Coming Full Circle On Empowering Student Changemakers

Back in September, I started discussions with educators about empowering student changemakers. One of the first examples we explored on this topic was student council groups in our schools. Initially, I was not that interested in this idea. My intention in starting the conversation on empowering student changemakers was to think beyond the typical systems that we associate with enacting change.

Reflecting on our final session of this series I have come to realize the importance of student governments. These student-led programs are a key touchpoint to developing the skills necessary for students to become effective changemakers.

The problem at hand

International educator Mel started our conversation by sharing why our students struggle when given too much agency. Students have a difficult time engaging with inquiry-based learning without the proper scaffolding. Most students have been in compliance-based learning models for most of their school life. They are not able to just flip a switch and feel comfortable in a model that requires an entirely new set of skills. 

Mel shared two main challenges that students have in being effective problem-solvers. First, they can get overwhelmed when given too many choices. Students are used to directions and outcomes that are clearly stated. They shut down when they are asked to identify problems and investigate solutions. It is too wide open for them and they struggle with autonomy.

Secondly, students can sometimes feel jaded in school by the time they reach their teenage years. Students will push back when presented with a long-term project and sometimes prefer to just take a test. They have become so used to playing the grading game that the idea of an inquiry-based project is a turnoff. They have figured out how to follow directions and do what the teacher wants. After years of schooling with this approach, they have little interest in doing something that involves sustained inquiry.

The indifferent student council student

I listened to what Mel had shared and made a connection to an experience I had when I asked my students to sign up for the student council. Students were indifferent to the whole idea. This was not what I had initially expected. I had anticipated that at least a few of my homeroom students would be eager to sign up.

When I asked them why they didn’t want to sign up, they shared their experiences in their previous grades. The consensus was that it was a waste of time. That nothing of importance ever got done. They would plan a recess activity or organize a pizza party, but they never had the chance to enact real change. If they proposed a dress code change, or how to improve the lunch service their ideas were dismissed. Students felt their voices weren’t being heard or taken seriously.

I understood their frustration. I flashed back to my own time in middle school when I completely wrote off student government groups. My burgeoning punk rock anti-establishment ethos had already dictated that real change never happens through the system. On the contrary, I also regretted how this attitude carried over to my adulthood. It wasn’t until much later in life that I saw the value of engaging in civic duties in my community. I didn’t want my students to have that same experience.

Changing the narrative

In the middle of our conversation, a new person named Kyle joined in. He shared his experience in how he re-imagined the student council at his school. His perspective really changed the tenor of the conversation. After listening to him describe the model he implemented, my thinking shifted about the role that the student council can play in empowering student changemakers.

The model that Kyle shared was dynamic, engaging, and involved real-world learning. The program was centered around authentic citizenship for the students. They were given real autonomy over the impact the student council could have along with support by teacher coaches. 

To join the student council students were asked to complete an application along with an interview. Each applicant was vetted to ensure that they met certain criteria. This was done on the front end because the students were given the power to be a part of making decisions at their school. They were invited to faculty meetings and space was given for students to provide input on policy.

These experiences were authentic. The expectation of the students was that they would be actively involved in school policy. As a result, the students took the responsibility of their position much more seriously. The teachers trusted the students. They had all gone through a screening process so the teacher knew that their input had merit. By partnering the student council members with a teacher-coach they were given guidance about how to best articulate the changes that they wanted.

Post-covid implications

Our world underwent a rapid change as a result of the COVID pandemic. Major decisions had to be made in real-time–decisions that had major implications on our day-to-day life.  

Unfortunately, the speed at which these decisions were made left out the students’ voices. Most schools didn’t have systems set up that made space for students to provide input on what changes should and shouldn’t be made. Imagine if all schools had a student representative present when decisions were being made. These representatives would have gone through an application process and been screened to fulfill the responsibility for the job. This would allow for input from the students that would be impacted by the decisions being made.

This does not mean that all decisions should have to go through a student channel. But what about those choices that have a direct impact on the lives of the students? There could be collaborative decision-making between the teachers and students. Instead, all those decisions made about how schools should look post-COVID were made in a vacuum. Not all of the stakeholders were involved. Unfortunately, we saw that many of these decisions had a negative impact on the health and wellness of our students.

I don’t think it is too late. We are still navigating our post-covid reality. We still have the opportunity to create a space for these student voices to be heard. In creating this space we can acknowledge their experience. By meeting students where they are at we can create the conditions that will enable them to thrive in our schools.

Coming full circle

I admit that I originally had little hope for student-led governments to be a place where I would see students empowered as changemakers. I had been holding onto the idea that it was an outdated model that had no place in our changing schools. I am grateful for these conversations because they opened up my eyes to the potential of these systems.

In his podcast How to Citizen Baratunde Thurston talks about “Reimaging ʻcitizen’ as a verb and reclaiming our collective power.” I cannot think of a better definition of empowering student changemakers. From these conversations, I will take with me the idea that rethinking our student council and student governments is a place where we can empower student changemakers. As the old biblical proverb states “the stone that builders refuse, will be the head cornerstone.”

As I close out this series of discussions I look forward to the next iteration of this experience. I am grateful for all the educators that joined in and made these conversations the impactful discussions that they were. None of this would have been possible without their gracious contributions. 

And a huge thank you to all the people at Swivl and Skilled.Space for supporting educators to come together to have conversations. As Swivl says on their homepage “relationships are the foundation.” And with Skilled.Space we can “Build relationships with more conversations.” I encourage all educators to have more conversations and to build more relationships. Together, we can.