While visiting one of our partner schools in Detroit I had a small epiphany. The group is starting a student advisory, a group of students who are undertaking projects and initiatives of their own choosing, to help support their school’s turnaround efforts. We hadn’t had a site visit since an intensive overnight retreat 6 weeks earlier, and I wasn’t sure how much progress the group had made. To my delight they were going full tilt. They were meeting weekly, had their own classroom – adorned with group norms, purpose, and project ideas, and are working closely with the principal to begin implementing their projects.
A fair amount has taken place since forming this group in early October; but as I reflect back there is one factor that stands out as one of the most critical to their success. PERMISSION! The students were given permission to form a group, permission to miss school and participate in our YDS training, but most of all they were given permission to act on their ideas about how to make positive school change.
Permission is a relatively easy thing for adults in charge to provide youth. It can be the transformative element that provides our students and youth genuine empowerment. But we rarely make it a regular part of our MO let alone our culture. WHY?
Giving permission requires sharing control with youth. This is a difficult thing for traditional institutions like schools, where control usually exists in a hierarchal structure with students at the very bottom. However, what is the purpose of school? In addition to educating students in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic – nearly every educator would agree that we want our students to leave school as self-actualized people who are ready to be productive, civically engaged citizens. How do we expect to achieve these goals if we don’t provide permission for students to act on their ideas both in their school organizations, let alone in their academic activities?
After giving permission, another step is required for successful student empowerment: SUPPORT! Support through professional development, support through adult advisors who can build students’ social capital and scaffold them when they get stuck, even support like our recent school partner provided through offering a dedicated space for students to do their work.
Permission, followed up by genuine support takes work – especially in schools. With limited resources, increasing academic demands, and students with a plethora of personal needs – schools have a lot on their plate. However, when provided permission and given effective support, students’ meaningful involvement can have a transformative impact– not only in getting them engaged in school, but in equipping them to be competent contributors to our democratic society.