I was recently visiting a charter middle school that enforces silent hallways during passing periods–in addition to following lines taped on the floor and SLANT in quiet classrooms (quiet except for teacher behavior narration). Immediately I was shocked and wondered how it was possible for a group of highly educated and committed (mostly white) educators to convince themselves that deliberately silencing students of color and low socio economic status in the name of social justice is equity? Our students are human beings with the human need to socialize, communicate, and express themselves. Furthermore, our urban students are people who consistently experience personal and systemic oppression; therefore, they have a need to talk to process their common experiences and to speak out against the racism, classism, sexism, they endure. The silencing of students is oppressive and dehumanizing. In the moment that I saw young Black and Brown students walking silently in lines, it seemed obvious to me that this expectation sickeningly mirrors the historical tactics of dictators and systems of oppression. Oppressive regimes maintain dominance by enforcing silence—they take away the voice of the oppressed and tell them that it is for their own good.
Given the oppressive history of forced silence, I became curious and determined to find out “Why?” I asked the school leader and was told, “Silence in the halls increases the time on task in the classroom. We do not have to fight with the kids to get them settled down. These kids are so behind, we need all of the time on task we can get…we have a mission: all kids college ready!”
The mission of the school is touted as one of educational equity. All kids, regardless of race or class, will have the option to attend college when they graduate. And admittedly, in comparison, most district schools in this area do not prepare students academically, and four-year colleges are not an option when/if students graduate. But at what point is the cost of a “college-ready-excellent-education” too high? And why must kids of color and low socio-economic status be silenced in order to attain an excellent education? Is it not possible for a group of very intelligent, hard working, thoughtful, committed educators to give students the skills they need without forcing them to comply with rigid silence rules?
Some educators argue that they are providing students with more time on task and an excellent education that will eventually give their students access to the dominant culture and power in society. The teachers believe that once their students have power, they can use it to change the system. I wonder, however, how will a child that grows up silent, know how to speak up and out if s/he does not practice in her/his formative years? How will a student even know what to speak against if s/he is not taught to see oppression or allowed to question the people of power? If students gain access to the dominant culture, will they have learned anything in school that encourages and empowers them to recognize, respond to, and redress injustice? Or will they have learned to stay silent for success?
I know middle school kids are talkative, hard to settle down, squirrely at times. I taught middle school in Atlanta, GA. I know that silence may increase time on task and “learning” in the classroom. So, too, perhaps do uniforms, SLANT, and other norms rooted in efficiency and equality—everyone doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same way for the sake of success—but the cost is too high. I would not want to be educated that way. I would not want my children to be educated that way. I do not want other children educated that way. The sad part, though, is my children and I have choice. We can go to a school that will provide an excellent education without being silenced.
Children in some communities only have two choices: a poorly performing, low-expectation holding, district school—OR—a high performing, highly compliance-driven, silent-hallway-having charter or district “turnaround” school. End of choices. Therefore, do not mistake a parent’s choice to send her child to a silent school as consent. Many parents of color do not agree with mostly white people forcing their children to be silent. Be sure that parents of color and those living in poverty are having their own conversations in their homes with their children. They say, “I know the teachers tell you to be silent son, but one day, when it is safe, scream…say it loudly and proudly that you are not someone to be silenced! Share your lived experience. Racism is real. Poverty is real. Your pain is real. Your strength is real too. You are strong. You are smart. You are incredible with stories of joy to share. You have something to say and you will say it, one day.”
Let’s hope that, though, when our students of color and/or low socio-economic status grow up, the voices from home are louder in their heads than the rule at school. And, finally, let’s just hope that our students of color have that voice at home and that it wasn’t silenced during middle school, never to surface again.
*Once oppressive curriculum, instruction practices, policies, and procedures are exposed they must thoughtfully and intentionally be undone with a community of stakeholders armed with equity literacy. “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” A. Einstein. For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com.