They’ve never been in a place where they’ve had to make decisions that can have a significant impact on their education. And so they get to college and have to figure out what courses to take, they have to figure out their financial aid, where their dorm room is, and meet the person they’re going to be living with. They haven’t done any of that and it’s incredibly scary, and they don’t have the tools.
Q: There’s a lot of discussion of issues like Common Core at all levels of government. Do you think that youth engagement as a core value of education will ever get that kind of attention?
A: I don’t see anything yet in any of the discourse I’m aware of that indicates a shift toward the development of young people as a focus in education. If you look at what the dialogue is, and what the debate is about in this country, it’s about twists and turns in the institution of education, it’s not about learning, and keeping up with all that we know and continue to learn from science about how learning happens. We’ve built this superstructure that is the education system, and we’re creating all kinds of pedagogical debates and philosophies around Common Core issues, while remaining beholden to the same old structures and systems. There are all these conversations and policies trying to shift the rules in a system that has never decided that its goal for improving is actually to engage our students better in learning.
Q: You’ve put forth some ideas and concepts about education that people might not be comfortable with. Some of your ideas could even be called subversive.
A: (laughing) Well, they are. They are! They’re “subversive” because we’re really comfortable in education in running the Institution of Education—we’re not really comfortable in engaging students. It’s the context of a navel-gazing approach where we keep looking and tweaking The Institution as it exists, and iterating off The Institution as it exists without ever coming back and asking the fundamental questions about our relationship to young people and our goals [for them]. It is subversive because everybody is sitting comfortably in institutions of education and school districts that have failed chronically—particularly in urban areas—for generations, and a bureaucracy that keeps them from fundamentally having to change their approach.
Q: What do you see for the future of education and our students?
A: I think that the monolithic “one size fits all” school district is a model that is a thing of the past. Some are going to dismantle more slowly than others, and for a range of reasons including a lack of faith in government, and shifts in politics more broadly. I think that the centralized source of knowledge and expertise is no longer a part of our sociopolitical and cultural belief systems. If charters [charter schools], for example, are managed and learned from appropriately, and are they are successful, there are opportunities for more input and more learning than there is with one central gatekeeper and system.
If you’ve got 10 charters in your district and a central office [then] you get to learn from perhaps 11 different, nuanced approaches to education, rather than one. To me, that’s how we can do better. But, districts and charters don’t often have that kind of relationship unfortunately. Charters aren’t a panacea. They are an opportunity to learn. I’m hopeful we can learn. Some of the best charters in our district [Metro Nashville Public Schools] are criticized for being “overly disciplinarian,” and for having an almost military type structure. But, the thing is that kids don’t innately dislike that. If they trust you, and you share a goal, and [this structure] is about achieving that goal, and they understand it, then they don’t resist that kind of thing. What kids resist is “command and control,” from people they don’t trust force-feeding them an idea they haven’t bought into, and don’t have a shared interest in. Once you’ve built a shared interest and a relationship of understanding, kids will engage when they understand that it’s part of getting them where they want to go.