Skip to main content


City School was started over thirty years ago in the west end of Toronto by a group of parents whose children were enrolled at SEED. SEED was the first alternative public high school in North America, founded in 1968, where courses were mostly taught by experts from the community, called “catalysts,” and learning was entirely self-directed. The group that started City School liked the idea of free schooling, but wanted more academic structure than SEED had at the time. Today City School is located on the waterfront, with a beautiful view of the Toronto Islands, and has a focus on ethical citizenship, compassionate community, and environmental activism. Ariel Fielding and former City School student Michael Barker sat down to talk with current and past City School teachers Ana Csillag, Dianne Gibson, Elaine Mitchell, Ian Esquivel, and Marc Lichtenberg.

Ariel: What drew you to work in alternative education, and why City School?

Dianne: I landed here by accident [laughs]. I graduated as a chiropractor, and I was a single mom, and you don’t get your license to practice until the end of September. I already had a teaching degree, so I found some supply work, which then turned into an LTO [long-term occasional] here at City, and then the woman I was replacing decided not to come back to teaching. They liked me here, so they hired me. Then I said, “I won’t take it unless you split it and make it a half-time job,” because I had to start a chiropractic practice, so Marc and I ended up splitting a Biology job. A number of years later, I decided I liked this better than being a chiropractor, so I switched to full-time.

Ian: I was brought in for a year to replace a guy named Bob Morgan, who was a media teacher who had gone to OISE, and also to pick up some Social Studies. I taught Media and an English class—Elaine was the other English teacher, and the next year when teacher and co-founder Myra Novogrodsky left, I picked up all of her Social Studies courses. I wasn’t going to be a teacher, I had no intention of it. I came out of working in graphic design, and went back to school thinking teaching would be a good avenue to travel overseas.

Marc: Same!

Ana: I actually didn’t know much about City School. I had been in Canada for just one year, and was looking for work, and came to an interview. I was surprised—there were at least fifteen people in my interview [laughs]. I didn’t know the difference between all the schools at that point. I had just done long-term occasional teaching and didn’t know the system that well. The people at my interview were so nice. They asked my why had I left Chile, and I told them exactly why, that I didn’t want to work for the junta government.

I was educated for twelve years at an alternative school in Chile, so I felt wonderful at City School, and I still haven’t left it—I’m still supply teaching, and I like to come here. The experience is phenomenal, of being able to create an atmosphere where learning is a happy experience for everyone.

Marc: I had graduated from the Faculty of Education at McGill University, and in the summer I did my ESL designation, so I was ready to go off to Asia. I had no intention of teaching high school. But I had gone to SEED briefly when I was in high school, and I saw two ads for alternative schools. I thought, “I’ll give it a go—what if Asia doesn’t pan out?” Here I am, twenty-something years later. I thought maybe I could get interested in teaching in secondary if it was an alternative school. It turned out to be really thrilling. The interview was fantastic, so I was smitten.

Dianne: One of the fun things about being at City was expecting a lot of initiative from the students, and treating them with respect—treat them like adults and they’ll behave like adults was the whole mindset here, which was awesome. It was an easy fit with my teaching style, and I really missed the kids in the summer.

Elaine: I wanted to be at an alternative school, and I’d tried going to SEED a year or two before—it was the one I’d heard of—but they didn’t have any jobs. I went around and interviewed other alternative schools. I got as far as Inglenook and then City. I just felt better at City. They actually made room for me—teacher John Pendergast let go of some of his English classes, he said, “I’ll teach Math so Elaine can come,” so I felt really welcome.

Ariel: Tell me about your philosophies of education and your approaches to pedagogy. How have your ideas about education changed over time?

Dianne: Skip the jargon, teach the kid.

Marc: I have to be honest here. I don’t think I looked at a curriculum document until about five years ago. Part of it was I was a science-math teacher, so it’s very much understood what you teach anyway. My focus was always my interest in nature, and I’ve always been student-focused and hands-on in my approach to teaching, and even more than that, interested in getting outside and connecting with nature, developing a sense of place, always trying to design activities that give students a better sense of the natural places where they live, and take them to places where hopefully they’re going to return for the rest of their lives. I’m always trying to listen to the kids and follow them. I still learn from them, though they don’t lead now as much as in the early days of City—we have kids who are for the most part Grade Twelves from mainstream schools, and they’ve already been molded by the big system, so they want more spoon-feeding and direction.

Elaine: I was very bored in high school, so it was very important to me not to bore students. If students are really engaged and excited about learning, they’re not bored. My approach became mellower through the years. When I first started at City School I would do things like lock the door of the classroom and not let students in if they were late. That lasted about six months; later on I just welcomed them and gave them a tick. If there were enough ticks, I’d take marks off, and they knew that. I think it’s really important for students to own their own education, to be involved, to have a lot demanded of them, and to give them a lot of support. In Writer’s Craft specifically, I always wanted people to go way further than they thought they could go as writers.

Ana: I started teaching Physics and Math at City School. At first I was really very focused on the curriculum, but soon I went back to my own style, which was okay with the students. I gave them a lot of confidence. It’s amazing how many people arrived with the idea that they couldn’t do math and they wouldn’t be able to. It’s even more amazing that once they have some confidence, how much they can learn very fast. That’s my emphasis while at City School and when I go anywhere else: building students’ confidence. It’s so sad that so many people believe they’re not able to do it, and I still hear it everywhere. It’s just a shame.

Ian: I came in with a framework. I wanted to be a media educator. I wanted to use texts that reflected students’ lived experiences, away from Shakespeare and towards pop culture. I knew about Paolo Freire and all those ideas about the co-construction of education. I wanted to use media as a way to improve students’ critical literacy. I wanted to be seen as a co-investigator, a peer, and break down some of those hierarchical divisions. I’d read a lot about developmental stages, and felt that there were times when certain things were appropriate, so I did come in with a fair bit of underpinning of pedagogy. At one point Myra said to me, “You can keep teaching here, or you can go out into the mainstream and crack it open.” That’s exactly what I did, and then I came back to City last year. I think I was fairly successful in bringing the ideas of alternative education to the mainstream. I went into big schools. The first one was CALC (City Adult Learning Centre), and then Western Tech. I went in as Head of English at Western Tech, and I tried to move people away from the prescribed curriculum, to teach the kid who was in front of them, to use an alternate text. They wanted that kind of thing there. I tried to infuse social justice into what we did, so we had theme-based teaching, and it was reasonably successful.

There was a period for about a decade where teachers were really valued for what they had to say, and you could do what I did at Western Tech, and I had three principals in a row who were on board with the idea that there was expertise and knowledge in teachers that could be tapped, you didn’t have to be a department head to have a voice. In the last five years, I don’t see that. I see a very top-down model where superintendents think they know what should be done; they pass it along to principals who think that there’s something broken and they need to fix it, and that teachers are part of the problem. There’s a lot of talk about more progressive ideas in the mainstream but I didn’t see them being applied. I began to feel a few years ago like I needed to get back here, to City and to alternative education.

Ariel: What do you think caused the shift away from openness to alternative ideas in mainstream schools?

Ian: I think they became a little obsessed with this outcome stuff, EQAO [Education Quality and Accountability Office] for example, and the markers for success. They became driven by data, which is an American model. They began to lose sight of how kids might be successful and yet not have some of those markers in evidence. Budgets began to shrink, and people began to think about ways they might hold onto their positions, they began to recycle old ideas as new. We’ve gone to a more corporate model in education, so everything’s become transactional, and they want to have something that supports the transaction.

Ariel: I want to pick up on what you’ve said about confidence and a sense of place. How do you cultivate those things for your students?

Dianne: One of the things that I think is magic—and all the staff of City School have seen it—is the confidence. One of the problems students often come to City with is that the expectations that have been put on them in mainstream schools ironically have not been high enough. A lot of students lose their confidence if the expectations of them aren’t up to what they hope they can do. The magic is expecting a lot from them, then helping them build the skills to get there. Working with the kids so that they get the idea that “I’m not quite there yet.” The word “yet” is like pure magic with teenagers. It gives them permission to keep working at it. It’s the difference between a fixed mindset and a growing mindset. For alternative school kids, that’s huge. The clientele at the early City School included a lot of street kids, a lot of kids working part-time, out on their own. In the last few years I’d say we have more typical teenagers. We’re getting more that kind of kid as opposed to street kids and single moms, so that’s shifting.

Ana: Once the students feel that they’re here with equals and with people who accept them, they don’t have to have a barrier, and they don’t have to pretend. They can shape their own education instead of being forced to do things one way. That opens a big road ahead, where they can learn to be independent. That’s the most important thing in learning.

Elaine: One of the things when I first came, in terms of place, had to do with clothing. Everybody just wore whatever they wanted. There was a very strong culture here that ‘weird is good.’ In fact, I had lunch with an old student a while ago, Annie Grainger, and during the lunch she kept using one word over and over again as a really disparaging word. I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone spend so much time using ‘normal’ as the worst word.” [everyone laughs] The students were very accepting, and there were a lot of inter-age and inter-grade friendships. If two people were really interested in a certain kind of jazz, and one was in Grade Ten and the other was in OAC, they would be friends. It was a good culture for acceptance. Kids who were bipolar, kids who were gay felt very accepted. I’m sure it wasn’t as perfect as we sometimes thought it was, but the reports were that they did feel really good.

I had an agenda to make a community. For the first week in every class, I had students in pairs discussing something. I did that in every class, and it did seem to make a difference. In those days, too, the good old days, we could go out for afternoons. We had a nature writing class; we could take kids outside the school in cars without worrying about being sued, we could take kids to cafés for Writer’s Craft, you didn’t have to sign a million forms. It was certainly easier then to have that kind of community, and also people would be here for three or four years instead of a semester or two.

Marc: When I started out, I felt a very strong feminist agenda. That was great for the girls; they felt like this was a home for them. For the boys, it was more of an education; they were starting from scratch. We had workshops where we talked about the issues, and it could get very contentious. You two [looks at Ana and Diane] made a documentary on women in science, and Ana was always focusing on the girls who felt that inadequacy around science and math. Liz, who’s not here, the art teacher for forever, put together an entire course on Canadian women in art.

Ian: I think that sense of place is the sense of what we’re doing right now in this interview, creating a sense of secure place—you can’t control what’s out there, but you can come in here and this classroom is a place where we trust you and you trust us. Sense of place is a concept, not a physical location. I think what Marc’s calling a feminist agenda was something that we gravitated to, because it created a nurturing environment, not a hierarchical stratified environment. This is a place where you can be valued, and it doesn’t have to be because of accomplishment. You can put the competition aside. One of the challenges to the culture is that students are used to competition. They come here from mainstream schools like Malvern and Northern, from places where they feel they have to produce to be valued, and we’re trying to say, “You just have to be yourself to be valued.”

Dianne: Years ago there was a new student who walked into the classroom, and Ana’s teaching Physics and Math, and I’m teaching Chemistry and Biology, and Marc is here too, and the student says, “How come two of the Science teachers here are women?” This is some kid from the Leaside area who’s a little [mimes snobbiness]. It was interesting that it was even mentioned. That’s why we ended up doing a women in science video, to try and get them a little more exposed to the idea that your intellectual pursuits shouldn’t be attached to gender.

There was a student, a young woman with Asperger’s, who for the first two months she was here, every time you said hello to her she looked like she was either going to throw things at you or run down the hall in the opposite direction. By the end of her second year, she was our valedictorian. Talk about building confidence.

Michael: I’m curious about the school’s change of location. My memories of City School are really tied up in a sense of place. Why did the school move?

Dianne: The God Harris, [much-reviled former Premier of Ontario, known for his efforts to disembowel the school system and demoralize teachers], said, “Thou shalt consolidate,” which meant that the school we were with, Carleton Village, had to let go of one of their two buildings. They were going to be consolidated into the building that we were in, which meant that we were going to lose a couple of classrooms, and that had implications for how we could teach. I said, “Why the hell don’t we just move?” Of course the Board said no at first. Our principal at the time, Tom Trotter, he was awesome, he said, “You’ll have to look for a new space”—because of course he’d get smacked in the head if he did it himself. I said, “Let me see if I can find us some room.”

I went down and talked to the janitor. I said, “You guys have a list of which schools have room.” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Can I trade you ten minutes of that list being forgotten on your desk for a two-four?” He said, “Sure, I have some errands I have to run late morning tomorrow.” I said, “Good.” So I dropped him his favourite beer under his desk, looked at the list, found seven schools where there would be room. We spent that Saturday driving all over Toronto, saying, “Kids won’t go there. Kids might go there. That’s easy to get to.” We picked four. Two of the buildings were moldy; one of them was not a good location; and then we came down here to the shores of Lake Ontario and said, “Done.”

That was kind of crazy because there already was a school in here that was very territorial, but Tom negotiated with the principal. The people in facilities services told the parents that they needed to absorb City School, or they might end up being closed, because their numbers were dropping precipitously. The parents of all the little elementary kids in the existing school were terrified of all the big bad alternative kids coming in—the perception was that everyone was on drugs or on parole, instead of the nice bunch that they were. I decided to go around to the teachers and send them ten hand-picked students to help them in their classrooms for the next two weeks. I told them, “If you still hate us [after that], we’ll go find another building.” Well, of course the City kids were awesome, and the teachers at the school loved them, and we ended up moving down here.

Ana: My math class made a present for the graduating class of the elementary school, an illustrated dictionary of math, coloured by hand, a copy for each graduating student. That really improved the relationship with the other school. It was artistic and beautiful and extremely useful.

Elaine: The drama students would go down and tell stories to the elementary students.

Ana: There’s also a community centre on the ground floor, and we have a very good relationship with them. We do staff dinners with them at the end of every year.

Ian: Did moving down here change the kind of students we drew?

Dianne: To a certain extent it did. They were still a really interesting bunch of kids. We’ve all had parents ask what’s different about alternative school kids. I say, “What’s different is that they’re all different.” In a regular classroom they’re square pegs in round holes.

Marc: I remember coming in when I had the year off, and I could see the difference. I heard this word ‘entitled’ being thrown around, and it sort of stuck. I think we got very upper-middle-class kids after we moved, and I remember Liz calling the girls ‘the hair-flippers.’ They had beautiful hair, beautifully done up, and honestly, they’d go shopping at lunch. They’d get into their cars and come back with these little Prada bags. I couldn’t believe it. They were mostly North Toronto kids.

Ana: The crowd that City School gets changes every two or three years, because someone goes back to their old schools and tells everyone, “I’m having a great time at City School, it’s fabulous.”

Dianne: I want to pick up on how weird and interesting it was when we had street kids. They were doing their own thing and working part time and living on their own. They were weird in the sense that they weren’t typical, they were fantastic people—weird is awesome. They were mixed with very entitled kids. I got the idea of putting together an interdisciplinary life strategies course, because what I was seeing was that the entitled kids had no clue about how to take care of themselves out on their own, any more than the street kids did, though the street kids could teach the entitled kids a heck of a lot about street smarts and life skills.

That’s one of the nice things about the alternative system: because it’s small, you can innovate and you can collaborate with your colleagues—you can sit down at weekly meetings and brainstorm.

Ariel: What was your favourite course that you taught?

Dianne: I loved ‘Earthspace,’ because I’m totally into rocks and geology. I’m going to Iceland for the solstice in June—I love geology and geography.

Marc: You gave it such an interesting thrust, which was “natural disasters.”

Dianne: Natural disasters. I got them hooked by doing that. But the course I felt most gratified by was Life Strategies, because I’ve bumped into so many former students who’ve said about taking that class, “You saved my ass.” They’re out on their own now, and they’re doing fine. One guy I bumped into from three years ago said he’s coaching his buddies up at York University about how to pay their bills. I’m fierce about it. We offer that course twice each semester. It ought to be taught across the Board. [Di has published a book based on her course, Someone Really Oughta Tell You: Life Strategies for Young Adults and Life Renovators.]

Elaine: I want to mention something that came into my head, a line I’d repeat from time to time when people would ask me about the school. There was a kid I interviewed, a prospective student, and I asked, “Why do you want to come to City School?” He said, “I don’t want to be infantilized by the system.” That became a catchphrase that says a lot about the students who come here. Many of them were doing fine in the regular system before they came here, but they were just not treated with the kind of respect they wanted.

I’ll tell you about a course that wasn’t necessarily my favourite, but it was my most extraordinary course that I taught. I was at a point where I wanted to see how little control I could have over a class, and how much control they could have, and it turned out that these students—it was Annie Grainger, whom I mentioned earlier, who suggested it, the ‘Men and Women’ course. Half the time the students in the course were angry at me for being too controlling, half the time for not being controlling enough. They were angry at all kinds of things, or they were in love. Everybody had different agendas. There was this guy Gabe; his agenda in the class was to redress thousands of years of male dominance. Annie’s agenda was simply to have as much power as possible. They all told their agendas. Sometimes I’d think, “This is so messy, it’s embarrassing. Why am I getting paid for this? I’m not doing anything.” Other times I’d be thinking, “I’m having so much fun.” It was just before lunch, and they wouldn’t leave. I’d have to force them to go. It really was successful, because they did take over and run the class. At the beginning they’d be mean to each other, and I’d say, “You can’t do that,” and they’d say, “Come on, you said you weren’t going to be controlling.” A week later, they established ground rules. I think teaching like that is a valid thing to do, but I’m not sure it would be as easy to do it now.

Ariel: It’s interesting that several of you went to alternative schools as students. How do you think that influences your teaching?

Ana: I think it’s about the trust between people in a community. It allows you to focus on the learning. You really can do more and be more creative in an environment like that. When I do supply teaching now at mainstream schools, the idea has been instilled that there’s only one answer to every question, so the brain is not working. I find that’s boring; you’re asked to shut off your brain and regurgitate. In math it’s terrible, because students’ work gets marked wrong in red, and that’s what they look at, the negative of it. You hate a subject if you’re punished for what you didn’t do, instead of enhancing what you did and what you learned—even if it’s not the usual path, you can always find a way of getting back to that, if you’re working on trust and you believe in the capacity of the student to do it.

Ian: I was educated in an alternative elementary school pilot program that was housed in different schools in Etobicoke. It was a precursor to the development of the gifted programs. We really were allowed to explore and go in-depth and pursue. In Grade Seven, for example, I decided I wanted to soundproof the classroom. It was really quite remarkable. I saw a lot of the work there that we now favour doing at City, which is co-construction, negotiation, and going in depth, so there are pockets of that out in the mainstream. I’ve seen it in lots of places, but the constraints around that, and the idea that you have to adhere to certain programming, that obviously is a barrier. But there are lots of teachers who push back, and they find ways to quietly close the door. I don’t think it’s that dire out there, but certainly if you are results-driven, and if there’s only one concept around what constitutes measurement, you get into corporate models.

Ariel: Ian, how do you engage kids in co-construction?

Ian: You put out some of the parameters around what you plan to study, for example in my World Issues class we brainstorm topics. I have these units that are generic, and the students are negotiating the research they do within that. The students are doing a lot of research on their own, and they bring it back and share it with the class: every Wednesday we have a roundtable. I also ask them, “How are you going to show your understanding? Let’s talk about what that looks like.” Negotiating evaluation is also co-creation, as is learning alongside them, and I try to make that apparent. I’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

Ana: Something that for me has been very satisfying here is the ability to connect different areas. We live in a Cartesian world, and the way that knowledge is taught in general is that you have an English class and you have a Math class and they are separated. I think it is so liberating to have the ability to connect the subjects. We have had multidisciplinary courses for the whole school, a UN course and a Utopia/Dystopia course. You have the ability in every class to make interdisciplinary connections, because we live in a world that’s connected. Compartmentalization can be so alienating—that’s where students and young people don’t see the value of traditional methods of education. It’s really important to have the possibility to explore and develop interdisciplinarity.

Ariel: How has the growth of bureaucracy around education affected you?

Dianne: I teach Biology, and there are a lot of nice grasses out there [gestures to the lakefront outside the window, with its beautifully landscaped public park inspired by a Bach Chaconne, right across the street]. We used to be able to say, “Okay, we’re going to the Music Garden.” Believe it or not, to take a group of eighteen-year-olds across the street now requires a bloody field trip form. It’s absurd. Let’s just say that it’s good that the alternative system is still intact, though slightly bruised. When the Harris government came in [in 1995], the bean counters got loose. The structural hierarchies that dictate what can and can’t be done were established then. I think pulling the principals out of the same basket as the teachers and adding them to “management,” and then adopting this us-versus-them mentality—as Ian said, the corporate mindset—it isn’t efficient. It’s supposed to be the more efficient way to do things. But when you devalue and disrespect the input of people who are in the trenches, that’s a recipe for disaster. The heavyweights at the top haven’t been in a classroom for thirty years. I think they should have to rotate every fifth year, they should have to be in the classroom. Then I think they’d be way more realistic and far more effective.

Marc: Sadly that’s a piece we’ve lost. The vice-principal would always teach a course, and would offer it to a group of alternative schools. Not only would it help us, but it made them part of the community as well.

Dianne: But I mean the Director of Education should be in the classroom. The whole bunch at the top ought to be cycled through the classroom every fifth year.

Ian: We have this principal who’s said astounding things. When we were talking about what to do if you’re a curriculum leader who has a colleague who’s undermining kids’ success because of wanting to meet all the curriculum expectations, our principal said, “If you’re meeting all the expectations, you’re not doing your job. There’s a kid in front of you.” He also said at the beginning of the year, “There’s other kinds of data, and as far as I’m concerned, if you’ve got a kid who’s been bouncing from school to school, and stays in your school for a year, even if they don’t get credits, but they show up, that’s data.” I don’t know where that’s coming from—I’m amazed. I’m kind of hopeful. You don’t usually see that kind of thing.

City School teachers past and present

Interviewed on Nov. 27, 2013