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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

The Power of Choice

Education has long been criticized for its rigid, teacher-centered approach, where students passively receive information and regurgitate it on standardized tests. But a paradigm shift is underway, driven by schools like William Smith in Aurora, Colorado that center student agency and authentic learning as the bedrock of their practice. 

Agency is the capacity of an individual to act independently and make their own choices. It is essentially the ability of one to exert their own power. It is imperative to note that students come into our schools already possessing this power. They arrive at our classrooms having already made hundreds of choices before the first bell even rings: Do I wash my face after or before I brush my teeth? Should I reply with a snarky comment to my little sibling or ignore it? Or reply with love? Blue or green socks? Eat breakfast or skip? 


Even with strict parents or limited authority children are constantly in the process of deciding for themselves the ways in which they want to show up for the world and in their own lives. That is until…the bell rings. Traditional schools are similar to prisons in that they dramatically decrease opportunities for choice and voice, hampering students' decision making capacities. 

This is why my visit at William Smith High School excites me, even as I sit here one month later to write this piece. At W.S. student agency is intentionally used as a means for authentic learning. Here students choose their classes based on their interest in the projects and their teachers explicitly highlight the competencies the students will need and gain through their participation in the class. The work students do in these classes is meaningful, relevant, engaging and makes space for student autonomy all of which are necessary to foster student agency.

The work (the lessons, the content, the activities) asks students to address and confront adult-world challenges using academic knowledge and social and emotional intelligence. The work requires creative ingenuity and collaborative effort.  The work requires students to become active co-creators, not just passive listeners, it demands their intrinsic curiosity and engages their innate desire to know more, to solve the problem, to make an impact, to shape change (as Octavia Butler would say). 

At William Smith students are asked to demonstrate their knowledge in meaningful, personal ways. They are asked to deeply reflect on their views, perspectives, and beliefs. But most importantly they are asked to show up and make decisions on behalf of their own learning, which is inherent to the learning process and our individual evolution. By creating environments where students have a high level of genuine interest and commitment William Smith empowers students to be agentic, authentic, and engaged.


An Irrevocable Condition: Belonging in Schools

In its simplest form, belonging is an affinity for a place or situation. A more complex understanding is one’s emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. In the context of school, belonging is the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included, and supported by others in the school environment.

The research on belonging is clear. An increase in a sense of belonging has been positively associated with increased motivation, attention, effort, academic performance, and persistence. Research also correlates belonging with psychological benefits as well, such as increased self-esteem, positive mood, improved memory, and reduced stress. There are even physical perks including a reduced risk of stroke, lower risk for disease and reduced mortality have all been associated with an increased sense of belonging.

As I sat in a hotel conference room listening to William Smith high schoolers talk about their experiences at school, I couldn’t help but think of James Baldwin’s description of home and how it relates to a sense of belonging. An 11th grader was recounting how he decided to go to school the day after his brother passed because he knew his teachers would give him the emotional support he needed. They would cry with him, hug him, sit with him, listen to him, and just be with him. He said, “I wanted to go, because I knew they loved me and it's like a second home.” 

In his novel, Giovanni’s Place, Baldwin wrote “perhaps home is not a place, but simply an irrevocable condition”. His description suggests that home is not a physical space but rather a set of unchanging circumstances that affect the way in which people experience safety and well-being.

Think about when someone says “I feel at home here”, indicating a feeling of being on familiar or safe ground, being in harmony with their surroundings. Home could also represent a vital core to their sense of self. When someone says “that really hit home for me” or “that hit close to home” in essence, they are saying that the event or circumstance is something they can fully understand, appreciate, and/or relate to on a deep emotional level. 

When James Baldwin talks about home he is talking about a state of mind and a state of being. For Baldwin “home” is a portable sense of belonging where one feels seen, heard, authentically connected, and meaningfully valued. When that 11th grader talked about William Smith, he called it his second home. He identified his teachers as caring, invested adults who not only hoped for his well-being, but actively designed spaces that were trauma informed and healing centered. 

Many kids are able to find a sense of home outside of the places they live: sports teams, community centers, their best friends' backyard. For students at William Smith, where the unofficial motto is “Humans First, Student Second” home is where their school is, it is where their teachers are.



Kai Mathews


Kai Mathews is the Director of the Educator Diversity Project at UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools and is the founder and lead designer at The Liberatory Classroom (TLC), a professional learning space helping educators create classrooms where students can show up whole, in the full potential and dignity of their humanity. She lives in the beautiful, vibrant city of Los Angeles and spends her free time roller skating, eating well, and meditating on liberatory futures.

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