UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Preparing to appear : a case study of student activism Johnson, Wendy Christine


This study is an attempt to understand how it is that high school students come to participate as democratic citizens in the public sphere. A great deal of time and effort goes into providing students with the opportunity to participate in making decisions that affect their education and their lives in schools. Student Voice is the term often used to describe those attempts. In most cases, a small minority of students participate and most of the decisions that students are involved in relate to planning events, fund raising activities or serving on Student Councils. The provincial government has attempted to provide an opportunity for student voices to be heard through School Planning Councils. Each high school in the province is required to have a student representative on the School Planning Council whose mandate is to set goals for improvement in student achievement. Students participate, usually at the request of the principal, but their influence is limited. How is it then that students come to be involved in influencing decisions that directly affect their education? This study is an attempt to find out. This is a qualitative case study of a group of high school students who became involved in campaign to prevent their high school from being reconfigured into a middle school. Their campaign spanned a period often months and included presentations to the Board of Education, letters to the editor, protests, and appearances on radio and television. As a participant observer, I kept notes of all the activities that students were involved in. Through focus groups and interviews, I tried to gain a better understanding of why students decided to get involved and how they made decisions about what actions they wanted to take. What I learned was that the students valued their school and wanted to engage in a dialogue with trustees about what was important to them. When the trustees used the power of their position to attempt to silence the students, the students decided to take their concerns to the broader community, to participate in the public sphere. They engaged in dialogue and planned activities in private. When they were ready, they ventured into the public sphere. They were unable to influence the trustees' final decision, but they garnered a great deal of community support. They learned that communicative action generated a power of its own that made an impact on what came to be discussed in the public sphere. The findings of this research study will be useful to educators willing to support students in their attempts to be involved in the democratic process either in their classrooms, schools or the wider community. Creating private spaces for this kind of dialogue is a challenge for all of us in public education.

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