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.Gaps.
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."