5 Reasons Why: The Case For Bringing Youth Voice to the Center

1. We All Need Role Models In Our Category

Regretfully, it is a daily occurrence for me to compare (for better or worse) what I have, what I’m doing, where I am professionally and personally with people I see around me. However, the truth is, it’s also easy for me to make excuses not to push myself if I can see that others around me are not in the same category as me: age, class, gender, race etc

Seeing other people who are similar to me succeeding is the best motivation for me to do the same. It is crucial that I have role models that hold a myriad of different identities, but the role models who go about the world in a similar category to me, who look and sound like me, can motivate me in a way that at times can feel more measurable.

This is the same way for kids. Kids will be inspired by their teachers, parents, grandparents and the celebrities hanging out on billboards and TV screens. However, they will be motivated by their peers. Placing youth voice at the center of the classroom will motivate surrounding youth to raise their own voice, activating them faster and more effectively.

2. The Customer Is Always Right

This common saying is there for a reason. The customer is always right, because if businesses don’t provide for the customer, they have no business.

Sure, there is a lot of money that moves around school systems publicly and privately, however, it’s not the school board, city leadership or administrations that are the customers to the school. The customers are the kids in the classroom. If the kids in the classroom are not thought to be “right” or important enough to advise what is being offered to them, then is it a school at all? Or just a storage company?

3. Youth Voice Dreams Without Borders

As a father to 3 kids under the age of 6, I will be the first to point at that kids know how to talk rubbish. However, many times, it is simply that they are talking with a boundless imagination that is so incomprehensible to my adult paradigmatic mind.

In the classroom we are building minds strong enough and flexible to comprehend and manage roles that are not yet in existence. If this is what you believe too, then surely it is the dreamer that imagines the unimaginable who should drive the learning. Adults are fantastic navigators, though we only know how to navigate to the places we’ve been or can read on a map. It takes a young person to take us places that don’t exist yet.

4. Make It Relevant

Why, daddy?

More and more young people want to know the purpose of the things we teach them. I’ve never heard my students ask me for the meaning of life, but I sure have heard them ask a thousand times what the meaning of music theory is. Keeping youth voice in the center of the classroom is concerned with creating space and elevating the ideas, questions, stories and interests of young people.

Within this framework, we should also consider who our students are and what information and experiences feel relevant to them. This is the magic sauce to creating buy-in in our communities of learning everywhere. Sometimes our young people need a hand in identifying what is relevant. Oftentimes this can look like a facilitator exhibiting real enthusiasm about something they care about themselves. However, young people know authenticity when they see it - don’t think they’ll buy your enthusiasm about the Ancient History of Clay Pottery unless you’re really in it!

5. Because Of These Amazing Young People Who Came Before Us

Separately, but not conversely to all of these ideas within the context of the classroom - young people do not need to look far to see role models who are older and wiser, but older folks certainly need to search high and low to find role models in the “youth” age bracket. Here are a few amazing young people from history, who made their voices central to their world and created an impact:

1955: CLAUDETTE COLVIN - At 15 years old (about 9 months before Rosa Parks' similar actions) Colvin refused to give up her seat for a white person on a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and thrown in jail, though ultimately became one of the 5 plaintiffs in Browder v. Gayle that determined that bus segregation in Montgomery was unconstitutional.

1984: RYAN WHITE - At 13 years old, White’s Indiana school kicked him out for contracting HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion. Before his death at age 18, White was an advocate for providing better education and awareness about HIV/AIDS.

2012: MALALA YOUSAFZAI - After blogging for years about her experience under the regime of the Taliban (including the ban of girls going to school), at age 12 Malala was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. After her recovery her writing fueled her identity as an education activist ultimately landing her a Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17 (the youngest person to receive this in history).

2018: CAMERON KASKY, DAVID HOGG, EMMA GONZALEZ, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Students - Although not old enough to vote, these teenages have arguably done more to raise conversation and critique of the use of guns in America than anyone in history. Establishing the #neveragain movement, and organizing a nationwide student walk-out of school have been just two hugely impactful ways these young people have been central to changing the course of the country.