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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Student Voices

Positive Spaces for Engaging Young People’s Voice.

Today a video of student Jeff Bliss, a sophomore at Duncanville High School in Texas, went viral fast. In the video below we are privy to Bliss passionately speaking his truth. He knows that learning is more than packets to fill out, more than passively fulfilling simple and mindless tasks.

You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here, you gotta make them excited. You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his frickin’ heart. Can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell him,” he says, as the teacher repeatedly tells him to leave the class.

While his message was pointed toward his experience in this classroom, it was born from a feeling that is boiling up in classroom after classroom across the country. It is why students are standing up and walking out of schools, protesting because they know there are better ways to learn together. They know they learn best when they are able to learn with teachers that teach to their hearts and not just to the test.

Students are not alone in this feeling, teachers and community leaders are also standing up and walking out. It is important to remember that we should not watch this video as an attack on teachers, but instead an opportunity to talk about what we want in our schools.

What struck me most about the video is that Jeff Bliss felt he needed to voice his ideas in a way that would get him kicked out of class. Why is this the only way for him to voice his visions about learning and education? Why did it take a 90 second video for us to realized that students “get it”? Why do we wait for students to burst or break before we listen?

Many of us are not waiting for students to reach a breaking point, we are proactively engaging them by providing positive venues and space for them to express their ideas, stories and voices.  My work with Imagining Learning along with other  organizations like IDEA, SoundOut, and Student Voice has has convinced me that  we must proactively help students activate their power to change education and the world by providing this space.

Just yesterday, Imagining Learning launched a campaign to fund 35 listening sessions (see video) around the country. Our Listening Sessions are designed to create an appreciative environment of trust and openness so young people’s natural wisdom can emerge. All young people have ideas about their education and how it should be changed.  They also possess deep wisdom about how their lives are affected by the world around them and how they can make it better. In the last 4 years we have done 20 listening sessions around the country. They are effective in providing the space to activate students toward using their voice and ideas to positively change the world and education not just to protest or react to it.

Jeff Bliss’ statements have sparked an important conversation about how we can provide positive spaces for engaging young people’s voice!

How are you providing space for young people to use their voice to change education or the world?

Please join us by donating our campaign. Each dollar will help us tour the country to do listening sessions with young people like Jeff Bliss



15 thoughts on “Positive Spaces for Engaging Young People’s Voice.

  1. Truth hurts.

    Posted by wildlydone | May 10, 2013, 10:10 am
  2. I am a teacher. I think Jeff was exactly right in what he said and did. I see it over and over again. A kid is kicked out of class for whatever- asking a question, asking how that makes sense, saying they don’t understand. The teacher feels that as a threat or better yet- my favorite: “being disrespectful” (never mind that the adult was disrespectful first). Then the kid gets agitated- as we all would- and HE gets in trouble, when it was the teacher who should have just answered his question in the first place. There are so many kids out there like Jeff and I’m very proud of him for standing up and speaking the truth.

    Posted by Joni (@jonik915) | May 10, 2013, 11:47 am
    • Thanks for your comment. I wonder how we create classrooms where there is positive chance for teachers and students to engage beyond the standards? How have you provide that space in your classroom?

      Posted by dloitz | May 11, 2013, 12:25 pm
  3. The thing that strikes me most about this video is the non-action of his classmates. In fact, they all sat and watched the entire event unfold without a whimper. If you have ever watched the “Dirt Movie” trailer featuring Wangari Maathai’s (RIP) story of the hummingbird, Jeff’s classmates are the animals that stood idly as the forest burned down to the ground. The gentleman filming the event even lets out a sarcastic laugh at the end representing the prevailing attitude of most people who were educated through the schooling system…not surprising considering the complete lack of awareness of the quality of the food they eat, the corporate take over of our government, and the civil unrest that is prevalent in the rest of the world. Paulo Freire once said, “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” As a teacher who advocates social justice, I found this to be the most disturbing. Our school system churns out indifferent, unaware, or worst yet, inhibited people who feel powerless at the sight of the burning blaze.
    In order to create change, it is imperative that EVERY educator reflects on their own practice. I am currently in the process of examining myself as an educator and despite my progressive views and good intentions, I recognize that the very mechanism of American Schooling does not parallel true education nor does it value authentic learning. It has been a wild ride and a lot of soul searching but when the time comes I will share my own journey of someone who was brought up in a system based on a flawed paradigm, schooled by a flawed paradigm, educated children (although with only the best intentions) as an agent of a system based on a flawed paradigm, provoked to realise that I perpetuated a flawed pradigm, and presently actively learning to unlearn this flawed paradigm so that I can effectively evolve as an educator who is on a mission to do his part for the betterment of the world.

    Posted by Danny | May 10, 2013, 11:49 am
  4. As a teacher, I very much appreciate Jeff Bliss and the work being done around listening sessions. But I also think we need to give teachers tools to make their classrooms more engaging. Check out this TEDx talk…

    Who cares?” and “Why do I need to know this?” are not just tired student mantras to be brushed aside by frustrated teachers. They are questions about significance that lay at the heart of education. Design thinking is a tool that allows both students and teachers to discover more significance and creativity in the curricular experiences that bring them together in the classroom. By redesigning the classroom experience, we can invigorate the learning process for students and teachers who want to reform education.

    Posted by Paul | May 10, 2013, 3:40 pm
    • Thanks for the video, it definitely puts words to a lot of what I have been thinking about in terms of our education system today. I think this type of design thinking can really inspire students to take control of their own learning, and give them the freedom to customize and personalize it themselves.

      Great talk!

      Posted by Daniel Kao | May 13, 2013, 11:29 pm
  5. I think one reason that Jeff Bliss was able to take a stance, speak sincerely, and care about what was happening in that class was because he had already failed and dropped out of school. He had already thought hard about education and schooling, and he had decided on his own to come back. He was 18 among (probably) a bunch of 15 and 16 year old kids.

    Posted by Cathy | May 11, 2013, 1:33 pm
  6. We unschool. Our children, 8 and 11, life richly textured and engaged lives, where they have all the time they want for pursuing their many passions, and frequent opportunities to explore new aspects of life.

    They have the freedom to speak their minds, and be heard. They are living their lives, now, today. They aren’t sitting around waiting for someone to tell them what’s next; they’re deciding for themselves. Right now, it’s classic black and white horror (“The Mummy’s Bride”) on Svengooli, joint Minecrafting with their Kindles, helping to put away groceries, and playing with cats. My daughter just commented, in reference to a snippet of fan fiction I read aloud from the internet, that Spock should not have a cat, “because cats aren’t very logical.”

    It’s not hard to get people engaged, when the topic matters.

    I was watching the original Karate Kid last night, and I was struck by Mr. Miyagi’s teaching technique. First, he made an agreement with his student – he didn’t assume authority; it was agreed upon.

    Next, he gave simple directions, with a demonstration, and provided ample time and space for Daniel, his student, to practice the skill: Wax the cars. Sand the floor. Paint the fence. Paint the house.

    And then he went about his own life. It was up to Daniel whether he chose to uphold his end of the bargain – to do as instructed, without question. He might have done the work shoddily, or walked away, and the only penalty would have been no further learning.

    After all this – a purposeful building of strength, muscle memory, skill, accomplishment, and lots of time for being alone with oneself, finally, the teacher took all these movements, added a refinement or two – and daniel had learned several basic blocks, powerfully and well….and maybe learned quite a bit about himself.

    I don’t have answers for how to fit this into a public-school paradigm. I feel, though, that there is something valuable in witnessing the way my children learn each day, and in the way Daniel learned in The Karate Kid.

    i think the very best teachers will make the material relevant and with an end result that will give the child something they can point to and say, with real pride and maybe wonder, “I did that! I didn’t think I could, but I did!” I think the best teachers give kids as much time as possible to delve their own thoughts, learn who they are.

    I’I’m reasonably sure that most kids, especially high schoolers, who ought to have a degree of input into their own education in line with their near-adulthood, would not be able to point to a completed packet with pride and wonder.

    One last thing – in the same sense that Mr. Miyagi made an agreement with Daniel, and in the way I don’t make my children explore all the things I suggest, I believe children in school also need a far greater degree of autonomy. to begin with, attendance ought not be compulsory – children forced to be there against their will are often predisposed not to be particularly open. A teacher who exerts too much control, without securing the children’s confidence, will lose their hearts, and likely their minds, too. Children numbed by too many blank lines and empty ovals to fill in with regurgitated facts are maybe as receptive to new ideas as an adult working a stultifying office job with no clear purpose.

    I’m glad that the children in school have teachers and advocates like those who post here, and that adults are listening to their voices.

    As the number of unschoolers in the adult world grows, I believe it will become clear that trusting children does work, that allowing children to follow where their natures and passions lead.

    Posted by shanjeniah | May 26, 2013, 12:08 am


  1. Pingback: Student Voice - May 11, 2013

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