Building Community
Building Community

When educators design and create new schools, and live next gen learning themselves, they take the lead in growing next gen learning across the nation. Other educators don’t simply follow and adopt; next gen learning depends on personal and community agency—the will to own the change, fueled by the desire to learn from and with others. Networks and policy play important roles in enabling grassroots approaches to change.

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Student voice is about seeing and experiencing student leadership, with adults stepping back to trust them, accept any discomfort that it may cause, and celebrate their success.

On March 16, we hosted Weekend @ Workshop, a daylong conference and celebration focused on giving our guests (a mix of educators from other schools, families of our students, friends, and supporters) a sense of what it’s like to be a student at the Workshop School. We opened the day with circle, which included both check-ins and icebreaker activities since most of the attendees did not know one another. We also gave out reflection cards to help our guests capture some of their impressions from the day.

opening circle

Opening circle

Following circle, we transitioned into three rounds of hour-long sessions with short breaks in between. In one, participants learned the mathematical properties of different patterns and discussed where and how they occurred in the natural world, and then went out for a walk to look for them in our community. In another session, our guests crafted and shared stories of food and family. Down in the shop, attendees learned basic automotive maintenance, painting, and welding. In the makerspace they learned tufting (making rugs) and screen printing.

theater and leadership workshop

Theater and leadership workshop

Some chose to run through one of two escape rooms, both of which focused on being trapped inside of some electronic world (Jumanji and Disney movies, respectively). Others researched labor leaders from different points in history, created fictitious Instagram handles and content for them, and then posted responses from other leaders. Still others learned how to facilitate team-building through improv. At the end of the day we returned to circle, where our guests reflected on what they learned, what made an impression, or what they appreciated from the day. Asked to describe their day in one word, they used adjectives like “impressive,” “enlightening,” “hopeful,” and “inspirational.”

student welder

Supervising a novice welder

It was a great day all around. But the best part was that not a single session or activity was led by an adult.

The seed for Weekend @ Workshop was planted several years ago, when we first ran the Escape Room project. The culminating performance for that project was “Escape the Workshop,” an evening where friends, supporters and Workshop School families ran through a series of student-designed escape rooms. The event was a success all around, but the best part of it was that the students were so clearly the ones in charge.

Having kids run the show is exhilarating. It’s also stressful. Teachers are by definition planners, and for all of the talk about student voice (and choice), a lot of us work really hard to engineer an environment in which, given the chance to exercise voice and choice, students just do what we want them to do. (I think a lot about John Dewey’s lab school at the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century. While home to some truly groundbreaking work, one of the most notable characteristics of the school was that it created the illusion of student choice without ever really ceding control of the process or outcome.)

The terrifying thing about Weekend @ Workshop is that once the lights went on, things were going to go the way the students wanted them to go. They didn’t say things the way we might, or pace their workshops the same way, or notice the same things. Watching them in action we silently rooted them on, fidgeting in our chairs like a backseat driver.

This is what student voice really means to me. It’s not just asking a question, opening the floor, or handing students the mic. It’s letting go of control, trusting them, and seeing and hearing them on their terms rather than our own.

Every session at Weekend @ Workshop could have been led by a staff member. Some of the sessions might have been more polished as a result–we do this for a living after all. But they would not have had anywhere near the same impact. Led by our students, participants learned something about how to take care of their car, make a rug, or tell a story, and all of that is great. But what they really learned is what it feels like to be connected and in community with teenagers, and what it means to see their vitality, humor, commitment, and care for one another.

learning to make rugs

Learning to make rugs

Older generations have always judged their successors harshly, perhaps none more than Gen Z. For poor black and brown youth the narrative is even more sinister, justifying continuing societal neglect or even open hostility. It’s not enough for us to say that today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders. We need to see and experience their leadership. So yes: student voice is about elevating them and providing opportunity. But just as importantly, it’s about us stepping off the stage, trusting them, accepting the discomfort that may cause us, and celebrating their success.

All images courtesy of Workshop School, with thanks to the many staff and students taking photos throughout the day.

​Matthew Riggan (he/his)

Co-Founder, Workshop School

Matthew Riggan is the co-founder of the Workshop School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.