Sunday, November 23, 2008

Satisfactions of Lively Learning

November 23, 2008, 9:15 a.m.

In Praise of Alternative Education

I learned something of "alternative education" while serving as a school board member and K-12 education newspaper columnist for three years -- but mostly as the husband of someone who has played a national role, helped create and taught at one for 25 years in Cedar Rapids, and then helped plan one for Iowa City ("Tate") where she continues to volunteer after having retired from the Cedar Rapids' payroll.

This morning's Gazette contains an op ed column of hers that you, too, may find both moving and informative regarding alternative education. I've reproduced it, below.

"Alternative education" has no universally agreed upon definition. Here's are some excerpts from a column I wrote in 2001 regarding why we needed an alternative high school in Iowa City (since provided) that give a sense of my own definition:

“Alternative,” or “non-traditional,” just tells us what the school is not.

And since “traditional” also evades precision it doesn’t even tell us that. . . .

In one sense, every high school student is a unique blend of experiences, abilities, interests, needs, goals and ways of learning – an “alternative.” . . . .

[W]ith 1500 students in each of our high schools . . . most students survive four years in traditional high schools. Many thrive. They work at their studies and aspire to college. They demonstrate ability in organized athletic, music or other activities; they have supportive homes and friendships. They are the examples we cite as evidence of the quality of our schools.

Unfortunately, there are others who not only don’t thrive, they don’t even survive.

They drop out, either literally or figuratively. Some are among our brightest and most talented. Others are not.

Some are the children of upper socioeconomic parents. Others have no parents, or abusive parents. Some are parents. Some may be the target of school bullies, or simply shunned as loners.

They may never have read Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd or Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age, but they could tell you the equivalent.

Look past the green spiked hair and pierced body parts. Listen to what these kids have to say. . . .

We sometimes confuse learning with deportment. But among our most creative and intellectually accomplished students are at least some of those who are not in their seats -- self-motivated learners bored with the lesson, those who ask embarrassing questions and organize student protests of irrational rules, the disruptive clowns who enliven the day. . . .

There is a subset of education’s many “alternatives” that is a sensitive, and successful, response to the opportunity these kids offer. These alternative high schools are what “alternative” means to me.

Cedar Rapids’ Metro High School is one. It’s been recognized twice by the President, and is visited by educators from as far away as Singapore and Latvia. . . .

Alternative schools have their own diplomas, their own buildings -- but they needn’t be elaborate. Metro started in an abandoned fire house.

Schools that are more manageable [mean that] with fewer students each can have . . . home visits by teachers – for students with homes. Each student is known by name and feels valued. There are fewer rigid rules about dress and hair style; fewer absences; and virtually no violence. Students want to be there. . . .

We [in Iowa City] lose track of our dropouts. Metros’ teachers [in Cedar Rapids] scour the malls, parks and bridges looking for theirs. . . .
Nicholas Johnson, "We Need Alternative High School," April 10, 2001, p. A9; and see Nicholas Johnson, "Learn From Alternative Schools," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 22, 2001, p. A9 ("Alternative schools’ lower enrollments are central to their success. The buildings are more manageable for students and teachers. The Carnegie Task Force, Coalition of Essential Schools, National Association of Secondary School Principals, and former Secretary of Education Richard Riley agree. Most recommend high schools under 600.").

Coincidentally, after I wrote this I discovered in the Des Moines Register this morning an entire section largely devoted to how one country -- Finland -- has applied many of the qualities I associate with "alternative education" throughout its entire K-12 system -- something I was advocating for the U.S. in the 2001 column, "Learn From Alternative Schools," linked above. See, Linda Lantor Fandel, "An academic star: Finland's focus on education translates into top achievement," Des Moines Register, November 23, 2008, p. OP1 -- with links to the 15 or more additional stories on the subject in the special section. The section provides considerable insight into why our miserable comparisons with the educational results in other industrialized nations bears some relationship to our failure to apply the lessons from our alternative schools.

Mary succeeds in putting a human face on these comments about "alternative education," with her exploration of the brains and hearts that can make "no child left behind" a reality, rather than just a fight over text scores:

Why Involve At-Risk Students With Theater?

Mary Vasey

The Gazette, November 23, 2008, p. A10

Why do it? Why theater with so-called at-risk students?

Here, with fictional names, but real-life events, is a composite answer drawn from one teacher’s 25 years of experience.

Imagine you are working with alternative school students. You are putting together a play, a performance. There is no stage or auditorium in their building, so you arrange to have the performance in a local professional venue.

You take the bright, the tough, the sad, the turned off, the uncontrollably creative and find they are really interested in being in a play.

You find parts for 15 actors and you suffer through weeks of frustration. The drama in their lives sometimes gets in the way of the drama on the stage.

They complain about having to memorize so much and find fault with the script. Pete, the male lead, is sent to a detention center and you have to negotiate with the probation officer to let him stay after school to rehearse.

Jen and Al fall in love, then break up. They refuse to occupy the stage at the same time. The problem is that they are playing a loving brother and sister. Cindy calls Jen a “ho” and they come close to fighting.

The space for construction and painting of the set is shared with the bicycle shop so you have to move large flats out of the way every other day. The new lighting board hasn’t arrived, and it looks like the old one will have to do.

Two weeks before the play opens, they all have their lines memorized and the blocking down. It is beginning to look like a real production. One week later, they are stumbling over their lines and turning their backs on the audience.

Jen and Al fall in love again. Pete gets out of detention.

You bring wigs and costumes to rehearsal. They go crazy.

The boys dress up in girls clothing and wigs. They ask if they can take their bows in drag.

The stage is available the day before the performance.

You order pizza and hope they will all show up. They all do. The dress rehearsal is a disaster. Pete forgets two full pages of dialogue and they all freeze and just stare at one another.

The flats have just been painted and Al backs into one. Somebody eats the stale potato chips from the prop table, thereby ruining Jen’s potato chip scene.

The people who run the theater look worried. You vow never to do this again.

After the dress rehearsal, you hear the students planning to get together. You pray no one gets drunk, takes drugs or gets arrested.

You are sure someone will.

Instead, they gather at Jen’s house and practice.

The night of the performance they all show up. They look clear-eyed. They look excited. They look like kids.

Pete remembers his lines and delivers them as if they are second nature. The chips are crisp and available. The old lighting board works and the paint on the flats is dry and bright. It is better than anything you might have imagined.

The boys take their bows in drag and all the actors bask in the approval and attention of the audience. They laugh and hug and smell the roses somebody got them. The tough, the used, the abused, the worldly, the sad are transformed.

They are kids, teenagers.

They are silly, giggly and happy.

It is beautiful. They are beautiful.

They know how it feels to be young, innocent and proud and they deserve that feeling.

Years later, when you run into the actors, they tell you that their play was the highlight of their high school experience. They wonder if you can get a copy of the video for them.

And that is why we do it.
Mary Vasey of Iowa City was a teacher of language arts and theater and has been active locally and nationally in alternative education for more than 30 years, including 25-plus years at the Cedar Rapids School District’s award-winning alternative high school, Metro. She volunteers with the theater program at Tate High School in Iowa City.

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