ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

The Truth of Youth

Evan Heller

Post submitted by Evan Heller, a youth advocate and leader for Special Olympics who currently serves on both the National and Massachusetts State Youth Activation Committees. He also participates with Special Olympics as the head coach for a unified soccer team and a unified football team, as well as an assistant coach for bowling and track and field. Additionally, Heller has participated in numerous local and national conferences about youth leadership and activation. This fall he will begin his freshman year of college at University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Listen to Heller discuss inclusive learning environments on the Whole Child Podcast.

The following is a reflection on Heller's recent experience as a facilitator at whole child partner National School Climate Center's 2011 National School Climate Summer Institute, which helps support educators in developing school climates that promote safe, caring, and civil schools.

I was recently invited to help emcee and facilitate the 2011 National School Climate Summer Institute, held at John Jay College in New York City, along with two of my youth peers. Despite the plethora of e-mails I received in the week leading up to the institute, I arrived with little knowledge of what would be coming and even less knowledge of how, as a youth, I would be received by an audience primarily consisting of high-level administrators and educators. At the beginning of the first day of the institute, I was handed a name tag that read, "Evan Heller—Youth Leader." Well, I guess that sums me up?

My peers and I approached the podium and welcomed the institute attendees to the 14th Annual Summer Institute. Out of 14 years, it was the first time youth had even been invited, not to mention helped facilitate, the institute that was aimed at aiding K–12 students. After we had finished our introduction, mostly reading off a script we had quickly assembled a few minutes prior, I noticed that many people were surprised to see youth at such an event. It struck me as curious that adults would attend an institute revolving around youth and improved school climate for youth, and then be shocked to see youth actually in attendance.

Adults approached us soon after our introduction, congratulating us on a job well done. I was confused ... What had we done? We took a microphone and read some words off of a laptop—a 10-year-old could have done that. So why were we being congratulated on doing something so simple? Surely if an adult had done the same thing we had, he would have received neither praise nor recognition.

The praise and approval that we received, at least from my point of view, seemed unwarranted. Was our position initially seen as one of mere tokenism that was to be applauded, supplementing the thought that we were exhibiting the extent of our abilities? Their intention was considerate, but the implication was one of doubt in our ability to meaningfully contribute.

Throughout the rest of the day, we talked with adults, sharing our experiences and listening to theirs. We questioned them, and allowed them to reciprocate the action.

We began to see that they were realizing our ability as leaders through the mere act of conversation. As we talked with the adults more and more, they began to treat us more and more like peers. This acceptance was the last piece of the puzzle that was needed for us to properly enact our role as engaged youth leaders and truly make a difference.

Though it took a period of acclimation for some of the adults to get used to the concept of having youth be involved to such a degree, eventually most of them openly embraced the concept, at least by the end of the institute. On the second to last night, we asked if we could create our own session on the final day, which we were enthusiastically encouraged to do. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see some adults break away from their original sessions for the opportunity to ask us youth for our opinions and insight. It showed me what a great difference could be made in such a short time.

I had the amazing opportunity to meet some very inspirational and driven people during the course of the 2011 summer institute. My only hope is that the adults learned from me as much as I had the pleasure to learn from them, because then I know it would have all been worth it. The most important thing I learned while at the National Summer Institute was how versatile people can be in their beliefs when shown an unorthodox paradigm that works. I believe that when adults give youth free reign to lead, the youth will surprise the adults and perhaps even themselves with the success of their endeavors.

Comments (1)

Katherine Wanslee

August 12, 2011

“It struck me as curious that adults would attend an institute revolving around youth and improved school climate for youth, and then be shocked to see youth actually in attendance.” Isn’t is curious that adult educators and legislators continue meet, discuss, plan, pass laws, vote, and make important decisions regarding young adult students without their input. Staying student-centered is difficult without first-hand knowledge of students’ opinions and experiences.

Katherine Wanslee MA.Ed
Behavior Consultant
It’s All About Me Behavior Consultants
Deer Valley Unified School District

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