By Hannah, former SelfDesign learner (commenced January 2020)

Learners in SelfDesign’s kindergarten to grade 9 program grow up knowing that our voices and opinions matter and are an integral part of our learning experience. It’s only natural to carry that through our high school years.

But in 2019/20, we took it a step further. In October 2020, learners in grades 10–12 at SelfDesign Learning Community elected our first-ever Learner Council. What had been just an idea in late-2018 now is a fully functioning council working to make the grade 10–12 learning experience better for all SelfDesign learners.

My name is Hannah, and I was elected President of the Learner Council – just one of a group of passionate learners working together to create positive change.

This being SelfDesign, the process to establish the council also became part of our own learning journeys. I personally leaned into SelfDesign’s thematic approach to learning and integrated this project into all areas of my education. Council documents became English projects, the planning and organization of council meetings enhanced career and life skills… the council even inspired several members’ year-end projects.

When SelfDesign says that learning happens everywhere, in every moment, and is enriched through conversations and relationships with others, this is what it means.

Here is a brief account of my journey with the Learner Council.

How it started

In December 2018, grade 11 learner Faye posted the first mention of the Learner Council on one of SelfDesign’s communication forums. The post attracted attention, including mine, and prompted SelfDesign Vice Principal Vanessa Kuran to volunteer as teacher–sponsor. Faye created the idea for a Council out of frustration with aspects of the new grade 10–12 program that was being piloted at that time.

The first thing Faye and Vanessa did was assign interested learners to roles and responsibilities, creating a seven-member interim Acting Learner Council.

“Our biggest priority is making sure the learner-base of SelfDesign feels heard,” says Faye, who was acting president. “That was our founding principle.”

“Learner Council is a natural outcome of the fact that with the new 10–12 program design, we now have a full-time learner body in grades 10–12, and therefore an invested group of learners who want to advocate for their learning,” says Vanessa. “They want to have input, they want to share ideas, and they want to have that dialogue with the educators in their lives.”

Another of our main goals was to create the foundation for a council that would last beyond any one member – a system that would remain long after we graduated.

Building the foundation

Summer 2019 was intense. We were learning how to create a council that would be effective and inclusive, would be elected fairly while recognizing the work of the acting council, and would have clearly defined goals and values. Election guidelines that I drafted to allow us to start the election process, as well as some communication issues, led to fierce debate and forced us to solidify our priorities as a group.

We emerged with clear roles and responsibilities for council members, a transparent election process, a pathway for learners to become a part of the council outside of fall elections, and defined values.

“They pulled it together pretty quickly to become something that is organized and legitimate in terms of its governance and place in the school’s broader landscape, and has a voice, a place, and a communication system and pathways for people to be able to find each other and work together,” Vanessa says, who describes her role as “very present but hands off.”

Vanessa provided insight and information and advised many of us personally when we were struggling. She let us make our own decisions and mistakes but was always there when we needed help.

“They’ve been driving the whole thing,” she says. “It’s theirs. It’s absolutely theirs.”

We spent August and September planning, reviewing and rewriting, but all our hard work preparing paid off when we finally held our election. The results were posted on October 10, 2019.

The first elected Learner Council

Five acting council members – Faye, Kass, Luci, Luc, and I – ran in the October election and continued on to the elected council. Five additional learners – Amelia, Kay, Jonah, Kate and Bruno – joined us.

“I’ve always been involved in leadership to some extent and had a lot of ideas for when it comes to the learners’ experience in this program,” Amelia says. “My first meeting was very new and exciting. I was ready to help in any way I could; to be able to have an avenue to fuel my ideas and questions directly was what I needed at that point in my learning journey.”

What was most gratifying for me as the newly elected president was that we immediately formed a team that was comfortable and could work together.

That fall, we drafted a collection of guidelines for running the council, carefully reviewing them before approving them to make sure they reflected our values and concerns while still moving our goals forwards. We created the process for governance, the format for meetings, methods of communication, and a presence in the larger SelfDesign community.

We got to know members of SelfDesign’s grade 10–12 program team, the Camps team, the Education Program team, and the Guidance Centre, as they came together to help support the Learner Council. They listened and helped us, and even asked for our opinions on new ideas.

I left the council when I commenced in January 2020, and Faye and Amelia took on the co-presidency for the spring semester. They invited new grade representatives to the team (Taio, Danika and Logan) and further solidified the structure, to the point where Learner Council is now the template for other SelfDesign student groups.

Reflecting on the year

Both Faye and Amelia commenced in June. I asked them what they feel their biggest contributions to the council were.

“The little things that I did really counted,” Faye says, “the small stuff not many people will notice.”

“I think that I helped keep the team communicating and active during the semester,” Amelia says. “I think everyone’s best contribution, however, is their perspective. You can create tools and adjust programs all you want, but you’ll only be able to make real progress when you know the learners’ perspective and what it’s like to interact from their view.”

As for me, I feel I helped to clarify everyone’s big ideas into manageable projects.

We will miss being a part of this team, but we know that we and our peers on the council have made a difference for SelfDesign learners. We used our voices. We advocated for our learning. We came together and achieved our goals of developing a strong foundation for the Learner Council that learners in years to come can build on.

Despite our different experiences while creating and leading the Learner Council, Faye, Amelia and I agree that communication and leadership skills are the most important things we learned. We each also gained greater understanding of our school, greater appreciation for our educators, and pride in each other, ourselves, and this new community and opportunity that we helped build.