Owning His Learning and His Future: Taliq Tillman’s Student-Owned Learning Experience

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Stephanie KraussI met Arthur 10 years ago at a principals’ convening. That night, Arthur and I talked about how to make students’ learning memorable and meaningful. Today, Arthur is one of our inaugural Students at the Center Distinguished Fellows. He is now a veteran school leader at the Met high school, a podcaster and college instructor.

For Arthur, student ownership of their learning is fundamental for everything he and his staff do at the Met. It is his belief that students are most engaged when they drive their own learning. Schools must create opportunities for students to learn and practice the habits and skills that help them self-direct.    

Student-owned learning is one of the four principles of Jobs for the Future’s framework on student-centered learning. It is the first one we’ll consider in depth. To do this, I asked Arthur to introduce me to one of his students who demonstrates the possibilities of student-owned learning. He introduced me to Taliq Tillman, a rising senior who has the charisma, work ethic and smarts that will help him do great things in life. Taliq credits most of his success to his school, community and especially his mother.

Taliq grew up in East Providence, Rhode Island. He was one of the only students of color in majority white elementary and middle schools. To fit in, Taliq learned to conform to play within the system.

Eventually, Taliq’s love of the arts led him to Trinity Repertory Company. Here, Taliq could express his creative side. His mom joined the Met’s recruitment team, saw it as a better schooling fit and persuaded Taliq to enroll his freshman year.

At first, Taliq struggled to fit in at the Met. It was much different than his neighborhood school. The Met, a Big Picture Learning school, promoted student autonomy. Staff went by their first names, and students followed personalized learning plans rather than set schedules. Strangest of all, students spent two days each week in a community internship. It was impossible to just coast in a school like this.

Trinity Rep hosted Taliq for his community internship. He learned about the different aspects of the theater — from general operations to community education. He even got to be the dramaturge for a play about race and racial lynchings, “Appropriate.  

Suddenly, Big Picture’s unconventional tactics made sense. At the theater, Taliq was responsible for his own learning and the actors’ understanding. Taliq immersed himself in America’s history of racial injustice and intolerance. As a young man of color, the work became personal, requiring Taliq to practice more than technical research. He also strengthened harder-to-measure skills — like self-reflection, personal care and emotional management.

Taliq expanded his theater work out into the community. He partnered with Brown University graduate student Doria Charlson to facilitate community conversations on race and implicit bias. He even got to provide trainings for the Met high school staff.

Now Taliq is taking his passion and interests to the next level. He and some friends started “Diversity Talks,” which provides K-12 school districts and higher education institutions with student-led professional development grounded in the cultural competencies of diversity, equity and inclusion to increase academic performance and achievement. Taliq is engaging an ever-expanding set of learning and working skills — to network, manage his new venture and perfect his sales pitch and facilitation skills. This work is only possible because of the skills and experiences gained through the Met and strengthened at Trinity Rep.

I asked Taliq what he wants after graduation. He told me he is an activist and wants to combat hate at all costs. Taliq is well on his way. His learning journey has made him an empowered student, effective teacher and authentic agent for change.

Many thanks to Arthur Baraf and Taliq Tillman for sharing their stories with me.

Stephanie Malia Krauss is the director of special projects at Jobs for the Future, focusing on cross-systems approaches to the economic advancement of vulnerable populations, including student-centered learning. She was previously a senior fellow with the Forum for Youth Investment and Corporation for a Skilled Workforce.