10/31/2017

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Written by: Delanoe Johnson, Reimagine Learning Associate and Leader of Youth Engagement Work.

We all have unique gifts that can frame our sense of purpose and what mark we leave on the world. For me it is art. My music is JOY. Art allows me to express myself in the rawest, purest, freest form. The great range of art we see and experience (music, poetry, dance, performance, etc.) shows us how self-expression can take many different forms.

Because art encourages us to discover and express our unique selves, it can let us tap into our genius. This is especially empowering for youth who are already natural creative thinkers. Young people haven’t been crushed into the “adult” way of approaching problems – typically structured, rigid, linear and (too often) unoriginal. Instead, youth are dreamers, seeing connections and possibilities that adults might have lost the ability to envision.

In the field of education, young peoples’ voices have been lost. There is a cost to this. Creativity and a sense of possibility are limited by the way in which we are approaching the question of designing the future of learning. Also – the voices of those whom schools are meant to serve – the young people themselves – are largely silent.

As a student who found an alternative pathway through my high school and college education, I know firsthand that the ways in which schools are set up don’t always result in young people being seen, known and supported to articulate and realize their dreams. And yet, we don’t turn to young people for input or perspective. Conversations about the future of school in the US have been, and largely remain, conversations between adults about young people and the schools meant to serve them. Why is this? What if we asked students for advice and guidance? What might they suggest?

If we hope to change the education system to support the strengths and needs of ALL students, we must engage these dreamers. Creating space for diverse perspectives at the education reform table – and in particular engaging students, can drastically shift the conversation. Students are directly affected by the policy and systems we hope to change and so far, the changes we’re making aren’t serving all students. According to the numbers, about one-third of students are systematically under-served by schools and you can easily make the case that all students are failing to get what they need to maximize their potential.

Reformers should ask themselves: “Have I truly listened to the voice of students?” “Have I authentically incorporated their experience and perspective into my reform strategy?” If the answer is “no,” then you are not tapping into the power of youth voice and your approach is likely sub-optimal and may unintentionally repeat some of education reform’s past mistakes.

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Since its founding, New Profit’s Reimagine Learning Fund has defined as one of its core values supporting student agency and voice. We believe it is particularly important to lift up the voices of those students whom the system has, by definition, failed to serve, like myself. Over the past year, Reimagine Learning has partnered with YouthBuild USA to pilot a partnership specifically focused on recognizing the power of youth voice and working to bring unique and rarely heard voices into the dialogue about the future of learning in the US. We know that incorporating youth voice is critical to taking education to the next level because they are closest to the systems we hope to change. Including youth voice broadens the perspectives, leads to new approaches to change, and contributes to the professional and social development of the young people. There is – quite literally – no downside to this.

Reimagine Learning engaged a group of young people – YouthBuild USA’s 14-person Young Leaders Council – for a multi-month learning journey that they entitled “Awakening the Mind.” This national Council hailed from some of our nation’s most marginalized communities across the country, from inner city to rural environments. They were elected onto YouthBuild’s Young Leaders Council by their peers to serve as national advocates on behalf of the issues their communities face.

For 2017, the Council’s work focused on learning and education, and young peoples’ vision for the future of school in the US. Each of these students brought a unique perspective and lived experience, with one important and undeniable commonality: having to drop out of a system that failed them. After engaging in learning about the brain and learning science, gaining exposure to a diverse set of innovative schools and reflecting on their own experiences in school, Council members came together for a 2-day summit in which they articulated their vision for their dream school and their challenge to education reformers.

Awakening the Mind was designed to provide an outlet for their voices, experiences, hopes and dreams for the future of education and to lift up their perspectives to inform the national conversation about the future of learning in America.

We will leave it to the young people – through their video product – to share their stories and perspectives. Our challenges to the adults reading this and watching this video is simple: Listen for understanding. Listen to learn.