Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Without Homework or Tests? How Is That POSSIBLE?

It's fascinating to me, the ways in which people react to what they consider (or don't consider) an education.

This headline says, "Photo Series Explores What Happens When Kids Don't Do Homework." A little foreboding, no? Kind of a, "This is your brain on drugs," feel to that one. The headline for the Toronto Star article is a little more straightforward: "Children of Toronto alternative school, 40 years later." I also saw a tabloid headline that screamed, "What did the children who went to school WITHOUT homework or tests do next? Students of free-spirited experiment 40 years later."

(Without homework or tests?! Horrors! Witness the freaks of educational nature as they grapple with pencils and backpacks, moaning, "I don't know how to fill in the bubbles on this hellish thing called an answer sheet!")

Anyway. Got that out of my system.

To get the full story, rather than just the snippets that Yahoo or a tabloid would have you to read, visit Michael Barker's website. He's a photographer who attended the Alpha Alternative School in Toronto in the 1970s. With Ariel Fielding (who provided the text and interviews for the project and also attended the school), he has put together a fun and interesting "Then-and-Now" scrapbook of lives and experiences. It isn't definitive; it isn't meant to be. It's not a treatise on education or an in-depth examination of alternative methods. It's just a handful of stories -- stories of people who happened to go to a school that was different.

It was worth visiting the website for the full essays -- especially due to things like this Yahoo snippet from Flannery Fielding, for example. In the Yahoo bit:
She says, "I think most kids at Alpha had a sense of supe­ri­or­ity about the free­dom we had -- to learn, to play, to be our­selves — although for me and my friends, that even­tu­ally trans­formed into a kind of dread about what we might be miss­ing, how hard it was going to be for us in the 'real world.'"

On Barker's site, her quote goes immediately on to say,
From ALPHA I went on to two dif­fer­ent alter­na­tive junior high schools and then to a ‘reg­u­lar’ high school, which was ter­ri­fy­ing at first but turned out to be eas­ier to adapt to than I expected (although I never really got the hang of home­work.)

Fielding affectionately recalls the freedom and joy the school provided. She also honestly mentions that, "The down­side of that free­dom to do what I liked was less expo­sure to math and other sub­jects, and I think that worked to rein­force my sense that I wasn’t good at math or French."

Another former student, Maggie Marelli, said
I’d say ALPHA gave me a sense of com­mu­nity and of myself as a val­ued per­son, with things to con­tribute, and also the abil­ity to explore and learn in an inde­pen­dent fash­ion. The dis­ad­van­tage was prob­a­bly that, as a kid who really hated aca­d­e­mics, I took every chance I could to avoid the for­mal learn­ing ses­sions, and thus have some holes in my foun­da­tional knowl­edge.
Early influences.
Weirdness in school or out.
Trying to pin down the definition of an education.
Questions about what might have been different had we gone to a different school.

We all have those. I went to public schools for twelve years (thirteen, I guess, if you count half-days and naps at Kindergarten, where the main thing I remember learning is that I loved to quote my Kindergarten teacher to my siblings: "Mrs. Nelson says it's not polite to interrupt.") I still have gaps in my foundational knowledge. I always will. One thing I've learned is that learning is lifelong.

Marelli also said:
At my main­stream high school I was quite shocked by the stu­dents vs. teach­ers men­tal­ity, which seemed like such a bar­rier to learn­ing....
I believe the demo­c­ra­tic nature of ALPHA has made me a more sen­si­ble per­son. I also see that qual­ity quite strongly in the peo­ple I went to ALPHA with, now that we are all grown up....
ALPHA was a home to me, and my class­mates were a fam­ily. I don’t think you can have a bet­ter start in life than that.
I didn't closely read the comments on the Yahoo page -- I skimmed just a handful of them and some were exactly what one would predict: criticisms of the school, triumphant proclamations that alternatives will never produce math geniuses, snarky comments about the lack of doctors and lawyers among the eight subjects. But there also seemed to be a contingent who saw the project (even that edited piece of the project) for what it was: a snapshot. A look at some interesting, sometimes average people. Some quirky, some "normal" (whatever that is.) The acknowledgement that some people will thrive in an alternative educational environment and others will not. An affectionate look back at a unique place and time. A brief, human reflection.

Just as the Alpha School Project was not meant to be an exhaustive research piece, my musings on homeschooling are not definitive proclamations. I never claim that our way of educating is the best possible of all ways and I won't claim that we don't have gaps, are academically superior, that we have all the answers, or never take a misstep.

What I can claim is that our eclectic methods work for us, and our situation is really all I can speak to. We are average, sometimes-interesting, sometimes quirky, sometimes normal people making our way in the world. We're figuring it out as we go. We give each other room to make mistakes. We love each other. We forgive.

And, as Maggie Marelli said, "I don't think you can have a better start in life than that."


ellie said...

How interesting. I went to a similar school in the 70s -- open classroom was the style. No homework or tests, no desks to sit at ... Looking back, our daily routine looks a lot like homeschooling: all sorts of various projects and activities and lessons (including things like cooking and sewing) interspersed with playtime and free time. It was nice.

Age 11 it was off to regular public school for middle and high school. The desks and silence were hard for me, I remember that. And, rather than being treated like people, and being allowed to spend and ordinary day learning and exploring, there was an awful lot of (what was to me) kind of scary discipline. I didn't understand why the teachers were so angry all the time, why we had to be quiet allthetime, why needing to go to the bathroom was treated with suspicion ... The environmental shift, the regimentation, was definitely challenging.

Academically, though? It was all fine. I'm grateful I had that elementsry school experience. (And, it was after I'd had the taste of pulic school that I decided I'd homeschool my kids! My best friend from the alternative school was so stressed by our new school that her parents took her out to homeschool her. I thought that was the best thing I'd ever heard of!).

sarah said...

I went to a freedom school in high school. My friends and I all turned out just fine; some of them are "highly successful" (because we're only allowed to count success in monetary terms, right?) It horrifies me that in my country there is nothing like it any more, every single high school in my city has a uniform, a strict dress code, strict behaviour code, no cell phones allowed, internet access restricted, hours of homework ... I despair, and I thank God to be homeschooling.

Ariel said...

Thank you for this sane response to the nutty comments on Yahoo, Karen. I'm glad to have discovered your blog, since I was raised a High Anglican and a freeschooler, and I've been reflecting lately on the similarity of the values instilled in me at church and at school.

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