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Creating A National Collective Voice of Young People
by Charles Kouns, Founding Steward

“School is constantly causing us to forget who we are in the first place. I'm not dropping out, I'm choosing to leave. I'm choosing to not follow their plan. Yes, it works for a lot of people, but most of them are only in school because they've all become too oblivious to themselves and too scared to decide what they want to do with their lives. Then again, you can't blame them because they've been held up by the school system - being led from one thing to the next - their whole lives.

By staying in school, I feel like I'm just taking the easy way out. I don't need a structure to live on, I feel like I've got an IV hooked up to me, and the worst part is people think we live on it. We don't. I tell them I'm leaving and they look at me with such disappointment..."You could do so much" "You have so much potential."

Going to school should not define your life. I don't want to look at living as a math equation, having to solve it and keep following these rules. What's the point of being on this life support when we all end up dying anyway? We all end up the same.”

                                                 -- Paris Kouns, 16

I found this heart-wrenching quote on my daughter’s MySpace site one day four years ago, just days before she quit school.  She had been in public schools and excellent private schools, and still, at such a young age, her insight and sense of defeat echo what I have been hearing over and over as I have been conducting Listening Sessions with teens across the country.

As Paris’ piece makes us aware, there is little to no invitation for student voices in the discussions about education reform/reinvention/transformation.  There are a few courageous young voices around the country, many of whom are members of this blog, as well as The Student Union. There are places around the country where students are expressing their dissatisfaction with the current system and in some cases founding their own. But these are isolated from each other, except perhaps in the small Facebook and blog worlds dedicated to changing education.

But, far and away, the predominant attitude in education young people encounter seems to be that the “grown-ups” know best. Hidden behind this may be an unconscious, deep-seated belief that young people cannot contribute to the transformation that is necessary. Why else wouldn’t they be invited into the process? 

As many of you are - I am a passionate believer in the wisdom, the creativity and the insightfulness of our young people.  They are smart enough to see that the system does not work. They are creative enough to have many outstanding ideas about how to change education. Most importantly to me, they hold a deep wisdom about how lifeless the system has become - and the courage to speak it, if given the chance.

In creating Imagining Learning, four years ago, I embarked on a remarkable journey to listen to young people. Imagining Learning is committed to emerging a space for a national collective voice of the wisdom of young people on the reinvention of education. We are a “hollow bone”, providing a structure and experience in synthesizing information, through which the voices of young people can be heard in a manner that is unmistakably clear and forthright.

We are doing this by leading Listening Sessions around the United States with teens, ages 13 – 19, from all walks of life.  A Listening Session has been designed to be appreciative in nature, so there is no conversation about what is wrong with education. A Listening Session creates a space that is safe, free from judgment and empty of anyone else’s voices, except those young people who are participating. 

They encourage students to tap into their inner knowing – into a voice that has been there all along – and emerge a new set of ideas and beliefs about what could


be achieved if given a blank slate from which to hold all young people in the future.

The final vision that emerges from each group of four students is in the form of a 4’ X 6’ painting.  Each painting contains a story, a collective vision if you will, of how each particular group of students
possibilities for learning in the future.  They then share their vision with other students who have been creating their own visions and with those of us fortunate enough to attend.

At the end of each Listening Session, we ask students to let us know what they experienced. The first thing stated is usually, “Thank you for listening. No one is asking us what we think.” Then another sense emerges of what is possible. They have been told for so long what to do that the very idea that they can create their own vision is a revelation.  Finally, they realize that they hear their own voice in the visions that have been presented. 

Here are some comments we have heard (all ages are as of the time they participated in the Listening Session):

"This has given me a new perspective on education. Usually it is about training for facts and knowledge. Education that is about who you are, want to be and preparing for the future is more important."

- Sam, 17
"Usually I only talk to my parents about school, but they think I am complaining. It was nice to come here and talk with people who understand me."
                                                                                                                        - Riley, 14

"I like how optimistic this approach is and how positive our input can be."

- Ankober, 17

"I wish this school had been made a long time ago."
                                                                                                                              - Aaron, 15


"I wasn't going to have kids, but if you build this school, I will have them."
                                                                                                                              - Andrea, 18

"I never thought there could be a more favorable alternative to school."
                                                                                                                             - Emma, 14 


I do not offer these statements as a way to justify or promote what we are doing, but to tell you that there is a tremendous acceptance (sense of defeat?) in young people that education will never be changed by adults.

After the Listening Sessions have been completed, our vision is to launch an initiative, that together with young people, presents their collective vision to the nation and creates intergenerational dialogue all across the country.  There are many individuals, groups and organizations working to help bring student voices forward.  Every bit of effort is needed to move the massive sedentary foundation of education.  We laud them for their work and happy to join them in this effort.

In the coming months, we want to lead Listening Sessions in the South, Mid-Atlantic and the North.Mid-west and Southwest.  We have done most of our work to date in the west. If this article resonates with you and you would like to participate in some way, either by sponsoring a Listening Session in your community in the areas aforementioned (there is no cost), or spreading the word, or volunteering in other ways, please let us know.

You can check us out more fully at

I fully believe in the power of the voices of our young people to lead a transformation of education. Their voices are filled with hope, compassion, innocence and bold ideas. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain if we but listen.

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