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Teacher Diaries

BC's Big Box Education

Why we need better alternatives.

By Nick Smith 19 Jun 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Smith, an English teacher, now works in alternative education on the Sunshine Coast after teaching for 13 years in Vancouver. You can view his webpage, which is the culmination of his Master's of Educational Technology at UBC.

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"Just make sure that he gets 62% in the course." That's how a wise, senior colleague suggests I prepare an 18-year-old, learning disabled student for the Science 10 provincial exam. "That way, even if he gets zero on the exam, he will still get credit for Science 10," he says.

My brow furrows at his advice. "That's the reality of alternative school, Nick," he says.

I admire his simple, "Don't kill yourself over it" approach, but can't put aside the student at the centre of this issue, the one who came to the alternative system, where I now teach, after failing academically at a regular high school. His esteem now compromised, he does anything to avoid appearing dumb. Getting him to study grade 10 material, when by all rights he should have graduated, is a tough enough sell. And that's without the extra pressure of knowing I expect him to fail -- something I don't feel great about, and which I don't want him to figure out.

This situation highlights what is for me the primary problem of alternative education today: we stress our commitment to offering choice, flexibility and individual programs, but, despite the efforts of caring and dedicated staff, we are stuck with adhering to the basic underpinnings of the regular public school system. Alternative schools get to play by slightly modified rules, but in the end, it is the same game; namely, we're here to get kids through academic courses so that they can write provincial exams in order to get a Dogwood diploma. But like many other alternative education teachers, I've spent time wondering about a different approach. One where alternative schools actually played to students' strengths, instead of constantly forcing them to confront their deficiency at paper-based work. One where we emphasized skill development over getting through the test. This could mean rethinking the purpose of school and the whole teacher-student relationship. It might require us to create individualized programs which allow students to learn by inquiring into their own experiences, based in the world in which they live, and assessed through continual reflection, rather than with a number at the end of each term. But I think it would be worth it.

'Free school' fallout

I think that the folks who founded the "free-schools" of the hippie era were thinking similar thoughts. These schools, based on revolutionary ideas, were often formed by parent groups influenced by the counter-cultural ideas of the times. In contrast to the regular school system, these mostly private schools were child-centred, believing in letting children take the lead, follow their interests and figure things out for themselves. The environment was casual, students called staff by their first names and classes were made up of multi-age "family groupings." Subjects were learned in an interdisciplinary fashion, and lunch happened when the kids got back from exploring at the pond. As the days of bare feet and tie-dye faded, these schools either folded or were brought into the fold, so to speak, as was the case with Vancouver's Ideal School, which was taken over by the Vancouver School Board in the mid-'70s.

Today, alternative education is a far-cry from the halcyon days of yore. It has split into two streams, those which handle enrichment, and those that take care of remediation. When students want to be challenged academically and benefit from extra field trips and enriching projects, they work at getting into the District Specified Alternative Programs, often referred to as "mini-schools." Or when mainstream schooling is not working, due to a combination of academic problems, emotional difficulties and lack of attendance, students are placed in remedial alternatives, usually by recommendation of a teacher. Frequently these students suffer from any of the following: learning disabilities, ADHD, social and emotional difficulties, fetal alcohol syndrome, or huge gaps in their learning due to changing schools frequently.

What draws teachers like me to work in alternative remedial education with such challenging students is the caring community of dedicated staff and the chance to work in a school without all of the trappings of an institution. Most of my students know about my own kids and what I do on weekends. And I know about them -- so if a student's behavior has improved or worsened, I can link that to what I know about what's going on at home. In alternative school, teachers and students tend to see one another as whole people with families, peers, and histories.

Cooking up a new approach

The environment tends to be more casual also. There is often a kitchen where staff and students can cook together, and many programs have student lounges replete with the essential second hand alternative school couch. Outdoor education programs are a common feature; since the majority of students come from single parent and lower income homes, this is the only opportunity many will have to strap into a snowboard or launch a kayak. Outdoor education, as well as providing some real world learning opportunities, builds relationships. The kid who wants to know why he should listen to some teacher, stops asking once that teacher has had him on belay or got him back into a capsized canoe.

But despite these enriching perks, turnover is high in alternative education, so positions come up often. Many new recruits barely make it to June: some even bail out mid-year. This is often due to having to deal with angry students who look for any cracks in a vulnerable teacher's character, jam a pry bar in and heave with all of their might. These kids are often enraged at anyone who holds power over them. Teachers are an easy target since we don't hit. Instead, we say things like, "Gee Ted, you sure seem angry today," or, "So Rhea, it sounds to me like you are not really into this assignment." Those of us who last, take none of this personally.

Staff who do stay more than a couple of years tend to be of a certain type of character. They do not judge, but accept people for who they are. They see growth where most cannot, and do not get into power struggles by making a big deal out of little issues. Some of the wisest and most interesting characters I have ever met have worked in alternative education.

Intelligent anger

I have taught teens who are addicts, who are single parents, who live on their own. I've taught kids who've dived in dumpsters for dinner, and who couch surf or sleep out rough. Some have seen abuse whose telling would evoke a shudder. And although I have seen a lot of anger, despair and depression, I have also seen such caring, generosity, intelligence and understanding, that it is the resilience rather than the damage in these young people that surprises more and more.

Those are among the rewards. But what makes my job most difficult is trying to convince students that the curriculum I am offering to teach them is of some relevance to their lives. That is, the curriculum I am officially expected to teach as described by the Ministry of Education in the IRPs, or "Integrated Resource Packages." These contain learning outcomes, in the form of descriptions of what a child should be able to do at the end of each course, as well as suggested teaching strategies. They are clear and authoritative without dictating specific content or teaching techniques. That my grade 10 students should be able to "interpret the main ideas, events, or themes of a variety" of literary works, seems not only reasonable, but desirable. This is what I want for all students. Yet, when I scroll through page after page of these descriptors, for Science, Math, and Social Studies in addition to all of the elective courses, I think about my students individually, with their broken homes, learning difficulties, low reading levels, and lives of continual crisis involving fights, drugs, abusive relationships and pregnancies, I feel little but frustration and despair.

Here is the rub. High school courses are designed to be taught by a teacher guiding a class of students. Although some alternative schools have regular classes modeled upon big high schools, many, such as the one where I teach, do not. Because students are working at such different levels and need so much individual support, and because attendance is so poor, the only way it can work is to have students work through their courses individually. This means that they must engage in a lot of independent learning, of the "Get out your book, read the chapter and answer the questions, then let me know when you are ready to write the test," variety. But independent learners are rare even amongst the most capable secondary students.

Failure exams

I am not saying that these students are not bright, interesting kids with a wealth of knowledge and experiences, but no matter what I do for them as a teacher, I am not going to be able to prepare them to measure up to what is expected of them as is written in the IRPs. And it is the IRPs that inform the content of the provincial exams, which now take place in grades 10, 11, and 12. Studying for exams might be a good practice for those who are going to university, but the skills honed in that exercise have little use outside of the academic world. I sympathize with those students who will soon be heading off into the workforce when they find book-learning a waste of time, but many plod on due to the belief that the credentials conferred by a high school diploma will get them somewhere.

Although many entry-level employers will look at credentials, what they are really after are skills. So, perhaps, alternative schools should get out of the game of conferring credentials, and focus on giving students useful skills which can get them a job, rather than prepare them for life in a desk. What if students left school not just studying, but doing things, making themselves useful in their community? I could see students at an alternative school cooking for one another, baking for the food bank, making web pages for non-profit societies, running a daycare, building greenhouses and helping seniors by shopping, doing yard work, running errands and cleaning.

A few years ago, the Ministry of Education came up with a plan for all students on the new graduation program to make up a graduation portfolio, which they would be required to present to a panel of teachers and those in the community as a proof of their skills as they have developed them over their three year graduation plan. On paper it looked great. Students could save their best projects, their art work, essays, multi-media works and certificates earned, all in one place to show off as they were wrapping up twelve years of schooling. Schools almost fainted when told that they were going to have to take on yet another large administrative task. Committees were formed. Private enterprises, such as the now defunct "Cool School" sprouted up offering to host these portfolios within slick, well-organized electronic templates. Many schools just balked, pleading that they could not possibly do it justice. It was just too much of a good thing.

The last I heard, the portfolio, once mandatory for graduation, was being reviewed. At this time, I don't actually know of its status. Someone probably does, but most teachers do not. I have an idea for it though: give it to the alternative schools as an alternative to graduation. This way our students could finish high school, but without a diploma. It could be a portfolio, stored either online, and/or in physical form, which proudly announces, "This is what I can do."

My guess about the failure of the portfolio is not only that it was too much on top of an academic program, but that it was unwieldy to manage for hundreds of individuals at a typical high school. Alternative schools are accustomed to doing everything on an individual level. A small number of students and a high ratio of staff, who are particularly hard-working and dedicated, make this possible. A system such as this would not be without problems. It could make it difficult to go back to mainstream schooling after spending time in an alternative. Some students could end up producing little or nothing. Still, there is so much more to gain than lose. It could give alternative school a whole new connotation, rather then "alternative" as in "alternative plan" but alternative as in "alternative rock." Now that would be cool.

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