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.

Notes from the Road: California 2016

Last Sunday, CityBridge’s fourth cohort of Education Innovation Fellows jumped on a plane and headed out west for a whirlwind week of innovative schools and design thinking in California. Every year, this trip has been life-changing for our fellows: diving deep into design thinking and seeing new ideas in practice is, as we’ve learned, a powerful combination.

Stay tuned for a full download—but until then, here are some snapshots from the road. Join in the fellows’ experiences in real time by following @CityBridgeFdn and #EIF16 on Twitter.

On Monday, Fellows brainstormed big ideas and questions they have about 8 Great Leaps in education:

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They formed teams bases on common themes and challenges they’re passionate about.

They then headed to Stanford and honed their design thinking skills with a workshop at the d.school:

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Here are a few folks building “student empathy totems” to remind them of how they can put themselves in the shoes of one of their learners:

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Then they shared their totems in a gallery walk discussion:

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On Tuesday, the team started the day at Urban Montessori Charter School, where fellows learned the key elements of the Montessori model and how the school expands upon that core model with design thinking. They also heard from the school staff about the challenges of crafting an intentionally diverse public school:

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After Urban Montessori, the fellows headed across Oakland to La Escuelita, an Oakland Unified elementary school:

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There, they learned about how the teachers have driven the design and implementation of a blended learning model and a maker space. Students in the maker space were building circuits:

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Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland was their next stop, where teachers gathered in that school’s maker space, the Creativity Lab:

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Fellows (and CityBridge staff!) got to experience the basics of making by investigating real-world products, taking them apart, and explaining the complexity of the component parts. In this meta-moment, teachers dissect a pencil sharper:

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The team’s last stop was the Facebook headquarters, the world’s largest open-plan office, where Shauntel Poulson (Reach Capital) introduced fellows to the ed-tech market. They closed the day with a highly interactive Nearpod demo from Guido Kovalskys, Nearpod CEO, and a demo of the Summit Basecamp Personalized Learning Platform from the Basecamp team and the Facebook engineers who work full time on the project.

Today, the fellows will head down to Los Angeles for more school visits, design thinking, and discussions about how to do school better. Stay tuned!

Design Thinking: Starting with Empathy

With our multi-day California trip behind us, I have about 40 pages of notes and dozens of computer files that attempt to collect all of the information we received. There is so much we observed that will influence my future work—from selecting programs to use in the classroom to computer implementation.

The biggest long-term effect of this trip, however, boils down to empathy. It’s honestly not what I thought I’d walk away with going in. I thought the trip would show me several models of blended learning and I would simply take one and run with it, implementing it into my school as quickly as possible.

But that leaves humans entirely out of the equation. If these school visits and anecdotes (both good and bad) have left me with anything, it’s a deep appreciation for the need of humans to be in the equation when approaching technology.

The process we will be using to implement blended learning and individualized learning in our schools is called design thinking, and we were trained on it at Stanford’s d.School. The process does some really awesome things to bring about change, and it all starts with empathy towards someone else’s problem. Common sense, right?

It seems so, but think about how many changes have been made in your workplace without you being consulted. As a teacher, I’ve seen curriculum, logistics, and systems for interacting with parents radically changed without thoroughly consulting all stakeholders.

Of all the things I’m excited about—and there are many—I am so thankful to have a strong mindset around empathy and others’ needs. This means that, despite the mistakes that I’ll inevitably make, all of my actions can be rooted in the stated wants and needs of teachers, students, and families. Now that’s exciting!

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy

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How to Avoid Post-REVIVAL Stress Disorder (PRSD)

I’m a PK (Pastor’s Kid), so I know a spiritual revival when I see one. On this California trip, we have not entered any makeshift churches out of white tents, but in equally inspiring, open, and creative spaces, we have been challenged to respond to a call of action to join a growing movement in our educational system.

I started to realize that the 22 of us Fellows were beginning to convert to the “gospel” of personalized learning when Gisele Huff spoke to us on Tuesday about how irrational it is to expect one teacher to reach the myriad of academic needs for 30 students simultaneously. When she commended us as teachers for working so diligently at an impossible task, there were audible sighs of relief and gratitude for the truth she spoke. What Gisele did for the soul, Brian Greenberg followed up with for the mind by reframing our current factory model of education with one question: Why do we assign 18 years of curriculum to children simply based on the day and year of their birth?

The good news of personalized learning is not just that students learn and achieve according to their individual pace and interests, but also that teachers are able to leverage technology to increase face-to-face time. It is in this time and space that they can focus on fixing misconceptions using real-time data and pushing cognitive skills through challenging tasks teachers. Ultimately, teachers are freed from the burden of ineffectively teaching to an “average” child that rarely exists, and it is the possibility of lifting this burden that I sense within our cohort.

Out of the nine schools we visited in California, three epitomized my vision of a school where teachers and students seem fully liberated. At Saint Anne School in Santa Monica, students participated in a station rotation blended learning model like many of our other site visits, but the sense of purpose and community felt most authentic. I didn’t sense that adults were stressed about how to measure dozens of metrics to ensure students close the achievement gap or engineer social skills that will lead them to success in college. I did, however, see tons of evidence that these students will close the gap as I watched students manage their own behavior and learning, collaborate around a student playing “Stay with Me” on a piano after choir class, and advocate for their learning (one boy did so four times within ten minutes because he wanted to know how to play “Hot Cross Buns” on his violin despite being absent the previous day).

On a secondary level, the students at Alliance BLAST and USC Hybrid High impressed with their sense of ownership over their education. Students knew what assignments they needed to complete, how to access information and had proof of work products that were thoughtful and relevant (ex. connecting the landscape of Mesopotamia to the current rise of ISIS). In both visits, we were led around by students who could explain the benefits of their flex models, not central office personnel well versed in the art of selling a school. In both cases, I had no doubt that these kids would be ready for college primarily because there already “practicing” college in the way their schools are physically and instructionally designed. These settings already resemble the autonomy of campus settings, which trust students to rise to the occasion of living and learning in peaceful harmony.

Unfortunately, I am already sensing this mountaintop experience coming to a close. In the upcoming weeks, the light of this alternative way to imagining “school” will likely fade as I return to the same environment with a different mindset and I worry about how effective I can be at spreading this good news in the valley of everyday school life. How do you create buy-in to a learning model that many kids cannot even imagine? How do I narrow down my priorities in rearranging my classroom to better facilitate learning? How do I stay disciplined in measuring progress along clearly defined goals?

Post-Revival Stress Disorder can strike here because you can A) CONTEMPLATE forever as the possibilities for change are overwhelming, B) CRASH because you attempted every idea all at once, or C) COPE with the status quo because its familiar.

I am prone to option B, as I have no fear trying new things—but if there’s nothing I’ve learned over the past five days, you don’t innovate for innovation’s sake. You must take the time to define the problem according to your consumer (hint: the student). Consequently, I will not rush into designing an elaborate combo model of every edtech tool I’ve gotten excited about, nor will I plan out how to make online playlists that will allow students to move through a unit’s content at their own pace.

I am ONLY committing to the following next steps:

  1. EMPATHIZE: Interview at least six students from each of my classes using the following prompt: “Could you describe a time you felt excited to be in class?”
  2. DEFINE: Prioritize no more than THREE key levers for moving towards personalization in my classroom based on student experiences, not mine.
  3. IDEATE: Not until Step 2 is done because I must know what problem I’m fixing.
  4. PROTOTYPE: Not until Step 2 is complete because all tools don’t build the same thing.
  5. TEST: If it’s not already obvious, Step 2 comes first; otherwise, I have no idea what I’m actually measuring as success beyond a warm and fuzzy feeling.

So, fellow disciples, next time you see me, I should have three clearly defined components for what students need from my class. Should I fail to have this, please feel free to reiterate to me the importance of not just believing in personalizing learning, but taking the time to model the entire design process and not just trek back to the valley without a compass.

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Source: http://exploratownium.com/what-is-design-thinking/

Desiree Smith, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Center City Public Charter Schools—Congress Heights Campus

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Someday or Monday?

As a teacher at KIPP DC Heights Academy in the Anacostia neighborhood, I was very excited to hear that one of our school visits would be at a fellow KIPP region.

During the visit to KIPP LA’s KIPP Empower Academy, I had a really powerful realization: As I looked around the campus, I saw so many things reminiscent of my school.

This goes beyond the superficial features, like our uniforms or logos. On a deeper level, we both use ChromeBooks as our main student technology, we serve similar underserved populations, and there’s significant overlap in the instructional technology programs we are using.

So much about this trip has been focused on seeing schools that are doing things radically different from our own, often with different student populations and class setups. This is extraordinarily powerful as we are tasked with innovating in education in D.C.

Our trip to KIPP was powerful to me, though, because it showed me that with a few moderate changes, my school can shift to a blended model. We have the technology, we have the infrastructure, and we have the smart educators who are devoted to students. KIPP Empower showed how close we already are.

With this work, I often think about the “someday/Monday” paradigm. We have so many things we want to do “someday”—like end educational inequity. However, we have students on Monday. KIPP Empower showed that, with some collaboration, next Monday or the one after isn’t too soon to start blended learning with my kiddos.

Blair Mishleau, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
KIPP DC Heights Academy

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SuperSHEro

As a parent, you develop a mindset of the superhero—or, in my case, superSHEro. When my daughter was born, I automatically began to act in a way that would change the world for her. I started with me, constant trying to be my best self, be more savvy with my money, provide for and shelter this child—because through her, I live forever. I’m her superhero, going above and beyond to save the world (or change the world) for her. I wear that cape for her!

Then I became a teacher and was awarded another cape. I now am a superhero for my students, because through them, I also live forever. The values I hope to instill in them, the drive I pray they develop as a result of the interactions and lessons between them and me. For some, I am actually their mother, friend, lawyer, social worker, and more for the eight to ten hours that they are at school each day. Teachers are superheroes: Through our students, we change the world.

So I wear two capes—sometimes at the same time, and sometimes sacrificing one cape to wear the other. But my constant dilemma is when to take one off to put the other on. I’m the sole provider for my child, so there are some risks I am not willing to take when it comes to job stability. However, I have to think about all of the other children who need someone to take a chance, innovate, and do something radical for them. Which cape bears the most weight? Which cape is the most important? Save the world…or save my girl?

Kelley Jones, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Orr Elementary School

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Are You Willing to be Epic?

In any classroom in the United States, there are common “best practices” that schools employ to provide a rich experience for students. However, we cannot resist the overwhelming data showing that we are failing tremendously to provide high-quality education nationwide.

In my four-day experience in California, I have had the opportunity to visit multiple schools that have introduced blended learning as part of their educational climate. I’ve witnessed multiple models and heard from visionary leaders regarding their new approaches to educating children. I’ll admit that every model looks enticing, which can make it hard to determine what to implement. But one word that has resonated with me is “Epic.”

Epic is a game-based school located in California. Each student has his or her own Avatar, and the goal is to gain points and badges and to unlock levels to access new content and increased freedom. It is a radical and uncomfortable yet exciting model that left me inspired to push my vision for education.

While I am aware that the educational system may never employ this model broadly, I want to push educators to think on an “Epic” level. Imagine that you could create the ultimate classroom or school: How could you make it epic? We as educators have a creative talent that has been lost amidst the pressure to perform high and be in compliance. However, this is the opposite of epic! In writing this post, I want teachers to know that you have talent, vision, and a voice, talent. Your ability to be great is not solely based on the data results, test prep, or a teacher evaluation rubric. Some things are so great that they can’t be quantified! They are epic!

This experience has exposed me to the risk-takers and epic ideas. I have learned many lessons, which I will sum up in three short points:

  • To be epic, you must be unsatisfied with the current system in place.
  • To be epic, you must be willing to get it wrong and be content with mess.
  • To be epic, you must be relentless in your pursuit, despite voices that will cause you to question everything you are doing.

Be an epic educator, not an average teacher!

Brandon Johnson, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
Browne Education Campus

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