The Arts in Alternative Education
Part 2 - Who Ends Up In Alternative Education?
by Alice Lovelace
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
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):
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:
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:
One student penned this poem in response. It serves to remind us of who the typical alternative student is and how he feels.
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.
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:
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):
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.
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:
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:
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.
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