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SEED is the oldest alternative secondary school in North America. Started in 1968 by the Toronto District School Board as a community-based summer program, SEED (Summer of Experience, Exploration, and Discovery) was intended to keep high school students busy in a year when there were few jobs available. Students at SEED decided what they wanted to learn, and then sought out community members willing to share their expertise by teaching on a volunteer basis. SEED pioneered this catalyst model, which took the classroom out into the community. Catalysts included professors from the University of Toronto and York University, painters, sculptors, writers, filmmakers, performers, journalists, broadcasters, medical and scientific researchers, psychiatrists, elected officials, and so on. Classes could be held anywhere. A few notable catalysts, of the hundreds who volunteered their time and knowledge, were philosopher Marshall McLuhan, science fiction writer Judith Merril, and activist June Callwood. Philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, was a guest speaker recruited by an early catalyst.

SEED continued in the summer of 1969 and through the following school year, because many of the students who participated did not want to go back to their traditional mainstream high schools. After volunteer teacher Murray Shukyn and a group of students approached the Board to ask for official status, SEED became a year-round school in the fall of 1970. Like many alternative schools founded in that era, the inspiration for SEED came from A.S. Neill’s Summerhill and the ideas of Jean Piaget: the school was democratic, non-authoritarian, collaborative, and experiential. Learning was an active and dynamic process led by student inquiry.

Ariel Fielding met with past teacher Luciano Iacobelli at a café in Kensington Market to talk about the catalyst model, teacher as peer, learning by osmosis, and the courage required to resist authoritarianism in education.

Ariel Fielding: How did you come to SEED, and why? What was it that drew you there?

Luciano Iacobelli: I graduated from the Faculty of Education in 1980, and for about eight years I supply taught, not really wanting to settle into the teaching profession. I had a problem with mainstream education and mainstream schools, even back then. I had met SEED students, either in cafés or through friends, and they were all very interesting people. I [also] knew about it through various people who’d come up to me and said, “You’d be the perfect teacher for SEED.” The way I got into SEED was by staging a play I’d written, a play about a teacher who gets locked in a closet. The play is about education and teaching. The guy who played the main role was a SEED student. He invited his teachers, and it so happened that at that time Harriet Wolfe was sick, and they needed a teacher. They’d never had a supply teacher at SEED; I was the first one ever to be invited. They wanted a teacher there who had a bit of a creative side, and who wouldn’t interfere with what the students were doing. The role of the teacher at SEED at that time was to not stand in the way. They thought that I wouldn’t, and they were right. Eventually a position became available, and I was hired. Back then, there were students on the hiring panel, which would be taboo now.

Ariel: Did you come from the theatre before you were a teacher?

Luciano: No, I’m not really a theatre person. I’d written a play, I write poetry, I’m a writer, and right now I’m a publisher. I was always involved in the field of writing.

Ariel: What did you find when you went to SEED?

Luciano: Exactly what I wanted. I found a situation where there was no authority barrier between student and teacher. At the time there was no age limit as to who could be in high school. The bulk of the kids were in their late teens, early twenties, and I was in my late twenties, so I felt I was with peers. My role as a teacher was to be available. I sat in and I watched as they conducted their own classes for that first year. I threw in my two cents’ worth when I was asked. People came to understand that I knew things about writing, about theatre, about philosophy, just through conversation, and then I was asked to teach classes.

Ariel: Are those the subjects you focused on?

Luciano: Yeah. My degree is in English and history, and I taught both of them. I also did drama—I would stage full-length Shakespearean plays after school. I did Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. I was asked to teach philosophy. I had an interest in it, but I had to learn it from scratch—some of the kids knew much more than I did. I even taught an art class at one point, because I like to dabble in painting.

Ariel: The catalyst tradition at SEED is a really interesting one. Was that alive and well when you were there?

Luciano: Yes, and it was one of our best features, which ultimately was taken away. The students loved it, and it allowed for variety: people teaching Latin, Japanese, all sorts of experts who would come in and devote their time.

Ariel: So awesome, and not unlike the system we had at ALPHA, where parents shared their expertise in painting or storytelling or stop-motion animation.

Luciano: It was such a sad day when the catalyst program disappeared. A student complained that one of the catalysts had assaulted a girl. It turned out to be unsubstantiated, but when the admin heard that there was somebody in the school who could possibly be a sex offender, it led to the program being questioned. Then there was a union issue. There were teachers on staff who thought it was unfair that someone who’s not qualified as a teacher comes in and delivers a course. Those were two reasons why the catalyst program disappeared.

Ariel: Could you tell me about your approach to teaching?

Luciano: My approach to teaching is that you teach by example. You teach through your passion for the subject. The things that I taught, I loved, whether it was philosophy, or poetry, or writing. Those are the things that I spend my time engaging in as a human being. I have a passion for those things. If I’m given a chance to demonstrate that passion, and to convey that the content that I’m delivering is important, then that’s what will sink in. That then becomes an educational moment. I allowed the students to bring to class whatever they were on fire about. A lot of my classes were structured in such a way that the kids were teaching the bulk of the time. They were teaching me as much as I was teaching them. There was equality. There was no sense that I happened to know more; I just happened to be more passionate about certain things. That’s the way I saw my role there.

That started to change as time went on. Initially we were very careful about who came to the school. There was an interview before students were accepted, just to see if they would fit into a community that free, and if they were capable of absorbing some of the material that was taught. But then as time wore on, the Board kept on telling us we couldn’t be so selective, so pretty much everyone who wanted to came into the school. We had to water down the material, we were told to direct the students more, so the sense of equality dwindled. Teachers were asked to take more of a parental role. I had very strong objections to that. It was during the Harris years. Suddenly the admin was more involved in our school, and we had to be concerned with how many credits we were granting a year, how many kids were passing. Suddenly our courses had to start at the beginning of the semester and end at the end; but our courses weren’t like that—everyone was on an individual contract. Once you completed your contract, you got your credit; that could take you two weeks, or it could take you two years. You had always been able to finish whenever you wanted.

Another thing that veered SEED away from its original mission was that teachers got bumped into our school. There were teachers who didn’t understand or believe in alternative education who were thrown into the school. They would teach the traditional way, and they then would insist that things change so that the school was more traditional—less power to the students, more power to the adults. They were uncomfortable not being the authority figures, not being the maternal presence.

Ariel: The relationship between teaching and parenting or raising children has come up a few times in my conversations with teachers. What was your—

Luciano: I was not a parent. I don’t want to be a parent. I’m a teacher. I was directed more and more in my later years at SEED to be a parent, and I just refused. I don’t think those kids wanted parents. They had chosen to be there. They were crafting their own fate, their own destiny, even though some of them were in a really dark place, with drug addiction or homelessness, school was a place where they could land, it was secure. We were just there to make sure they had a safe place, a place where the possibility of education could occur, where ideas could be exchanged—a walk-in art room, where if you needed to paint a picture, you could [just] paint. If you wanted to write something and read it, there would be students available in the lounge and you could read it to them. But that came more and more under attack—the idea that you had students hanging around in the lounge—which I thought was the most magnificent thing—that’s where most of the education took place, just hanging around, just chatting back and forth—that came under attack.

It’s amazing what happened: there were kids who came to that school who may have had no intellectual aspirations—they just needed a place to hang out. By the end of it, just through osmosis, through the conversations going around, these kids fell in love with reading, with ideas. But how do you explain that to somebody who’s looking at numbers? There was a kind of magic that happened all the time that you couldn’t measure, and that’s the problem—you have the people that want to count the hours, count the credits, count the attendance, then you endanger a school like SEED used to be.

The other thing is we pretty much ignored the parents back then. Now, you can’t. One parent could overturn the whole school, and I saw that more and more as time went on—teachers and administrators dreading the complaints from the parents. Or dreading that a trustee might walk in there and see that kids were just lounging around, chatting or playing the guitar, not in class. I think we became more cowardly. When [SEED pioneer] Murray Shukyn was around, they had a lot of guts. They didn’t care. They stood up to the authorities and told them to buzz off. We got scared—some of us did—and through cowardliness we let go of the dream of the school.

Ariel: I see mainstream education as an enterprise built on fear; in contrast to that, the teachers at West End Alternative talked to me about their pedagogy of love. If you love your students, you give them the space to be themselves.

Luciano: It’s also patience—allowing students the time to come around. If they’re just sitting around for two years, and they’re not harming anybody, let them. Really, just be patient. They will wake up one day and come around. But you can’t do that now.

Ariel: The increased fearfulness among teachers, and the crackdown of the Harris government—are those the reasons why you left SEED?

Luciano: No, I was exiled [laughs]. Administrators have ways of making sure that people they like stay in the school, and those they don’t are transferred. Even though I had twenty-two years’ seniority, they found a way to declare me redundant. It would happen nowhere else, but they ended up getting a curriculum leader who had the same qualifications as me. Even though I had a higher number, she was untouched, and I had to go. They rigged it so that certain courses took precedence over the courses I was teaching. I was sent into the mainstream, where I taught for a few years and then retired.

When I was in the mainstream, I really got to see—because I’d been in an alternative school for over twenty years—how the mainstream had deteriorated. It was bad to start off with, but it got even worse.

Ariel: How did it get worse?

Luciano: The lowering of standards. The students are indulged in a bad way. At SEED we indulged them in a good way. In the mainstream, you’re dealing with thirty students in the classroom, so the dynamics are going to be different. The students come in anytime they want, leave anytime they want, without repercussion. They don’t have to hand in their assignments on time, they don’t have to show you the proper respect—which I think in the mainstream you need. They really can’t fail any courses. They can slack off, and still get their pass. The result is kids who can’t read or write going to university, and then the profs don’t know what to do with them. Or they’re given the illusion that they’re succeeding in high school, and then they go out into the world and they fail, because they’re not prepared. They’re given the illusion that they’re equipped, but they’re not. That’s what’s going on in mainstream education.

Also it’s a two-tier system. There are still schools that teach the old-fashioned way, where kids are disciplined and there are repercussions, and these kids do well after they graduate—mostly white kids from middle-class homes. Then you have other kids who are going to Western Tech who are not getting properly educated.

We were talking about the catalyst program. What went hand-in-hand with that program was the auditing that the kids did of university courses, a kind of unofficial co-op. We would give kids credit for what they did in the community or what they did career-wise. You could get a theatre credit simply by being in a play. We had a lot of kids auditing courses at the university, and the professors loved them. People taking philosophy courses, math courses, English courses. We monitored their hours and found a way to test them on the material, but that got shut down.

Ariel: Was that because it was outside of the school?

Luciano: That’s right. You are the teacher, you should be teaching. How can you give a credit for what they’re doing outside of school? We were monitoring them. They were going way beyond the curriculum. They would hand in a magnificent essay that they wrote for a university professor. If that’s not an A+ in grade eleven history! [laughs] Students would graduate from SEED and take courses at U of T, and [the profs] would always be delighted to have them in the class. They found our students to be the most prepared, because they had already been studying the material in high school. In fact, some of the students that graduated from SEED didn’t finish university or college afterwards, because they were bored. They found that what they were studying there was not as challenging as what they had studied at SEED. It was a good and a bad thing.

Something that brought bad attention to our school was the time we made the cover of the Toronto Sun. Did you know about that? It was the beginning of the end for SEED, really. It’s an interesting story. We used to have variety nights once or twice a year. Students would play in bands, do performance art pieces, read poetry. Parents would come. We would rent the Rivoli, or we’d get a warehouse. There would be some drinking, because some of the kids were twenty-three years old, but we always monitored to make sure nobody underage was drinking. We’d have these variety nights, and we’d document them. On one particular night, a student reproduced a famous performance art piece that had been done in New York in the mid-sixties. He goes up onstage, plays the violin—a fake violin, he’s not really playing it. He’s dancing around, and there’s a garbage can in front of him. He takes some lighter fluid, sprays it in a garbage can, lights it on fire, stands behind it, takes off his clothes, stands naked playing the violin. We didn’t know he was going to do that, and there was no way to stop it once it got started. It was all filmed. Nobody made a big deal of it. It was kind of what went on at SEED—very daring things.

Three years later, a new teacher comes into the school, one of those people that was bumped in. He sees the video, and he’s shocked. He sends it to [right-wing columnist] Christie Blatchford at the Toronto Sun. She takes the image of the kid behind the flames, a very demonic-looking picture, and puts it on the front cover with the headline “STRIPPER HIGH.” CBC and CTV get hold of it, and we’re on the evening news. Suddenly there’s this scandal associated with our school, that this is what we do—we allow students to take off their clothes—and suddenly there’s an investigation. The admin comes in and starts looking at our programs, at the culture of the school, and then starts laying down the boundaries, saying, “What you’re doing could be dangerous—for us, for the kids.” That was the beginning of the end, and it was three years after the fact. Teachers didn’t know what to do—do we stand up and show some courage and say, “Hey, this is what we are. We’re not embarrassed by this”? The staff was divided: do we cover our butts, or do we just say, “Hey, this is what we are”?

Ariel: I want to come back around to something that I’m very curious about, and that’s teacher as kindly facilitator vs. teacher as authoritarian leader. How do you create an environment where kids can learn, without directing them too much, or without just standing back and creating a vacuum? How did you walk that line?

Luciano: It’s the way I’d design and structure the course. Let’s say I was doing a history course. I would always try to find out what students’ passions were. If somebody loves art, a history course is perfect—you do a seminar on the Impressionists and how they’re an expression of their age and their time. Sometimes I had the students create seminars. I catered to their interests. If a kid had no interests, I would sit down and try to mine that kid and give them something appropriate to do, or team them up with somebody who could direct them. You don’t reach everybody. There were some kids I never reached. But you do your best as a teacher to try to find what it is that turns them on, and to link them to other people who are turned on by the same thing.

There were gaps that I had to fill myself. If you have a class of seven or eight students—at SEED, classes were small—seven seminars aren’t going to cover the whole course, so I’d fill the gaps. There would be a sense that we were exploring something. I liked to use original sources when it came to history: looking at the documents, the art, listening to the music.

In creative writing, the kids were always writing in class, working on exercises. If it was a workshop where they were critiquing each other’s work, I didn’t even need to be there, because all they had to do was follow a format. I was just another person sitting in a chair, giving my two cents’ worth. The format took care of it all.

Over the years students have come back, and they have talked about the impact that SEED had on them. It hits home how important it is to have a school like that. There really should be an attempt to recreate that school the way it was. There will be teachers who came later, who say that the school that I talk about all the time never existed, that it’s a myth, a legend, a fantasy. But it did exist, and it can exist, and the only reason it might not exist now is because of courage. You’re always going to have the system that’s going to say, “no, no, no.” That’s always there. And then you have those people who say, “screw the system!” and who have the guts to go ahead. It’s an ongoing battle that keeps renewing itself. It stopped renewing itself at SEED. It may have renewed itself elsewhere. I go to ALPHA II, and there’s a bit of the spirit of the old SEED there.

Ariel: That practice of freedom can be difficult to maintain.

Luciano: It takes guts. You have to put your ass on the line.

Ariel: I get the sense that current teachers at SEED have some interest in reviving the catalyst tradition.

Luciano: Well, then they might lose their jobs, and they have to accept that. Somebody’s going to come down on them. What we used to do whenever we saw the school threatened—the graduates used to come back and stick up for the school. They would rally and help us. Especially after the scandal with the violin, the old students came back and helped us with the media and with the administrators. They said, “You can’t shut this place down. This should not be an opportunity to start eliminating the rights of the students.” That’s really what the difference is between now and then: students then were empowered.

Ariel: It really comes down to democracy—sharing power. This particular kind of democracy is also about sharing interests and creating a space where that can happen. There are kids who are just disinterested and who haven’t found anything that sparks their interest. If they can find their way to a SEED, and they find a teacher who is willing to make that space for them to explore, that’ll make the difference in their life.

Luciano: Big difference. Also, not everybody could teach at an alternative school. It should be a job for special teachers who are specially trained to teach at an alternative school, teachers who have experience in life doing what they teach. Being a visual artist and teaching art, being a poet and teaching poetry. That’s what we all did at SEED: we were all what we taught, and the courses were investigations, everyone pursuing their craft and their curiosity communally.

Ariel: It sounds like there was a spirit of openness, rather than a set curriculum.

Luciano: That’s right. But then I noticed that the fear started to creep in in the mid-nineties. By the millennium, it was all fear. Teachers were afraid they wouldn’t get any work, or when they did they were afraid of losing their jobs. Fear, fear, fear, fear—it just pervaded everything. Getting to the point where there’s no fear is essential to the work of alternative education; so is patience. I also know that not every teacher could teach in an alternative school, and not every student could be in an alternative school.

Initially SEED was just for senior students, and then they lowered the age of admission, which I don’t think was a good idea. We did get some great kids, don’t get me wrong, but once you lower the age to fourteen, fifteen, then you’re thrown into a parental role. When you’re dealing with older kids, you don’t have to be so much of a parent. That’s why SEED was successful in the beginning: there were no parents. Kindly elders, maybe, but no parents.

Ariel: A.S. Neill at Summerhill wanted to eliminate the parents from the equation.

Luciano: How does one do it? Do you need parents to say, “Create a school where my kid doesn’t have a parent”?

Ariel: At the secondary level I’d think it would be harder, because parents may not be as involved, or may even have given up on their kids. At the elementary level, it’s different, because parents tend to be more involved. I don’t know what the answer is.

Luciano: But kids at ALPHA had a lot of freedom, from what I understand.

Ariel: We did, but it’s a very different place now. Maybe the way to change an alternative school that’s drifted from its original intentions is to bring back graduates and have them spend time with teachers and kids.

Luciano: Also location has something to do with it. When SEED was centrally located, the school was right in the heart of downtown, accessible by subway, it made a difference. A centrally located school is important. That would be step number one: getting the place moved back to the downtown core.

Another thing to add—the relationships with the students didn’t end at the school. Some of them are my friends now. They’re in their mid-thirties through their fifties. If they’re writers they send me their work and I send them mine. We go to each other’s weddings, we baptize each other’s children. A lot of my best friends are my former students, because we were friends then. Somebody at the Board of Education hears you’re friends with your students, that’s now grounds for dismissal. You can’t have coffee with a student, you can’t close the door and have a conversation if there’s only one student in the room. This “cover your ass” attitude is preventing human interaction between students and teachers. Even teachers might have a problem with the idea that they might have to come down from their pedestal and treat their kids like peers. How do you do that and still be a professional? We were able to do it back then.

Ariel: I thought it was courageous of the teachers at West End to talk about the pedagogy of love. It involves things you’re talking about: patience, trust, acceptance, friendship, and providing something that has been a missing ingredient in learning for those kids, which is liking them for who they are. It’s in relationship that learning happens.

Luciano: Absolutely.

Ariel: If you take that away, or if you chip away at it, I don’t know that learning will happen in the same way, or even at all.

Luciano: The humanity’s taken from it, and that’s what SEED had: humanity. We had Fran’s café downstairs from the school, and if you had a student who wanted to talk about Plato, you could go and have a coffee with the kid downstairs. I guess people are dirty-minded, but they think the minute you sit down and have coffee with a kid you’ve got ulterior motives. Everyone’s thinking that way now. It’s the zeitgeist.

If you could just eliminate the fear. You’ve got to get administrators who believe in your school. When I first started, the first two principals believed in our school. Everybody after that did not. We had one administrator say that SEED was a bourgeois concept that catered only to the upper class, and we needed to make it more mainstream because that’s more democratic. I don’t know where he was coming from. Another administrator said to me, “The cheese has moved. If you’re the mouse that wants the cheese, you’ve got to start thinking differently. The cheese is over there now, it’s no longer here.” In other words, change with the time, go with the fear. Those administrators that we got did not believe in our school at all. They didn’t believe in the culture that we had created. They were trying to eliminate it. You have to have administrators who know alternative education, who aren’t just placed there for career purposes, who may have been alternative teachers themselves.

Ariel: You talked earlier about specialized training for alternative teachers. What would that look like?

Luciano: You’d have to actually spend time in an alternative school and mingle with the kids and be there for a considerable period of time, not just two weeks. An extended apprenticeship, say half a year of volunteering, so you could learn to relate to the kids. You’d need to reintroduce the old theories of education that have disappeared, Postman and Summerhill and all that stuff. Teaching as a Subversive Activity—did you ever read that one?

Ariel: Or bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress.

Luciano: You’d need to really put that into practice. If everyone is worried about covering their butt and keeping their job, you’re not going to get the proper alternative teachers. They’ve got to be able to break the rules, and keep on breaking the rules without shame.

Ariel: That’s a perfect place to end. [both laugh]

Luciano: I got into teaching because I wanted to be a teacher. It wasn’t a second career choice. I’d wanted to be a teacher since I was a kid. When I was twelve or thirteen years old, I said, “I want to teach English and history,” because I was in love with those subjects then. I wanted to impart that passion to other people. It’s got to be a real vocation.

Interviewed on: Nov. 28, 2013