This is the fourth in a series of guest blogs by the CREATE Lab Team.
By Jess Kaminsky
One of the major tenants of the Fluency work is “voice” - student voice and its relationship to adult voice. As a member of Fluency and a project lead on the Hear Me project for six years, I’ve spent a whole lot of time thinking about the relationship between youth and adult voice. More specifically, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the power relationship between adults and young people. In society, adults hold more power than young people. We make the decisions, we set the rules of a classroom, we speak first in a meeting, we tell youth how they should participate, we tell students they are the future (but not the present).
Can we imagine a different type of youth - adult relationship? Is this new type of relationship possible in a system as established as public education?
This was a question I carried into our exploration year of Fluency. As we started the school year together in September, I heard a lot of our cohort teachers wrestling with this question too. After all, student voice does not fit nicely into the test prep pushed on most teachers. Then we had the opportunity to visit places like Mikva Challenge in Chicago and see students designing and leading action plans to improve their school, alongside their adult mentors and school principal. We went to PhillyCam and Global Action project on our Philadelphia/New York City trip and saw programming that was designed in response (not in anticipation) to student needs and interests. And we went to Detroit to visit Detroit Future Schools, where recognizing one another’s humanity, regardless of markers like age or gender, is the foundation on which everything they do is built. Back in Pittsburgh we read Adam Fletcher’s “Washington Youth Voice Handbook”, a beautiful and compelling case for examining youth-adult collaboration with strategies and activities ready for implementation. These examples were all inspiring and they helped us start to see the incredible outcomes of youth and adults working in partnership. Yet all these programs are outside of school and have different limitations, such as not having to assign grades or improve district test scores. We had begun to answer our first question - yes, a different type of relationship is possible - but we were just starting on our second question - can we do this in our classrooms?
As we moved into the spring, I started to notice subtle changes in the language and attitudes of our group when we talked about students. Things were changing in classrooms too. Teachers in the group were trying out new projects in class and often prefaced these with, “I’m not sure exactly how this will turn out but we’ll figure it out together” or “some things might not go right, and we’ll problem solve together”. Teachers were encouraging students to interface directly with adults and other audiences they needed support from instead of that communication being done by the teacher (releasing a need to supervise what’s said and acknowledging that students are capable of managing these responsibilities). There were teachers asking students to dream, plan, and do something where they could make an impact, and the teachers were following this up with “what do you need from me to support you in making this happen?” There seemed to be a collective shift in attitude in our thoughts on voice and relationship, and this was opening up new ways of relating to students. It was catalyzing new learning possibilities and supporting students to see themselves as agents of change.
Reflecting back on my starting questions I realize that it is possible to imagine a new dynamic between youth and adults, where students and adults work collaboratively to learn and build community, and it’s possible to enact this reimaged relationship in public education. We start small and we commit to this new vision of youth-adult partnership, and I believe beautiful learning will happen.