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Virginia Journal of Education

Shifting Gears

Alternative education can offer a new, positive step for both students and teachers.

By Michelle Edwards

Shift happens.

We’re educators, so we know that just like all of our students are not identical, all teaching is not the same. To succeed, we have to imagine the possibilities for all our students and then devise a plan to make it happen. Often, this means a shift from a more traditional mindset of learning to a more blended approach: No one formula fits all. Far better is an underlying, transparent approach to individualizing to meet student needs.

I could say it this way: If you plant a flower, and its blooms turned out to be less distinctive and beautiful than we knew they could be, would you just pluck it out and hope it does better next year? Not if you’re a good gardener. You’d create a strategic design to uproot the bulb and its roots and replant it, perhaps in better soil, with better drainage and better light. I think it would be a great idea for educators to think of themselves as gardeners within their classrooms.

One very significant shift in the education world is to an alternative classroom. Once viewed as one of education’s ugly stepchildren, alternative education is beginning, more and more, to be seen for what it truly can be—a positive alternative.

That alternative can take many forms, depending on your community. Some see alternative education as a dumping ground for the chronic absentees, fighters, disciplinary challenges, or other extremely difficult students in a county. It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, be that way. An alternative placement can be a real alternative—a shift from more traditional styles of pacing and lecturing that don’t necessarily work for all students. It can be a shift towards blended learning and career readiness, rooted in understanding an individual young person’s needs. There can be a shift from teacher and class to a student-driven, individualized approach. There can even be a shift from negative behaviors to positive worth and improved self-esteem and, often, there is a shift from being one of many at one’s base school to one of a few reaching for success in an alternative setting.

Shifting needs to happen—even for educators. Teaching in an alternative setting can mean shifting into an emphasis on project-based assessment as a way to hook traditionally non-successful students and helping them develop a new mindset about education and learning.

As a 19-year veteran teacher of English and journalism, I shifted, asking for a transfer to our alternative education program two years ago. Although it was very difficult for me to move from the comfort zone of the journalism program and the relationships I’d built, it was time. I had helped the journalism program make the transition to a student-run organization, and I knew the student staff could operate without me. So I shifted.

Understanding how alternative education works required much shifting—gearing down before gearing up—in my own planning in order to fully understand. It is a mindset, just like the traditional teaching role I left, except now the decisions are individualized instead of collective.

As a teacher in a traditional setting, I had to focus on all the students at one time. Everyone read the same story on the same day, and each student turned in writing prompts, all 30 of them on the same topic, and there was a folder for missing work that housed handouts. Although there was differentiated instruction, there was minimal focus on the actual student. Yes, I cared for my students in English, but I must admit, my heart was with my journalism students. I did more than teach the curriculum I wrote; I applied it to their lives. I tried to instill the love of writing and photography in them.

I got to see how much my journalism class knew and could realistically do on their own when I needed to miss school when my mother passed. I was shocked. They shifted their gears upward, and demonstrated they could perform without me guiding them. When I returned, it was if I had not missed a day, so I knew it was time for a change. So, as my editor graduated I did, too, in a sense…I transferred to alternative education.

I was immediately asked by others, “Why would you want to go there?” And to their dismay, I replied that I asked to go. In shifting, I had to change the way I taught. I needed to approach this teaching as I did teaching journalism. I needed to learn about the student and his or her ability level in order to figure out how to help them. This is no different than the summative and formative data collected in any school, except that now data allowed me to plan individually. This required thinking outside-the-box, and in doing so, it created differentiation through blended learning with the help of online platforms and hands-on learning. I thought about learning centers and how that worked in younger grades, and implemented them. I thought about reward systems and implemented them. Most importantly, I thought about what would allow these students, who may be coming from dysfunctional homes and have experienced some degree of trauma, to succeed. I thought about self-esteem and self-confidence and ways to build what I saw lacking. I had to change the soil in which these blooms were trying to grow. I needed to figure out how to make this work for me and for the students I serve.

I have learned now when to shift and which gear and with whom. It is all about approach. Teachers in traditional schools can implement this, too. Thinking about the bigger picture and realizing that not all students learn the same way on the same day, or are interested in the same novel, would allow teachers to individualize the instruction. Yes, it is more difficult to maintain, and yes, it is more preparation up front, but it is more meaningful for success. I now manage 6-12th grade through individualized approaches.

I encourage others to think outside the box, to rethink how you’re teaching. Reflect on your bulbs. Are they growing well? Is the gardener growing? Shifting has allowed me to improve as a teacher, planner and leader. Embrace the shift and the changes it will bring, and if you have not considered alternative education, think about uprooting and making your shift now.

Edwards, a member of the Culpeper County Education Association, teaches at Trier Alternative Services, the county’s Alternative Placement Program.



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