Election Time: A non-political reflection on Student Leadership


My high school years were impactful for me, but not in the amount of knowledge I amassed or remembered. It was more about learning to navigate a treacherous but necessary path that would eventually lead to the prized treasures of popularity, good grades, and the right classes. I found my existence of daily chatter and laughter at the lunch table an adequate diversion for the time being.

I participated in many school activities like pep rallies, basketball games, dances and a few stints at public service.  Reminded of Kennedy’s call to action and service as a younger student, I ran for the school’s Student Council at least a couple of times to no avail. Chuckling now, I am reminded of the movie Forrest Gump, when his fans shouted, “Run Forrest Run!” That was me.

I had a few faithful friends who cheered me on even though I obviously lacked the “look” and was not quite up to a par with those who were in the right classes and seemingly favored by the teachers. I told myself over and over after those experiences that I was just not smart enough, or pretty enough, or popular enough to deserve being “chosen” and that I should just stop trying.

Not many young teenagers possess the poise and confidence to stand before a large group of peers and wax persuasively eloquent. It was obvious I couldn’t. I was an “above average” student from a blue collar family who just wanted to make the whole high school experience better for all of my peers. Being the determined person I am, I threw my hat into the ring one more time and won the VP slot in my junior year. With that bit of success, I pressed on to win the coveted “President” of the class in my senior year of high school.

Similar to our voters in the United States, my young classmates were in three different camps – those who were tired of me running for office, those who didn’t care and wouldn’t vote, and those who actually thought I could accomplish something on their behalf.  Apparently there were more of the later, and I was granted the job. Now, years later, I enjoy the perks of that service as I often plan our high school reunions. One is coming up soon.

There is an incredible opportunity in schools to promote youth leadership in a number of ways.  Most schools sponsor student councils or organizations in which students can experience a leadership role and participate in the planning and evaluating of school events, activities, and sometimes rules. Some offer leadership roles by way of  older students supporting younger students on the campus. There are also many other types of opportunities outside of school that provide students with leadership experiences, such as Scouts, Red-Cross, 4-H clubs, and various others.

What is rarely seen in school leadership roles for students is the ability to interact meaningfully with real issues that affect them. The school system is in power – not the students. This is by design, to keep order, but disenfranchises most students who may become complacent, docile, and in some cases rebellious.

“William Glasser suggests that 95 percent of classroom management issues occur as a result of students trying to fulfill a need for power. Power is not a finite pie. When we share power with our students, it doesn’t mean that we “have less power” —but it can mean we’ve created more possibilities for learning and leadership.” 1

When we give students as much participatory democracy as possible and more authentic learning experiences, we empower them.  There are multiple ways to do this in a classroom/school. Allowing them to design the physical layout of their classroom space, giving them the opportunity to choose topics of interest for lesson planning, and the ability to assess their own work is empowering. This can work surprisingly well. It takes commitment and determination on the part of the teacher and the student. It also requires the teacher/school to relinquish some power.

Studies described in The Harvard Education Letter identified intrinsic motivation as a key childhood characteristic among adults who became leaders. We need to foster relationships that hone in on students’ interest, hopes and dreams so we can build on these together. Schools rarely do this. Instead they provide a common curriculum in a vacuum of regulated procedures that suck the life out of real learning. Many smart teachers know this already and are striving to move the pendulum in the right direction.

Leadership Challenge: To all the parents, teachers, principals, school boards and central office leaders; please encourage and support young people taking charge of their own learning. That is how you prepare them to be productive and contributing adults.

  1. Ferlazzo, Larry. “Cultivating Student Leadership.” Education Week. February  14, 2012. Accessed September 28, 2016. http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2012/02/14/tln_ferlazzo_leadership.html

My Take on Grade Levels

NPR article

September 12, 2016 7:00 AM ET
Anya Kamenetz

“Currently, the evidence suggests that between 15% and 45% of students enter the late-elementary classroom each fall already performing at least one year ahead of expectations. Our initial question – How many students are learning above grade level? – needs to be extended. The more important questions may be:

  1. How should we reorganize our schools, now that we know that large numbers of these students exist?
  2. How can we best meet these students’ learning needs, if they already have mastered much of the year’s content before the year has even started? And lastly,
  3. How can schools balance the potential for excellence against the need to achieve basic proficiency, when the variation in student achievement within classrooms and schools is so vast?

The current K-12 education system essentially ignores the learning needs of a huge percentage of its students. Knowing this, 20 years from now we may look back and wonder why we kept using age-based grade levels to organize K-12 education for so long.”

Research link

What this research says to me is that forcing children into a grade level schemata of schooling ignores the fundamental principle of learning. Not only does it disenfranchise those they have identified as the 15%-45% of children already performing above grade level, it also leaves out those that are not at the identified grade level. The teacher is left to navigate this divide and to bring every child forward. By virtue of the school design (grade levels) this is always a challenge.

A quote from my book, Learning Unleashed on this topic.

“…Setting an arbitrary end date by way of completing a grade level is ludicrous and flies in the face of everything educators learn in undergraduate psychology courses and have come to understand more clearly from brain research…children learn in different ways and at different rates.”

My book offers a solution to this perplexing problem.https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781475829198

This quote from the research is worth repeating. I just wonder if anyone is really listening or really cares.

“The current K-12 education system essentially ignores the learning needs of a huge percentage of its students. Knowing this, 20 years from now we may look back and wonder why we kept using age-based grade levels to organize K-12 education for so long.”

Music to their ears

Music to their ears  Please enjoy the link while you read.

     With a new school year starting my mind often wanders to those “back-in-the-days” when I was in school.

      In my Catholic elementary school, we went to a different room for music class and there I learned new songs I had never heard before.  We listened to various selections and we all sang on cue when Sister ML tapped the baton and snapped her fingers.  I enjoyed hearing the music as my body found the rhythm and beat. However, most of us did not move because those who did were publically humiliated, sent to the back of the room, ordered to face the back wall and to think about their actions. Seriously.

I never quite understood how to keep your body still when it seemed so natural to move with music like I had done at home, watching mom and dad dance to their favorite swing music from the 40’s.  I relished the departure from that school rule when I was at home where my mom, sisters, and I would jump to the newest songs we played from our 45 RPM rock-n-roll collection.

But, in school, that was far from the way we were taught music appreciation. So, in order to comply with the demand of “no movement unless requested by the teacher” I learned to “move” in my mind.  That seemed to work for me, however, not so much for a few others who often found themselves facing the back wall, repeatedly. Maybe the public school kids were able to move more in music class. Maybe it was just Sister MJ who was opposed to swaying children. I will never really know for sure.

“How is it that for most people music is a powerful part of their personal life and yet when we go to work or school we turn it off?”1

I know a lot has changed since the early 1960’s and schools have discovered the powerful impact that music has on a child’s learning… OR HAVE THEY?

According to John Hopkins University School of Education here are just a few benefits of music in schools.

Music helps us learn because it will–

  • establish a positive learning state
  • build a sense of anticipation
  • energize learning activities
  • change brain wave states
  • focus concentration
  • increase attention
  • improve memory
  • facilitate a multisensory learning experience
  • release tension
  • enhance imagination
  • develop rapport
  • provide inspiration and motivation
  • add an element of fun
  • accentuate theme-oriented units

Schools where music is an embedded, vital part of every day, are far more likely to see happy and engaged children. Hearing a favorite or familiar composition, melody or song while learning is simply music to their ears! Listen and learn. Click the link above.