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The Arts in Alternative Education

Part 2 - Who Ends Up In Alternative Education?

by Alice Lovelace
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Alice Lovelace

This article was delivered as a keynote speech at the 1998 Fall Conference: Expressive Arts in Alternative Education at the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education on the University of Oklahoma's Norman Campus Thurman White Forum Building, November 6, 1998. © Alice Lovelace, 1998. All footnotes and references are available in a separate browser window - click on footnote numbers throughout text.

Who Ends Up In Alternative Education

Overwhelmingly alternative education students are black males, students with independent streaks, students with leadership qualities who often use these qualities for their own ends, and students who see themselves as possessing a multidimensional identity. The adventuresome, opinionated, assertive student who refuses to be pigeonholed. Many of these students have difficulties that include: behavior problems; adjustment difficulties, poor peer interaction, difficulty with authority figures, poor motivation, insecurity and a lack of self-confidence, talk too much or talk too little, are disruptive, destructive, aggressive, and many are chronically irritable/depressed/angry. Can you hear them in this poem (by Jhan Jackson):

My Generation

My generation is confused.
We are confused by our elders
who tell us to love everyone
but always prepare and make war.
We are told money isn't important
but you're nobody unless you have lots of it.
We are told we are equal but
you can remain jobless because of race or religion.
We are told, "You are our future"
but cut the funds for extracurricular
activities and throw us in jail.
We are blamed for crime and drugs but our
parents introduced them to us.
We have rights but we can't use them until we're 21.
My generation has been taught by hypocrites who
can blame everyone but themselves.
Yes, my generation is confused. (17)

At Frank McClarin Alternative High School in College Park, Georgia a student once told me she lived in a communist country. That her America was a communist country. I didn't laugh, or say" ridiculous", or pity her for her ignorance. Instead I asked her to please help me understand how she saw this as possible.

"Well, Ms. Lovelace, she began, all my life my family has lived on welfare, a check from the state; we get a Medicaid card that limits what doctors we can see because they don't all want to be bothered with Medicaid patients; we live in public housing, all my life, the government has decided where I am eligible to live. Ms. Lovelace isn't it communism when you can't decide for yourself and the government makes all your decision."

Her statement lead us even deeper, as the students and I engaged in far reaching discussions covering everything from criminal behavior, the death penalty, materialism, media stereotyping of black males, what it means to be free, and the qualities of liberty. One student, expelled from regular school for gang activity, wrote about our encounter, I'll read part of his poem:

This is the first time I've ever attended your class.
You stirred up a lot of questions and made me want to ask.
You made me look at the little things and look a little more.
I never thought I'd learn so much when I walked in through your classroom door.

It seems that these were ideas and concepts that no one, in thirteen years of school, had bothered to engage these young people in dialogue. The class moved on to discuss morals and values, at times I had to remind them it was important to listen without interrupting the speaker. I tried to show them, even when I found myself in disagreement with their statements, that I respected their courage and their experiences that lead them to come to their current understanding of the world.

I wanted to understand, not judge or belittle, the lives they lived because I wanted to help them. I needed to know what they knew, what they desired to know, and then maybe I could help them plot a course to achieve the education they desired. Not just the education I desired for them.

The next day we read the poem "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Lawrence Dunbar:

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,--
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

One student penned this poem in response. It serves to remind us of who the typical alternative student is and how he feels.

The Mask A Black Man Wears

The yellow mask is to show the world that he is happy,
but deep down he is unhappy.
The blue is when he seems to be fine,
but is somewhat down.
The red mask is the strongest mask
because he has to hide all the anger.
He pushes all his anger behind this mask.
The green is when his mask starts
to crumble and slowly fades away.
And the black mask you see
Is the Black man without his mask.
Showing all of his true feelings.
Not holding anything back.
Releasing his anger.
Letting his worries go.
Should he really wear a mask?
Is it wrong to hide your feelings?
What color is the mask you have on? (18)

At the end of our week together, I listened with mixed emotions while students thanked me for teaching them how to engage in a discussion. I felt sorry and ashamed for a country that has decided to throw away some of the most creative minds in our midst because they are those round pegs and we can manufacture nothing but square holes. I longed to be with them a month, a semester, a year to see if the work I began could make a difference in their level of accomplishment and their sense of success.

I want you to know, those of you who are with them semester after semester, year in and year out, that I understand the despair, the challenge, the frustration you face in the alternative school setting. Students can be loud, intimidating and appear uncaring. I want to introduce you to Mr. John Johnson, a former teacher in the Alternative Program in Burlington, North Carolina. Mr. Johnson maintains a web site on which he has posted the details of his typical day.

A Day In The Life by John D. Johnson

9 a.m. Half the students finish the assignments I give them. Each student in this room is taking a different course. I'm keeping track of five different courses at the same time, a daunting task in itself. I don't have the time to monitor progress as closely as I'd like, but, then again, what teacher does? Most of these students do poorly on written work, but I really can't have so many people talking to me about different subjects all at the same time. I try to spend time with each student, but the despair builds and my motivation slacks off. I sit in my chair forever in search of that one creative solution just out of reach, that solution that will make all this easy. I know it will be always out of reach, because it doesn't exist." (19)

I'm here to tell Mr. Johnson, and others struggling with these feelings of despair and lost motivation, that the solution does exist. I read from his journal in hope of illustrating a point; why the arts are needed in the alternative school setting and what the arts can achieve when we believe all else has failed. Teaching artists have learned to engage these students as self directed learners, as partners who hold many of the creative solutions needed to address their situations. The expressive arts allows us to interact with these students as thinking individuals, aware individuals worthy of engaging in serious discourse around serious issues, not just make busy work.

I think even teachers like Mr. Johnson know that the arts are important to students in alternative education for even he admits: "We have some rather talented artist at this school." (20) But what teachers need are committed professional artists who can partner with them to bring the best of the expressive arts into the classroom to get the best out of the students.

The practice of making art is a manifestation of the multiple identities of young people, the power of expression that burns within them. It addresses that cloying feeling of being denied. The making of art satisfies their human needs as it guides them to fully understand and practice self-reflexivity and freedom, the expression of their multiple dimensions of identity.

According to sociologist Ira Goldenburg:

In a fundamental way the need for a sense of self is oriented towards the reconstruction of one's past, towards the discovery of one's racial, sexual, and ethnic prehistory, and towards recapturing the roots of one's group heritage.

To transcend oneself and one's group is to reach out for the fabric that joins people together, to pursue the human chorus whose song will never be captured or contained.(21)

We are called upon to "make the identity whole" for these young people as we "satisfy the need for a series of fact-based identities ranging from the most local to the most universal."(22) Taken together the words of these social theorists suggest a human need to create and share Art in all its manifestations. Art is the human attempt to unify our lived and our unlived identities. An opportunity to be who we imagine ourselves to be, to set out the world in music, dance, song, verse -- to remake ourselves, our lives as they have been experienced-selectively determined by our consciousness. As author Aldous Huxley has observed: "Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you." In the words of a student (Chirley Tay):

I Am

I am the sun that illuminates the galaxy
The moon that lovers admire
The star that shines in the dark
I am the swiftly tilting planet
The tree that never sheds its leaves
The flower that ladies yearn to pick
The all-so-sweet nectar that bees collect
I am the seedling that absorbs
All the nutrients of the world
I am the bear which is furry and warm
The cat which sleeps on the warm rug
The dog who is loyal and faithful
The horse which runs wild and free
The dragon which is grand and regal
The mockingbird busying around flowers
The cuckoo, an imitator of other birds
The dove, the sign of love and peace
I am the ugly duckling who hopes
To turn into a swan someday
I am the brick that stands steadfast
The pure piece of quartz
The rock that never breaks
I am the cement that glues things together
I am the sea which basks in the morning sun
I am the firefly which leads the way
The pig which is avaricious
I am the wind which blows
Across the surface of the earth
I wish I was an angel
That I could be everything at once
Blended by the colors of the earth
Blessed by the heavenly light of the sun
I am the world
The world is me(23)

Too often, those of us charged to offer these youth guidance and purpose, look at these students and see only their strange clothes, their unsavory attitudes, their unusual use of language and dismiss them. I wear the mask of the artist/teacher and I want to see the artist awaken in every teacher, especially any teacher who wants to awaken the inner life of their students.

In The Alternative Teaching Mode: Dialogue Is Essential

This means challenging and changing the culture of the educating institution. This can be a formidable task. Today it is generally accepted and understood that during the classroom experience the most meaningful culture your students ever experience is the one that you create. We must look beyond the surface culture that our students exhibit upon entering our classroom. We must look beyond their styles of dress; the ways in which they interact with each other; their speech and eating patterns; their socioeconomic status; and their preferences in dance and music.

We must create a culture in our classroom that looks deeply to see the nature of what friendship means to them. We need to know what their collective notions are about adolescence, and their attitudes towards independence and self-determination. what are the patterns of decision making among them, who do they look to as a leader, and what do they know of the meaning of leadership. What can students help us understand about how they handle emotions, what does it mean to them to be successful or to win, and what are their concepts of cooperation.

This next poem is from CeCe, a student attending the Institute for Community Research in Hartford, Connecticut. I met CeCe during the summer program high school students learn social research skills by examining issues of health, education, and welfare from a community perspective:

Inside of me lives a dark place
Were no light seems to enter
Always downs, never ups.
It's like a dark hole which needs light
So others can see what's inside
Inside of the dark hole lies a lonely person
Who needs love and care.
Inside of me, lives a place with many secrets
Secrets which will never be told
Because of the nagging inside of me
I am scared to let them out
It's like a voice saying, "Let me out",
but on the other hand another voice is saying, "Don't!"
Inside of me. Inside of me.
Inside of me is a very, very scared and lonely person Crying out for help.

As artists and teachers, we must reject the reformist attitude about education, because it is not enough to reform the system or to reform the student as we continue to mask the systemic problems. The accomodationist attitude must be rejected for we can no longer struggle to force these student to adapt. Forcing them to fit into a system that does not believe them to be capable or competent. We must become, I believe, social interventionist placing ourselves between the system and the students, working to help each see the shortcomings and benefits, the dangers and possibilities.(24)

Students who end up in our alternative schools know that the current system does not work. They did not fail, the system failed to see they required a different approach. They know that learning should be a give and take venture and that the greatest learning is grounded in our experiences; extends from our world view, connects us with others like and unlike us until we are no longer held captive by our narrow life views, but are liberated by our ability to make cross associations and to see new meaning in old ideas.

The first stage of change involves tolerance, a capacity to recognize and respect the beliefs or practices of others. While the teacher is the key to education, the teacher's leadership should not result in a position of dominance. According to students, one of the paramount issues in public education is not test scores or school violence, it is the nature of the teacher student relationship. Students point to a lack of trust, no sense of shared power in the classroom, and little opportunity to participate in discussion, debate, and dialogue as equals. Ralph Waldo Emerson has told us, "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil."

No group is more sensitive to issues of equality, rights, respect, and representation than young people; this is their mantra. How do we as helping professionals work with this sensitive population to build trust? How do we help turn the classroom monologue into a dialogue? How do we level the playing field and become facilitators in the self directed course of education many of these young people are embarked upon, whether we approve of their choices or not. To quote from Mr. Alistair Cooke: "The best compliment to a child or a friend is the feeling you give him that he has been set free to make his own inquiries, to come to conclusions that are right for him, whether or not they coincide with your own."

We are all afraid to fail -- students are no different.

I want to share this quote from a little British paperback about creative failures. In the introduction I found this quote: "It is easier to fail than succeed -- we say we learn from our mistakes so let us not make perfection more important than trying."(25)

This student poem is titled:

Conversation Fear

My generation sees a landfill
Where fools are stumbling and gossiping backwards
Already hung on their ties and pearls
Those fools. They sit on our faces
And we cannot help but inhale their gaseous stench
My generation listens to machines
To the roar of chrome and the groan of weights
The brain dead jabber of t.v. boxes
The stale drone of a radio
The clank and orgasmic thud of a register
As junk takes precedence over thought
My generation loves themselves
(But they would never admit it)
My generation has their drugs and Nike
MTV and liquor
Hair dye and plastic
Pizza and music
My generation thinks first of themselves
And in succession of importance:
My generation expects the position on top of the world
All powerful and masterful
Silver spoons in each drawer
My generation expects respect for deeds not done
These potential heroes lie in challenges not faced
Bodies unwashed
Brains cluttered
Books torn
My generation expects a miracle
My generation is nothing and everything
Conforming in the commercialized
Religion of nonconformity


The 1998 Fall Conference: Expressive Arts in Alternative Education at the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education on the University of Oklahoma's Norman Campus Thurman White Forum Building, November 6, 1998 was sponsored by: the University of Oklahoma College of Continuing Education, Oklahoma Arts Council, the Art therapy Association of Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center in cooperation with the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine November, 1998.