Posts Tagged 'alternative school'

Ch. 11: The unexpected

un·ex·pect·ed adjective
/ˌənəkˈspektəd/
not regarded as likely to happen

In the fall of 1972 I was a teacher on special assignment at ALPHA, a small alternative high school which a team of four, including myself, had spent the summer planning.

Our start-up challenges were both expected and unexpected.

The anticipated challenges were with our students, many of them with long histories of academic failure and disengagement from school, as we oriented them to new approaches to learning and to school.

At the same time we were designing and implementing all the school’s processes and procedures.

The list of unexpected challenges was much longer.

The district administrators who oversaw our program thought that it would be a good idea for us to explain our school at faculty meetings in the two high schools from which we drew our 40 students, both experiences I remember as being quite contentious.

Some teachers felt strongly that students who broke attendance rules and had various behavioral problems should not be “rewarded” by a school that offered them more choices.

Most surprising was the resentment of some school counselors who thought that “problem students” were their domain, although many of them were in the group that thought such students should be punished rather than rewarded by undeserved opportunities.

That tension with teachers and counselors dissipated during ALPHA’s first year, but it never totally disappeared.

Another unexpected, but stretching challenge, was engaging with the broader educational community in unfamiliar ways.

Almost immediately, even in the midst of these start-up challenges, we had visitors from around Southeast Michigan and occasionally from farther away. Rather than simply observing we asked them to participate in the daily “workshop” and other meetings with students.

In addition, for the first time in my 4-year teaching career I was regularly invited to participate in district, regional, and state committees and administrative meetings.

It was also the first time I experienced what I would later describe as the “serial monologues” of such meetings with the discussion quickly shifting from topic to topic.

At one of those meetings I noticed Dolores Pascal, a woman who I would come to greatly admire, saying something I thought was similar to what I had just said (after summoning the courage to speak among my “elders”), but receiving a more favorable response. I observed her closely at several meetings, and over time tried to emulate both her positive tone and the clarity with which she spoke. It was a form of just-in-time on-the-job professional learning that served me well throughout my career.

Over the next several years I gradually became viewed as an “expert” on alternative education, a status with which I was distinctly uncomfortable because I knew how much we still had to learn to help our ALPHA students be more successful.

Several times a year I was invited to make presentations at regional and state conferences for administrators where I soon learned that older “learners” could present challenges not unlike those I experienced with my high school students.

I remember on one occasion a “participant” in a group of administrators who would not engage in a small group discussion as I requested because, as he put it, “If I had wanted to work I would have stayed in my office.” I didn’t know what to say other than to repeat my invitation to participate, which he again refused, sitting off by himself in a corner of the room.

During that time, and since, I marveled at how far I had come from the Western Michigan village in which I had grown up. Even more, I marveled that I had found success as a teacher after being at best a mediocre high school student.

I have heard it said that teachers who struggled with school themselves often better understand their students’ learning challenges.

I doubt that I became the teacher I aspired to be, but I do know that I had a kind of empathy for my students born of my own school experiences that helped me be a better teacher.

I will have more to say on that subject in my next post.

What is your experience with “one thing leading to another” in your work or life?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 10: Euphoria fades as reality sets in

re·al·i·ty noun
/rēˈalədē/
the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them

In August 1972 the Board of Education in Livonia, Michigan approved a small, experimental alternative high school that a team of 3 teachers and a counselor, myself included, had spent the summer designing. 

Our excitement about creating a school of which we were proud, at least on paper, was immediately tempered by the start-up problems we were now facing in September.

Two of us, an English teacher and me, a social studies teacher, would staff the school in its first year.

An opening date of October 1 had been selected which gave us a month to find a location for the school, to equip it with furniture and other necessities, and to select books that “disaffected” students would find so compelling they would not be able to put them down, the start-up task I most enjoyed.

Most important of all, we selected our first 40 students, 20 of whom in the first month of school were already in trouble with the school system’s new, more stringent attendance policy (as I recall, a school could drop students from classes after 7 unexcused absences), and 20 who had not run afoul of the policy but were attracted to the school’s design and opportunities. 

The approach we chose to use regarding various behavioral issues that would arise with students throughout the school year was based on William Glasser’s book, Reality Therapy.

While we didn’t see our school as “therapeutic,” we did agree with Glasser’s view that many problems in life were caused by “irresponsibility,” and that the solution required focusing on specific plans for future responsible behavior for which students would be held accountable rather than extended discussions during which students sought to excuse their misbehavior.

As a result, there was no “blaming and shaming” regarding rule or agreement violations, but instead a repetition of the question, “What is your goal and your plan?” Which meant that because many of our students had well-established habits of irresponsibility, it was a process that we applied until students (and sometimes their parents) understood that it was easier to be responsible than to repeatedly meet with their teachers to make new plans.

“Reality” was always the agreements students made with staff members and the unwavering expectation that they would keep their promises, that is, to behave responsibly.

This approach was applied to a wide range of problems and behaviors, beginning with attendance.

Prior to enrollment we met individually with students and their parents to explain the program’s features and our attendance policy—there would be no unexcused absences without consequence, a surprising policy to many students and parents given student problems with absenteeism in their home high schools.

We asked students and parents to sign an agreement stipulating that they understood the policy and would abide by its terms.

In the event of an unexcused absence students were required to meet with teachers, and perhaps their parents as well, to determine ways to address the problem and to create a new plan.

Our view was that because students were given a great deal of flexibility about when and how they learned, they could not unilaterally forfeit on the promises they made regarding their academic goals and daily participation in a tightly-focused two-hour skill development “workshop” designed to create a cohesive and mutually-supportive community of learners. 

For us, the attendance policy was a means to teach students about responsibility and integrity—that is, to consistently do what they said they would do.

But those were only our initial challenges, with new ones arising from unexpected sources, problems for which we as staff members proved to be ill prepared.

What methods did you or do you find most effective in addressing chronic behavior problems?

(In 1978, Mike Abbott joined the ALPHA staff where he taught until his retirement in 1994. Our decades-long friendship began then and has grown over the decades as we continue to meet on Saturday mornings for long walks and breakfast.)

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 9: We built it, but will they come?

hope noun
/hōp/
a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen

In the summer of 1972 our team of four relatively young and inexperienced (although we didn’t see ourselves that way at the time) high school teachers was given the opportunity to design an alternative high school, which would later be known by the acronym ALPHA (Alternative Learning Program for the High School Age). (See previous post for more details.)

In the design we would present to the school board, students would be offered a variety of learning options, including independent study with the guidance of an adult, usually a teacher or other expert in the subject matter. They could also attend one or more carefully-selected traditional high school classes with the permission of their schools.

In addition, students would be required each semester as a group to select, plan, and implement a community service project.

One of the few “givens” as we began our planning was that half of our students would be those removed from two traditional high schools because of chronic attendance problems, which meant they would likely bring with them a host of negative attitudes about learning, school, and themselves.

We wanted to balance their views by recruiting other students who were academically capable and efficacious and who would be attracted by ALPHA’s unique learning opportunities. 

To that end we incorporated into our design a daily 2-hour required “workshop” in which groups of 20 would meet for academic and personal goal setting and planning, the identification of strengths, the clarification of values, and the teaching of various interpersonal skills essential to success in school and beyond.

We believed that these skills would also enable students to trust and support one another and, when appropriate, to confront their peers’ self-defeating behavior.

We would start small, which meant 40 students, half of whom would have attendance problems and the other half selected by a lottery because we believed that this school would attract a wide-variety of students who would far exceed in number the slots we had allocated for them.

While at the time we didn’t realize it, we had created a school that in many respects would have pleased John Dewey based on this description by Larry Cuban:

“The Dewey Lab School was committed to active, social, and individualized learning–all without laptops and tablets. Organizing the school day into group and individual projects located inside and outside the rooms of the school under the guidance of teachers, John and Alice Dewey believed that education needed to balance children’s interests with disciplinary knowledge. Such an education was instrumental to building a strong democracy and would lead to positive societal change.”

In August the Board of Education approved our plan, and immediately we had to make our first important decision—who among the four of us would be the two teachers to initially staff the school.

We were all surprised to learn that all of us for various reasons wanted to stay in our current teaching positions. For me, teaching psychology to seniors, which was how I spent most of my day, was a dream job.

Finally, two of us (me and a teacher from the other high school) succumbed to the reality that if we didn’t volunteer for this new and uncertain assignment the school would not open and our summer’s work would be for naught.

There would, however, prove to be unknown and unintended consequences in accepting the position that would affect both my personal and professional lives for decades to come. I’ll have much more to say about that in the near future.

But in the fall of 1972 I could only see the challenges that lie immediately ahead, challenges that would stretch me in both expected and unexpected ways.

The first of those was implementing what we had created, which meant coming to terms with what the plan would require of us in the weeks and months ahead.

Have you ever accepted, perhaps with ambivalence, a new position that stretched you in both expected and unexpected ways, and, if so, with what consequence?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]

Ch. 8: Inventing a school

in·vent verb
/inˈvent/
create or design (something that has not existed before); be the originator of

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation, both socially and educationally. 

The book Summerhill about an experimental British school was popular, “open classrooms” were becoming more common, and high schools like my own were experimenting with teaming and various forms of scheduling. 

Nonetheless, the boundaries of what could be done were always being pushed.

By my 4th year of teaching I was being introduced as the “local irritant” by the principal to the frequent visitors who came to see our school’s innovations,

I took that as a compliment, both in that he wanted visitors to meet me, and because he took my frequent “suggestions” with a grain of humor.

So when my principal was asked by system administrators to select two teachers to join two teachers from another high school to plan a vaguely-formulated “alternative school” for students who were likely to run afoul of a new, tighter, and more punitive attendance policy, my name came to mind.

In the summer of 1972 our team of four—a social studies teacher (me) and a guidance counselor from my school, and an English and math teacher from the other school—began to design a school with just two “givens”—that it would serve at least 20 students from each of the two sending high schools and that it would require school board approval before opening in the fall.

We were minimally supervised by two district administrators who put no restrictions on what we would create, and we were paid for our time, with no limits placed on the number of hours we worked.

In one sense, we were in way over our heads. We had no experience in designing anything larger than a course, and we were relatively inexperienced, with three of us in our 20s and another in his mid-30s. 

But our lack of experience also meant that we weren’t weighed down with tradition about how things should be done.

And we were free to invent with few restraints.

Imagine that you were given such an opportunity, to create a school without any restrictions other than the political reality of school board approval.

How would you begin, and what would you write on the blank slate you were handed?

For reasons I don’t recall now, but perhaps because of my experience the previous school year with the power of my principal’s beliefs, our team of four began by listing our most important beliefs about teaching and learning and their implications for our school. 

That discussion took several days, but it was time well spent because once we had reached a deep and shared understanding of our common beliefs and their implications for our work, all the other decisions were much easier to make.

Now, decades later, I am disappointed that I cannot find this list, but it likely included statements such as these:

Because we believe that students learn best when they feel known and respected, we will create a close-knit community of learners who will support one another in meeting high school graduation requirements and in achieving other important goals.

Because we believe that classrooms are not the only place in which important learning occurs, we will incorporate the larger community into the curriculum through independent study and community service.

Because we believe that students have unique learning interests and strengths, we will offer a variety of options to meet high school graduation requirements.

And, in retrospect, the most important belief of all:

Because we believe students learn significant lessons from one another, we will ensure through our selection process a diverse student body, particularly in their attitudes about learning and school.

That belief was included because we knew that there was little chance of success if the school’s student body was composed entirely of students removed from the traditional school due to poor attendance, which was the primary impetus for our work.

As a result, we stipulated that no more than half of our students could enroll due to the new, more restrictive attendance policy. The others would volunteer to enroll, we hoped, because they would be attracted to the school’s learning goals and methods.

While inexperienced, we knew that should the school board approve our plan the biggest challenges lay ahead—filling in the program details that would make the school appealing to a broad cross-section of students and enable them to meet graduation requirements.

What would you write on the blank slate of a school you were charged with inventing?

[This post is one in a series from a memoir titled, “It Might Have Been Otherwise.”]


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,621 other followers

Archives

Categories

Recent Twitter Posts