In California, where I live, “alternative education” has a bad name. Somehow, it got the connotation of “schools for kids who can’t make it.” There also are many kids in mainstream schools who aren’t making it. I dare say, a whole lot more than in “alternative schools.”
I recently attended and presented at What Works! — the 10th Annual AERO Conference hosted by the Alternative Education Resource Organization. I told Jerry Mintz, AERO’s director, about this connotation that often comes with alternative school. “Yeah, I know, we’ll have to do something about that,” he said.
How about a field where a prominent, committed and passionate network of innovators and scholars are widely presumed not to be doing anything of general utility! That’s the state of alternative education — some of our most enlightened educators, presumed to be beneath the mainstream, and presumed to be functioning primarily for the benefit of the marginalized, the failing, the disenfranchised and the needlessly creative. Alas, activists are used to this.
One of the opening workshops at the AERO annual conference this year was titled Loving Them Into Being. The alternative educators in our field are preoccupied with ensuring that teaching entails the most basic things imaginable: listening and caring for our students, giving students a voice, creating the conditions for collaboration and creating school environments that feel safe because of their intimacy rather than their metal detectors. These strategies are all “alternative.”
The field of education is rife with paradox. Alternative schooling appears more normal to those in the movement than “mainstream” education. To the alternative educator, public schooling appears preoccupied with ensuring that each school is a compliant part of one of the largest bureaucracies in the history of civilization. Due largely to the growing expense of this bureaucracy, alternative, small schools (fewer than 230 students and often even schools within schools of up to 400) are often no more costly than what our urban districts are producing, cheaper if you could somehow factor in student and teacher dropout rates. Relatively few people involved in producing public education spend any time inside a classroom or with kids. Like the Beatles said, “The inside is out and the outside is in.”
As such, one of the workshops at AERO this year was called An Outsider’s Perspective. The Personalization of Education was another. The mission of AERO is that “learner-centered education will become available for all students.” “That makes sense from an outsider’s perspective,” said one attendee, new to AERO, and nobody knows if she is an outsider here and an insider in the mainstream, or vice versa, and she doesn’t either.
Naturally, real alternatives are on the increase: home schooling, themed charter schools, home-school resource centers, independent schools (the original and oldest form of schooling in the nation), and democratic schools. Angela Kost, an AERO presenter, noted that “The inherent strengths of the home-school model are what we should be striving for in public school.” Like her workshop, titled Founding a Public Unschool, many of the workshops have the tinge of revolution about them.
The relationship between public and alternative education felt tense at the conference. It feels like free will versus authority. Open space versus closed space. Professor Elina Lampert-Shepel lectured on the compassionate Vygotsky model, big in Russia and Brazil, calling for temperance as we organize against the U.S. educational model that she describes as “totalitarian.” “When you fight against something long enough, eventually you become the force you were fighting,” she cautions. Wow! Not everyone is so moderate. Keynote speaker Peter Gray declared the public school system nationwide “beyond redemption.”
On the last night, North Star (“It’s not a school.”) founder and Huffington Post blogger Ken Danforth gave his motto, “School is optional.” Holding his manifesto, “The Teenage Liberation Handbook” by Grace Llewellyn, up before the auditorium, he mused about a revolution where all U.S. families rise up and file for home schooling. The entire public school systems collapses like an old barn.
At the end of the conference, I packed my bags, folding my brand new “Education Revolution” T-shirt and thinking, the old world is headed toward standardized purposes and predetermined outcomes — you go to school because that’s what you do. Perhaps an emerging vision holds more opportunities for entrepreneurial and intrinsic learning, for student freedom. But the truth is, AERO hasn’t felt like revolution to me. It just felt like good people searching for meaningful lives. Maybe that’s the way revolution always feels.
When I got home, walking in my neighborhood, a 5-year-old I know articulates the most enduring purposes for education. “Worms are cool. I am digging.” I might not have understood him nearly so well had I not been to AERO. If we had the will, we could free children from the gigantic systems we’ve turned school into and invite them into learning communities where their “inner” voices can come “out,” and the only revolution is natural curiosity.
Stuart Grauer is a teacher, founding head of The Grauer School in Encinitas, Calif., and founder of the Small Schools Coalition. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. He accredits and consults for schools worldwide. His book, “Real Teachers,” seeks to inspire teachers to rejuvenation, liberation and joy.