Autonomy Over Oppression

by Kayla Larkin, 2016 Education Innovation Fellow

California, February 2016, a “high-performing” public charter school in San Jose. A tiny little black boy no older than five struggles to carry his lunch and walk up a flight of outdoor stairs at the same time. He finally makes it to the top. He stops. The teacher at the top of the stairs scolds him for not walking in scholar position, and orders him to turn around and “do it again.”

I cringe.

I have been that teacher at the top of the stairs, telling similar-faced and similar-aged students to “do it again.” And for what? To prepare them for a world where people walk a certain way?

In that moment, I think of my students 3,000 miles away in DC, who are likely being told to sit and walk in a certain way, to be silent for the first 15 minutes of lunch because they couldn’t possibly finish their lunch and socialize with their peers at the same time. That sort of autonomy would be too tempting.

I think about the students across town in San Jose at schools with many more affluent white students and I wonder why those children are not being told how to walk, sit, or talk. Why are they allowed to move about the classroom and the school freely? Why are they allowed to speak without restriction? And how are they possibly able to finish their lunch and socialize at the same time?!

When we talk about race and equity in education, we talk about funding, teacher quality, test scores, access to technology. What we don’t talk about is autonomy. Why is it that schools that serve wealthier, white children are the schools that allow for student autonomy—a necessary life skill for college and career readiness—while schools that serve less affluent, black and brown children deny their students the opportunity to wield and develop those most critical skills?

I came back from California and tried to undo years of bad habits that I had developed that stifled my students’ autonomy. At first, it was a little scary. I felt like I might lose control if I let them talk instead of eat, walk, or move silently. I thought I might get in trouble for not forcing students to sit or walk in our school’s take on the “scholar position.”

But what was scarier was what would happen if I didn’t start teaching my students autonomy. They might not learn how to manage their time and responsibilities; they might not learn how to work with others; they might not learn how to get off topic while doing their work and then get themselves back on track. And as a white educator, I realized that if I did not begin to relinquish autonomy to my students, it would mean that I would resign myself to a classroom management style that lent itself more to perpetuating institutionalized oppression than to purposefully empowering students of color.

So fast-forward to the Shaw neighborhood in, Washington D.C. during March, April, May, and June of 2016: I let my students talk during breakfast and they didn’t go hungry. I piloted a Montessori-styled model in a class full of black and brown students, and they thrived just like the whiter, wealthier students I saw in California. I watched students go from working silently and independently to actively collaborating, debating, and discussing their learning with their peers. I watched my students go from being prepared to oblige others and accept the status quo, to being prepared to question the state of things and to lead.

12 Kayla Larkin

Kayla Larkin is a second and third grade English Language Arts teacher at Center City PCS–Shaw Campus.

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