Alternative Education 101

by - February 20, 2010

I always loved school.  There is something about learning and books that make me feel...complete.  To concentrate on something so hard that hours go by and your brain feels numb, to me that is like heaven.  Every school year I would be insatiable about the subjects I was learning, reading as much as I could, wanting to learn everything about them.  And then I grew into my pre-teen mind and realized that something was off, and it always had been.  Way off.  I felt like I didn't belong in a classroom, and I came to understand that I had felt that way for a long time.

I am not sure what it was exactly.  I just knew that the way I felt in my head about learning, and the excitement of the ideas that I had floating around up in there, never came to light in the classroom.  Was it because I went to a Catholic school and they practiced a strict rigamarole that has not been changed along with the changing minds of youths? I don't know.  Or was I just a freak who didn't belong in a place where 30 completely different people were taught the same thing, the same way?  Somehow I didn't think that was right.  I was definitely not the smartest child (or adult) in the classroom, but I felt that my potential was being compromised for some reason that I could not put my finger on.

I began to feel more and more uncomfortable in the classroom.  My teachers would read my stories and comment on the books I read, and tell me (and my parents) that I was very strange.  But I wasn't strange, I was just artistic, and a soon to be teenager to boot!  Who isn't strange at that stage in their lives?  But it went beyond that, where I began to feel very restricted and claustraphobic when I had to go to school every day.  So I began to act out.  In a big way.  I hated being there and I made sure that everyone knew it.  I had detention constantly, I was on probabtion all through seventh and eighth grade and therefore could not attend any school events/ trips, etc, and eventually I was suspended for three days.  At one point, the principal at the time slapped me across the face so hard his handprint stayed there for the rest of the day.

My behaviour continued on into high school.  I am not sure how I passed the eighth grade, I am sure my report card was doctored so that they would be rid of me.  But there I was, in high school, where the format of learning seemed even more restricted.  I hated going to school.  I skipped everyday.  My tenth grade record shows that I skipped 90% of the year, and therefore was failing all of my classes.  Right before exam time I was expelled, so it didn't really matter did it?

I ended up being off for 8 months, and leaving home for that time as well.  When I moved back, my parents gave me an ultimatum:  I could move back home ONLY if I agreed to go back to school.  Fine.  But I had some stipulations to that.  I would go back to school if I could choose what KIND of school I would attend.  I started doing research on alternative methods of education.  I realized that a different method of education was needed.  And alternative schools were made for people like me.  People who didn't fit into a 'normal' school environment.  I began attending an alternative school.  The set up was that I had to go to 'school' for four hours a day (8-12), in a cozy place that was set up with couches, study areas, and a computer area.  You did all your schooling through correspondence, and you got to veg out on a couch and listen to music while you did it.  Or, you could stare off into space if you wanted to. As long as you were getting your work done, it did not matter when you did it.  No one breathed down your neck, and no one told you you were wrong.  This was where I learned about constructive criticism.  There were two teachers there that insisted we call them by their first names; one specialized in humanities while the other was math and science.  One was a close talker, the other always had lipstick on her teeth.  Needless to say, we were a rag tag bunch of 'drop-outs' who just wanted to get through getting our educations in a system that had chewed us up and spit us out. 

I stayed there for 2 years and then left when I was 17-years-old and worked full-time for a year and a half.  At 19, I still had a ways to go before I recieved my diploma, so I decided to go back to the high school that had kicked me out so many years before.  But isn't that the attitude of many school systems these days?  Don't deal with the problem, get rid of it.  They have hundreds of other kids to worry about, right?  I went back (amidst many judgements and doubts from the principal and staff who remembered me) and it was exactly the same as it was before.  Strict, boring, not challenging.  I got through it because I had a goal:  University.  A place where I could finally be free to enjoy school the way it was meant to be enjoyed.  With freedom of thought, a little breathing room, and a whole lot of hippie professors who shared the same view as I did about school as an institution.

Nope.  I went to the wrong University for that.  I found that University was just as stuffy, and creativity-wise, there was not an ounce.  More of a regurgitation of what you were reading, directly onto the paper, do not pass it through your mind for fear of tainting it with your own ideas.  I spent two years of my university career unhappy, never attending class, and getting low Bs.  I was in poor standing with my prof's because I saw no point in attending class when all they did was RE-READ the text that they had assigned the week before!  This is what my thousands of dollars paid for.  They also took attendance.  So my dream of a Bohemian UCLA-type school from the sixties was shattered.  It was only when I decided to do my last two years of University through correspondence that I really began to enjoy it.  Gone was all the bullshit that came with actually being there.  Finally, I was able to expand my mind and write that way that I wanted to write.  For some reason, Uni Prof's who marked your correspondence work seemed like free birds themselves, as there were not as many restrictions placed on the content of your work, as long as it still made sense to the course.  It was also then that my grades went from low Bs to high Bs and As. 

I always thought that there was something wrong with me.  That I didn't want to be in school because I was some social weirdo.  I mean, that was probably a bit of the problem, but only a little bit.  It was only in my last year of highschool, in an English class where I had an AWESOME teacher that I learned about an amazing place called Summerhill.  A school located in Suffolk, England, is the only school I have heard of that boasts "Where success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child's own definition of success" and "Where you can play all day if you want to, and there is time and space to dream".  I chose A.S. Neil's (founder of Summerhill in 1921) book Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood as my independent study project in OAC.  Little did I know that I would read and do a ton of research into the philosophy of this book, which in turn taught me a lot about myself.  And suddenly all those years of not feeling right had a reason behind it, one I could understand.  Neil's progressive attitude about education has led to much controversy over the years, but Summerhill has remained a strong force behind a new way of thought, and to how our children are taught.  

If you are interested and want to read more on Neil's progressive teaching methods, please read more here.  A short and sweet article that captures the essence of the great mind that he was.  

Really makes you think, doesn't it?

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