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Inglenook Community High School is an alternative school for students in grades 11 and 12, offering experiential, interdisciplinary learning in a progressive, family-like setting. A democratic community in which teachers, students, and parents take part in decision-making and debate, Inglenook is also an active part of the larger downtown Toronto community. Students engage with the community through the school’s Outreach program, which incorporates volunteer work into academic courses, and through an array of educational resources outside the school walls. Long known for its fine arts program, the school has turned out artists, musicians, politicians, and neuroscientists. Inglenook is located in the oldest continually operated school building in the Toronto District School Board, on the site of the home and business of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, who escaped slavery in Kentucky and made their way to Toronto via the Underground Railroad in 1834.

Ariel and Michael sat down with teachers and raconteurs Rob and Bob—Rob Rennick, who has been at Inglenook for an astonishing 38 years, and Bob Pritchard, who is now retired—and with Ravi Negi, one of the teachers charged with carrying Inglenook into the future. What follows is a mere fragment of our madcap 90-minute interview.

Ariel: Tell me how Inglenook got started.

Rob: The founders said, “Why don’t we just start a school?” They came from a food co-op. That was the fantastic thing about that early period—there were fewer restrictions. People were very excited to try different things that had never been tried before. It was just a group of people saying, “How are we going to do this? What are some of the rules?” It was kind of like you were on this boat, and you didn’t know where you were going, but you were trying to plan your adventure outwards. That was an exciting period. It was so exciting.

Bob: I think in the larger culture there was a kind of fluidity. I started in another alternative school called Contact, and it was very easy to do things. We bought an old school bus with our own money, and we took out about a third of the seats and put in mattresses, and went down to Florida, we went to New Orleans.

In Florida, these two older students said, “We want to stay and pick oranges,” and we said, “That sounds like a cool thing.” So they stayed. We left students in Florida. They’re dressed for Florida. When they’re done they start hitchhiking back to Canada, and of course it’s winter, and the farther north they go, it gets colder and colder. Finally they’re in a place where they probably could have frozen to death, and these nuns pick them up and drive them the rest of the way. Now, you take a trip to the museum, and teachers will say, [imitates a heavy, world-weary sigh], “Oh, we’ve got to go the ROM, we have to get on the streetcar.” Now, even if teachers bought a bus—

Rob: You would never be able to buy a bus now.

Bob: We did have a million dollars’ worth of insurance.

Rob: You could never do it now. At Inglenook we had the Ingle-Van. It was a van bought by the school, and for field trips we would just say, “O.K., pile in.” I remember we went to Quebec City for the first time, and the other staff said, “Can you drive?” That’s partially why I was hired, but I didn’t know how to drive stick shift. So I learned on the way. I stopped sometimes by plowing into a snowbank.

It was very experiential. It was a communal kind of thing. A student would say, “I have a friend in Montreal, we could stay at his house.” So we stopped there first. It wasn’t planned, but we’d stop there, have some food, and go on.

Bob: It was an amazing time. Like when I was at Contact, talk about poverty, there were kids who lived in Regent Park a public housing development, and they had never seen the Eaton Centre, a thirty-minute walk away. They lived in the ‘hood, and they didn’t feel they were accepted outside the ‘hood, and the next thing they know they’re in New Orleans.

Rob: So we still try to carry on that experiential learning. I mean we’ve gone to New York, we’ve tried different types of field trips to keep that tradition going. Even though it’s difficult now to fill out those forms, we still try to—

Bob: What is it, A, B, C, D, and E forms?

Rob: Yeah, I did a song about it, remember? 511C, 511D.

Rob: We also had a lot of different community events to keep the school together. One of them was music. We used to have coffeehouses where students and teachers could present poetry or play music. It was a way to make sure that people were connected. The first few years we had one almost every month.

Bob: Oh, we had so many. The kids would bring in their huge Traynor amps. They never had vehicles. We’d have to drive them home, two in the morning. They’d sleep all day, but of course we had to be at work the next day. Remember that? Those huge amps? I’d kill for one of those, actually.

The worst one was when the Director of Education came. She was the first woman Director of Education in Toronto. She was a total workaholic, and her reputation was that she could drink any man under the table. Her daughter came here, but she had a different name. Not that we should have treated her differently, but you can’t help it if you know it’s the Director’s daughter.

The student had a fabulous experience, and she went back and told her mother all about school. So then her mother says, “I’m going to come to a coffeehouse.” Usually when we had a coffeehouse, the parents would come for the first part, and people would play folk songs and read poetry. Then the parents would leave and you’d bring out the amps, punk stuff. Rob and I would always go on after the parents left.

Rob: We were the Postmodern Thieves.

Bob: Postmodern Thieves, our group. We did a lot of things with fire, we used chainsaws as a way of producing sound in our music. Actually the nails in the blender were pretty good. The Director came after the break, when most parents were already gone. Now Rob looked like Iggy Pop, and he had this t-shirt on, he’d attached all these bears to it, because we always used to throw things into the audience. So we go on, and the Director’s sitting there, and Rob is ripping these bears off of his shirt. He’d used superglue or something, so he’s ripping them off, and pieces of his t-shirt are coming off. He’s throwing the bears into the audience, and his nipples are showing. She leaves, and I say, “Well, it’s been a good run, we’ve had a good gig.” But the daughter was so happy here, that as the parent, what could the Director say?

Ariel: Rob, how long have you been here?

Rob: Started in ’76. 38 years. My parents knew about the school through the media. My sister was just sitting around at home, and they put her in the school. That year I was going to teachers’ college, I knew about Inglenook, and I said to myself, “I’m never going to go there.”

Bob: Forty years later!

Rob: After I graduated at U of T they said, “We have this newfangled thing, a computer that matches teachers to schools, private or public, put your name in.” So I was applying to different schools, and then all of a sudden I got this phone call, it was probably around June, there was this man saying, very officially, “I think we’ve found a match for you.”

Bob: You were matched by a computer!?

Rob: Yes!

Bob: That explains so much! Oh my god! I never knew that!

Rob: They said, “The school’s called Inglenook. Do you know about it?” I thought, “Inglenook?!” I knew the person here who was the Curriculum Leader, and I went for the interview and he said, “The Geography teacher is leaving, could you fill his place, etcetera, etcetera.” But at the same time, my sister was having her sweet sixteen party at my parents’ house. All these students from Inglenook come. I’m cutting up watermelon, doing this and that, doing all this community work. People eventually fall asleep, they stay overnight, I make scrambled eggs for them in the morning. A few days later the hiring committee at Inglenook phones up, and they say, “I think you’re the person for the school.” And that’s how I got the job, by making scrambled eggs and cutting watermelon.

Bob: That explains so much.

Rob: I talked in the interview about differentiated learning, this and that, but no!

Bob: [To Rob] When did I start? He knows my dates better than I do.

Rob: ‘78

Bob: ‘78 at Inglenook, so ‘76 at Contact. I went to this interview at Forest Hill, and it was like a bank interview, the principal was there, the V.P., the head of English was there, they all had suits and ties on. I probably got dressed up to some extent. They asked their questions, and I felt so alienated. My Master’s degree came up, and I knew at the time that it was something that was pretty rare for teachers. One of them said, “You people with Masters’ are a dime a dozen.” I thought, “That’s a very supportive thing to say!” It was very upper-middle-class. We go in the art room, the male art teacher’s got this long hair. I thought, “This is so interesting.” The place had a very corporate bank kind of feel, but if you’re the art teacher you’re either expected or allowed to dress in a different way. I went to a number of these interviews. Someone at the Faculty did a presentation on alternatives, and I was very interested. There weren’t very many, so people hadn’t heard of them. Contact was one of the first.

When I interviewed at Contact, there were students on the panel. It had the feel of a town hall meeting, it was very democratic. But it was very working class, even welfare class. There were kids from Regent Park whose families had been on welfare for several generations. I tried to play my interview pretty straight, and then somebody said something about change, and I said, “Come the revolution,” and I think that’s what clinched the interview. I was there for two years, and then I came to Inglenook.

I’m the straight man. When the Board sent a safety inspector to the school, Rob’s making eyes and doing all kinds of funny stuff behind this guy, and I thought I’d better be the straight person.

Rob: He was this Board official who was very fearful about the school catching on fire. He’d come and look at the art posted on the walls and say, “Take that paper down, some student could light it with a match.” Then when he went into the art room, we’re doing these kind of abstract pieces, like Malievitch, on the windows, and he says, “That’s going to implode on you.” I said, “How’s it going to implode?” He says, “The heat from the outside’s going to heat up the inside and it’s going to implode.” I said, “What about all the churches in Europe? The cathedrals that have had painted windows for 700 years?”

Bob: The worst insult was, he said we had to scrape all the windows clean, and we had to buy all the scrapers ourselves. There was no Board money for scrapers.

Rob: I can’t be the straight guy. I was arrested at the school for carrying a prohibited weapon.

Michael: Paint, presumably?

Rob: We had been down to New York City, and that was during the punk times, so I had bought some jewellery. At that time there was an artist, Grace Jones, she had come to Toronto and she was arrested at the Toronto airport in 1983 for carrying a bracelet with one-inch spikes that she’d used in a video. The bracelet was confiscated as a prohibited weapon. We had a function at the school, and I said I’d go down to Becker’s corner store to get some cream for the coffee. Just before I got to Parliament St. this brown car came up beside me. The driver stuck out his head, I thought he was going to ask for directions, but all of a sudden he gets out of the car, grabs my hand, puts me in handcuffs, shoves me in the back of the car, and drives me to the police station.

Bob: He had one of those spiked bracelets. So we said, “Where’s Rob?” and someone said, “He went to get the cream.” I said, “Well, where is he?” They said, “He’s been arrested.” He just goes to get the cream, and he’s arrested! And it ‘s a weapons charge, too, which is serious.

Rob: It’s the same charge as an Uzi machine gun!

Bob: That directive had come down to the police because of Grace Jones.

Rob: I went through three different types of courts. At the end the judge said, “You’re guilty of this crime. Go and see your probation officer.” So I went downstairs into the corridors of City Hall, open the door, and there’s this young woman there, and she has this dark clothing and kind of interesting jewellery. I said, “You have interesting jewellery.” She said, “I was just in Britain.” I said, “Oh, yeah, what were you doing there?” She said, “Well, do you know anything about punk? My son’s in a punk band, so I had to buy all this stuff for him, including all his jewellery.” I said, “That’s what I was arrested for!” She said, “You don’t have to do probation.” But on my record I have this charge. So every time we went to Buffalo — we used to go to the Albright-Knox—Bob was always the front man at the front of the bus, so when the security came in with their guns and dogs, he would be there to explain everything.

Ariel: Ravi, how did you come to Inglenook?

Ravi: This is my third alternative school. I’d known of Inglenook by reputation. Irene, whom I replaced, she’d been teaching here for 22 years. Her concern was, “We don’t want people coming into the building or the staff not really knowing what the place is all about, not really having alternative pedagogy and philosophy.” Even though she was ending her teaching career, she was still focused on the community, what sort of people were coming into the community, and whether they could sustain it. When you come here, you see that there’s no other place like it. This feels like home. There’s a level of comfort I have in trying out different things and making them work. When I came here, it was where I wanted to be in terms of holistic education and trying out different things pedagogically.

Bob: The other good thing, too, is he’s a math-science person, and our experience has been that it’s very difficult to get alternative math-science people. In the arts, it seems easier to find people who are attuned to the alternative philosophy. Kids used to come to visit and they’d say, “Oh, my parents don’t want me to come here.” I’d say, “Fail a few courses at your regular school, tell them you’re going to drop out of school, then come here instead. They’ll be happy to have you come here.” That worked many times. I think a lot of people graduated who never would have finished high school. A lot of students who come here are more creative. They don’t want a course that’s textbook-driven. You go into a mainstream school, and it is a different kind of culture. If you’re not a jock, or you don’t fit into a certain kind of group, then—

Rob: You’re ostracized.

Bob: Yeah. And over the years we’ve had many gay and lesbian students because, sadly, they were really hassled in regular schools. They came here and it was very comfortable. Remember that controversy about the student at a mainstream Toronto high school who pushed to bring his boyfriend to the prom?

Rob: Was that ten years ago?

Bob: Yeah, ten years ago. But I remember twenty years before that, there was a gay student here, George, he brought his boyfriend to the grad. George was George, he brought his boyfriend, and that was it. And then twenty years on it becomes a huge media event when the same thing happens in a mainstream high school.

Ariel: Tell me about your philosophies of education and your approaches to pedagogy.

Rob: I didn’t want to be a teacher when I started out. When I was a younger kid, coming out of high school, I had the opportunity to go across Canada, to hitchhike. It was around 1970, it was a fantastic period, lots of hitchhikers and freethinkers. I went to a lot of different hostels, helping out, and I really enjoyed that. Then I went to university for Geography, and I didn’t really enjoy it. Went to India, of course, and then I thought, “Well, maybe I can transfer some skills.” So what I actually wanted to do when I started teaching was not so much about pedagogical skills, but it was about working with some kind of community that would help people explore what they wanted to do, and would create an environment where it would be safe for them to do that. That was my approach when I came in, and I still hold on to that as much as I can.

Bob: Well, you were at York when it was an alternative university.

Rob: Yeah, wasn’t it William Irwin Thompson, that philosopher king? I took some courses with him. [Thompson was a former M.I.T. professor who resigned and came to Canada during the war in Vietnam, and later left academia to found alternative university the Lindisfarne Association, which attracted the some of the greatest thinkers of the time.]

Bob: Yeah, I loved his writing, the guy’s a real wordsmith. I had the misfortune of going to U of T, and not to York.

Rob: But you had McLuhan. He was taught by Marshall McLuhan.

Bob: I had McLuhan. He had an enormous influence on me. You know, his idea was that education was an industrial model, it was very much like a factory, and I come from a working-class background, so my family all worked in factories, I worked in factories in the summer. It is a metaphor, but it did seem like education was like that—people come in, they do certain pre-assigned tasks—ideally the product comes out the same. It seemed like the world was changing, that you needed people to be more creative.

I think what really interested me in teaching was I had some teachers in high school, people who were more like academics. They were very interested in ideas. In terms of pedagogy I like the definition that ‘pedagogy is everything that happens in a school.’ It’s not just the courses you teach, but it’s how you interact with other teachers, with the caretakers, with the community. All of that is a kind of pedagogy. It’s teaching you things about yourself, about the world, about other people. Even in a traditional high school—I’m not dissing them, I know lots of people in traditional schools, and I know for some students it’s a great experience—but at the lowest is the caretaker. You never would talk to a caretaker. Then there’s the teachers, the principal, the admin. It’s so hierarchical, it’s not particularly inclusive. That never really appealed to me. When I came to Inglenook, it was very freeing. We were one of the first schools to do a film studies course. We were the first high school in the Board to teach philosophy. Amazingly enough, students really liked the course, because it dealt with a lot of questions that adolescents are dealing with. “Who am I? Where do I fit into the community? What’s the meaning of life?”

I think the truth is that alternatives pioneered a lot of things that became more mainstream. At one time we were fairly far out there and radical, but now a lot of the other schools have caught up, so if we continue to do the same thing, we’re perceived as almost a mainstream school. So you need to go to the next level. What else can you do that’s a little more radical? If you have a revolutionary school, and the so-called charismatic leaders leave, how do you maintain it? How do you continue the revolution? That’s been a real problem in the alternative schools. How do you keep a school going for forty years or more? It takes a lot of work. People say ‘community high school,’ but every day you have to work to make it a community.

Rob: In relational schools—because that’s what you’re doing, you’re building relationships—I think it’s more difficult now because parents are looking for schools that are going to give some kind of direct skill to the child. Alternative schools have to compete against schools like that. Here, the skills that students learn are a little more difficult to see. Schools have changed and become very specialized—there’s arts schools, science schools, drama schools that focus on direct skills—but the idea of a relational school where kids are learning how to get along with a variety of people in a community context, even though that’s an extremely valuable and transferable skill, is harder for parents to understand.

Michael: Is ‘relational school’ the term that’s starting to replace ‘alternative school?’

Rob: I brought it up because there’s a fine arts practice called relational art. The artist is seen as a creative catalyst who is part of a community, rather than as an isolated creator. Inglenook is the same way.

Bob: Being a student here can really free you up to think about new things. Kevin Hearn of Barenaked Ladies was totally influenced by Rob, and he’s admitted that. Rob would come into a coffeehouse, sit at the piano, and sing a song about his lawn, or about the bank, and no one was doing those things at the time. Remember at Luminato they did that thing with artificial turf? Where did that artist go to school? He went here. We were doing AstroTurf thirty years ago.

I don’t think you need to come to a school to get information. There’s too much information in the environment. So why do you come to school? To critique that information, to play with it. You’re interested in music, so you come to a teacher and ask, “What’s the relationship between math and music?” Well actually there’s a lot, so let’s explore it. We always try to promote interdisciplinary work.

Rob: But the orientation of the Board is really about credits.

Bob: [Cries out in exasperation] Aaaugh!

Rob: At Inglenook, some students never graduated. The idea that you’d go to school for yourself, though you might not pass or graduate, the Board doesn’t accept that at all.

Ariel: I feel like those are the two opposing forces in education right now—they’ve probably always existed—the tension between experiential learning, learning how to learn, on the one hand, and learning to pass tests and accumulate credits, on the other.

Bob: And it’s become worse.

Ariel: Testing has become a huge industry worth billions of dollars. It puts kids without class and race privilege at a huge disadvantage.

Bob: You’re right, there’s always been that tension in education. The fact that you can have an evangelist as your Prime Minister—the changes he’s made in Canada are phenomenal. Crush the unions, destroy the public service, destroy the CBC. Schools and students necessarily respond to that extreme conservatism, they come out of that political environment, and when we tell the students stories from the past, they can’t believe that we had such freedom. There were teachers who started and ended their careers under much hated right-wing Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Harris cracked down on educational freedoms; instituted mandatory standardized testing; and slashed provincial spending on education. Many teachers left teaching because of Harris. This school during the Harris years was a real problem because we have big hallways, and according to the new draconian funding formula for schools you had to have a certain number of students per square foot, otherwise your school was in danger of being shut down.

Rob: Per square foot!

Bob: So we took masking tape and taped out an area in the hallway, figured out how many students had to be standing there, then had students stand in that area while we took pictures to prove we were using the space.

Rob: The first Ontario Grade 10 standardized literacy test was stolen from this school in 2001. They had to replace it. Thirteen million dollars it cost them. We were investigated, we went to court. We were in court for a week.

Bob: They never told us it was here!

Rob: They never told us. It was delivered in a plastic container and placed on the secretary’s desk. The next day I had a phone call from our principal, saying, “Rob, where’s the tests?” I said, “I don’t have any tests.” I went to the secretary, who said, “I don’t know where the tests are.”

Bob: It was kind of an issue of moral turpitude, but the truth is, it was kind of like ‘Who’s on First?’ because they tried to blame the secretary—was that Paul?

Rob: Yeah. And the caretaker.

Bob: The poor caretaker. But people really knew nothing about it. There was no security. I didn’t know they’d come into the school.

Bob: It was a huge financial loss because after it was stolen OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, leaked the test online. The government had to pay people to develop it, and to vet it, and on and on. It sounds like a lot of money, but when you look at it—it was meant for 260,000 grade 10 students across the province.

Rob: Some people from outside the community said, “That literacy test is a bunch of crap.” Those people were patting us on the back. Then the Board members and the principal were saying, “Oh, Rob, this is the worst thing for your school, your school’s going to disappear.” We wanted to have t-shirts made, ‘$13 million’ with a question mark.

Bob: I’m not suggesting in any way that the Board are fascists, but I think people there are inclined that way. They never have a sense of humor. If you put something like that on a t-shirt, they go into a moral panic. They don’t see that it’s tongue-in-cheek, or that there’s a sense of irony. The poor teachers that started under Harris, they didn’t know what they were missing, but when they saw how bad things were a huge number of them left.

Rob: They had breakdowns, many of them.

Bob: They couldn’t stand the pressure. The Harris administration was always attacking teachers in the media, they were so negative about teachers. But we could remember the golden age, and we knew that we would probably outlive Mike Harris, which fortunately we did.

Rob: We celebrated with a cake. The day he left office, we had a cake.

Ariel: Ravi, tell me about how the new generation of teachers is moving Inglenook forward.

Ravi: One of the biggest challenges we face is the set of metrics that the Board has in terms of defining and measuring success. In terms of what parents want, and in terms of kids graduating with skills, how do you make a place for students to find themselves? How do you create a community environment that makes people feel safe, that allows them to challenge conventional ideas of what society says they have to be? How do you do that while having fun? That’s harder and harder to do.

Bob: The good thing about Ravi—it sounds terrible to say—even though he’s a math-science person, he’s extraordinarily articulate. You need to be able to communicate, and to take part in the Board discourse, so when Ravi talks about pedagogy and community, he can also use a word like ‘metrics’, so Board officials know he understands them. Whereas if you come across as a spaced-out hippie—

Rob: That’s why I can’t do it.

Ravi: We’re living in this climate where if you don’t justify what you do with credit accumulation or other tangible measurements, people at the Board who haven’t been to the school and don’t necessarily understand what it is you’re trying to do, they say, “This is unsustainable.” We have to respond by explaining what it is we’re trying to create. Once administrative stakeholders come into the building, they start to understand our model.

A big part of what we believe in is making stuff happen in the spaces in between the curriculum requirements. A lot of effort goes into meeting so many requirements for so many people. We could be sitting down and talking with students at a school coffeehouse, which is one of those sorts of things that has a lot of meaning for our students—but does that provide meaningful information for other stakeholders about what we do?

Bob: They like that expression ‘data-driven.’ They want data, and there’s a lot we do that you can’t quantify. As teachers we used to personally phone students who were absent. There was one student who had been in our school, and she stopped coming. I remember phoning her and saying, “How are you doing? We’re really concerned about you. Why don’t you drop by? If you don’t want to come by, that’s fine, but we’re concerned.” Years later that student said that one phone call changed her life. It was the fact that a person would call and ask, “How are you?” and not “Why the hell aren’t you in school?!” She came back and got her credits and finished school. But how do you quantify that? How do you measure the impact? Whereas credits are so obvious, you either have the credit or you don’t have the credit. Rob is right, in the past, people said, “Oh, I don’t care about credits, I don’t care about graduating, I’m going to go live on a commune in Mexico.” They had a different vision, whereas now, I think you could probably still get into university without credits—but it would be more difficult, and you’d have to somehow prove your exceptionality. I think it’s much more difficult to be a teacher now, I think it truly is.

Ravi: It’s definitely helpful when people understand what it is you’re doing. You need to have the vocabulary to convey to people what it is you’re doing and get them on your side.

Bob: It’s constructing a certain narrative that they can buy into.

Rob: It’s an atmosphere, so it’s nebulous. [To Michael]: When you walked in, now you’re an alternative person, but you had a very positive response.

Michael [to Ariel]: Like you said, it felt immediately like home.

Bob: It’s a certain feeling. You go into a room, and there’s couches, and people are hanging out and talking. Or yesterday on our field trip, we went to a pizza place, and both of the wait staff said to me as we were leaving, “These students are so wonderful, they were so polite and considerate.” I thought, that’s good, because one of the values of Inglenook is respect for this community and the world at large. If you’re part of a community you want to give back to the community, be involved in the community.

There’s all these fun stories, but there’s also the wins, all the former students who say, “If I didn’t go to your school, I would never have finished high school, I wouldn’t be where I am.” Then we got to the point where some former students were bringing their sons and daughters here.

Ariel: That’s happening at ALPHA, too.

Bob: Which is pretty amazing. We get together for dinners with former students, and they’ll say things like, “Oh, Bob, you love organizing parties, I’m turning fifty next year—will you organize my party?” And I’m like, “How can you be fifty when I’m fifty-two?” The reunions are mind-boggling, because there’ll be students from the present, and there will be a student from forty years ago, and they’re all in the same time-space continuum.

Inglenook Community High School teachers past and present

Interviewed on Nov. 27, 2013