Central Concepts in One Alternative School

*The Community Meeting

As lectures cannot teach democracy, we put in place a governing council as large as the school itself. We found that a community of 80 to 150 persons worked well.

The meeting often began with a performance of some sort or a demonstration or a song. Let That Circle Be Unbroken was one of our favorites.

Anyone was welcome to take it from there. Individuals might have items they wanted to bring up: a complaint or a request, a suggestion or an announcement. Sometimes discussion ensued around a particular problem and how we could approach it.

When we failed to reach consensus, a vote was taken. For instance, I remember when students wanted to keep the school open on Regents day when the traditional school was closed. We smiled at the decision. They wanted it that way. So be it. One person; one vote. And we meant it.

No one raised their hands as anyone could speak. “Interruptions come first” was a phrase often repeated. But it was more than that, for it was designed to be the image of community itself. You could give and you could receive.

*Orientation Group Processes

These processes were arguably the most essential to our alternative school’s shift in focus. We prepared weekly lessons for the entire year, most of these drawn from a number of previously existent sources, and we prepped the not inconsiderable materials necessary to carry them out. For the most part faculty and some staff participated in these prior to facilitating them.

We claimed that we were dealing with the whole person. So each offering was humanistically focussed — on rejecting bias, learning to trust, considering how you participated in groups, whether you could express how you felt (not just thought), seeing the larger picture even if it meant a compromise of what you had and wanted to hold on to.

A follow-up discussion later in the week allowed for reflective discussion. This ‘think about it for a while and come back’ approach I called Afterthoughts.

One critical process offered Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. (Maslow was the M in MT, the name of our school.) I will not detail this here. The hierarchy is widely available and can be readily searched at the reader’s discretion. I will, however, address his ideas in a separate entry.

*Extended Faculty: Multiple Adults in the Same Classroom

Important to our work were the many adults who attended each class. The effect was interesting. For we would have different perspectives from the students and often from each other, and might approach ideas in unexpected ways. I co-taught a Psychology class, after Syracuse University training, with Milt Siler, but our individual approaches varied in obvious ways and the combination often broadened the discussion.

The critical question was how to keep adult numbers up. We had agreed to keep the same percentages of students to faculty as the traditional school, but we encouraged participation from other attendees. There were student teachers, an active nurse, an aide (and her child,) next years class taking a look, family members, a reluctant administrator on occasion (previous practice dies hard) and a parade of hundreds upon hundreds of visitors. (One day Professor Charles Calitri, who advised both John Sherin and myself at Hofstra University came to see what his students had wrought. He didn’t like it at all. My sense was the “chaos” bothered him, but it wasn’t really chaos; it was many pieces moving simultaneously.)

It was a common practice for students to present to the guests what was important to them in their studies. And since they were soon to have college and job interviews, well, let’s just say they were prepared for them.

In truth it was not always smooth sailing. Literate teachers do argue. And when trouble came, we met, closed the door and had it out. It reminded me of what children did when parents fought. . .you could hear the sound but you didn’t want to listen. When we emerged there were never any students waiting at the door. It is hard to grow up, no matter how old you are.

But most of the time when we weren’t in class, we hung out in the “faculty lounge.” It was an open place, really, available to all who wanted to be there. Sometimes I engaged in multiple discussions at the same time, waiting for what I could say that would apply to both. Often I just listened, maybe inserting a question or two for clarification. The need to talk about emerging self (not only with peer friends) or just to participate in an adult conversation was undeniable. At the traditional school they had a class called college prep. Mostly it was SAT and Regents style short essay practice. I can’t help thinking that they might have gotten it wrong.

*Posted Schedule for New Semesters

At the beginning of each semester, I would make a school schedule. Faculty would have input based on what they wanted to teach. (Imagine that!) And students had input too, on what they wanted to study and occasionally what they wanted to pass on to others. It was modular in its structure based on 1 1/2 hour classes. There were no bells, so getting to class on time was the participants’ responsibility. Attendance was demonstrably higher than all but honor classes at the high school.

Most classes met twice a week and four were quite enough, since all were required to attend the large group classes. It was basically the college approach. Unstructured time was built in. This free time was not unused or unimportant; it could be filled spontaneously or for individual recurrent pursuits. One student studied Kirlian photography. We gave him a dark room closet; he gave us the auras around our fingertips to ponder.

*The Performing Arts Center and Work Internships

In afternoons we concocted a mix of activities with two somewhat diverse focusses. The work internship in which students could try out what they thought they wanted to do post High School, after obtaining permission from businesses in the area or the fire department or another government agency or assisting in a classroom. They were getting their feet wet in a more adult manner than they had before. How often this led to jobs, given the age of our students, is not clear, but that it got them thinking about it is probably a solid transitional step.

And then there was the Performing Arts Center — one colleague called it the heart of our school. It was a recruiting tool to fill the school with actors and dancers and musicians. And the theatre we produced was worthy — original, challenging and powerful.

We offered 3 to 7 shows a year. A number of students pursued careers in the Performing Arts. One settled for being the lead singer in a Baptist Choir. But art works in many ways to broaden a being, alert them to values and experiences not otherwise addressed. It is not done for them. They are not a passive audience. It doesn’t come out of a phone or a screen.

*The Book Club and Library

Reading matters. It is a lifetime activity which broadens focus in so many ways. We all know this, and the practice must not disappear. It cannot be replaced by sound clips and advertisements and most emails.

What could you do when you had free time? You could of course read. We did not have a librarian or a modern library. But we did have a bookcase. Books enjoyed by our students would be placed by them on the shelves. It didn’t take long to fill up. No one needed a card; they just took what they wanted to read, when they wanted to read. We never ran out. We did have to add a shelf.

In addition one night a week, two faculty met at one of their houses in the community to discuss a work previously agreed to. Many students attended, prepared to discuss the work. Finishing the book on time mattered.

*Failed Concepts, But Good Ideas

We really wanted a traveling bus. There were so many places that would have added to the scope to our school. But as we were not in a city where we might use public transport, we needed a licensed driver and insurance. The latter proved daunting and ultimately we gave up on it. But we did get to the ocean and filled an aquarium with unusual specimens. And we did go to DC to demonstrate our style of classes in a tent for visitors to experience when George Bush 1 put out a national call for alternatives. And along the way we went to the first French Restaurant some students had ever been to.

Once a year faculty and several students visited with Heidi and Alvin Toffler in their apartment in the city. They were always researching and creating new language to discuss what was happening to our broader society. They began with Future Shock, a phrase designed to describe how quickly societal patterns were changing. As they saw it, we were one of the places that would help with that change. Their daughter joined us for a semester. The Tofflers were the T in MT.

Many of us thought it important that students connect with the outside world. We offered classes called Nature. We planted a tree. One day some students and I decided to create a garden. We started with flower seeds and some seedlings from a catalog and created a bed to enrich. Then we planted. It was my fault I suppose, but when Buildings and Grounds saw what we had done without their permission, adding to their workload, well, they mowed it all down. How dare we! We did not try again.

*Judgment Day

At the end of each Semester, the students’ work in each class they took was considered by both students and facilitator and written up for presentation to college admissions or job interviews. There were no grades attached. And yes the students were widely accepted.

In a sense it was ironic, for while the school was alternately criticized and applauded for its efforts, the students were not subject to judgment. They were not on trial. We thanked them for their efforts and praised their accomplishments to be sure, but much was in transit, yet to emerge, always unknown. And perhaps this is how all schools should be judged — not by the scores that students make, or their SATs, but preparedness for the world beyond, and beyond beyond.

We have not tracked many of our students. Some come to reunions and let us know what they felt about the experience. Some correspond. But most are on their way. I too have moved on, to other places and opportunities as I always knew I would, but the joy and the tears, the heartfelt comradery and the sheer joy of working in a swimming pool of possibility is a chance that no true teacher/learner should turn down. Thank you all for allowing me to share this work with you. All for now.

Ken


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