At a May 10 conference at SEED Alternative High School over 120 students agreed that school is broken. Students organized the event, called Re-Imagining Education, with the help of supportive teachers and professors.
Before he attended SEED, Grade 12 student Braxton Wignall described himself as being “being that kid in a huge hole screaming out "I hate school, f*** the system." But he spearheaded this conference, and kept things moving with liberally dispensed hugs and encouragement. SEED teacher Liam Rodrigues alternated as sidekick, presenter, techie and coach.
Many of the students had landed in alternative or arts-based schools after struggling with mainstream education. They rejected the one-size-fits-all concept of education. Several described mainstream school as a factory, "where they teach you to be obedient and follow orders, even meaningless orders."
"Education is designed to put people in boxes," said one. "People are chained together and moving on the same track. Very few benefit from it, and the rest just get by."
Another commented, "Standardized schooling is easy for a certain set of humans who regurgitate information easily. But I want a school where I'm welcome to share ideas and be open about what I think, instead of worrying about where I fit." Another student said: "My critical thinking skills were not honed in school … Education needs to be re-imagined to help us think for ourselves. We don't want to be robots."
Many presenters as well as attendees were high school students. As Grade 11 ESA student Marco LaGrotta observed, the attending students broke "the stereotypes of us as being lazy and uninformed."
Interestingly, none identified teachers as the enemy. LaGrotta pointed out, "The failure to retain learning, and rising stress levels of students show that every teacher doesn't know what's best for every student." But he also helped to organize the walkout against Bill 115, which brought 1000 students to Queens Park to support teachers’ right to organize.
One group of students visualized the education system as a "dinosaur, that teachers and students need to climb together to tame." Students emphasized, "Teachers and students need to have mutual respect" and concluded, "Dialogue is the only path."
In a session on 'The F-Word' over forty high school age women jammed into SEED's art room to talk about the place of feminism in their lives. One volunteer, the mom of a former SEED student, observed: "Everybody was there: older women, younger women, women of colour, gay, straight, transgendered women. It was like a kitchen table that included the aunties and grandmothers."
'F-Word' presenter Ashlee Harper noted, "This wave of feminism is more inclusive ... Instead of just trying for equal rights with men, we encourage difference and resist heteronormativity and media clichés. There is a demand for community among youth in general, not just young women."
ESA has a permanent feminist discussion group that includes male students. A grade 11 student explained, "Feminism is for women and men. There are a lot of stereotypes of women; there are a lot of stereotypes of men. If we don't talk with men, how will they ever know how we feel, and how can we know how they feel?"
Presenter Amanda Parris co-founded Lost Lyrics, a group based in Jane/Finch and Malvern. She commented, "I've never seen so many students with a notion of wellness and nurturance as a basis for education. They feel there's still hope -- perhaps because their teachers care enough about them to bring them to conferences like this and help them to organize."
Karen Grose, for three years the Coordinating Superintendent of Alternative Schools, commented, "Student voice is critical to the learning experience." Alternative schools are public, but have managed to resist the globalizing education trend that, gaining strength since the Harris years, cut arts from the curriculum and closed many of the smaller, more personal schools.
"Each student and each school is unique in its own way, and there are so many stunning things going on in these schools," added Grose. These students want to "be admitted as active participants in their own education."
Keynote speaker Jessica Tudos, an Olympic gymnast who represented Canada at the 1984 Olympics, agreed with them. She works with Clean Air Champions, former athletes who "inspire Canadians to live more sustainable, active and healthier lifestyles." She trained for over 25 hours per week as a child. "That came from me," she told the students. "No one could have made me do that. Things you are passionate about are things you can move forward with."
Tudos reflected that high school currently transmits some skills, like "how to deal with being bored, how to cope, how to take care of yourself," but suggested that it should aim to help students develop strategies for "sustainable happiness" that "contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit people, the environment or future generations."
For these teens, ideas of individual "success" were overshadowed by broader concerns for the future and the environment. SEED teacher Roderiguez explained, "You are being called the eco-generation. It's a responsibility that's been imposed on you because of 35 years of neglect by your parents' generation."
It hardly seems radical to suggest that schooling should be a solid force for the well-being of youth and their planet. But one student warned that this simple agenda will meet profound resistance: "If we were to reform education to promote sustainability or even happiness, the system itself would be shattered."
In the end, Wignall was ecstatic with a volunteer team that managed and fed a turnout that was twice what he expected. Students plan to organize ongoing work, reviving the Empowered Student Movement that began with opposition to Bill 115.
"I've never been around so many young people with such amazing passion and goals for education," said Wignall. "I want the world to know that students do care, we are not apathetic and that our education matters to us just as much is it seems to 'matter' to the people in suits and ties."
Deb O'Rourke is a writer, artist and democratic educator who has written for Now, the Toronto Media Co-op, and for art magazines including Espace and C. She has a Masters in Education from York, and works at ALPHA Alternative School. She is writing a book on alternative and democratic schooling in Toronto.