Ariel: SEED was a pioneer in alternative education in North America when it was founded in 1968. How has it changed over almost five decades?
Liam: About twenty years ago, there was a team of three of us who started East York Alternative, and I realized after I’d been there more than a decade that twelve years in one alternative school is a long time, there was a new generation of people coming in, and I was confident about who was there. It made it much easier to leave. What was interesting about going into mainstream education—which I did with the intention of looking at administration in alternative schools, because I had my principal’s papers—was that I couldn’t even do that for three or four years. I couldn’t go into a place where there was no equity, where we were still delivering a Victorian model of taskmaster at the front of the room, clock behind, and rows of kids who were clearly empty and void of any intelligence, so you had to preach at them for seventy minutes. I was surprised that thirty years after I’d graduated from high school, it was exactly the same thing.
The issue for SEED is that we’re down to twenty-seven students, and we are the oldest alternative secondary school in North America. There were pioneering alternative schools like MAGU (in North York) that were closed, but those seemed to be reasonable political decisions of the day, a function of the fact that mainstream had taken a lot of ideas around what was happening in alternative schools, integrated them, and started to be more progressive. Alternative schools in the meantime are a little bit guilty of falling back onto their laurels. Moving that pedagogy forward is the big project in coming here and rebuilding this school. SEED was so important to us when we were starting East York Alternative. It comes up in the research I’m doing in trying to put together York University’s teachers’ Additional Qualification course on alternative education—there are four or five schools in Toronto that keep coming up again and again, because they’re the foundation-builders, they’re the ones who brought in democratic schooling, free schooling, the flipped classroom, all that stuff that was going to shape the pedagogy. SEED was pretty simple—it was constructivism and a catalytic model right off the bat. We were going to run ten to ten, a university model. Flexible classrooms, flexible attendance. But normalizing has overwhelmed alternative schools. We’ve built all those tools (that Canadian scientist, educator, and philosopher of technology) Ursula Franklin warned us against, the ones that change the user, so I think the challenge in making sense of alternative schools right now is that we were born out of a naïve vision that we would always remain outside the mainstream, on the leading edge of education, but both SEED and schools that came considerably later have become normative.
Bob: The idea when alternative schools were first being founded in Toronto was to have your own mandate, not to be like other alternative schools that had already been started, otherwise you wouldn’t get approved by the Board of Education, so that was the problem at the beginning, to come up with a new spin on things. Each school had to be unique, and they were for a long time. The problem with SEED when I was here from 1980 to 1989 was it was becoming constricted by Ministry guidelines and Board policies, forcing us to do things that were conventional.
Liam: It’s still the case.
Bob: I’m sure. SEED as a permanent school was originated by the students themselves, following the original summer program. Almost all of the students had started at Jarvis Collegiate or at North Toronto, and they said after a summer of learning, “We’re not going back to a traditional school, because we’re bored.” Their parents helped them, and they approached the Board and said, “We want our own regular full-time deal.” The Toronto Board said, “Yes, but you have to make one big compromise: you’ve got to take teachers that are accredited properly.” That’s how it started. The kids generated the enthusiasm. When I came SEED had been going for eight or nine years full-time. Then the Ministry of Education started to tighten things up. It took the initial enthusiasm out of the mix.
City School was started in 1980 by SEED parents who wanted an alternative school with more structure, and the goal was to have a little more clarity as to what people had to do. It was pretty obvious to everyone who went to City School in the early days that this is what they were doing, and if you didn’t like it, you could go somewhere else. Whereas SEED just kept evolving with the needs of the students year after year. How far was it from traditional? We used to have a meeting in the first week of September, and we’d say, “Each of us will call a meeting”—I was social sciences—“and anybody who shows up, we’ll talk about what we want to do this year.” I wouldn’t offer any courses, I’d just say, “So what are you interested in?” If they didn’t have an answer, that was a bad sign. We looked for students who knew what they wanted to do. That’s how we started the curriculum every September. But by the time I left in 1989, we were doing Ministry guideline courses because we had to.
Ariel: I want to find out how each of you came to SEED and why. What was it that drew you to alternative education, and to SEED in particular?
Bob: I was a young teacher. I had started my career at Central High School of Commerce. It was very traditional, but I enjoyed it. Then we entered a period known as “declining enrollment,” and it meant that even teachers with experience were being declared surplus. I was sent to Bickford Park, which was a basic-level school in those days. I was not happy looking out and seeing all these kids who needed help—we were not reaching them. I went on exchange to Miami, Florida, to Miami Central High School, the ultimate example of how bad regular schooling could be. When I came back to Toronto I was transferred to SEED. It just happened to be the same year that City School started. About half the staff split and went to City School, and about three stayed back. Of the teachers who landed on SEED’s doorstep that year, some of them adjusted very well and some of them didn’t. There was a transition period. I stayed for nine years, the last two as coordinator.
Pam: I started in 2009/2010. I was hired after a one year LTO (Long Term Occasional). I did half a semester at Parkdale Collegiate, where I was working in the International Baccalaureate film program. I got surplused to Pearson Collegiate. Though it was a really interesting experience, and experiment, and exploratory year, even though I wanted to be the one change-maker on staff, it wasn’t my cup of tea. Then I saw a posting for SEED, and what I knew of it was through the art community, through people who had gone here and the catalysts who were here.
I transitioned to full-time teaching at the height of my critical success, whatever that means in the art world, and I was doing a lot of artist-initiated curatorial projects. I ended up at the Student School in a less than three-month LTO (long-term occasional), and it just blew my mind open. There I was, I had a photography program, printmaking—the world is yours for these kids in art, and thinking, and conceptual idea-making. I knew that (after this assignment ended) I had to figure out my path to another alternative school. I knew I was not meant for mainstream teaching. The energy and the democracy of the kids at the Student School blew me away. They were so engaged politically around decision-making. They were such a committed group of kids, and what I loved was the fact that it didn’t have to be teacher-initiated. We facilitated, we coached them through, but we weren’t the center of power. When I saw the posting for SEED, I talked to my friends at the Student School. I said, “What do you think of SEED?” They’re like, “Yeah, SEED! You’ve got to apply!” I came here four years ago, Liam and I started at the same time, and we were two of three teachers. When Alvin (the third teacher) had time, he would give us some anecdotes, answer some questions. At some point you think, “Well, you can rest on the laurels of history, but then what are you going to do about going forward?”
Liam: I started my career in self-contained behavioural and LD (learning disabled) classes at the middle school level. I came in during one of those hiring crises. I’d worked at St. Lawrence College in Kingston. College pay wasn’t great, and the mark load was ridiculous. Meanwhile I had a family here, and I was working four days a week there and coming back to a young family. Next I spent a couple of years in fairly progressive private schools. There I saw the possibilities of having equitable, meaningful relationships with young people, where you put away some of those power things that you saw exercised in big classrooms, and really begin to respect young people and begin to have a dialogue with them about what is possible in terms of learning, and their input into that. It was the opposite of behavioural teaching, which was all about lock-down patterning—everything was prescribed, everything was controlled, everything. We had some students who were quite violent, and there were all these remarkable strategies that were introduced, like “desk therapy” as it was called, which consisted of pinning a kid to a wall with a desk. It was terrifying as these things grew in my body of experience. They were offensive, but that you turned to them in frustration was no less terrifying.
In 1988, East York was introducing its first alternative school. I was contacted by a couple of people who saw the work I had done in terms of turning around the rigid treatment of the kids who fell into this behavioural category. It was very problematic for me from the beginning, the process of dehumanizing kids in grade seven and eight. I understood why (my students in Kingston) had some of the issues with teachers they’d bumped into—I’d met their teachers and I’d never seen such bullies in my life. East York had a project, had a vision, and it was about problem-solving. Over 800 boys between the ages of fifteen and seventeen had dropped out of East York Collegiate just the year before, and the community knocked on the doors of the Board of Ed and said, “What are you going to do about that?” They said, “We don’t know.” They called us in, and we said, “Let’s start talking to the kids. Why did they leave?” We started shopping for a model of pedagogy to support these kids. It was a giant inquiry project. For about three months, we visited as many alternative schools as we could, went to Montreal, to Ottawa, down to the States. SEED impressed me significantly at the time, but it really didn’t fit with the population that we were trying to realign. It was all about providing experiential education for these young men, because a lot of them were saying, “I know what I want to do in life, and I don’t want to spend another two years doing Geography and History and English.” It was about carving out something that made sense to them, and programming around what they wanted to do. Along came the girls; that changed the structure significantly. They said they wanted the same kind of opportunity, but for different destinations. We had three-hour classes, which was unusual. We turned to SEED to model that. We had full-day co-op, or full-day experiential education against their other two credits, so the only way that would make sense was to work in three-hour increments. You couldn’t get the front of the room, because no teacher can do a song and dance for three hours. We became much more centered on the kinds of things that were driving the students, and SEED was the influence for that.
Bob: When I came to SEED, Margery Sundstrom was the coordinator. Her daughter was one of the original students, and Margery became a catalyst. She was a qualified teacher, so she was hired as a teacher. She had absolutely no interest in the system, in the Board, or in Board politics when she thought they were not serving the students’ best interests. As coordinator, she was classic. Talk about the difference between then and ten years later. I remember the Ministry sent out some attendance specialists. She had a small office, and they both showed up with their briefcases and their suits and they went in the office with her. I thought, “This is going to be ugly.” We didn’t take attendance, we didn’t have any official scan sheets, nothing like that. They were in there for about twenty minutes or so, and then they both walked out and we never saw them again. We asked her at the next staff meeting, “How did you handle those guys?” She said, “This school is based on students wanting to be here, therefore we have 100% attendance. Even if they’re not in the building today, I know they’re learning something.” That’s what she told them, (laughter) and they left convinced that SEED was different, not that we were flaunting the rules. That’s how she handled it. She said, “When the stuff piles up so high on my desk that I can’t see over it, I push it this way.” She never answered any memos, she never filled out any forms if she didn’t think they helped the students. The school didn’t really want to be a part of the Board, and they just went their own way as far as they could.
Ariel: Catalytic teaching was central to SEED from the beginning, but in recent years it’s a tradition that’s been lost. Can you tell me what a catalyst is, and whether you’re interested in reviving the tradition?
Pamila: A catalyst is an expert, someone who has expertise in something and who wants to share that expertise with students. The hope is to revive the tradition. Artist and former catalyst Kika Thorne said to me, “Do you think the catalysts can be revived? Do you think there’s an urgency for it? Do kids see it as necessary?” I asked Steve Kado, (co-founder of Blocks Recording Club) recently if he could do some catalyst work around sound recording, and he said, “You know, this is the age we’re in. These guys know a lot. How can we be catalysts when they’re teaching us?” It’s so true. Speaking as an artist, the tools are there; it’s how the new generation of makers are pushing things forward. We did it in a particular analog way. Look at what they’re doing with digital, with Vine videos and all these things. I can’t keep up, so I end up saying, “You’re going to be the expert on this. You’re going to co-teach or facilitate.” They get excited.
Michael: Was the catalyst model always so technological or production-related?
Bob: I’m going to go back to those first two summer projects that SEED started with, and what the Board did is they gave the students a small office and a few phones, and the students contacted people in the community that they wanted to learn from. They had some famous people—Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, they’d just phone them up and say, “Would you help us?” And they did. Some of the catalysts were very committed. I remember I had a guy who taught Economics at York University. He lived on the Island, he loved the idea of being a catalyst, and he would meet with a few students once a week. They’d bring their work, he’d give them feedback, and I would give the credit. He’d tell me how they did and I would write up the report card. It was beautiful when it worked, but it was hard to keep it going.
Ariel: Do you think the future of the catalyst model is youth-driven?
Liam: Yeah, I think in many ways we’re looking at a peer-to-peer model. I’m not taking anything away from this generation or preceding generations—it’s not a judgement. Many of us were raised with a sense of, “Someone is older than me, they have more experience than me, that experience is of value, I can learn from that, I can use that to move forward.” I think that in this generation, where so much emphasis is placed on technology, and on mores that aren’t necessarily continuous with the preceding generation, a lot of what’s valued, what drives them, what moves them forward is peer-to-peer generated. Many people still think that education is about information, but for them, it’s not. Education is about a skill set that allows them to work with information. I don’t think that means any disrespect to us, it just means that our role and function in the classroom has to change significantly. It’s no longer about, “Here’s the senior statesperson coming to address the group.” It’s more about, “Let’s talk about all the exciting stuff that we’re doing—we need someone to help facilitate that and make that happen.”
Ariel: The role of the teacher is changing.
Liam: It’s only in the last few years that I’ve really noticed it come to the fore. I’ve always worked with a constructivist model in the sense that, even though we have a much more rigid framework coming down from the Ministry (of Education), you let the kids pour in the content and the mechanisms by which you look at things. We work as we go. We create some loose framework that’s going to satisfy whatever instrument we’re supposed to serve. It’s a lot more controlled than it once was. What’s really interesting is how in the last few years, I’ve been saying, “These are the criteria. It needs to be peer-reviewed in an intellectual academic context. Blogging just isn’t cutting it in support of your argument.” Now I’m more challenged to defend that, because ultimately peer-reviewed isn’t necessarily academically peer-reviewed. That’s something they’re prepared to contest. They’re saying, “We want to look at this manga, which originates from this ancient Japanese story, and we want to draw some parallels between them.” I’ll say, “There’s no critical dialogue around that,” and they say, “Sure there is. Here it is.” I’ll say, “It’s not peer-reviewed academic,” and they’ll say, “Tough. It’s a dialogue.” They’re talking, they’re engaging critically. It may not be sanctioned by the psychoanalytic critic or the Derridean. I’m more and more challenged. It’s still a fight that I’m fighting, and I wonder if I’m not the cavalry facing the tanks right now.
Ariel: Tell me about your approach to pedagogy and how it’s changed over time.
Pamila: Jerry Maguire. “Help me help you.” That’s what I’ve recently been using with my most difficult students. I say that with deep affection for the students. “I know it’s tough for you, but help me help you.”
Liam: If you were to ask me to throw out some categorical framework, then I could say, we’re constructivist and catalytic to this day. We’re democratic in our principles, and there’s a freeschooling component, and an unschooling component too, because I’ll hand a kid a camera, and I say, “I’ll be back in 15 minutes. Tell me how it works. Don’t break it.” I still teach analog photography for that very reason, so that you understand the principles that are operating in the tool that you’re using. Some of them love it and some of them hate it. The ones that love it don’t do as well at digital, they want to hang on to the analog process, and vice versa, so there’s this wonderful tension that exists between the two technologies. I do think that people have answers to your question, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily consistent with practice, and therein comes the conflict and what makes it difficult to answer.
Ariel: Describing the practice of pedagogy?
Liam: Yeah, I think an ideology or a set of values might drive the way you operate in the classroom, but you know that your practice isn’t always consistent with that, and that’s a function of underground improvising. I’d say my fundamental pedagogy is improvisation.
Bob: I spent the last eight years teaching I.B. (International Baccalaureate), and I think that’s alternative. Even though it’s in a regular school, and the classroom looks traditional, it’s a partnership. I like that very much. It’s externally moderated; the final exams, which count for almost everything, are marked by somebody far away, so it allows the teacher to be an ally with the student. I tried to be an ally when I was in an alternative school, and I tried to do it in other places, too. I spent a number of years at Forest Hill Collegiate, and I went there because Al Scott went there. He had been the principal of SEED, and I thought I’d give it a shot, because I had this fear that I could never go back to mainstream teaching. I like to think that you can go back to mainstream education, and you can have a positive impact on a regular school. I started this year with an LTO (long-term occasional assignment) at North Toronto Collegiate. I’ve spent some time as a supply teacher at East York Alternative—I was there today—and at Contact. Can you imagine East York, Contact, and North Toronto in one year? In each case I go in and I try to have the same attitude, the same set of values, the same relationships, and I hope it works. I don’t see that alternative schools are so different anymore. It’s the values that you have that you bring to the classroom. How the chairs are arranged, whether there are couches doesn’t matter, you can always rearrange the furniture. When I taught at SEED we really didn’t have a classroom, and it didn’t matter. You just met and did your thing.
Pamila: It was for the love of learning, for the teachers and for the students.
Bob: You can have it in different environments. If you don’t have it, it’s just a waste of everybody’s time. That’s why I kept moving. I won’t mention any schools, but I’d go in there and I’d say, “I’m just killing time, and they’re killing time, so I’m out of here.” A lot of teachers feel trapped, they say, “I’ve got to keep my job, I’ve been here a long time, I like the commute,” and it’s very depressing to work in that kind of environment.
Ariel: One of SEED’s core values is “meaningful standards of achievement.” We all know there’s been huge growth in the standardized testing industry and that there’s a hyperconcern with grades. Alternative schools have traditionally used more meaningful, qualitative measurements of student progress than the mainstream has. Could you tell me how you assess students’ learning and their development?
Liam: Are you talking about alternatives generally? Because that’s an ongoing debate. ALPHA II made a decision a long time ago that you don’t graduate with a diploma, you graduate from ALPHA II, and that’s got to be good enough. That meant no standardized testing at Grade 9 or Grade 10. In ALPHA I there’s no standardized testing at all. Forever in education the question is going to be there, because ultimately there are pieces of paper that somehow shape peoples’ lives or suggest a kind of historical credibility that may or may not be intact. I think in terms of alternatives moving forward with these questions of standardization, of course they’re relevant. They’re relevant because they’re part of a climate, and we’re responding to that climate, whether it’s in a reactionary way or otherwise. What becomes more and more important as alternative schools move forward is that you better make sure that you’re viable. There has to be a reason that a Cory Doctorow (journalist and science fiction author and SEED grad) wants to come here, or a Sara Diamond (the president of OCAD, also a SEED graduate). Ultimately we were part of a process, at the end of which a very successful, capable member of a community emerged and became part of a larger community. That in itself is a kind of standardization. I don’t think you can say, “These people went to school here, and that makes it a good school.” I think the meaningful measure comes from us being aware of what the expectations are. We offer courses that operate at a certain level. There’s a route that people are on because they’re coming to this school, they know how we frame ourselves. We’d better have enough self-respect as educators, and have enough respect for the kids as educators, to make sure they’re in a position to be successful, or else shame on us, and then somebody should shut us down.
Ariel: I wanted to ask about things like social change and socially engaged design, and how you cultivate community, and how democracy plays out here. Those are all big questions that we could talk about for a long time, but I wonder if there’s anything that you want to add that we haven’t covered.
Pamila: We’re equity-driven. Our student body is very different from 1968. It looks different year to year, it changes a lot. There are a lot of different socioeconomic factors working. People come from as far as Malvern, Whitby, Jane and Finch, to people who live around the corner.
Bob: When we were on College Street we had SEED feasts occasionally, a couple times a year or more.
Liam: We still have SEED feasts.
Pamila: That’s the one thing we do that’s probably intact from the original school.
Ariel: A community potluck?
Liam and Pamila: And performance.
Bob: We used to have Monday general meetings. Those were open to everyone. The students would control the agenda if they chose to do so, and teachers would be asked to make a report. They didn’t always do it, but students in theory could chair the meeting, and important decisions were made. We used to smoke in school, and the Board started to crack down on that. No smoking in class, then no smoking in the lounge, then not in the building, then not even close to the building. There was a small piano room with a lock on it, and they would go in there to smoke, and they would deny it. This was an issue with the teachers and the students. We tried to stop them from smoking by taking off the door. There was a big outcry—“You have no right to do that,” “This is not something we discussed at the meeting,” and so on. They still clung to this desire to control the big decisions. I don’t know if that’s still the case. They really were committed to their community, their school, and the teachers were a big part of it, but it wasn’t the teachers’ school. I hope that’s still the sense that they have, because that was one of the strengths.
Liam: There’s moments where we have to claim our classrooms—despite the agendas we establish together. I’ll be in here with a class of thirty-five students, and five of them don’t have class, or they don’t feel like being in their other class. They’re welcome, to a point, and that point is when all of a sudden they’re undermining everything else that’s going on here.
I think the social piece is really important, a carryover from what’s going on culturally in the age, but it’s also part of a new mode of learning that I think we have to accept has become present, which is that we are undergoing a shift to democratic knowledge, away from the authoritative knowledge of old, about which Foucault and his crew said “who controls the knowledge controls the society.” We’ve always had people who have come forward with crazy theories about things, the conspiracy theorists or whoever want to air this stuff in class, and you say, “Okay, guys, how much time do you want to give this?” At this point there is no normalized knowledge for them. There’s no canonical knowledge.
Ariel: That’s a good note to end on—the end of canonical knowledge.