Youth Agency in the 21st Century (Student Leadership: Part 2)

The following snippets offer a glimpse of youth agency as it happened around the globe. In this century, institutions began to recognize the role of formal and informal youth leadership. These examples take place in and outside of schools but they are all linked by the potential of the youth to disrupt norms and shape our future.

New Delhi, India – 1999

It’s the twilight of the 20th Century and children in an impoverished slum of New Delhi are already dancing in the dawn of the 21st Century. You could see the glow of the screen just off the street.  Sugata Mitra, with a few others, installed a computer interface on a wall – just to see what happens. The computer had internet access but no directions, rules, or even proprietary information.


“We left the PC where it was, available to everyone on the street, and within six months the children of the neighborhood had learned all the mouse operations, could open and close programs, were going online to download games, music, and videos. We asked them how they had learned all of these sophisticated maneuvers, and each time they told us they had taught themselves,” said Sugata Mitra. 


Olympia, Washington – 2000

The program was implemented in middle and high schools in 1996 and within two years it was at the elementary school level. Kids enrolled in the GenY course learned how to work with teachers to facilitate technology integration. This year, the organization takes on the name of GenYes. These kids are spearheading technology adoption in the classroom, leading professional development, and evaluating programs. These kids are the leaders that education has long sought after.

As the field of education begins to dip its toe into the 21st Century, the students of GenYes are swan diving into the deep end of the pool.


Cambodia, 2003

The results of the study are astounding for children between the age of 6 and 13. The children learned to use computers regardless of:

  • Academic background
  • Reading proficiency
  • Demographic or economic background
  • Gender

Left to their own devices (pun intended), the children figured out how to chat, play games, stream media, and save files, among many other tasks. Sugata Mitra tries to rename the project from Hole in the Wall to Minimally Invasive Education (MIE) but alas, Hole in the Wall sticks, and the world falls in love with this accidental revolutionary.


Zacatecas, Mexico – 2003

In rural Mexico resources are scant and the telesecundarias (distance education programs) are known as “schools without memory” because 100% of teachers move after two years. Statistics show that students come from families where 7 of 10 parents work as farm laborers. On this land, 60% or more of the families use firewood or charcoal. Each room has on average more than 3 people per bedroom and many of the students live in homes where more than five people share a bedroom. 

Nine years from now renowned Harvard researcher, Richard Elmore, will be studying these communities to better understand the potential for learning in the 21st Century.


Victoria, Australia – 2005

The flyer circulating Melbourne reads:

R.u. MAD? Are you Making A Difference? Through Action and Awareness, you can make a difference. Join other Australian schools to Make a Difference in your school or community for a day.

Monday, March 21st, 2005 is MAD Day. You may be forgiven for thinking that children can’t enact change, but in this beautiful coastal city, students are empowered by Student Representative Councils that host discussions, conferences, elections, and debates.


Munich, Germany – 2007

9 year-old Felix Finkbeiner learned about the work of Wangari Mathai and was hooked. He proceeded to make a class presentation on climate change and proudly proclaimed at the end:

“Let’s plant a million trees in every country of the world.”


Victoria, Australia – 2009

In this land, up is down and down is up. The teacher is the student and the student is the teacher. The school is the community and the community is the school. 

In these parts of Australia, students teach, run professional development, evaluate programs, and participate in policy. No corner of the school is left untouched, and no student is left behind. Student Action Teams take the lead on issues from bullying to littering, and actually conduct research on the problems. Empowerment isn’t a word around these parts, it’s a way of life.


Newark, New Jersey – 2010

Two middle school students stand at the front of a group of seated educators as they address them in a choral response, “When the synapsis in my brain connect, then I learn.”

In a confident voice, one student directs the teachers, “can you guys stand up and do it with us?”

This isn’t any ordinary lesson and these aren’t ordinary students. Kids trained by the National Urban Alliance (NUA) lead alongside teachers in the areas of concept development, pedagogy, and assessment. Part pedagogical and all social-justice, this program is designed to build a bridge between underserved children and their teachers who tend to be from outside their community. Who better to teach teachers about children than the children themselves?


Burlington, New Jersey – 2011

Burlington High School rolled out over 1,000 tablets and the BIG question was asked: how can the school support this initiative? Teachers, administrators, and specialists all relied on students for support. This period of time gave birth to the Help Desk where a collection of student-tech leaders took the reins. At this school, teenagers helped roll-out iPads, facilitated technology support, and led their school into the 21st Century- all while earning 2.5 credits. Not bad for a single semester worth of work.


Washington, D.C. – 2012

In a whose-who of educational policy big wigs, the late Richard Elmore proclaims the following:

“We’re watching now this program in small rural schools in Mexico (Zacatecas) that’s not mediated by any kind of a professional teacher. It’s a tutorial model. None of the adults are trained teachers. The kids are blowing the doors off the national test. We’re watching this develop. It’s a community-based, social movement.”

It appears that “these schools without memory” did not need the teachers that were leaving anyway.


Burlington, New Jersey – 2012

It’s the second year of the Burlington High School Student Help Desk and there is a buzz in the air. Students at this school run a tight ship in this program. Far from being instructional aides, these kids are creators and innovators. Need a blog? They’ve got it. Does your department need an iBook resource companion for teachers? Consider it done. Do you need instructional videos or media? Just give the kids a deadline. 

Never sitting on their haunches, this program will proceed to have students create an online show, send students to speak at technology events, and begin advocating and offering support for other schools to create their own student tech teams.


Los Angeles, California – 2013 

From Henry Jenkin’s lips to God’s ears, the friendly academic shares in an interview,

“My grad students were interviewing high-school-aged students around the world. In almost every case, what we heard was young people had a richer intellectual and creative life outside of school than inside it, that the things they learned from and the things they cared about were things they did after the school day was over.”

Henry describes a world where students are not students, but participants in society. As full-fledged participants, they must have access to the tools and spaces of the 21st Century.


Nova Scotia, Canada – 2013

In a picturesque island in the North Atlantic Ocean, things weren’t always as they appeared. The views were stunning, the landscape beautiful, but something just didn’t seem right. 11-year-old Stella Bowles science fair project showed that the raw sewage dumped into the LaHave River was polluting the waterway. From citizen-scientist to environmental advocate, Stella and her mother launched a social media campaign to clean-up the river. By the time Stella entered high school an anonymous donor had contributed $1 million to the cause and different government agencies invested more than $15 million to clean the river.

Local environmental activist David Maxwell, a mentor to Stella, said, “they could ignore us (adults), but they didn’t know what the hell to do with an 11-year-old kid making a very loud, public statement.”


Los Angeles, California – 2013

High school students in Boyle Heights are in the process of turning in iPads and might not get them back for at least a few months. These devices were handed out to students as part of an instructional technology initiative but access to content was limited. The kids couldn’t visit social media, listen to music, or access popular games. It is only September but hundreds of kids have ingeniously learned how to remove the restrictions from the devices- you might say “hack” the tablets.


Lindsay, California – 2014

Eighth-grader, Jesus Salcedo was teaching Mr. Smith and Mrs. Alvarez but he was having a hard time leading. The two adults were messing around and were off-task. Jesus was getting visibly frustrated and then he finally boiled-over. In a firm teacher’s voice, he asked his English teacher and assistant principal, “DID YOU COME TO LEARN OR DID YOU COME TO PLAY?”

Mrs. Alvarez turned beet-red as the entire class of teachers laughed. She immediately got back to work. In this child-led professional development session, this was a firm reminder that sometimes the accountability teachers and administrators need can come from the children they serve. 


Burlington, New Jersey – 2014

This semester, the Help Desk course offers high school students multiple opportunities to develop their skills while leading teachers. A flyer for the course shares the following Help Desk Pathways:

  • Bloggers
  • Genius Bar Trainers
  • App Developer Course
  • iBook Authors
  • Choose Your Own Adventure

McFarland, California – 2017

Mrs. Perez just received a donated 3D printer in her third-grade classroom and boldly states, “We are going to 3D print, assemble, and donate prosthetic hands to children in need.”

The children attempt to reign her in and ask, “How are we doing to do that, Mrs. Perez?”

In her overly confident teacher voice, Mrs. Perez proudly states: “I have no idea!”

That year her students did just as their teacher said: they printed, assembled, and donated prosthetic hands to children in need. Those original students would then go on to cross-age peer-teach the incoming classes. Within the next few years, students from this small farm town would go on to successfully donate 12 prosthetic hands/arms to children in need across the country.


Bavaria, Germany – 2018

The Minister of Culture and Art presents the German Culture honorary award to Felix Finkbeiner. The 16 year  old student sparked a movement that planted 14 billion trees and influenced youth activists across the globe. From a simple presentation delivered to his 4th grade class, to a addressing the UN General Assembly, Felix has made his voice heard.


Miami, Florida – 2019

“What creativity means to me is just being yourself, being expressive and helping people and making a difference in the world, and making a change in your community,” says young teenage social entrepreneur Taylor Moxey. 

At the age of seven, Taylor started selling cupcakes at church and by the age of 13, she was the keynote speaker at the 6th annual Youth Economic Development Conference. In between those years, she had started a business, a foundation, published her own book and won multiple awards. 

“Whenever I have the chance to make a difference in someone’s life or community it’s kind of just like, make it happen,” says Taylor, who began brainstorming how to bring libraries to underserved areas. Today the Taylor Moxey Foundation has built mini-libraries from shipping containers in West Palm Beach, the Bahamas, and Columbia. 


Palm Springs, California – 2020

The world is in lockdown, schools are shut, governments are scrambling, and everyone in the US has a stimulus check in the mail. Teachers are struggling to deliver instruction, universities are moving to total online instruction, and school districts are handing out Chromebooks to students.

Amid the chaos that is the Spring of 2020, fifth-grader Jacob Mariscal knew that he could be a part of the solution. Well-versed in 3-D printing and problem solving, the boy begins printing face shields for nurses at his local hospital. His teacher, Paul Gordon, picks up the masks, sterilizes them, and takes them to the hospital.

In an interview with the local news, Jacob says, “My teacher kind of inspired me because he has a 3D printer in his classroom and I wanted one when I first saw it, then I got it, and this whole coronavirus thing happened. I was thinking, ‘why can’t we make the masks?’”


Hubei, China – 2020

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, students were attending class remotely and in the most 21st form of collective action, students managed to defeat the application that was assigning and collecting their homework. The students understood that apps with an average rating of 1-star reviews would get taken down from the app store, and so they proceeded to launch a campaign that would tank the applications ratings. For those who say the students were being mischievous, it turns out the kids were doing what everyone had hoped for because the app was already reviled by corporate employees who railed against the application and how it facilitated micromanagement.

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