Alternative Schools

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.

Waiting to see what the new year brings us, like at a starting line, so many factors contribute to success - including being prepared to run the race.

I work in an alternative school. Actually, it’s an alternative program within a large school. We have a closed off area of the building with a separate entrance and run by a slightly different schedule – we don’t hear the bells and are just fine with that!

I am completing my first year here and am excited about continuing next year. What makes this program so exciting for me after 13 years of teaching? I believe it has to do with a few things, the biggest being the heightened sense of entanglement with my students’ learning.

There are an increasing amount of alternative programs across North America. Each one is different. They have to be because one of the purposes of an alternative program is that it is tailored to the needs of the learners within it. Though each school is different, studies show that they have basic elements in common (Boss, 1998; Johnston, Cooch & Pollard 2004; Quinn & Poirier, 2006) :

1. A focus on changing the educational approach, not the student.
2. A belief that all students can learn with high expectations for learning.
3. Teachers and administrators are caring leaders.
4. “Low adult-student ratios in the classroom are considered integral to successful outcomes” (Quinn & Poirier, 2006)
5. Ongoing PD for teachers in the areas of alternative learning environments and factors, as well as communication with students and families
6. Relationships at all levels are key – they are positive, trusting, and caring
7. Students are able to create a solid connection with an adult who believes in their success.

In our program, our class sizes are small. This year our 3 classes ranged from 13 to 18 students. We interview students who are recommended to the program and each and every one talks about the distractions of a large classroom, the need to connect with teachers who explicitly care about their success, the need to learn outside of the box.

Things will change a bit next year. We will have a new head teacher who has never taught in an alternative environment before. We are meeting today to talk about our vision for the program. I’m writing this post to remind me of key factors, what needs to be in order to do the right thing by these kids. They only deserve that – to be done right by.

Boss, S. (1998). Learning from the margins: The lessons of alternative schools.

Johnston, C., Cooch, G., & Pollard, C. (2004). A Rural Alternative School and Its Effectiveness for Preventing Dropouts The Rural Educator 25 (3), 25-29.

Quinn, M. M., & Poirier, J. M. (2006). Study of effective alternative education programs: Final grant report. Washington, DC: American Institutes for Research.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom, Indeed.

There is a great conversation going on over at the CASTLE book club blog (orange group) about the  teaching of facts and skills. I plan on posting this post over there but my login and password are stored on my home computer, I’m correcting procrastinating correcting English papers at work. For now, I will post it here and then cross post it there when I get home waaaaay later tonight.

We are reading Why Don’t Students Like School? by Daniel T. Willingham.

In A Challenge to Conventional Wisdom? posted by Michael Curtin, he questions Willingham’s first two chapters, one focusing on the primary need for teaching facts, and the other on the primacy of essential questions and individualization of the learning process. Michael asks,

…how does he reconcile this insistence on memorization of facts – after all, that’s what it boils down to – with his insistence that students’ curiosity is such an important part of learning.  How is a teacher to implement the suggestions from both chapters one and two: they seem contradictory to me.

The conversation that came out of this question is leading me to what, so far, is bothering me in this book. I’ve only read the first two chapters at this point and I don’t know how this will be reconciled later on, if at all.

If I agree with Willingham that “…factual knowledge makes cognitive processes work better…” (p.36) and that we need to increase our students’ background knowledge then I need to make the next step and decide what kind of background knowledge they need to work with when learning a particular concept or idea.

Art Titzel, in a comment to Michael’s post, writes,

As far as teaching new topics I believe there needs to be some pre-loading of factual information before we can expect students to critically think. This pre-loading of information should be meaningful to students and in context with the learning, not just rote memorization.

It is in choosing what information to pre-load where things get sticky. Willingham makes this statement about what facts learners need to know. It makes me cringe.

For reading, students must know whatever information writers assume they know and hence leave out. The necessary knowledge will very depending on what students read, but most observers would agree that a reasonable minimum target would be to read a daily newspaper and to read books written for the intelligent layman on serious topics such as science and politics. Using that criterion, we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males. From the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the only choice in that case is to try to persuade writers and editors at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and so on to assume different knowledge on the part of their readers. I don’t think anyone would claim that change would be easy to bring about. It really amounts to a change in culture. Unless and until that happens, I advocate teaching that material to our students. The simple fact is that without that knowledge, they cannot read the breadth of material that their more knowedgable schoolmates can, nor with the depth of comprehension. (p.36)

Tell me, HOW are we going to change culture if not by starting with our students?

With that one paragraph, Willingham is supporting:

I think he is also suggesting that the majority of writers write from this perspective.

He prefaces the paragraph by saying this has nothing to do with value judgments or politics, but merely with what is cognitively best for students. I think I need this explained to me again so I can understand how that is so. Is he really claiming that cognitive science is not influenced by culture?

What do you think about this?

Professional Development Meme 2009

I’ve been tagged by Greg Cruey, who came across this at Clif’s Notes recently.


Summer can be a great time for professional development. It is an opportunity to learn more about a topic, read a particular work or the works of a particular author, beef up an existing unit of instruction, advance one’s technical skills, work on that advanced degree or certification, pick up a new hobby, and finish many of the other items on our ever-growing To Do Lists. Let’s make Summer 2009 a time when we actually get to accomplish a few of those things and enjoy the thrill of marking them off our lists.

The Rules

NOTE: You do NOT have to wait to be tagged to participate in this meme.

* Pick 1-3 professional development goals and commit to achieving them this summer.
* For the purposes of this activity the end of summer will be Labor Day (09/07/09).
* Post the above directions along with your 1-3 goals on your blog.
* Title your post Professional Development Meme 2009 and link back/trackback to
* Use the following tag/ keyword/ category on your post: pdmeme09.
* Tag 5-8 others to participate in the meme.
* Achieve your goals and “develop professionally.”
* Commit to sharing your results on your blog during early or mid-September.

My Goals

Ethics and Religous Culture,  Current World Events,  the new History program,  and Visual Arts

My Tags

David Fordee

Jose Vilson

Siobhan Curious

Elona Hartjes

Micheal Doyle

they were the best of times…

…they were the – you get the idea.

Yesterday I signed all of the paperwork then waited around for 5 hours and got the keys to my new house! I didn’t really wait around as much as drove around – luckily my father decided to take the day off of work to accompany me. We went out for lunch, we drove around the countryside, he bought me a mailbox – the kind with the little red flag to tell me when I have mail (original ‘you’ve got mail’ notification). We checked out the painting that was begun on my house. It’s barn board grey, which will look nice with the red roof.

That evening my car decided to go berserk and this morning I had to tow it to the dealership, making me late for work. A whole bunch of money later and it’s well again.

Today one of my students didn’t show for an important exam. He’s sabotaging himself and I can’t help but feel wounded myself.

Tomorrow we will have our closing ceremonies and our computer that has all of the certificates I need to print and then laminate to hand out during the ceremony decided to stop working. I’m also in charge of the decorating committee so tomorrow will be a long day.

Then I move on Saturday morning.

I’m so thankful for…

Life is good and so much easier because of all of you.

Know your stuff, then…

…do what feels right.

My practice distilled into one sentence, a sweet mélange of head and heart.

Illustration of Hearts and Brains, Pixel & Light Design. Click for source.

Illustration of Hearts and Brains, Pixel & Light Design. Click for source.

This past week it’s been repeating like a mantra behind all of the activity – know your stuff, do what feels right.

Stuff, of course, bears a lot of weight. Stuff can consist of curriculum, management, theory, school culture, student background, and more.

What feels right is where the teacher becomes artist. This year I regained my own trust in the do what feels right category. I spent much of my year looking to others for approval and recognition as it was my first year in this position and I really wanted to a) do a good job (as defined by others, I learned) and b) keep the position. Only in April did I realize this, that I wasn’t doing what felt right enough of the time.

Big lesson I learned this year. From my kids, from my colleagues.

Have I mentioned lately that I wouldn’t change my job for anything?

Know your stuff, do what feels right.

I just happened to find a blog post, written in a much more scholarly manner! on the same topic by Penny Ryder, Unity of the Head and Heart.