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Student Congresses Can Do More Than Pick the Prom Theme

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Guest post by Kim Farris-Berg

Whenever I try to explain to folks about the schools I've seen where middle- and high-school student congresses have a voting branch of school governance, I usually get the same response. That is, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Student governments have no real authority. They're made up of popular people whose job is to pick the prom theme and make other decisions about social activities."

Um . . . no. That's not what it means to have a voting branch of school governance. But the fact that student government is understood to be nothing more than a prom-theme selection committee should raise concern. It's a sign of the immature state of student voice and choice in our schools. If high-school student government is about students selecting their favorite among two choices of social activities that adults put before them, and the presumption is that students are not ready for more than that, then . . . well . . . we should expect students to graduate as followers who aren't also leaders; as self-focused people who are not also others-focused people; as passive takers who are not also active makers.

When student congresses have a voting branch of school governance, they have actual authority and opportunity to co-create and co-enforce community norms (it's likely no coincidence that they exist in schools where teachers call the shots). In these schools, adults intentionally seek to cultivate students who are problem solvers, not rule followers, which is characteristic of high-performing organizations.

And they reap what they sow.

Teachers at Minnesota New Country School (MNCS) in Henderson, Minnesota were caught in a predicament, for example, when students -- who are all members of the student congress -- stopped regular school activity to make a point about how adults use their cell phones. They asked teachers to pick up their cell phones and announce the last time they had used them, and for what purpose.

One teacher had called her doctor and texted her husband during school hours to arrange pick-up for her child. Another had emailed a colleague at a local college to coordinate a learning opportunity for students.

Hmmmm . . .

These teachers had recently vetoed two cell-phone related bills that were passed by the MNCS Student Congress. Vetoing was within their rights according to the school constitution. Teachers first vetoed a bill which indicated that students would have the right to use cell phones without restriction. After all, MNCS students had argued, they are self-directed learners who are trusted with their own computers on their own desks. MNCS students often learn experientially, out in the community, and need to organize their appointments.

But their teachers weren't having it. Teachers feared too much socializing and too little learning, and they made their fears clear when they encouraged the congress to pass another bill with more thoughtful conditions for cell phone use.

Students debated over bill number two, which they eventually passed. This time the bill allowed cell phone use that was restricted to communication related to learning and to coordinate daily logistics (rides, appointments, study groups, etc.) with their families and friends. You can imagine the lobbying that ensued afterward. Students worked their teachers hard to prevent another veto. But suspicions ran high when students noticed their lobbying seemed futile. The teachers were indicating that students could make those calls and texts outside of school hours, and hinted at another veto.

The students were highly annoyed. Adults use cell phones for important reasons all the time during school hours. So, why would they assume young adults don't need to use phones in that way? The students took action to make their point, and when teachers realized that they use their own cell phones in the ways that students proposed to use them, the two parties struck up a compromise.

Students can now make calls and texts during breaks or when standing next to a teacher.

MNCS teachers report that they haven't had to police cell phone use since the second bill was amended.

Students know this privilege was hard won, so they don't hesitate to police themselves. They ask peers to stop any improper use in order to protect their ability to use phones at school. They are quick to explain the rules to newcomers.

Students with real governing authority at MNCS and other schools have taken on numerous other issues themselves, such as school attendance policy (to make it stricter!), technology use policy, the daily schedule (to better accommodate the learning needs of all students), getting what they see as appropriate levels of control over their in-school learning, bathroom cleanliness, and tolerance. One student congress determined that the school's Gay-Straight Alliance organization should plan the prom to ensure inclusivity (inhibiting bullies via policy of students' own making!).

Participating in these decisions and processes, students learn skills such as self-awareness, empathy, questioning, objectivity, analysis and synthesis, appreciation for differences, self-expression, collaboration, and compromise. They learn how to be active citizens in a community. Teachers learn that students are completely capable of collectively developing creative solutions to problems, and about what problems are important to students. Teachers also learn that students are quite willing to live by, and enforce, the rules they set for themselves.

It is clear that most adults don't expect these would be the outcomes. Psychologist Robert Epstein found in 2007 that U.S. teens have 10 times as many restrictions as adults, twice as many as active-duty U.S. marines and even twice as many as incarcerated felons. "One effect is the creation of a new segment of society just waiting to consume, especially if given money to spend," Epstein said in an interview with Psychology Today. "There are now massive industries--music, clothing, makeup--that revolve around this artificial segment of society and keep it going, with teens spending upward of $200 billion a year almost entirely on trivia."

When we teach teens that student "government" must preside only over prom-theme selection and social activities--moreover, when we tell them that serious and real responsibilities only come later, and their only function is to be schooled (presumably by older adults)--what are we keeping them from? What else might teens be doing with their time and money? Improving school cultures and campuses? Taking appropriate control of and interest in their learning, both inside and outside of school? Determining and developing their interests and purposes? Starting businesses? Serving our local and world communities? Saving toward property ownership?

We become who we are as we absorb the rules and cultures of the institutions we inhabit (See Zoe Weil's TED talk, The World Becomes What You Teach or David Brooks' The Social Animal). Who do we want our teens to be? As Ted Kolderie asked at the 2013 New Schools Venture Fund Summit, are we willing to confront what we are currently asking them to be, with the rules and cultures now dominating the schools they inhabit?

Kim Farris-Berg is an independent education policy consultant based in Southern California. She is lead author of Trusting Teachers with School Success: What Happens When Teachers Call the Shots.

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