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Oasis Skateboard Factory is a groundbreaking re-engagement program within the Toronto public school system. The program offers at-risk youth involved in skateboarding and street art the chance to excel in school—often for the first time—by learning to run a cooperative design business. Skateboard Factory turns an extracurricular interest in urban culture into a catalyst for applied learning: students earn high school credits by designing, building, and marketing their own skateboards and creating skateboarding zines. Community collaboration is at the centre of the program: Skateboard Factory students forge connections with community partners like the AGO and local businesses while developing and applying real world entrepreneurial skills. The program was created with resources that already existed within the public school system, and it offers an example of the latitude for creativity available to teachers with passion, imagination, and hustle.

The program, piloted by award-winning teacher Craig Morrison in downtown Toronto in 2006 as part of his Arts and Social Change Program at Oasis Alternative Secondary School, expanded into its own space at Scadding Court Community Centre in 2009, where it is thriving. The Skateboard Factory model has caught on across the country and around the world: the program’s workshops for educators are in high demand internationally, and Skateboard Factory was featured in the media 70 times in its first 41 months.

Alternative school graduates Ariel Fielding and Michael Barker sat down to talk with Craig and his co-teacher Lauren Hortie about the role of alternative school teachers as leaders and innovators in the larger educational community, the effectiveness of object-based learning, and the importance of developing real world skills, experience, and connections before leaving high school.

Ariel: Skateboard Factory is an awesomely innovative program, incorporating ideas about creativity, engagement, community building, connectedness, social change, equality, respect for every person, and democratic decision-making. All of these elements have been part of alternative education in the Toronto public school system for more than forty years now, but you’ve made them coalesce in a new way with real world applications and a social enterprise spin. Why do you think this was the right time and place for your idea, and what made the Toronto District School Board and the larger community receptive to and supportive of the program?

Teacher Craig Morrison at Oasis Skateboard FactoryCraig: It’s always been the right time for engaging youth with their own interests. That’s something that alternative schools have a long history of being good at, and what all schools should be doing, which is starting from where students are at. Here they’re being engaged by things like skateboarding and graffiti, which is potentially something that has caused conflict with adults, or that they’ve been marginally criminalized for, but we’re using that as a starting point. There’s always been that moment—it’s always been possible to connect to kids the way we do at Skateboard Factory.

Skateboarding is a multi-billion dollar industry. Until Ted Hunter from the Ontario College of Art and Design started his Roarockit method of building skateboards, which is do-it-yourself, kids were being told you had to buy a skateboard from California, which has a huge carbon footprint: Canadian wood, shipped to China, shipped to California to be branded, and then shipped back to the kids here in Canada. So there’s a revolution happening in do-it-yourself board building. It’s also a moment where things like graffiti and skateboarding aren’t really marginal activities. Every art director we’ve worked with in the ad agencies down on King Street has roots in graffiti or an understanding of street art. We’re just acknowledging that these things that we love to do are actually legitimate ways for kids to connect—connect to learning but also connect to the world, and to what’s happening in the world of design.

Teacher Lauren Hortie at Oasis Skateboard FactoryLauren: So much of teaching is trying to convince kids that they should care about something, but here we’re at a huge advantage because we don’t have to convince them of anything. They already care, and they’re really passionate about these activities, because these are things that they’ve had to pursue on their own. They’ve had to develop independence and initiative. As far as timing, I think the fact that we’re offering kids entrepreneurial skills is really appealing right now, given some of the grim realities of the job market. Also, you used to be able to drop out of school when you were sixteen, and now you have to stick it out until you’re eighteen. A lot of kids don’t want to be in school, they want to be out in the world and they want to be actualized human beings. Skateboard Factory gives them skills for the reality outside of the classroom, and we let them out, we don’t keep them locked up. They’re dealing with adults, they’re producing stuff that people outside of the school see and think is cool, which is a huge ego boost. That leads to our success, which is also why the school board supports us, because we can brag that we have incredibly high credit accumulation. Last semester we had every student gain every credit.

Craig: We’ve had two years in a row where we’ve had a 100% achievement rate, which you know for alternative [secondary] schools is astronomical. At Skateboard Factory we are really about products. Alternative schools have always been really great at talking about the process of learning, but in this program you learn through an object. You’re learning through the skateboard how the skateboard connects to the world, in every subject, in every idea. To have an object you need to have deadlines; it’s that real world application which hasn’t yet fully caught on in the mainstream model of schooling. We hate the idea that you’re going to school to learn to do something that you won’t actually do until sometime in the future. We’re really ambitious. We’re not following a mainstream model, putting up art in the school auditorium. We’re doing shows at the Gladstone and the AGO, and we did a pop-up shop in New York City. We go for it. We have such high expectations, and the kids are challenged by that, but we provide them with the support they need to be successful.

Ariel: Tell me about your philosophies of education and your approaches to pedagogy, and how they have changed over time with the experience of working at Skateboard Factory.

Lauren: I’ve been teaching for five years. I did one year teaching in an academic grade twelve school, which I really enjoyed, and I came with this philosophy that if the material was interesting, then the students would be interested. I went from that school to teaching at-risk youth, kids who were eighteen and in grade nine, and my philosophy went out the window. My feeling over time has changed, so that it’s not about whether the material is interesting, but it’s whether the process is interesting. It can’t just be about the content, it has to be about the form, and the way that it’s delivered, and the meaningfulness of it. Just because I like to read the Guardian, it doesn’t mean that children are going to find it fascinating.

Craig and I have a lot in common: I work as an artist outside of school. I was always really into art, but there was no way I was going to pursue a career in art, because I didn’t feel that I was that talented, and I just didn’t think that there was an option for that. So I went to university, did my degree, did a lot of social justice work at school, but then I always kept doing art on my own terms anyways, and making my own projects, and then eventually I found that the skills that I was using in teaching were from hustling as a d.j. or an illustrator or putting on shows. I used those skills way more for my first jobs out of university than anything I learned in my degree, no offense to Queen’s University [laughs]. That influenced my pedagogy, because you know that you’re going to be more interested and excited in things that you like outside of school. To bring that stuff into the classroom is a real pleasure and it’s a real privilege as something you get to do in alternative schools. I feel like that compartmentalization of what’s academic and what’s a hobby—those lines started to blur, and that really influenced my pedagogy, and I brought that mix into the classroom.

Craig: For me, it’s not even a question of education anymore, it’s a question of design. Ultimately if you’re not designing, then someone’s designing for you. With the kids at Skateboard Factory, I want them to design their life and design their world. I did that too. I started the Arts and Social Change program at Oasis based on a degree I made up myself at my university in San Francisco. I think a lot of what the students get from us here is that we’re mentoring them in how to design what they want to do in life.

One of my activities as a designer is designing an environment for learning. My time at Skateboard Factory has really changed things, because I’ve gotten away from the idea of education. What we should be doing is everything else in the world that informs education. I agree with Lauren—I think we have to engage in authentic process. If a student comes here, we’re taking five hours of their day, and often in my previous teaching experiences it was hard to see what came out of that. I’m not saying that everything has to be a product, but for at-risk youth, that product allows opportunity for engagement. If you’re without a product, you don’t have a feedback loop. So if you have all these kids in your class who never finish projects, they’ve never gotten feedback, then they never get the good feeling of seeing something through, being successful—and we know that success breeds success. I’ve learned that the product is really friggin’ important. That’s what I’ve learned over my career. We’ve got to think about what we’re making together. This model is transferable to any school context.

I went to high school in the early eighties, so we had the punk rock thing. We infuse what we’re doing at Skateboard Factory with that attitude. These kids engage in DIY, but at the same time they’re being mentored by experts. That allows our youth here to make connections to people. I had a student who said, “The best thing I learned here was how to talk to people. If you want to do something, you just ask, and 90 percent of the time they’ll be supportive, and it turns into something.” It’s not really about the skateboards; the skateboards are just a vehicle for learning. Schools need to engage the kids in stuff they’re excited about. There’s tons of potential—the model that we have created is definitely a transferable model.

Building the school around skateboarding and graffiti means there’s buy-in from our students. Students who have never attended school regularly or got credits before buy into our mission. The students take on this program, they promote it, they’re very serious about it.

Lauren: Our students were Artists in Residence at the AGO all last year, and they will be again this fall in the after school program. That’s their official title, and I have to make them put that on their resumé. They say, “Are you kidding?” I have to say, “No, that’s what they call you, that’s your job description.”

Craig: In the mainstream model, whether a kid shows up every day doesn’t matter, that school’s still friggin’ there. If these students aren’t successful, Skateboard Factory isn’t here. They buy into that right away—their success is the success of all of us here, and our business is successful because we’re all hustling and doing that work together. That’s a different kind of model. They know they’re part of the success of this school, and it matters that they’re here every day, when they never showed up for school on a regular basis before. They really feel part of Skateboard Factory’s mission. I have the most respect for the alternative school model of education, but it’s not a model that embraces competition, and that’s the reality now. I feel like I’m running a more true alternative school here than ever before. We have a lot of freedom, but the flip side of freedom is responsibility—another anarchist, punk rock concept. We’re very responsible, we’re very accountable, everything’s very transparent, we have calendars every day so parents see what their kids are doing. We’re aware that that’s the world we’re in.

Lauren: It’s not really a coincidence that we teach the kids marketing and promotion, and again that DIY philosophy. I give them Riot Grrrl lessons: “Tell everyone it exists, and it will become so.” That gives us a huge advantage in terms of getting great publicity and getting approval from the school board—it’s the hustle.

Craig: That’s why everyone’s embraced us, the skateboard community, but also the art and design community. We have so many partnerships and projects on the go. People want to work with our students—they remember how high school sucked, and they pick up that we’re connecting to the real stuff, and they just wish they could have gone to a high school like Skateboard Factory.

Ariel: In public education in North America, especially in the United States, alternative secondary schools are often set up and perceived as a dumping ground for alienated students. How is Oasis Skateboard Factory different?

Craig: Well, we love the misfits. We know that the people who are considered the most successful in our society in a mainstream way are misfits—Bill Gates, people who didn’t graduate from college. The whole idea of the misfit—we definitely acknowledge that that’s an asset to us. We want to assemble a student design team here that is quirky and unique and can respond to every challenge that comes our way. Alternative schools have always been champions of the kid who’s the square peg trying to fit into the round hole.

Lauren: One of my favourite memories of Skateboard Factory is a trip where we took seventeen seventeen-year-olds to New York City for a week, and they all came back alive. No missing limbs—some shredded knees from skateboarding—

Craig: We did a pop-up shop in New York City, it was amazing.

Lauren: As we were driving through Rochester or someplace in New York State, we got off the bus in the middle of the night at this rest stop, and the kids all piled out of the bus. This youngish guy with tattoos was working at the cash, and he’s like, “Is that a school?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s my school.” And he’s like, “That’s the gnarliest looking school I’ve ever seen!” I kind of forget sometimes—I look over and see the kids with their raver pants and tattoos and hoodies up, and it’s like “Oh, yeah, I guess that is pretty gnarly looking.”

Craig: ‘Alternative school’ in the States is basically a code word for reform school—which is why so many of them have turned away from calling themselves alternative schools now—they’re all democratic schools or whatever. Here we don’t worry too much about how we’re categorized. Our job is to shine the spotlight on these kids. That’s what we’re good at. We use media exposure as an educational tool for these kids. They learn how to promote the positive aspects of themselves.

Lauren: All of a sudden they’re the honour roll students.

Craig: We’ve got students that get A’s for the first time in their life and their parents come to the art show and all of a sudden they’re proud of their kids. I feel like the biggest thing we offer is—we offer parents a way to reconnect to their kids. It’s not easy to connect to teenagers. We offer a really good opportunity for these kids to connect to adults.

Ariel: I’ve done a lot of work with kids with learning challenges. Very few of them have ever been told, “Hey, you’re really smart,” or “Hey, you did a really good job on that.” I think that connection to and validation from adults is a lot more important than is often acknowledged.

Lauren: Definitely. There was that really morbid cover of the Sun yesterday: on the first day of school some poor girl was hit and killed by a truck. The headline was “Straight-A Student Killed in Traffic Accident.” There’s no ‘B-Plus Student’ in the headlines. What other virtues do these kids have? They have lots, but are they recognized?

Craig: Our job is to recognize the virtues of kids who have been alienated from school and to find how they can achieve the expectations in the curriculum. Their job is to be engaged and to come every day and to help us design projects that are really interesting to them and important in the world.

Ariel: Alternative school pioneer A.S. Neill believed that the ultimate purpose of mainstream education was to inculcate fear and conformity. Skateboard Factory seems to offer instead the chance to develop character and confidence. What do you do here that makes formerly alienated kids glad to come to school?

Craig: Can I tell you our mission statement, our values? [Reads from list posted prominently on wall]. We value creativity; social responsibility—all alternative schools say they’re into social responsibility, right? [everyone laughs]; professionalism—that’s something that people don’t really talk about, what does it mean to be professional?—and fun.

Lauren: The central project that students work on throughout the year, other than working with clients and dealing with adults, is that they develop their own personal brand. They do t-shirts, buttons, stickers, skateboards, and so they create this brand that’s based around their interests, around their personality. They find ways to bridge their interests, project them onto the world and get other people interested in them. Within that project they are the main character in a story. In consumerist culture, so much of what youth are taught is the importance of conformity. In mainstream models of education, kids are supposed to be very passive. So the idea that kids can make stuff that’s just as good as, or maybe even more interesting than the stuff that’s fed to them all the time, I think that’s really empowering. Not to say that everything should be about hustling and selling and creating brands, but—

Craig: People see that we’re teaching marketing, we’re making products, and they say, “Oh, that’s about [reinforcing] consumerism.” I say we’re doing the opposite, we’re having these kids become the producers, not the consumers, and we’re critiquing consumerism. It wasn’t like there was a market for youth-designed skateboards before we started this program. These kids, with us, have created that market for themselves. They’re becoming the producers.

Lauren: The producers of culture, again that DIY ethos.

Craig: I think it’s no surprise, when we go back to your question about why this is a moment when we’re popular and supported, it’s because we teach business. Honestly, I could never have imagined that I’d be a business teacher. I frickin’ hate business. But we had to engage with that here. When we work with a community partner, we’re also looking into what they’re doing and providing feedback to them. These kids are talking to Bamboo Skateboards in California about their use of sustainable materials, but at the same time they’re asking, “At what level is this sustainable? At what level is this greenwashing?” Unless you jump into that fray—I think a lot of alternative schools are a little bit shy to examine these areas—it’s easy to say, “Oh, you’re dealing with consumerism, you’re just reinforcing those values.” Well, actually, we’re critiquing those values. We’re participating in that culture, but we’re critiquing it as we’re doing it. The most important thing is that the kids get to decide for themselves what that means.

Ariel: That’s a huge part of the educational disconnect that you talked about earlier. Studying business can connect kids to the real world. Most schools—within and outside the mainstream—expect students to learn business skills and job skills on their own after they graduate.

Craig: Students aren’t necessarily going to be satisfied being the employee of someone else, even if they can get that job. Our project-based work, that’s really more in keeping with the kind of world these kids are entering. We feel like we’re really beyond the curriculum expectations. We focus a lot on the learning skills. Our students get marked every day on professionalism. That includes being on time, being on task, meeting your daily goals, as well as teamwork and leadership and all of those things, which are preparing them for real life. It’s funny that on your report card, you get a mark for meeting the curriculum expectations, but for learning skills, which are the things that are going to help you to be successful in the world, there’s just enough space for a little comment. I think that’s all part of this moment we’re in where people see what we’re doing and they support it, because it’s such a grim reality out there, and they see that at least we’re trying to address that.

Ariel: Tell me more about social justice and social change, and how they are put into practice here.

Craig: A big question we pose to the students here, which is the question I had starting the program, is, “How can skateboarding change the world? What does that mean? Is that possible?” It’s like a research question, it’s something we’re always exploring here.

Lauren: The central thesis.

Craig: We’ve used the skateboards as an engagement tool for girls—and first of all, engaging girls in skateboarding is already a radical shift: when we started this program was all dudes, and now it’s half girls—getting girls forefronted in skateboarding and graffiti we feel is an important thing. Also our girls mentor middle school girls, so they’re passing it along. Our students are teaching workshops, passing their skills to other youth. We also try to work with companies that have good values. When you choose a client to work with on a skateboard, say you want to work with a coffee company. Do you want to work with a big corporate coffee company, or, hey, in Toronto there’s all these indie coffee companies, and there are a lot of young people who run those businesses. Working with a client is not just a transaction, it’s an encounter. Our students get to meet other young entrepreneurs who are at the next step—they make a connection, they can see themselves past here, past high school. That’s where social change sneaks in—“Who are you going to work with? What are their values?”

Lauren: The element of social justice is important to us: involving young women is not something that happens on its own. It’s not like, “Oh, this is going to change eventually.” It’s not, so we have to change it.

Craig: There’s no girls in skateboarding magazines, or very few.

Lauren: It’s pretty awful, actually. There can be a pretty macho, alpha-male attitude in skateboarding, so we really try to address it. We say, “Ok, so we’re idolizing these people. Why?” There’s also something to be said for letting these kids focus on a trade. We’re developing hands-on skills. In my own high school experience, the people who did auto shop or wood shop were boys who were seen as dumb. There’s a huge class element with people who aren’t successful in school and who are sort of expected to pick up the crumbs. Whereas we’re working with these kids and saying that something that’s hands-on can be just as valuable and just as thoughtful. It involves just as much philosophy or intent behind it as writing a paper. We’re reframing hands-on skills so that they’re not just a working class characteristic.

Craig: Teaching can be kind of a grim landscape right now. The good thing about being a teacher in an alternative school is that we get the opportunity not just to teach our class—we get to shape the overall environment. A lot of young teachers don’t know how they would ever create something [new] within the system. They absorb the idea that they’re not agents of change. We take lots of interns and we promote that sense of agency, so that people feel like they can shape the system. Lauren and I have to shape our environment every day or this school wouldn’t exist. We feel fortunate that we’re in the TDSB where they allow that to happen. I think it can be hard for systems to provide that space for people. Alternative schools have always been an unacknowledged source of research and development for the mainstream. We’re actually the innovative programs, so people might want to look at those innovations. It’s no surprise that mainstream schools have lots of what we would have previously identified as alternative practices. What’s the role of alternative schools? Our role is to be the innovators. We have to be sites of innovation and foresight. We can’t be looking to the past, at how things were done in the sixties and seventies. We need to see what we can be doing as agents to change the system now.

Ariel: I think the role of alternative schools as innovators is a perpetual role. If you look at the beginnings of SEED in Toronto in 1968, that program was the Skateboard Factory of its day. There was a widespread sense of excitement about the work they were doing, offering high school students the opportunity to design and direct their own education based on their own interests and their own sense of what was relevant in the world. Skateboard Factory has generated the same kind of excitement many years later by creating a new educational model that is relevant to the world we live in, a world where large mainstream institutions still can’t necessarily be flexible and responsive enough to keep up with the realities of everyday life.

Craig: We talk about intentional communities all the time. An alternative school I think should be an intentional community.

Lauren: I think one of the reasons that Skateboard Factory is successful is that we’re not in a school building right now. We meet in a community centre. This doesn’t really look like a classroom. That comforts the kids who have had traumatic experiences in mainstream schools. There’s no bell. We do not sing the national anthem.

Craig: You don’t get in trouble and go to the principal’s office.

Lauren: Changing that environment is really important psychologically for the kids. Being part of a community centre just has a totally different feeling. There’s all kinds of programs and ages and characters and people who use this space that the kids have to coexist with, which is a lot more realistic as far as what it’s going to be like in real life, than being in a school with people who are all the same age. I think it’s really important to be removed from that school environment. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch: we kind of have to shake it up and start from scratch.

(interview conducted on September 5, 2013)

Teachers Craig Morrison and Lauren Hortie at Oasis Skateboard Factory

Interviewed on Sept. 5, 2013