“Treat people as if they are what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being.”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We expect a lot of our middle and high school learners. They work together in teams to deepen their understanding of a complex and pressing issue that matters to them, in order to identify a particular audience and actively seek to persuade them. Our learners increasingly manage and direct their learning, using our digital ecosystem and network of mentors to sustain their learning between our infrequent, in-person meetings.

Most importantly, these young people get out in their communities posing questions to determine why things are the way they are, and to imagine and contribute to a better way. In short, we expect and teach our learners how to engage, make sense, and ask each other and others to improve the adult-run world in which we live. This is challenging work and requires them to refine crucial, life-long skills necessary to living well and bettering communities.

We begin by asking each learner to explore and research a social issue of high interest over the first six weeks. Then, they plan a pitch they’ll make to their peers to define the issue, explore its complexity, identify stakeholders, and suggest creative and positive change they envision for the topic at hand. Following these pitches, social action teams are created by consensus building. Once settled into these collaborative incubators, teams dig into their research and film together. They contact local, national, and global leaders in the fields related to their topics, posting their progress on blogs that are read by a national network of adults who provide timely, thoughtful responses. Most importantly, these youth-led teams determine the precise change they seek and produce a range of resources and multi-modal documents, including film, that they publish to persuade their audience to act. Lastly, our learners publish and leverage their products and ideas to their particular audience as they go public in their quest for change, and together we evaluate the journey of their learning.

Treated like the leaders they are capable of becoming and supported by a large network of skilled and caring educators and mentors, our young leaders blossom. Their outward achievements, though, are rooted in a less visible achievement. Our team continues to refine our infrastructure and approach to learning in pursuit of a perfectly blended learning ecosystem, providing just the right balance of expectations, resources, and systems to enable these learners to work with increasing degrees of autonomy. This network of communication systems, human capital, and tailored resources provide the ongoing nutrients that empower these budding change agents to thrive.

What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team is an innovative, tested, replicable model of experiential, student-centered learning and leading around a passion for moral generosity. In addition to inspiring the work of young people in Vermont, we want to teach others what our learners taught us. We’ve helped Fern Creek High School in Louisville, Kentucky establish their own WTS course under the guidance of Paul Barnwell. See updates on their work here. Also new for this year, we’ll open our WTS lab, where educators will observe our learners in action, before learning more about how WTS works. We’re eager to offer our expertise and encouragement to educators ready to imagine and create a better way of educating our young leaders.