A few months ago I plopped myself down in a front row auditorium seat next to a young man with frazzled hair and braces who was looking uncomfortable in a collared, button-down shirt with an overly wide and ornate tie often seen on middle school boys.
“How’s it goin’?” I asked.
He looked up at me and smiled an awkward smile and nodded his head. “Good,” he said.
“I’m Will,” I said, sticking my hand out.
“Ben,” he said as he shook my hand weakly and stared at the badge hanging around my neck.
“You here for the conference?” I asked.
“Um, kinda,” he said. “I’m here to help people figure out where to go.” It was early. His shepherding duties hadn’t started yet.
“Looks like a nice place,” I said, craning my neck to take in a full scan of the theater. “Is this your school?”
“You like it?” I asked as I took a sip from a cup of tepid, pretty average hotel coffee.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s a good school.”
“What’s good about it?” I asked, trying hard to keep the tone light.
“Well, the teachers are nice, mostly,” he said. “And they have a lot of good clubs and stuff.”
“Nice,” I said. “So, what are you into?”
“Um, I like robotics,” he said, running his hand through his hair. “We do a lot of competitions and stuff and it’s pretty fun.”
“You mean like against other schools?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he nodded. “And we’re pretty good. We won regionals last week.”
“Awesome! Congrats,” I said. “So what is it about robotics that you like?”
“Well,” he said. “Lots of stuff. We get to actually build stuff. And we get to learn how to program and make the robots do all sorts of cool stuff. But mostly I just like hanging out with my friends and doing fun stuff.”
“Sounds like you’re learning a lot,” I said.
“Definitely.” He nodded hard. “It’s pretty cool.”
“So are you or your friends showing off any of the robotics stuff today at the conference?” I asked.
“Nope,” he said. “We’re just here to make sure no one gets lost, I think.” He smiled.
“Are there any kids here besides the ones helping people get around?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think they’re all home sleeping.” He smiled.
“Lucky, huh?” I said. “So how’d you end up helping out?”
“My mom’s the principal,” he said.
I’m on the phone with the superintendent of a “high performing” Midwestern high school discussing the logistics of their opening day.
“I really want you to push our thinking,” she says. “We’re really trying to redefine the way we do classroom learning. All of our sessions after your speech are focused on how we create more opportunities and agency for students.”
“Sure,” I say. “Happy to do that. How many people are you expecting?”
“Ah,” she says. “Probably around 600.”
“Great. Will your board members be there?” I ask.
“Maybe one or two,” she said. “We invite them every year but most of them don’t come.”
“How about students?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” I say, “you’re going to be talking about how to redefine your classrooms, right? Just thinking it might be good to have students in the mix of those conversations.”
There’s a long silence.
“You know,” she says, “that’s a really interesting idea.”
“What if students unionized?”
The question came kind of randomly in the midst of a pretty intense online coaching conversation with a group of school leaders. More than one person chuckled.
“Wow,” one said. “What would that look like? What would their ‘demands’ be?”
We threw out some ideas. No homework. More recess. No boring textbooks.
“Better working conditions!” someone exclaimed.
That one caught me. “So what would that mean?”
“How about a vote?” one said. “I mean, what if we actually gave kids some say over what happened to them at school?”
I debated throwing out the Deborah Meier quote about how we want to prepare students for a democracy yet schools are among the least democratic institutions around. I bit my tongue.
“But seriously, like what if we actually asked them that question,” the “better working conditions” person continued. “What if we actually asked them ‘What ways do you learn best? What types of spaces make you creative?” She paused. “Or, ‘If you could build your own classroom, what would you build?'”
“Sounds great,” one replied. “But you know what the problem with all of that is, right?”
“If we ask them what they want,” he continued, “we’d actually have to make some of that happen.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about some “Why wouldn’t we…” questions lately. This is the one that keeps bubbling up to the top: “Why wouldn’t we engage students at a deep level in conversations about their experience of school?” And what do we lose by not doing that?
The vignettes above are all true if maybe not 100% accurate in the dialogue. More often than not, educators get unsettled at the thought of kids being a part of conferences, or having a voice in how the classroom operates or looks like, or being a part of the decision making process that’s tied to rules and operations. Not sure how much of that is tied to the fact that they themselves don’t feel heard enough in the decisions being made about their lives, but I’m sure that has something to do with it. Giving voice means giving up power.
But it also means creating a more powerful culture of learning.
Why wouldn’t we invite students to sit with us and participate whenever we’re talking the lives of students in our schools? Why wouldn’t we ask them to share the most powerful learning in their lives to conference goers? Why wouldn’t we ask them how they learn most effectively in their lives outside of school?
In MLC, we’re learning with leaders who are brown bagging it with kids regularly at lunch just picking their brains about school. Others who are asking students to run Ed Camp like conferences for teachers. Others who are making sure everyone on their teams gets a chance to follow a kid around for a day so they remember what it’s like to be a student. And others who are losing the all staff agenda in favor of having students present what they find awesome, be it in school or out, once a month.
None of these things are particularly onerous. But they do raise the bar. If you start asking students what they think and what they need, as mentioned above, you better follow through.
Regardless, why wouldn’t we do that?
FREE WHITEPAPER: 10 Principles of Schools of Modern Learning
Ready to make relevant, sustainable change in your school? In this free whitepaper, we give you a framework, insights, action steps and links to curated resources for developing kids who are deep, powerful learners. These 10 principles offer a guide to creating real change in schools.