Robyn Harper: This week on Critical Window, we’re taking a closer look at what research says about student agency and activism and what it means for our middle and high school students learning.
Hans Hermann: I’ve got to say, Robyn, I’m so excited for this topic.
Robyn Harper: Me too. I’ve been seeing topics like this all over the news and I’m really excited about the guest that we have
Hans Hermann: Ben Kirshner is a professor of the learning sciences and human development at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the faculty director of CU Engage Community Based Learning and Research. He’s the author of many papers and a few books including Youth Activism in an Era of Education Equality. His work centers on how young people, especially those from marginalized communities learn to exercise collective political agency and how they interpret their sociopolitical context. Welcome to the show, Ben.
Ben Kirshner: Thanks, ______. I’m really excited to be here.
Hans Hermann: As we were preparing for the show, we realized that a lot of the terms thrown out in this space might confuse people, researchers from student activism use a variety of them. If you could just unpack these terms for us and clarify if they’re the same thing or different, that’d be very helpful.
Ben Kirshner: That’s a good place to start. rather than define each of those terms, which I’m afraid might be a little dry and uninteresting, I’m just gonna introduce a few key questions that I try to ask when I’m learning for the first time about a particular activity, again, or initiative.
A key distinction that I think matters is to try to understand who is the sponsor or the host for this effort or program. So, often, for example, we’ll see that student voice gets associated more with school-sponsored activities to try to promote student input into decision-making at the school level; whereas, oftentimes, youth organizing is associated outside of school with community organizations, but I think sometimes those terms can get used differently.
There’s another question I will often ask which is who’s participating or leading—and/or leading the effort? I often find that college student versus high school student programs, they’re substantively very different, so I think that’s an important distinction. Is the program really centered on and/or led by experiences of youth of color or, perhaps, LGBTQ youth? Or, does it aspire to a more colorblind orientation?
Or, maybe, it’s even restricted to a certain population of students like student athletes or straight-A students. So, those are the questions, who participates and who’s experiences are really defining the agenda. That’s the second distinction.
And I just have one last distinction that I want to share with the listeners: towards what ends is this effort going? What’s the purpose? What’s the goal? There’s a distinction often made between opportunities for young people to be civically engaged that are primarily focused on maintaining our institutions, so it means participating in existing systems and learning how to participate in those systems. Very important. Or is it oriented towards issues of equity or justice and encouraging young people to think about how they might change institutions or systems to really address or realize broader goals of the United States or of issues of fairness and inclusion and social justice.
Robyn Harper: As I think about what’s been happening with students in response to things like DACA, which is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, for listeners who aren’t familiar with that acronym; and, also, the response by students to the tragedy Parkland, recently. Could you talk us through using those key questions as a frame? How we can wrap those examples into the context?
Ben Kirshner: The effort to, both, create DACA and, then, fight to maintain DACA came out of the immigrant rights movement and that movement has been—was intergenerational in many ways, so it included parents and grandparents and adults and young people. There’s some really terrific research showing the ways in which youth efforts and youth leaders worked in an interdependent and collaborative way with some of the existing policy organizations.
The Undocumented and Unafraid movement really tried to lift up a broad range of experiences within undocumented students and also really did more direct action that was occupying offices of Senator McCain, for example.
Which I would very much characterize as a form of activism that was really centered on the experience of young people, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America, but also, many from the Continent of Africa, from Europe, from East Asia, who were fighting to become recognized as part of this country because they grew up here. On one hand the DACA effort is working with existing government channels to recognize and legalize the status of young people who grew up in this country even if their parents came here in an undocumented way. So, in that sense, they’re working within our existing structures, but, then, they’re also challenging those structures, too, and how we think about borders and the arbitrariness of borders to some extent.
So, in the case of Parkland, I think those students felt like the status quo response was not satisfying to them around the issue of gun violence and they did not necessarily feel that the typical channels that they might have to address those ideas could be met by just by talking to their teachers or raising the issue with their principal; so, I would very much think of this as a form of activism, particularly because it involved galvanizing statewide and national movement.
According to my sources, that particular school district and school had a really lively and thriving set of opportunities for students to get skilled at civic participation, so there was a strong debate club infrastructure and debate classes. There was a strong theater program; so, these students I believe there was a strong gay-straight alliance in that district. So, these are all experiences that young people were ready, or if not ready, at least had a lot of practice in the skills of working with others, getting their ideas out there, and communicating in a concise way.
I think most of us who follow it closely are seeing an effort by the Parkland students— and with some cajoling and with some encouragement from young people of color, both in Parkland and in other places, like Chicago, to really draw attention to the ways in which gun violence and police violence have been an issue with young people growing up in high-poverty communities in particular especially Black youth and Latino youth long before this Parkland case. So, what I’m seeing is some efforts to have some alliances being built that are really insuring that some of these longstanding issues are getting addressed, as well, and that youth of color have been trying to raise awareness about this issue are also becoming kind of center stage. So, what I think what we’re seeing is efforts to build coalitions that I think is really exciting.
Hans Hermann: The point you bring up there is really important talking about the types of systems that were already in place in Parkland that helped lift the—make this an easier transition, maybe, for these students to become activists at a national stage because of the type of environment and support they already had in their local school district and community.
Hans Hermann: In your book, you talk about looking for your first job in San Francisco in 1993,
You, eventually, got involved in a program called Youth in Action and the local YMCA in the Mission District, which is a predominately Latino district and you talk about different types of engagement and empowerment that the organizations offered—for teenagers. Could you explain a little bit more about what you were seeing there?
Ben Kirshner: I was was just out of college in my 20s and looking for a job that would pay me to with youth. I wasn’t ready to try and be a classroom teacher and there was a kind of, an ecosystem—[Break in audio]—a few different kinds of community-based or nonprofit organizations in the Bay Area at the time that did work with youth.
Back in the early 1990s there was a strong federal push for programs that would be preventative in that way around particular behaviors, but it was really about either preventing or intervening in a behavior rather than promoting a broader sense of development. Over the last 20 years, that approach, although still existing, has been displaced by the positive youth development movement which is generally been a very good thing.
Positive youth development is an orientation that you’re probably familiar with, but generally tries to take a strength or an asset-based approach to working with young people and, also, tries to create opportunities for youth that are holistic and that really promote development broadly speaking—relationships, civic engagement, leadership, self-understanding, because as Karen Pittman famously said, “Problem-free is not fully prepared.”
So, rather than just focus on eradicating problems, let’s really talk about preparation, thriving, human development. Model was the kind of program I was working in at the time which was the San Francisco Conservation Corps Youth and Action Program, and young people were also learning work skills. We were out there in different parts of San Francisco doing projects in teams of 12 to beautify parks, to create video documentaries about environmental issues.
it was a good model of leadership-focused youth development.
There’s a third example which I wrote about in the book that really challenged some of my assumptions in positive ways, which was around the corner from our office—literally, around the corner on 22nd Street was a small office that a group called Youth Making a Change worked out of that was part of a broader organization called Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. In that organization, young people and adults were really working in partnership to actually have youth be part of devising policy solutions affecting systems in the city. So, rather than clean a park here, clean a park there, there was a campaign that youth were actively leading to really create more city budget allocations to support youth development opportunity for all youth across the city.
Again, that’s kind of a systems approach and this was really centered particularly on youth of color in some of the neighborhoods in South San Francisco and Southeast San Francisco.
That is sometimes described as youth organizing, or it can also be described as social justice youth development and that’s what I as seeing, and that’s one among several things that really motivated me to eventually go back and do research about different kinds of developmental settings for young people.
Hans Hermann: I’ve been thinking about what this actually means to be a superintendent or principal or teacher. Are you just supposed to disregard the formal learning environment and just let students go leave and support causes that are important to them?
if we’re just letting them walk out and do protests, are we wasting opportunities for them to learn about important subjects like mathematics or literature or biology?
Ben Kirshner: We’ve been talking about a broad landscape of types of student voice, student activism, and organizing, one of which is walkouts and protests, but it’s not reduced to that.
If one is a superintendent or working in a school district or leading a school, I think there’s several different ways to support youth civic development and political participation and some of them are more proactive than reactive.
I really want to encourage our superintendents and districts and school leaders to really rethink what student council means. Different schools in different districts have different histories of how they think about student government and student council. I do know that there’s some good research showing that in schools with fewer resources, schools in low income communities tended to not have bylaws for their student council, unlike some of their more affluent peers; but, more importantly, often the issues they worked on tended to be more social like planning a prom or making sure they’re responsible for the yearbook or doing other kinds of fundraising.
Those are all really important leadership kinds of experiences; but, I think, one way to support student learning and voice is to think about how a student council, student advisory group could actually have some input into substantive issues that the school is facing. Frankly, I think that’s gonna be helpful to a principal and a superintendent, because it will help them develop practices and policies that are really responsive to young people’s lived experiences.
is to think about how civic learning and voice and agency can be integrated into the academic curriculum. It’s actually, in my view, not that hard.
It’s only hard in so far as we’ve created some systems that make it hard, but actually, from the perspective of a learning scientist, like myself, is actually really consistent with what we know to be high-quality, deeper learning. To give you an example, a literacy class, doesn’t have to be a civics class. It’s a literacy class and some of the goals for middle school students or high school students involve improving their ability to read texts, particularly, now with some of the common core shifts, non-fiction texts, really understanding the differences between evidence and opinion, learning how to write persuasively is a form of literacy, certainly, speaking persuasively is a form of literacy and expressing your ideas. Those kinds of literacy skills and knowledge can really be learned through when young people are doing their own research about issues that they care about and, then, developing policy proposals based on what they learned. That’s a second example and I would call that—you could call that action civics or you could call that participatory action research.
Let’s get to your third example: protests and walkouts. One way you posed it is, you could imagine a someone who works in schools or superintendent feeling like, “Our mission is to teach academic content and this is undermining that or a distraction from that.”
From my point of view, students missing a little bit of facetime a couple times a year or even three or four times a year, doesn’t strike a death blow to the learning process,
Facetime, in and of itself, may not be as helpful if there’s not a sense of trust or a sense of caring that the student feels with that teacher or with that figure of authority and I think, frankly, if students are feeling like there’s an issue that really affects them and they care about it, it affects their daily lives, and a teacher is not showing any empathy with that, or, at least a willingness to listen and hear what that issue is and, maybe, show solidarity with their students, then, all the facetime in the world isn’t gonna be helpful for that learning relationship because often more and more we understand the importance of those relationships to really foster and environment where young people want to learn.
There’s a legitimate concern that some principals may have just around liability and safety, and I won’t get into all those details; but, I get that it’s a complicated thing and I understand why—I do think it’s a complex position that superintendents and principals are put in.
I think it’s important that school leaders, teachers, faculty try to understand where students are coming from. They’re not required to agree with them, in my view; but, if they show an effort to listen and take them seriously as people who are interpreting their world and have mature ideas about the world, then, I think that goes a long way.
Robyn Harper: It’s good to know that there’s some promising evidence leading—and it’s a very strong theory of learning representing this work.
How would you say that this is most relevant to adolescent learners as opposed to the entire K-12 and even higher ed learning space?
Ben Kirshner: I often find myself in rooms where I’m challenging the notion that there’s something unique about youth. On one hand, sometimes we, as educators, we, as scholars, overstate what’s unique about adolescence as a period of time. Sometimes, we overstate it in ways that justifies the way we have set up schools as places where teenagers are set apart from younger children and/or set apart from adults, and that becomes a vicious circle or cycle that reproduces itself.
Part of me thinks it’s really important that we challenge conversations or discourses that act as though adolescence is this naturally really unique and strange and terrible time period,
On the other hand, there are things going on in these years, whether produced through our institutions or produced by biology that are important to account for and can allow me to answer your question about what’s special about adolescence with regard to these issues of activism.
I think, I’ll point to two ideas there. The first is that developmentally, I do think it’s fair to say that as young people are transitioning from childhood years—
That is a time when our brains are developing in such a way that we’re more capable of complex abstractions and asking questions—moral questions about our lives, questions about fairness and justice, seeing contradictions that we might be experiencing. “Hey. They’re telling me that America is the land for everybody and the land of opportunity and I grew up here, but I’m not allowed to go to college. This is a contradiction and I need to think about this more.” That kind of interpretive process is accelerated in the teenage years and particularly for youth who might be experiencing those contradictions. “Hey. I go to a place where they say I’m loved, but I think I’m gay and they tell me that if I say I’m gay, I’m gonna be cast out of this community.”
So, these experiences of contradiction intersecting with identity and trying to figure out who you belong to and where you fit in, is really accentuated during these years.
That’s one reason why these opportunities are really important. We need to create spaces in our schools that kids can talk about these things.
There is a second way that I do—I think there’s quite a lot of synergy to the brain science.
There’s quite a bit of some synergy or overlap or consistency between what we’re learning about the brain in terms of its plasticity and its adaptability in the ways in which in the teen years in particular its development is very experience dependent. Those kind of ideas and the kinds of arguments I want to make and my colleagues want to make for youth to have these rich civic experience.
Earlier in my career, I was talking about some of my research on youth activism and there was a colleague who had read some of the research on the brain. He said, “I guess, you haven’t read the brain research, ‘cause it’s telling me that the brain is not fully mature until the mid-20s, so how can you say that youth should have opportunities to give input about decisions and participate if their brains aren’t mature?” And, I think that’s a misreading of the literature and I also think you could easily flip it, as well, because my interpretation of the literature is that because of the plasticity of the brain and the ways it’s experience-dependent, we really need young people to have opportunities to practice these kinds of skills, whether it long-term thinking or strategic thinking, collaborating with their peers, dealing with open-ended questions and problems versus giving scripted answers, taking risks, taking risks in the public square—
seeing risk-taking as a asset versus as a problem; so, for all those reasons, again, I think there’s a lot of consistency there.
One of the things Jay Giedd said, was, “the brain is this amazingly adaptive organ and when we talk about the teen brain, it will be whatever we want it to be as a society.” That tells me, if we want young people to be—have a voice, be agentic, be integrated into their communities, feel a sense of community, they’ll adapt to that and they’ll learn how to do that, but the only way that’ll happen is if we provide those experiences, or, at least, don’t get in the way when they seek out those experiences.
Hans Hermann: How would you say that research changes or what it says about different student groups, particularly, historically underserved student groups, such as students of color or students from low-income families—what student activism means for them or what your research has said
Ben Kirshner: I look to work by scholars. Shawn Genright has done really good work in this area ______ Andrade has done terrific work in this area.
Scholars like Maria Torre in New York City.
The work that I’m persuaded by says, if you’re growing up in a system or social context that sends messages to you that you’re not valuable, that you’re disposable, it sends those messages in different ways. It tolerates police murder of black boys. It tolerates a school that might be really decrepit and have deteriorating facilities next to beautiful fields and schools in neighboring suburban communities.
It tolerates closing down neighborhood schools that your parents went to and that you always thought was a place that you wanted to go and, then, telling you to go to other places that might be less welcoming.
My response to the issue of culture or identity or lived experience is that if we want to develop schools as places of belonging and healing and trust, then those kinds of experiences that youth might have coming around different kinds of identities and different kinds of living experiences need to be not taboo. They need to be part of that connection that a teacher or a youth worker is forming with that student and not kept apart from it.
The opportunity for conversations with each other, for building community, where you can witness to each other’s experiences and make sense of the world together—it doesn’t mean we all have to agree. It does not mean being indoctrinated into one world view, but a place to really talk through these things that are affecting you directly. I think that’s a really important first step and that might turn into different kinds of activism. It might turn into different kinds of voice. It might take other kinds of shape, as well.
That’s an important message I want to underscore is that activism ought to be accompanied by opportunities for reflection, critical self-reflection, critical reflection about the world, and without that who knows what it is; but, it’s not necessarily developmental or educational.
Robyn Harper: The United States is still struggling with the recruitment and retention of teachers coming from—teachers of color, teachers coming from low-income communities—basically, teachers that might share the experiences of the students that we’re talking about. Knowing this, how can a wide range of teachers, whether they’re teachers that share these experiences or teachers that they’ve never experienced it until it might be brought up in the classroom. How do we support the teachers and leaders in those spaces in building those trusting relationships?
Ben Kirshner: I think there’s good work happening in this area around teacher education and what that looks like.
There’s scholars trying to build pathways to teaching so that more teachers coming into the profession through life experience understand the kinds of life experiences of their students,
I would like listeners to gain the impression that one can do this kind of education, this kind of critical, reflective, and agency-centered education in all kinds of contexts. It can take place in a more affluent, suburban school. It can take place in a rural community.
White, young people growing up in the rural U.S., who might be traveling to get to a regional high school, there’s challenges that they’re facing in their everyday lives; and I can imagine inquiry in a class, whether it’s a math class or literacy class or et cetera, could be a space to explore these ideas and develop their ability to inquire about issues, understand how to reason with evidence, and, also, speak up about their experiences. So, although, this conversation largely, ’cause it’s where some of the greatest challenges exist and the greatest injustices exist, this conversation in the book is very much youth of color and that’s a lot of my own research, I want to underscore that I think some of these opportunities for agency and voice and critical inquiry are one’s that I would advocate in any kind of school context or district.
Robyn Harper: To your point benefits all students when it happens. It’s not just a benefit to the historically underserved populations, but having these broader conversation—it supports positive development and positive inquiry, positive thought and deep discussion in all students and I appreciate you bringing that up.
Hans Hermann: So, going back as a superintendent, as a teacher, or principal, how should you be thinking about creating spaces that lead to young people’s activism, leads to empowering them, while at the same time, not leading it yourself, because, ultimately, that might be a little bit of a paradox,
Ben Kirshner: First of all, I think that oftentimes we can overstate the kind of significance of, say the social category of student and the social category of teacher; and some of the best, in my view, some of the best student voice work that happens in schools is more collaborative; using metaphors of partnership; it’s more intergenerational. How can there be a team of teachers and students who are working together to address an issue that the school is facing and is there a way that the teachers can have some training to really listen and take the students seriously as colleagues—not in a way that’s condescending, but actually taking them seriously, while also acknowledging they’re learning some of these skills. Those are the kinds of learning environments that are so valuable.
—I think, the role of a superintendent or a school district leader is to take those young people seriously and ask them questions and not be hostile, but also, not be condescending. Those are the two responses that I often see. I do think there is a really important role often for a more experienced person. It could be a slightly older youth, could be same age, but with more experience, or it could be a teacher to kind of lend some guidance. How do you structure an open-ended challenge like this? How do you turn it into actionable steps? How do you frame your message for different kinds of audiences? So, I do think there are some skills that are important to learn and, oftentimes, more experienced people can help young people learn that; and, that doesn’t undermine in any way the authenticity of the activism, if there’s some guidance involved.
Hans Hermann: you mentioned to us that you’re launching a new product with some of your colleague around this work.
Ben Kirshner: One we’re calling Transformative Student Voice and I’m working with several colleagues around the country to develop a national learning community around how to work with school districts, superintendents, schools, to support what we’re describing as transformative student voice. So, that shift from old school student council as planning prom to a new approach to student council as student government that’s centered on issues of equity and really making sure the experiences of marginalized students in a school—can be defined in many ways—have—are part of that process. So, that’s one that we’re calling Transformative Student Voice.
We’re also developing, here, at CU Engage a project called the Research Hub for Youth Organizing and Education Policy, and that, unlike the Transformative Student Voice, which is very focused on partnerships with formal school systems, this second one is more focused on partnerships with community-based organizing groups and really thinking about how research and curriculum can support their work and the learning of their participants, but also, the effectiveness of their campaigns.
Robyn Harper: Thank you so much for all of the work that you do and for taking the time to come and talk to us about youth activism, student agency and relationships and trust and the importance of those for the entire system, both in and out of school.
Ben Kirshner: Thank you. It’s been a great conversation. I love this opportunity to get out there and talk about these ideas.