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Power, Purpose, and Partnership at the 2017 P2 Summit

In a post on this blog, Diana Lebeaux argues that personalization doesn’t automatically equate to meaningful student-centered learning. Authentic student-centered learning requires giving young people real power to determine the course of their inquiry and to shape the structures and environments in which they learn. This is achieved through critical thinking opportunities, a questioning of history, and processes by which to ensure equitable participation. Because student agency is essential to the success of school redesign, Lebeaux contends, we must be brave enough, after we have facilitated learning as rigorously as possible, to let students dismantle the very systems on which we stand, if they so choose.

This yea’s Power Squared: Youth and Adults Shaping Vermont Education Together Summit (abbreviated as P2) at the Lake Morey Inn in Fairlee, Vermont, offered a vision rather several visions of student agency in practice. The conference collaboratively hosted by UP for Learning, Shelburne Farms, Partnership for Change, Big Picture Learning and the School Project Foundation, with support from the Bay & Paul Foundations‚Äîbrought together student-adult teams from sixteen Vermont schools to discuss and showcase examples of student agency.

In her opening remarks, conference co-facilitator Clara Lew-Smith, a junior at Hazen Union High School, defined agency as the ability to make intentional choices about, and take an active role in, the course of one’s life and on behalf of the lives of others, and suggested that student agency has three key ingredients. She explained:

Personal power is your belief in your own ability to shape your life with intention and have control over the direction. Partnership is multiple people taking that power and bringing it together, collaborating and deciding on mutual goals and directions, leading to something greater than the sum of its parts. And purpose is taking that power and partnership and spreading it outward, saying Now that we have this within ourselves, how are we going to use this to affect the environment around us?

Answers to the question Clara posed were plentiful in the morning sharing sessions, during which school teams presented their work and discussed their youth-adult partnership initiatives. In one room, a team from the School Innovation Seminar at Burlington High School shared successes and challenges from their ongoing student consultancy work, in which students help teachers solve authentic, professional problems like Does self-assessment work as an assessment strategy? or How do students perceive the obstacles and barriers to speaking out about bullying and harassment?

In another room, three 9th graders from Bellows Free Academy, Fairfax spoke eloquently about their experiences teaching a new course about meta-cognition for their peers, as well as running workshops in faculty meetings about the concepts of fixed and growth mindset. One presenter noted, At the beginning, teachers were just trying to adapt, but by the end they were really participating, and used that in classes I think it was just realizing when they were having a fixed mindset or negative self-talk and having them switch.

Down the hall, a team from Randolph Union High School described a new project-based learning class in Restorative Justice. Junior Lukina Andreyev explained how grounding their work in research about Vermont’s school-to-prison pipeline gave a sense of relevance and urgency. Because inequities in the justice system are rooted in the separation caused by punitive discipline at school, she said, training students and adults in their school to take part in restorative justice circles helps heal that separation when there’s some kind of conflict. Our goal is to grow a community full of trust and respect among everybody, so it’s less likely for students to feel like they need to leave the community.

In all of these sessions, partnership and purpose were clearly evident, as students and adults collaborated to solve problems affecting their shared work and experience. But what was most striking was the degree to which each of these teams, in different ways, was given real power to effect change in domains traditionally off-limits to students: classroom practice, curriculum planning, and even disciplinary action. These were powerful learning experiences not simply because students got to make choices or study subjects outside the core curriculum, but because they did so in a context where their learning and choices had visible impact on things they cared about.

Accessing that kind of power can be hard, says Manny Dodson, a Burlington High School sophomore. Not even personal power, but power to make a change. It can be hard going through all the stages that are required to do something meaningful within the school. But he believes having that kind of power makes the difference between students seeing personalized learning as a forced choice among unappealing options, and seeing it as meaningful. In a system where a kid is going to school because they have to, and don’t feel connected to their teachers or the subjects, they feel like they have less power . . . being able to choose what you want and being able to advocate for it: that’s power. In a system where you’re allowed to have choice and voice, you’d actually be motivated to be in school.

Choice and voice: both are key. Focusing too narrowly on choice in the conversation about redesigning schools risks missing opportunities to realize the transformative potential of efforts like Personalized Learning or Vermont’s Act 77: Flexible Pathways legislation. To be successful, such efforts must elevate the notion of voice beyond superficial and limited student input, and find ways to rethink the roles and distribution of power in our education system to one of authentic partnership in learning and school redesign.

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