Conformity, Commerce, or Meaningfulness

Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects. – Paulo Freire

In light of the above words of the renowned Brazilian literacy teacher Paulo Freire, violence permeates schools today. This violence becomes apparent in the reports of growing percentages of students who have expressed feeling alienated from their teachers and peers, as well as from their families and communities at large. Many students report feeling mistreated by teachers because of their racial or ethnic heritage, language barriers, gender, as well as other prejudice. The school violence and the resultant crackdown on students’ civil liberties in the last decade stand as the sad manifestation of this violence. 

Ironically, students in all grade levels are increasingly being embraced as powerful market segments by companies vying for their consumer spending power. Young people of all ages are targeted in their homes, on the playground, in their classrooms, and throughout schools. While budget constraints and education reform are limiting the real choices students can make in their schools, vis-‡-vis classes and after-school programs, corporate America directly appeals to students by giving them one of the few actual choices they can make in school: how to spend their money. As critical theorist Henry Giroux has noted, the commercial hijacking of schools glorifies the role of young people as customers in the marketplace while simultaneously undermining their ability to be engaged, critical learners. 

There is hope for schools, embodied in the growing buzz of classrooms and boardrooms, brought to life by the assertion of studentís ideas, opinions and knowledge. There is hope for students, made real when students are engaged as education planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers, and advocates. This is the hope represented by Meaningful Student Involvement, brought to life by students and educators who are building a truly progressive pedagogy with democracy and social justice at its core.

Today, more than ever before, educators are empowering students with the critical skills of reading, writing, language, and technological literacy, along with knowledge, social experiences, and resources they need to build democracy. Today, more than ever before, students seek to enhance their own abilities as well as future generations’ capacities to understand, comprehend, engage, and, when necessary, transform the world they live in. This teaching and learning is happening through Meaningful Student Involvement by engaging students in every facet of schooling for the purpose of strengthening their learning, their communities, and democracy.

Meaningful Student Involvement does not have a guidebook or a toolkit. It is not meant to gloss over the real problems schools face. Instead, it provides a glimpse into a diverse set of practices that offer hope for the future of schools. It provides a glimpse at meaningfulness for students and educators alike. The broad range of experiences represented in Meaningful Student Involvement are intended to serve as a testament to the purpose and effectiveness of engaging students as partners throughout the education system. 

 However, application is the best test. Individually, stories of Meaningful Student Involvement illustrate the degrees of possibility for broadening the roles of students in schools. Collectively, they entrust educators today with a grand conspiracy of hope. This hope, when activated, incorporated and infused into teaching and learning, is one that will change the very nature of schools, and society, for a long time to come.

Excerpted from Stories of Meaningful Student Involvement, © 2003, 2005, 2012, Adam Fletcher for CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators and students, contact our office today by emailing

Partnering with Students

Radical. Revolutionary. Inconceivable. Unnecessary. These words hang like trophies on the mantle of student-inclusive school change, not because they are particularly honorable or grandiose, but because these accusations have been proven untrue. 

Today, in schools around the world, Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as active and empowered partners in inclusive, interdependent school change. This means more than simply listening to students: it means engaging students as concerned partners, coherent contributors, and equal agents of change in schools.

This idea is not new. As early as 1938, progressive education pioneer John Dewey recognized that the habits of democratic citizenship necessarily develop in civic roles for students in schools. In 1970, ground-breaking educator Paulo Freire wrote, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” Throughout the 1980s and 1990s a growing number of writers advocated critical departures from traditional roles for students in school, calling for adults to partner with students in classroom pedagogy and school leadership.

The pool of examples, evidence, and critical reflection that explores students as partners in school change has grown over the past decade, and is currently reaching a critical juncture. That juncture is located in the heart of the growing number of classrooms and schools where students and educators are working together to re-imagine one another’s roles and responsibilities. These pioneers are placing themselves as partners in learning, teaching and leading schools. Everyday they are challenging their peers – both students and teachers – to re-examine the long-held view that students should be passive recipients of teaching. This new reality insists that young people are the central co-creators of knowledge, virtually demanding their vital participation in the improvement and ongoing operation of schools.

Meaningful Student Involvement synthesizes this tidal wave of energy by promoting the infusion of ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences of students through education reform efforts. 

Excerpted from Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide, © 2003, 2012 CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators andstudents, contact our office today by emailing

Listening to Students in School Improvement

Listening to students can have an important role in education reform. It can provide the essential foundation from which education leaders can develop informed opinions and take practical action for school change. 


There are a variety of limitations to simply listening to students, but not engaging them as partners in school change. One limitation is that students have an inherent lack of authority in their words. Whether spoken by a student or an adult, adults in schools have not been particularly interested in hearing students over the last 100 years of public schools. Another limitation is that students may face a poverty of imagination: even when asked to participate, they may not know of the range of activities, or the extent of their ability and power. Students often perceive adults as guardians of the keys to learning about learning, as if they were sacred relics. It can be rare for students to have the opportunity to know why, how, and when they need to learn something. Students cannot ask for something they do not know exists. There is also the limitation of reciprocal accountability: students are held accountable to many layers of adults in schools, including teachers, administrators, coaches, and others, not to mention home and community. However, who is accountable to students? Once a student has offered their informed knowledge, their thoughtful ideas, and their insightful critiques of schools, who is obligated to actually listen to them? Who is accountable to actually act on what students say?

There is a careful roadmap that details a growing movement for Meaningful Student Involvement. Critical education theorist Paulo Freire challenged teachers to “speak by listening.” It can no longer be said that listening to students is a fanciful way to dress up school reform efforts. Educators cannot afford to ignore students, because students will tell educators what is actually working in their classrooms. Administrators cannot deny the importance of students’ voices, because responding to the growing diversity of student populations demands hearing them. 

Simply put, educators must listen to students because students are the reason schools exist. Faced with making decisions “on-the-spot,” classroom teachers and educators can be well-informed by listening to student voice. Through Meaningful Student Involvement, they can actually understand what is being said.

Excerpted from Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide, © 2003, 2012 CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators and students, contact our office today by emailing

Research Supporting Meaningful Student Involvement

There is a body of literature that broadly summarizes, examines, and assesses Meaningful Student Involvement. I have collected that which pays particular attention to the roles of students in school change.

Meaningful Student Involvement is the process of engaging the knowledge, experience and perspectives of students in every facet of the educational process for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.

There are multiple approaches to changing the roles of young people in schools that can count as Meaningful Student Involvement. Generally speaking, Meaningful Student involvement occurs when schools engage students as teachers, education researchers, school planners, classroom evaluators, system-wide school decisionmakers, and education advocates. Ultimately, and most importantly, Meaningful Student Involvement seeks to raise students above their own narrow conceptions of self-interest for the benefit of the schools and communities they are members of.

The articles, journals, and books I have reviewed came from both scholarly research that represents a scientific, theory-testing approach; and applied research that employs case studies resulting in theories. The goal of my review is to identify what literature exists and evaluate its value in advocating for Meaningful Student Involvement.

As the research shows, activities related to Meaningful Student Involvement are happening across the U.S. and around the world. In Bear Valley, California, high school students worked with professional researchers to design a program that would measure students’ opinions and experiences in school. In Cheney, Washington, second grade students redesigned their classroom curriculum. Across the U.S., students in the Generation YES program lead workshops and programs that train teachers to use technology in their classrooms. In other countries, including England, Australia, and Norway, there are actually federal mandates that elicit student involvement in education decision-making. 

These stories continue, leaving irrefutable evidence that there is a growing movement for Meaningful Student Involvement. In many ways, the research surrounding Meaningful Student Involvement represents a turning point for education improvement efforts. The tide is turning from the antiquated notion of students as passive recipients of teaching, to a new recognition of the interdependence that is necessary between students and adults. 
Students and adults are raising the bar of expectations for what students can do. As my review has shown, students are seriously engaged in critical reflection about their schools, uniting with their peers and adults in collective action, and engaged with adult education leaders to seek uncommon and innovative strategies to chronic problems in schools. Schools can strengthen themselves by creating, learning from, replicating, and supporting Meaningful Student Involvement so that students can work with adults to determine how to make our schools better places to learn.
That’s the goal.
Excerpted from Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide, © 2003, 2012 CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators and students, contact our office today by emailing

Resources for Meaningful Student Involvement

Central to what Thomas Jefferson called the “grand experiment” of democracy in the United States is the public school. It is a place where civic roles, government responsibility and social values are taught to young people. 
In many schools, education is still seen as preparatory, a form of readiness training on every citizen’s hypothetical roadmap to civic engagement. However, several factors indicate that such a seamless journey just isn’t happening for young people today. 

In response to this growing crisis, some educators are beginning to listen to “student voice” as an attempt to generate feedback from those they serve and to implant a democratic-type experience into the classroom. These teachers and administrators are taking necessary steps towards reforming schools into places that embrace, rather than ignore the necessity of student engagement in education leadership. 
However, there is another equally important aspect of this activity. Students themselves are working with adults and on their own to change learning experiences for themselves and future generations. These efforts are part of a growing movement that is calling for the deliberate empowerment of the experiences, ideas and knowledge of students throughout education, which I call Meaningful Student Involvement. 
Meaningful Student Involvement is not just another classroom management method, or merely listening to “student voice.” Rather, it is a revolutionary approach to teaching and learning that challenges progressive educators to be truly democratic by engaging students in critical reflection for school change. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when purposeful student autonomy meets recognized social interdependence in schools.

The work I present on behalf of this movement represents an intensive multi-year scan of practice, philosophy, action, research and literature about Meaningful Student Involvement from around the world. Instead of following another government mandate or popular social trend, what is revealed shows that this movement is emerging from the “trenches” of education. In classrooms where intentions meet action, boardrooms where values meet policy, and hallways where purpose collides with perception, meaningfulness is happening every single day. From this presentation we understand that it can happening for every single student in every single school every single day.

Documentation of these efforts is slowly coming forth. The sources vary from peer-reviewed journals, organization websites, unpublished doctoral dissertations, student-written zines, and other sources. I have spent a decade examining a wide range of resources, selected to support and promote students as researchers, planners, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers and advocates throughout education.

Criteria for inclusion in my scan includes:

  • Support of Meaningful Student Involvement – Authors sought to validate engaging students as learners, teachers, leaders and citizens. 
  • Maintenance of Authentic Voice – Authors speak for themselves as students or adults through their writing. Adults do not falsely attempt to represent students, and students don’t haphazardly dismiss the potential contributions of adults. 
  • Concern for School Change – Authors genuinely react to the necessity of changing students’ roles through school change. 
The materials I’ve designed are intended to provide clear, concise summaries of some of the most indispensable resources available. In the process some important pieces may have inadvertently been excluded. However, that does not make what I have featured no less essential to the determined student, the activist educator, and the persevering administrator, each of whom is dedicated, and each of whom may be currently under-resourced. I offer these resources with the intention of encouraging all of these parties to sit down at the table together. 
Critical educator Paulo Freire maintained that there is no education without learning; one simply cannot exist without the other. Therein lies the challenge of schools today: to acknowledge the lessons students are learning in their experience of school by coincidence, and to transform those lessons into hope, power, and
The hope represented by Meaningful Student Involvement is that students are seen as necessary partners in positive school change, and that educators struggle to engage, embrace and empower young people in the
process of rebuilding education and democracy today and in the future. The resources I provide are offered towards that direction.

 Excerpted from Resources for Meaningful Student Involvement, © 2003, 2012 CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators and students, contact our office today by emailing

At the 13th Annual National Service Learning Conference

I’m at the National Service Learning Conference right now, and I’ve just finished a workshop called “The Future of Service Learning: A facilitated dialogue among participants and practioners.” There were 25 people there, mostly teachers and staff from CBOs.

Its interesting, these discussions of spreading service and learning and doing things for youth and with youth and volunteering and service and on and on… I’m not sure that we’re having the right conversations anymore. Its as if we’ve created a myth that perpetuated itself, and now its becoming real. That’s scary.

Aside from that, everything is okay. If anybody wants to talk service or learning or service learning or whatever, lemme know- I’d love to tell you about it, and hear what you’re doing.

Other business… The Freechild Project tabled here today, and we’ve exhausted our materials. That’s cool- and a first. Even though I’ve done workshops around our work at and about the Project, I haven’t tabled it yet. That was cool, and we made some good contacts.

And on I go. Wish me fun and good luck.

Introducing The Freechild Project: Get Info You Need

It used to be that if you wanted to get information about young people changing the world, you’d have to know that they were doing that first. Then you’d have to look through a handful of self-serving nonprofit websites designed to hype particular types of youth-led social change.

You could search a certain activity, keyword, hashtag or Twitter user and wait for a geeky, social media scientist type to write the descriptions and run the activities for you. With The Freechild Project website that’s no longer the case.

Go to and enter any word or phrase to get a comprehensive resource compilation, informational article, or activity breakdown to learn exactly what young people are doing right now to change the world, and what youth and adults can do to support them. Separated into actions and issues, the site also provides a massive resource center.

I began working on The Freechild Project a decade ago while I was on the streets doing the work of changing the world with children and youth. Today, I’m mentoring these efforts across the United States and around the world. If you’re curious are some videos about why I do what I do.

My favorite thing about is that everyone who learns about it finds a different way to use it to get the information they need. So please, go check it out and then tell me here, in the comments, what useful info you found.