The Threat of Student Voice


Like ninjas, a group of students slinked into the back of the room. They were dressed a little differently than others at the meeting: ties replaced with necklaces, shiny shoes with torn-up Chucks, slacks with kilts and stockings with fishnet. Alright, the group wasn’t discrete at all, nor did they slink: They were punks, fresh in from ferry ride from a suburban Seattle school.

It was late 2001, and this group of students had just shown up at a service-learning training I was co-facilitating for a state education agency. The room was filled with the typical cast of characters, including teachers, principals, district administrators, and state officials. When reviewing the agenda early-on I specifically mentioned that students would be running part of the training, and while a few people shuffled around, most gave me that knowing nod that implied their understanding.

But when this troupe arrived it blew the room away. The students actually found the back door to the room, slipping in right in front of the participants. This grand entrance was only the beginning: in the following 90 minutes, students had the group interacting, talking about adultism and alienation, and discussing service learning as a strategy to promote youth participation throughout communities. It was an excellent presentation, and I was ecstatic about the students’ facilitation. But I was the only one.

Since then, I’ve learned of a few programs that actually employ students as teacher-trainers for adults, among them GenYES and 4-H. And of course there are anomalies, like most of what we’ve collected on the SoundOut website. There is research that supports the practice, as Dr. Harper has shown by working with more than 1000 schools through GenYES. But this effort still hasn’t caught on.

What is it about children and youth teaching adults that is so threatening?

Despite their advanced knowledge about many subjects, young people are routinely dismissed as insignificant players with insignificant knowledge and ideas that cannot benefit anyone, let alone themselves. Despite their enthusiasm and commitment to many issues that fly through the radars of many adults, youth are seen as under-informed and incapable of deep analysis. All of this harkens to many thinkers, and for me goes back to the W.B. Yates quote, “Education should not be the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Which brings me to the title of this post, “The Threat of Student Voice.” Teaching isn’t the only area in which students are relegated to subservient roles in schools: Planning, research, evaluation, and decision-making routinely happen outside the sphere of students’ direct influence and direction.

Yesterday I had an hour-long phone call with a group of students and adults from Benicia, California. It seems the school board there is attempting to strip students of their right to democratic representation on the school board. (That’s right: Students in Cali have a right to student representation, guaranteed by a state law from the early ’70s.) This group isn’t going to stand for an adult-selected student rep for many reasons, and wanted to discuss considerations and options in their campaign against tyranny.

We quickly sorted out the details and found several points to consider. However, the point we settled on as most important is the anti-democratic disenfranchisement of students because of this action. What lessons are young people learning when adults feel they have to choose the “right” representatives for students, because of the sentiment that students aren’t capable of choosing the “right” leaders for themselves?

Student voice poses a particularly tough challenge for educators. Engaging students as partners, as meaningful contributors, and as drivers throughout their own education inherently demands that adults acknowledge to students that schools are not democratic institutions: students are “compulsed” to attend and made to participate in lessons that they simply may not want to learn. They are “held accountable” by testing that is developed outside their purview; they are subjected to policy-making that routinely takes place without them. The threat of student voice is that students themselves may realize that the very democracy they’re inheriting isn’t democratic at all.

But therein looms a much larger dilemma.

Want to know why Congress wants to kill access to MySpace in public spaces (schools and libraries) for young people? Social networking raises the specter of democracy in places where democracy doesn’t exist – public places. What happens when people who were actively engaged as content creators, contributors, or manipulators online when they were children and youth get out into Adultland and realize that the democracy they’ve inherited isn’t democratic at all? Here’s the answer: They’ll change it. They’ll challenge it. They’ll revolutionize it.

The threat of student voice is real and tangible, and teachers, principals, school boards, and education leaders everywhere should beware: Students just aren’t going to take it much longer. I would propose that student voice is already moving schools towards democracy, whether or not educators are ready for it. In these democracy schools, students learn more than just the history of rich white America and it’s governmental policy-making; instead, students learn to create, contribute, participate, and transform democracy in realtime. That is Democracy 2.0.

Upton Sinclair once wrote that, β€œIt is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Let’s see where growing student voice in schools can take us; let’s see Democracy 2.0 in action.

One Reply to “The Threat of Student Voice”

  1. Read with nodding head – when I was working as a corporate youth officer in local government one of the schemes I ran was councillor training – facilitated and developed by young people.

    It was very successful as I got two official complaints about it πŸ™‚

    The kids ruled…

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