The History of Student Voice (pt 1)

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin

The power of student voice is waking up in Seattle – again. Student voice has been engaged throughout Seattle Public Schools more than a few times over the last 30+ years:

  • Since the 1970s one high school has been completely guided by student/adult partnerships
  • In the 1990s students facilitated whole-city forums for students to discuss education with the Superintendent for several years;
  • Student activists led a community organizing campaign starting in 2001 to change one high school’s traditional racist mascot and won, including a court battle
  • In 2004 students worked with the district to extend the curriculum policy to bring in nontraditional American history books focusing on diversity
  • Starting last fall SoundOut’s Student Equity Project has been working in high schools across the district to engage students in constructive processes focused on equity in schools.

Last week a group of students from West Seattle High School met with district administrators to challenge the district to engage students throughout district administration. Today I facilitated a student panel at a district-wide workshop on classroom instructional methodology, and while I had the opportunity to talk with a few officials about the meeting, I mentioned that it would be interesting to see how a district with a mature history of attempting to engage student voice would learn and adapt from its past. The conversation stopped, and there I was, suddenly responsible for educating these folks about the history of their district – just over the last ten years, while they’ve all been there!

Its funny, but adults in schools often forget students, even though they’re surrounded by them all the time. For any of many reasons, we forget that all students have backgrounds and histories and experiences that we can all benefit from, regardless of where we’re at. Instead, in the pressures and challenges and intentions and dreams and frustrations and realities adults all feel, we move constantly forward without looking back. The so-called “youth culture” we’re surrounded by only perpetuates that, as marketers constantly demand we look at the next gizmo, the next wizbang and the next big fad, and forget that everything – everybody – comes from somewhere…

So I want us to engage students in researching and writing the history of students’ voices and student organizing and student/adult partnerships in action… I want them to find the stories, tell the stories and share the stories that matter to them, that affect them, and let these stories and histories stay alive and inform them, inspire them.

People often complain about what I call the “transience of youth”, meaning the fleeting-ness and forget fullness of a time of life when the world is huge and the future is a long, long ways away. These stories can help us remember our own youth, and remember the stories of those before us in order to help understand and grow forward in a knowledgeable and powerful way.

Here is some information that might inform your start down the path of writing your own histories of student voice, and working with young people to do the same:

  • 1935 – Students in NYC organize a summer program to learn about organizing, including changing schools. The High School Summer School
  • 1972 – The earliest-known story about a student running for an elected school board position. The Story of Sonia Yaco
  • 1997 – A national campaign to create awareness about BGLTTQQ rights is created by a powerful student/adult partnership. Day of Silence
  • 1999 – Young people in the slums of India teach themselves to use technology. The Hole in the Wall
  • 2006 – High school students in Chile take control of schools in order to challenge the government to make them better. Chile’s Student Protests

Send your history to us and we’ll publish it on the SoundOut website. Drop an email to info at soundout dot org or simply reply to this post.

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