Constructing a narrative about my own learning story has stimulated reflections on my experiences as a teacher for almost fifty years in a variety of contexts and through all sorts of trends and movements. Out of those fifty years, one decade-length experience I now see as pivotal in the development of how I approach schooling. The lessons I learned ranged from affirming, to challenging, to chastening.

My career in education began with stints as a social studies teacher in high schools around Atlanta, then as a guest teacher, responding to invitations by secondary social studies teachers to conduct simulations and role-playing activities in their classrooms, presumably modeling these strategies for them. Modeling did not pay off, if measured by the number of teachers who began using simulations and role-playing in their repertoires of instructional practices. However, moving from school to school in virtually every neighborhood in Atlanta provided opportunities to observe teachers in action, as well as the climate and culture in each of those schools.

The differences in resources between white and black schools stunned me. The invidious inequities in black and white schools was manifest before me on a daily basis. But it was the failure of all those schools to engage significant numbers of students in real learning that came to dominate my impressions of schooling in Atlanta. In a casual conversation with the Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, I responded to his question, ‘So what are you seeing out there?’ with a quick litany of instructional malpractices. Taken aback, but still respectful, he challenged me with ‘What would you do about that?’ My response took the form of a two-page outline for a very different kind of secondary school. This happened to be the beginning of the era of alternative schools, so that outline became a proposal for an alternative high school. The Atlanta School Board approved and funded it. A high school guidance counselor familiar with Atlanta schools and a young African-American English teacher joined me in developing the nuts and bolts of that venture.

One key element of our plan was that attending our school had to be the student’s choice. Each student’s parents/guardians had to participate in and approve of that choice. Students soon began to trickle to our old school building right in the center of Atlanta. At any given time, we had students from ten to fifteen high schools at what we eventually named The Downtown Learning Center, or DLC. That meant that we had a mix of adolescents from housing projects, from established schools undergoing demographic changes, and schools in affluent neighborhoods. Many had unstable family situations, a factor which I came to appreciate as an underlying element in the behaviors of our students. Our approach to instruction began with each student setting forth her/his educational aims with a faculty member as an adviser. Those aims could range from ‘catch up to where I’m supposed to be and graduate’ to ‘take some courses until I’m sixteen then leave school behind’ and everything in between. Whatever the student declared after advising became his/her aims ‘ at least for that semester. Armed with aims, each student met with instructors to arrange for course work. Sometimes that was one-on-one, sometimes small groups, sometimes programmed texts, sometimes hybrids of those. Whenever possible, we steered students into the rich resources of downtown Atlanta, where we found plenty of willing people interested in helping adolescents learn from the ‘real world.’ That was a very important lesson to me, one I think about often as I watch our education and political leaders attempt to achieve excellence by experiences limited to school buildings, textbooks, standardized tests, GPAs, rigid graduation requirements, etc.

One vivid example comes to mind. A small group of our feminist-oriented students declared that they were tired of being inept regarding the maintenance of automobiles ‘because we’re girls.’ Our acting principal-counselor arranged with the owner of a local service station to conduct on-the-job training in the fundamentals of automotive service. Several times a week they trekked to the ‘funky’ station to work alongside tough, veteran mechanics, learning how to change oil, repair flats, replace filters, etc. Watching them come back to our old school building with grease-streaked faces and fingers, chatting excitedly about what they had learned ‘ and challenging the guys to do what they could now do ‘ was a powerful affirmation.

Imagine the volatile mix of adolescents coming to this old school building from high schools in Atlanta. Most of the students had ‘significant experience with the juvenile justice system’ regardless of what part of Atlanta they came from. There were students with learning difficulties, like narcolepsy and autism, and students who had simply slid through the system without acquiring even basic learning skills. Alongside them were academically talented students, bored with the pace and limits of conventional curriculum and instruction. They got along. Rather than serve time in the obligatory standard school day, they came and went as needed to do their work. They formed transitory friend groups. We just did not have serious problems that required constant vigilance and intervention. When problems arose, we simply called a community meeting. We had a method for moving through rooms and hallways whereby every student in attendance would be swept into the community meeting.

One community meeting stands out in my memory as an illustration of the climate of the school, as well as an affirmation of the resourcefulness adolescents can bring to the solution of problems. A group of white female students complained about being hassled by the African-American male students (referred to as ‘black dudes’ by everyone) hanging around on the wide staircases between floors. We did the sweep. After our administrator described the purpose of the meeting, several of the black dudes expressed indignation about being picked on. The session grew testy very quickly. At that point two African-American female students came to the front and said, ‘You all are like this” and gave hilarious impersonations of the black dudes on the staircase. As the laughter died down, they did equally funny impersonations of the white females!

That cleared the way for resolution. The staircase dudes would provide easier passage up the stairs with no insinuating remarks and, in return, the ladies would take the time to engage in some friendly chatter as they passed. The DLC gained another connection in the creation of a sense of community. The notion of respect ‘ something seriously lacking in the lives of many of the DLC students ‘ served as the guiding principle for our rules. Consider all the rules put in place in most schools for controlling students and maintaining order, then consider what the students and faculty developed for the DLC: Be where you are supposed to be, be there on time, and be prepared. Respect yourself. Respect the rights, privacy and property of others. Easy to remember; easy to enforce.

In one of our earliest faculty-staff meetings, we reached a quick consensus that one major defect in conventional schooling was the lack of collegial discussions about the work. We set aside time for those discussion during the day, once a week. As soon as we began those collegial discussions, several students stated that excluding them was a deviation from the student-centered approach that characterized the rest of the program. So we opened those discussions to students. The result: the evolution of our pedagogical practices and the development of our day-to-day policies bore the fingerprints of our student constituency. The evolution of the DLC’s pedagogical orientation led to a faculty-student consensus that conventional course grades did not represent either effort or achievement. To develop an alternative to conventional grades, each of us constructed a set of four to six achievement indicators for each course we taught. Each student’s achievement on each course was represented by ratings on those indicators. Each student’s official transcript consisted of those sets of indicators, not letter grades. College admission counselors said those transcripts were more revealing about a student’s performance and promise than conventional transcripts. That practice probably helped some of our students get into college, including Ivy League colleges.

Every time I hear teachers talk about grades, and every time I assign letter grades to candidates in the courses I teach, I remember the DLC system with a twinge of frustration that we continue using the primitive, unrepresentative, punitive systems of the 19th Century. There is so much more I could describe about my experiences at the DLC ‘ it could be a book-length narrative ‘ but I need to close with some ‘lessons.’

After the DLC had been in operation for about five years, a new administration for Atlanta Schools decided we needed to be evaluated. The evaluation team arrived with an attitude that seemed inclined to find fault and make the case for closing us down. The evidence indicating success of the DLC was overwhelming. We stayed open. About five years later, the Atlanta Schools administration called a community meeting at the DLC to consider closing it. Over 80% of our students were represented by their parents or guardians. The testimony was overwhelmingly positive. Another lease on life for the DLC ‘ for a couple years. Then it was closed.

As painful as the closing is to consider, there is an even more painful lesson: The DLC’s success in dealing with problematic students in Atlanta high schools drew commendations for helping with their difficult students, but stimulated no consideration of the practices and policies which might contribute to the dispositions and behaviors of those ‘difficult students,’ the adolescents we came to appreciate and respect. It is a bitter lesson I relive every time class discussions get into the issue of school reform, renewal, reconstruction, revolution, rethinking, etc. But the positive results with the DLC students and the professional bonds developed within the faculty and staff continue to influence my attitude toward what Maxine Greene refers to as the ‘possibilities of what is not yet but could be and should be.’ After the DLC I joined the Foxfire project for a twenty-five year stretch, continuing today. That’s another book with its own set of lessons: Some affirming; some challenging; some chastening.