Friday, August 5, 2011

The Alternatives...

flickr photo via David Blaine

The first thirteen years of my teaching career were spent teaching in what are commonly referred to as alternative school environments. I worked for six years in First Nations schools in northern Alberta, and then within the Red Deer Public School District's Alternative School Programs. I learned more than I could imagine about life and learning during every one of those years. I formed a phenomenological perspective that allowed me to see students in a different light, and apply supports that extended beyond teaching. The reality was these kids needed to come to terms with the other stuff in their lives before any learning was going to occur in the traditional school sense.Helping our students come to terms with the other stuff was the essence of the alternative approach to teaching that my colleagues and I practiced. We affectionately referred to ourselves as  the "Alternatives."

A former colleague, Kevin Hanrahan explained the alternative philosophy rather eloquently one day before giving all of us a wing-nut to string on our key-chains as a lasting reminder of who we were. He said being alternative is like a wing-nut. A regular nut locks into place and doesn't move; it's rigid and permanent. A wing-nut on the other hand, is designed to easily be moved; adjusted according to the tension required for any particular job. I still have that wing-nut on my key-chain. That's the alternative way.

I came across an excellent example of alternative philosophy at Larry Cuban's blog, Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice. In his post, Narrow Thinking About Health and Schools, Larry introduced me to Dr. Jack Geiger. In 1965 Dr. Geiger prescribed food for hungry kids in the Mississippi Delta understanding that hunger trumps the desire to gain knowledge. He also founded one of the first federally funded community health centers in the United States. Clearly a man who understood that social determinants play an overwhelming role in whether kids learn successfully or not. He got it. He was alternative.

In this excellent post by Liz Dwyer at the GOOD EDUCATION blog, she mentions Sir Ken Robinson's belief that,
change begins at the classroom level. Every teacher has the ability to take the time to build relationships with students, make her classroom an engaging environment, and connect students with real world opportunities in local creative industries and higher education.
This is so close to the entire point that education reform does not need to cost billions; it does not require a silver bullet resource or teaching strategy de jour and it certainly does not require copious amounts of expensive, traditional professional development to ensure we're all on the same page. As Liz Dwyer so honestly and simply states, what ed reform really needs is for Alternative Education to go mainstream. Simply brilliant, and brilliantly simple.

Back in the day when I was teaching with the Alternatives, we used to get asked to explain our strategies and processes during various seminars and workshops. A humble group of educators that we were, we really weren't interested in talking about what we did, but we were very interested in providing opportunities for our students to explain how they benefited from how we did it. I wish I would have filmed even one of those sessions. Our students were honest, and they were real. They took the opportunity to tell the audience what they could do if ever they came across a student like themselves. It wasn't complicated. They told their audience of teachers to listen to their students, especially the ones that were giving them a hard time. They told their audience of teachers that really hurting kids with few or no supports anywhere else who have been let down by so many adults in their lives often give their teachers a really hard time because they want to know which ones can take it. It's a test; a test to find out which ones will still be there for them tomorrow, like a loving family member would be no matter what bad thing had happened. They're looking for the Alternatives.

Our students, every single one of them having been removed from their previous mainstream school environments, told brutally real and visceral stories of how they felt in those mainstream environments, and more importantly how things had changed for them since becoming "alternative." Within minutes, and during every single session we did, tears were flowing among the audience of teachers, some of who had taught our kids prior to their alternative placements. Our kids told their stories, and we listened to them, and that was all it really took to get from here to there with them... they simply needed someone to truly listen to them without bias; without judgment, and without advice. Their learning paths were theirs alone. It wasn't for us to steer them in any particular direction. Our job was to hold their hands as they traveled their chosen paths. When they took a wrong turn we held their hands even tighter. When they took a right turn, we let go just a little. Over time for so many, we let go completely, but we always made sure they knew we were there for them if they needed us, and we made sure to also lend our support to those teachers who would hold our students' hands after they left us.

So there it is. The simplest form of education reform is the authentic caring that comes from a teacher who knows how massive her impact can be within the realm of one classroom, in one school, in one community; a teacher who gets it. A sphere of positive influence grows through simple acts of caring, unconditional support, and acceptance from teachers who know this. Kids have this remarkable ability to flesh out what teachers know.

If you want to be ready when a student chooses you for the test, why don't you try being one of the Alternatives? 


  1. All I really want to say is thank you! I really appreciate your post. I am still an Alternative, about to start my 15th year. Those student stories are still being told and they are just as emotional as ever. I find very few traditional teachers who understand what Alternative programs are all about. You describe it so well here! Kids want someone to really see them, respect them, and treat them like a human being--not a receptacle for information.

    I've experienced some years of teaching where we had no up-to-date technology, decade-old textbooks, broken-down furniture, and almost no funds. I've realized that stuff isn't necessary. What's necessary is a relationship between teacher and student, and then between a student and her peers. It has to be a strong enough relationship that students become invested in their school. It becomes familial. Kids have to want to be in school--not to satisfy anyone else (parents, court, coach, etc.,) but for themselves. What makes them want to be there is that welcoming, home-like feeling they get when they know they are in a place where people really know them...and don't judge them. (Sometimes alternative kids want to be at school more than any other place in their worlds.) I am so glad that you, Larry, Liz Dwyer and Sir Ken are spreading that message. You are creating positive change, Sean. Thank you...and keep up the good work!

  2. Very much appreciated Jen. Much of our local alternative school scene was based in medicine wheel philosophy emanating from Aboriginal spirituality and custom. We learned much form Dr. Martin Brokenleg, John Seita, Larry Brendtro, Nan Henderson and others about "reclaiming" kids... reclaiming in the sense that they had been cast-off and cut-off from many if not all of their shaky support networks before coming to us... and we had to believe that they were worth our effort to divine whatever good we could in them, and exploit it unapologetically in a strengths-based focus.

    We (and many still are) a passionate bunch, as I'mm certain you and your colleagues are. There was not a kid we would clinch at working with, and we developed lasting relationships with so many. I just ran into one last evening in fact at a fundraiser drive-in for the local food bank. he was volunteering his time helping to organize the event by directing traffic... it's always awesome to see former students, especially those who arrived as hurting and defensive, and then to see how far they've come in dealing with stuff to emerge stronger and more resilient.

    Back in the day we created schools "where everybody knows your name" I think I'll try to organize the posts I've written into some sort of category or list addressing alt ed... there's been quite a few, but they're getting harder to find as I continue to write;o)

    It's a pleasure meeting you and having you read the blog. We share much in common personally and professionally according to your bio... please stay in touch. It's great to hear from other "alternatives."


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