Thursday, June 4, 2009

Youth voice in service-learning represents both great opportunity and great challenge

Our schools have a difficult enough time providing teachers with time to effectively collaborate with each other and do almost nothing to support collaboration between teachers and students in the educational design process. Indeed pressures to increase test scores have further divided the teacher as an instructional leader from students who are perceived in the "deficit model" suggested by high stakes testing (we rarely ask which questions a student got right…)

Even in service-learning, we are often faced with the challenge of teachers leaving service-learning trainings fired up about their idea for a project (a creek restoration!, a buddy reading program!, a partnership with the food bank!).  These service-learning ideas most frequently reflect the teacher's values and interests.  Indeed students are rarely, if ever invited to service-learning training sessions with teachers.

Meanwhile, the case for youth voice in schools is becoming stronger than ever.  According to Tony Smith, the new Superintendent for Oakland Unified School District, "students are uniquely qualified to help develop solutions to problems in our schools that adults have not considered… students, in many ways, know more about the operation of their schools and communities than any other group…."

So, how do we get there?

SoundOut.Org, an organization advocating for youth voice in schools, has produced a useful tool for reflecting on the extent of youth voice in schools. The Ladder of Student Involvement in School ( ) shows escalating levels of student responsibility and engagement.  At the low end of the scale, adults "manipulate students in decision-making" or "tokenize students in their decision making" processes.  Moving up the ladder, "adult-led decision-making is shared with students" and "student-led decision-making is shared with adults".

The new K-12 Service-Learning Standards for Quality Practice ( state that, "service-learning provides youth with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning experiences with guidance from adults." The standards for youth voice provide clear guidance for incorporating youth voice in the development and implementation of service-learning projects.

Both and the Standards for Quality Practice assume that students have the skills and knowledge to effectively deliver their voice, but we must remember that this is a developmental and educational process, and just like any other skill, students need opportunities to practice, fail, reflect, learn, grow and succeed.

Schools should:
Provide students the training and support needed to effectively participate
Include students in all school-related meetings
Give students real responsibilities
4)      Ensure that ongoing opportunities exist for new generations of students to provide leadership


How might this look?

On Thursday, April 2 students in Fremont voted to adopt a district-wide service-learning theme of "the environment" for the 2009-2010 school year.  The vote took place at the annual District Representative Council (DRC) meeting where high school ASB students provide leadership training to K-8 student leaders.  It is the one meeting each year that includes student leaders from every school in the district. 

In advance of the DRC meeting, Students United Representing Fremont (SURF) met regularly with teachers and service-learning coordinators to develop an understanding of service-learning so that they could effectively explain it at the DRC and engage in an informed decision-making process.

Based on the student vote, district service-learning coordinators are aligning training opportunities and other resources to support the student-selected theme. In the fall of 2009, students, environmental non-profits, city agencies, and teachers will come together for service-learning training and lesson plan development for project that will be celebrated in April 2010 during the 40th anniversary of Earth Day.  A mini-grant program is being developed to support student-generated service-learning proposals.

Throughout the year, service-learning coordinators, teachers and SURF members will work together to evaluate the projects, provide ongoing training, mentoring and leadership development to new students, and gear up for the 2010 DRC vote for the 2010-2011 district-wide service-learning theme!


by Nate Ivy, Service-Learning Regional Lead Region 4

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About Me

The CalServe Network posts news and updates of interest to the service-learning field in California. News and updates are drawn from the CalServe List Serve and the National K-12 Service-Learning List Serve and various other sources.