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Education in the Media, School Stories

You Never Asked Us!

Typical in schools, students aren’t asked about much that’s not on a test. Forget about asking them what is working for them or not in a school that is “working.” Really forget about asking such a question to students in a school that is “failing.”

My hat is off to the students at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. As the heated debate rages on about what to do about the “failing” school; after entire workforces have been fired and rehired; the students have said enough! We’re the ones hurting here and you are not even talking to us about this! A group of 50 students walked out of classes and silently protested.

I am not clear whether it was a result of the protest or not, but the district administration says it will now hold weekly student assemblies in order to involve students in the schools turn around planning process.

I take this to be a good reminder that students should always have a meaningful voice in their learning and schools. And that whenever undertaking a social change initiative, it is always best to engage all key stakeholders in the process. In public schools, I just don’t think we are honest with ourselves yet about students truly being a key stakeholder.

All the best,

Adam “Nobody Asked for My Opinion” Burk



About Adam Burk

Adam aims to serve the greater good; alleviate unnecessary suffering; and create beautiful, sane human communities in concert with the living planet. Recently, he has helped to rebuild local food systems in Maine in large part through school food services, organized the TEDxDirigo conference, and is a digital organizer with the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).


9 thoughts on “You Never Asked Us!

  1. Hey, Adam,
    So let me pick on you first before responding. . . so nobody asked for your opinion, hm? Weren’t you one of the first coopsters? Didn’t you and I early on have a conversation about how much more fun it was to wordsmith WITH the other one than alone? You really can’t say no one has asked for your opinion.

    So, now to your post. My hat is also off to those brave students who chose to protest and walk out silently. I also admire them for finding a way to do it so that no one was harmed or disturbed (unless they chose to wonder/worry about where the kids were going.)

    I agree, too, that “students should always have a meaningful voice in their learning.” However, I believe we need to talk t them more to help them understand options. As a resource teacher who works with gifted kids, I have seen WAY too many of them try to do an “independent study” that they have chosen, and they have no clue how to go about it. Too many times, we expect kids to have certain organizational or thinking or research skills just because they are smart. In many cases, we have to provide some scaffolding not only for their learning, but also for their thinking about different ways of “schooling.” I’ve found it’s often best to do that with kids who play sports–who swim, who take lessons they are passionate about. That’s where they learn what high expectations and deep learning are. . . not school.

    Too often in school, teachers love the kids to death and consider them babies to be protected or spoon fed. Until we get rid of that attitude and truly honor their intelligence, we won’t have teachers who can really hear what kids have to say (without extreme measures like the walk out you describe.)

    Please encourage people to share their “action steps” for our collection of #blog4reform links.

    I started out this break sending an email to my staff making my learning more transparent, and I have that post scheduled to go live Monday. However, your post has made me think about how I can help students have a louder voice and be heard more. And that may be my next post-sharing the action steps I plan to take to help students be even more of an advocate for themselves than I have been encouraging them to be.

    Thanks, as always, for advocating for students and real learning. I value your thoughts.


    Posted by Paula White | December 19, 2010, 12:47 pm
    • Paula,

      First of all, you are right. My nickname “no one asked for my opinion,” was just an extension of a silly mood I had going this morning. I don’t really feel that way–anymore.

      I find your counsel in your response to be quite wise. I like how you are able to acknowledge and name the dichotomous truth at hand. We need to give both students the space to think, speak, and be heard, and we need to be able to provide timely guidance and scaffolding. Even instruction!

      This is a truly rich reply, Paula, thank you.

      I can’t wait for your post tomorrow!


      Posted by Adam Burk | December 19, 2010, 1:22 pm
    • Thank you Paula for this comment! For a moment I was worried that most teachers don’t really know what they need to do with their students to help them get involved in shaping the learning process — mostly because of John’s How Would Students Rethink Education post where a simple question led to very limited answers from the students, for reasons I think I could summarize with the Matrix metaphor I used in my comment.

      I am just a parent and have no experience being a teacher, but I have many teacher friends and ever since high school and especially University I have engaged with many people in the teaching profession. Everyone seems to agree that good teaching involves some kind of feedback loop — with the teacher and the students being important part of it, though often other people like the parents or even the community can join in too at times. It also involves great deal of flexibility, ability to listen and pay attention, adjust, etc. To me teaching is more about inspiration and motivation than it really is about conveying particular material. It is also about empowerment.

      Unfortunately, good intended teachers may take some of the ideas, like that behind empowerment, too literally. Asking the students, with no context or guidance, what they want to change is one such mistake. This is why I think people lke Sir Ken Robinson are really important:

      I am really encouraged by your comment and the idea behind Adam’s post that there are teachers out there who are aware of the feedback loop requirement and are willing to work hard to implement it the right way. I actually commend John’s attempt asking the students in his classroom too, as it takes little for teachers who are willing to listen their students to keep their mentoring hat, while it is really hard to get teachers who are literally plowing through their lessons to step back and see that their students are anxious to be involved in the process rather than being treated as bags to be filled with knowledge!

      Posted by kima | December 20, 2010, 2:07 am
      • Kima,
        We are so glad you joined in the conversation. Parents have simply got to be part of this loop to support their kids, advocate for them and help us do what’s best for real learning to occur. I love your last sentence, speaking to the kids who are anxious to be involved the process–I believe there are many of those kids in our schools and we need to mine that energy, that synergism and that support.

        Teaching absolutely is “more about inspiration and motivation than it really is about conveying particular material. It is also about empowerment.” Wish you were a parent in my school.


        Posted by Paula White | December 20, 2010, 9:58 am
      • Thx Paula!

        Beside my personal interest as a parent, I am looking forward to engaging with educators due to my non-profit startup, World4Children, which aims to seek or create projects to engage and empower kids to experience learning in parallel to the classroom setting. I also plan to organize a TEDx conference focusing on kids (TEDxKids@BC) around September in Vancouver — though the name suggests BC I will try not to limit it in terms of speakers and may even partner with others around the world to extend the reach. With education being one of the main components of the event I hope to inspire other parents to join the discussion and kids to try and follow their passion from early age.

        Btw, how do you do your parent-teacher conferences? One on one setting between the teacher and the parents of each kid separately? I think it will be more useful to turn them into opportunities to get as many parents as possible in the same room for an hour or more and discuss the program, patterns noticed, general progress, expectations and solicit feedback. Of course, in such setting no individual kid should be discussed! If parents want to meet the teacher individually that can be arranged separately, or even through email/phone.

        I know some parents will not make it if done this way, but you’re really looking to engage with the motivated ones and are not limiting the discussion to their kids only, so it doesn’t matter. I bet after few ones like this, most parents would do their best to join in the discussion, especially if blog is added as an extended opportunity for discussion.


        Posted by kima | December 21, 2010, 3:41 am
  2. Awesome. Democracy doesn’t have to wait for permission. I can’t wait to get back to school to ask how my 8th graders want to complete our time together.

    Best regards,
    Chad “Here’s my opinion anyway” Sansing

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 19, 2010, 10:56 pm
  3. Honestly, I’m not too worried about anyone here voicing their opinion?

    The part that I love about the Central Falls protest by students is that students are taking action. They are doing something: getting organized, standing outside, making some noise (without dissing anyone too much), getting TV cameras there, giving interviews, describing how adult actions are hurting their education. To me, that’s what it’s all about. Other actions like this:

    -Students at Brighton High School (MA) look at the conditions of their school in relation to more wealthy suburban schools, and make a film about it.

    -Students in South Central LA protest the grouping and crediting practices of 8 drop-out factory high schools, and become national activists

    Organization that helps students “crowdsource” student actions: Do Something.Org

    What Kids Can Do.

    To me Paula, the beginning of taking charge of learning is action like this. Many kids don’t know how to structure independent learning and complete a project vigorously–that’s true. And there’s nothing like real life experience to get them started. In my book, Wounded, I also suggest students hold conscious-raising groups to begin to talk about school practices that work/don’t work for them, and to make conscious and visible who is being served by particular schoolish ways of doing business. (Grouping practices, definitions of merit in school, how status is rewarded.)

    Begin. That’s how it starts. In Central Falls, students have. Thanks for highlighting this Adam! Great!

    Posted by Kirsten | December 20, 2010, 9:48 am
  4. Kirsten,
    LOVE the idea of conscious-raising groups. As a Gifted Resource Teacher, I get to do that sometimes, simply by the questions my kids ask…it’s a natural part of what I do to support them socially and emotionally.

    By midmorning, I’ll have posted again about trying raise consciousness of teachers. THAT’S the struggle I have every day, working in a building where teachers love the kids to death, but something’s missing. I have kids who speak vocally about being bored in their classes, yet I have teachers who really strive to do their best with challenging kids. I have kids who are disenfranchised, already, in elementary school, yet I would say every single one of my teachers is there to support students in every way they know how. to do it.

    Thanks for the links, thanks for the push back and thanks for the ideas.


    Posted by Paula White | December 20, 2010, 10:13 am
  5. Thank you for the insightful and helpful conversation.

    I am a parent volunteering in a 2nd-grade classroom and, although the students are younger than those who raised their voices in the referenced videos, I still find myself working to seek a balance between the skills these students do need to master (and, yes, on which they’ll be tested) while supporting their self-discovery and independence, yet still modeling and facilitating the self-discipline they need to grow.

    I usually work with groups of 3-5 students for 20-30 minute periods on a learning task and even with that limited scope I am challenged: each child brings distinct dreams and needs to the equation. I have growing empathy for the challenges of managing and inspiring a full-time classroom.

    I’m starting to recognize the importance of systems intelligence here: seeing patterns of relationships between the children, their families, the curriculum, and the administration. However, it takes so much energy to remain aware of such patterns while the demands of each individual person are in your face!

    Posted by Jay Collier | December 20, 2010, 11:15 am

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