Over the past semester I have had the privilege to immerse myself within an alternative learning setting at SEED Alternative School. After spending a significant amount of time at SEED, I have come to understand and appreciate its tight knit leaning community. With this in mind, I intend to describe why this community aspect is important in an educational framework as well as how this type of community is fostered at SEED Alternative School. In doing this, I will briefly examine the education philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi as well as current research conducted in the discipline of alternative education.
During my first few weeks at SEED Alternative I immediately noticed that this school was not a typical learning environment. The students referred to each of the teachers by their first names, there are no separate staff rooms or washrooms, and each of the students has a direct say in how the school is operated. I quickly learned that the statement of goals for many alternative schools takes aim at “Dejuvenilizing” secondary education, meaning that alternative schools tend to try to find ways of involving student’s in curriculum planning and school governance. The aim of this is to reduce the isolation of the youth culture within the school, while making the student’s involvement in the school more relevant.
I found was that these measures created an atmosphere that was not centered around a power hierarchy which placed the teacher above the student but instead around a close knit community of learners at different stages of development, who are invested in continuing their educations. After conducting research on alternative learning environments I found that other educators have come to appreciate this style of teaching, as Ryan Slashinsky a current educator in the Toronto District School Board reflects:
Through several years of teaching experience in other schools, I discovered that much of the dominant framework of mainstream education was antithetical to my own philosophical and pedagogical goals and convictions. Strict enforcement of authoritarian models made the types of non-coercive intergenerational relationships I hoped to build impossible. Hierarchical power relationships between teachers and students, with their respective roles rigidly defined, inhibited honest, responsive, and collaborative modes of communicative exchange, of living and learning.
It is interesting having discussions with traditional teachers about issues like allowing students to call them by their first names. I have found that many traditional teachers fear that by allowing students to call them by their first name they will lose some authority or respect. In essence, I interpret this as a fear of lowering the educator down to the level of the student, from my own personal experience in alternative settings, allowing students to call you by your first name only grants you more respect in the students eyes and allows them to see that you are someone they need to be working with, not someone they are working for.
This mentality is echoed in the design of the school with the absence of clearly delineated staff spaces. Staff and students are encouraged to come together in all areas of the school not just inside the classroom. Some of the best lessons I feel I have conducted during my time at SEED have not been in the classroom but instead around the lunch table in the kitchen talking about philosophy to groups of students (some of which are not even in my philosophy class) about issues we have raised or previously discussed.
Allowing each of the students to have a say in school operations only adds to this community atmosphere by illustrating to each of them that they not only have a stake in how the school is run but they have a responsibility to see that it is run well. Each of the students strive to make SEED a better place by contributing their time in the form of school council or movie nights, their artwork which decorates the hallways, and their kindness in the form of helping each other out whether it be in the form of peer tutoring or just being a friend to other students/teachers in times of need.
What I have really found interesting is how many of my observations at SEED have tied into the coarse material I am learning, especially the educational philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. Pestalozzi structured his educational theory to center around the idea of a caring mother figure. He had observed that emotional growth was just as important as cognitive development and found that many of his students were suspicious, frightened, and emotionally withdrawn from their educations, but became much more open to their studies when they were given the opportunity to feel self-worth and self-esteem. Pestalozzi concluded that one of the most important roles for a teacher is to foster an attitude of confidence in their students and to create a safe environment where learning can take place. He emphasized the need for educational frameworks to mirror a natural setting in which the learner can feel comfortable and part of a larger community. The community based approach found at SEED stands as an example of this ideology put into practice by emphasizing community involvement through participation. Many of the students view SEED as more than a transitory place of preparation for higher learning, to them SEED is a place to not only learn but a place to grow within a community of diverse individuals with complex needs and values.
I am very grateful for my time spent at SEED Alternative as it has opened my eyes to a whole new approach to teaching. In the future I hope to incorporate many of the ideas I have come across at SEED into my own classroom by working to create an equal learning environment without a clear power hierarchy which includes each of my students directly within the classes operations in order to build a strong sense of class/school community. I have come to realize that by creating such a community we can allow ourselves as educators to sit back and be a part of the educational process not the sole cause of it.
Broad, Lyn. Alternative Schools: Why, What, Where & How Much. Virginia: National School
Public Relations Association, 1977.
Gutek, G. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: Proponent of Educating the Heart and the Senses.
Boston, MA: Pearson Education Company, 2011.
Slashinsky, Ryan. Working Towards a Subversive Learning Community: Investigating
Relations, Perspectives, and Visions, in an Alternative School Setting. Toronto: York
University Press, 2006.
 Broad, Lyn. Alternative Schools: Why, What, Where & How Much. National School Public Relations Association, 1977. Pg. 6.
 Slashinsky, Ryan. Working Towards a Subversive Learning Community: Investigating Relations, Perspectives, and Visions, in an Alternative School Setting. Toronto: York University Press, 2006. Pg. 1.
 Gutek, G. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi: Proponent of Educating the Heart and the Senses. Boston, MA: Pearson Education Company, 2011. Pg. 126