Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Stigma of "Alternative" Education

alternative (awl-tur-nuh-tiv)
adj. employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment:

Most of my biggest learning experiences in life have come outside of a traditional classroom.  Whether bicycling through England, living with an indigenous tribe in Costa Rica, or exploring the natural landscape of the southwest United States, the pivotal (and pinnacle) learning experiences of my youth always had one thing in common... I was never inside.  Even when I reflect back on my more traditional high school days, I don't remember tests, papers, or even riveting conversations.  I remember marching in a Spartan phalanx in Mr. Paisley's World Cultures class, hiking the sand dunes with Mr. Schuessler, or competing at the Colorado capital building with Mr. Warmack's "We The People" team.

So it probably should come as no surprise that, twenty years after I began my high school career, I find myself teaching in an "alternative" program.  Despite all of my efforts to avoid a life as an educator, (my parents both taught for over 30 years in public schools), I've naturally gravitated towards a lifetime of teaching.  And of all of the jobs I could take, here I am, working in one of the more stressful and challenging roles that exist in our schools.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

You see, given my life choices, and all of the transformative experiences I have had outside of the traditional education system, how could I ever revert back to the way things have always been done?  I know firsthand the power of an "out of the box" education, so how can I philosophically (and even rationally) ever return to teaching "inside the box" (whether that be a classroom, a school building, or a single compartmentalized content area)?

Teaching in an alternative program gives me the "luxurious freedom" to teach on my terms, at least as much as our current public education system allows.  Working in my program allows me to use my creativity and passion to help guide our work.  I am empowered to create and implement engaging curriculum in order to reel in hesitant or resistant learners.  Simply put, many of my learners have rarely (or sometimes never) experienced success in a classroom, and so I can try a wide range of strategies and tools to try to help them see the relevance of their education... strategies that a classroom teacher would never consider because they don't feel they have the support of their administration, students, parents, or community to try to implement.

And this is one of education's dirtiest little secrets.

Too often, people don't have the same expectations for students in "alternative programs".  At best, they're happy that the students are more engaged and less troublesome.  At worst, they're just happy that they don't have to deal with "those students" any longer.  With most alternative programs, it's "out of sight, out of mind".  As long as "those students" aren't negatively impacting the traditional learning environment, then everything is good.  Who really cares what they are learning as long as they aren't causing trouble?  Programs like mine were the places where "those students" (the ones who can't function in our normal system) have to go to be babysat until they earn a diploma. 

So this "freedom" that I have working in an alternative program is a double-edged sword.  Some of the "freedom" I experience is the result of the fact that many people don't ever expect much of my students.  As terrible as it sounds, I believe it is the unfortunate truth.

It is exactly these beliefs about alternative education that have perpetuated a long-standing stigma.  In most schools that I've attended, taught at, or visited, a "good" student would never consider the alternative program.  Even if they would be more successful as a student, more engaged in their learning, or happier in general, they would never commit the social suicide of leaving the traditional classroom.  Attending an alternative program often means crossing a boundary between "normal" and "different", "good" and "bad".  Sadly, it isn't just students that perpetuate this stigma.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and community members contribute to the firmly-held belief that "alternative" equals "less than".

So what does it mean to be "alternative"?
When I see the definition of alternative, and I read that it means "existing outside of the establishment", I couldn't be prouder.  I mean, what is the establishment?  A system created 150 years ago to teach young people to mindlessly follow orders?  To never question authority?  To do one job over and over and over again for 30 years without ever thinking about the meaning behind their work?  The reality of the establishment of public education is that it is antiquated.  It was designed for a different time (the Industrial Revolution), with drastically different social, political, and economic motivators.

Our reality is that it is a great big world and our classrooms are just too small- too small in size, too limited in scope; too few people and all of them are the same age; not enough interactions with our communities, and not enough relevance to the lives our students lead.

If you are a student in my school, you have seven different classes each day, each one 49 minutes in length.  You might read Shakespeare first period, then learn quadratic equations during period two.  Then you'll move on to the Holocaust during period three, and throwing a pot in ceramics during period four.  I could go on, but I think you get the point.  With the compartmentalization of our classes and content areas, how is it that our students are ever supposed to "connect the dots"?  Our entire system perpetuates young people who are able to complete specific, focused tasks, but who struggle to see how the content areas connect with one another and the real world.

If we aim to create global citizens, then we have to get our students out into the world.

And this means that our definition of education also needs to change.  Under our current standards ("the establishment"), what we call an education is far too limited given the demands of our modern world.  Our students need to be engaged in their communities and partnered with its citizens.  They need the opportunity to truly be accountable; not just to schedule a time to make up a test, but to be an "agent of change" within their community.

As a society, we have to understand that different people need different learning experiences, and at different times.  What works for one won't work for all.  Just because our current system of education was built around the principles of conformity, obedience, and rigid expectations, doesn't mean that those skills and aptitudes will equal success in the 21st century.

But this means a lot of change... and change is scary!  It means that we have to question everything about the only system we have ever known.  It means that we have to acknowledge that what we have been doing might not be working as well as we all believe it has.  It's time that we, as educators, look "outside of the box". 

I invite you to consider that this might not be all that difficult. 

It is my opinion that some of the most progressive work in education is happening in the "alternative" programs in our schools.  Rather than continuing to perpetuate stigmas, what if we looked at our alternative programs as "hotbeds of innovation"?  How can we share the lessons learned from being able to reach our most disenfranchised youth in order to inspire the education of all of our students?

And I hope that everyone will take a genuine look at what is happening in our alternative programs to see how it might inform or impact their teaching.  What kinds of "alternatives" are already out there, just waiting to be discovered?  How many other inspired and motivated teachers like me wish that they could share their work in a way that would make their curriculum and programming more available to more students? 

Whether it means visiting your school's alternative program, or researching some of the practices of well-known alternative programs, I think we all stand to gain from opening our mind up to the alternative.