Why I Wrote a Book on Alternative Education and titled it: Dancing on the Contradictions

The stories contained within my book, Dancing on the Contradictions, detail the realities—the struggles and the resilience—of students in alternative educational settings grappling with assuming responsibility for their lives, forging identities, and carving out their autonomy, all within settings founded on democratic principles of free expression and community.

Yet, no matter how elaborate or comprehensive our machinery of governance, it never operated quite as we had hoped. Does this mean we failed or that democracy failed?

Certainly not. It means that there is where the dance begins.

Democracy is itself a contradiction, messy and difficult, beautiful and freeing. As Winston Churchill said, “It is the worst form of government, except for all the others…”  

And so, it is vital that progressive educators of today merge the “why” with the “how”, that they ground alternative education theory with real practice. That was the focus of my life’s work and that is what’s now contained within the pages of my book.

It’s about a dance that early school reformers took up many decades ago, and which I have no doubt modern educators will continue even better than before. If, that is, they understand the history of educational reform in this country and build upon it rather than exhausting their energy by reinventing everything the profession already knows–but has a tendency to forget.

And so we confront not only the contradictions within democracy, but within the educational system, and most importantly–within ourselves. Instead of railing against the system, we rise. We bring our talents and passions to bear in constructive ways to boldly articulate the values that inform the alternatives.

As the great social theorist Paul Goodman once said: “The notion that nothing can be done is completely unsatisfactory to me. Something must be done.”

His words have always hung on a wall in my study and been an ongoing personal challenge.

Even at the age of 85, I haven’t relinquished the call that captured me so many years ago when I stepped into a classroom for the first time as a new teacher.

For me, there is no joy like the joy of teaching. Being an educator is the spirit that animates me and so, for as long as I can take on Paul Goodman’s challenge, I will.

For I must.

And so must you.

But my time in the classroom has come and gone. Your time is now. My hope is that this book helps you along your own journey as you devise alternatives and build new models to help young people realize their potential.

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Educational Reform, or Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before

New Way to Education Reform Sign

Those who know me know how often I fall back on Gore Vidal’s reference to the U.S.A. as “The United States of Amnesia,” and how no area of human endeavor is forgetfulness more the norm than it is in education.

I will often follow it with “Been there, seen it, done it,” followed by the old saw that insanity is doing the same thing but expecting different results.

A function of old age, congenital contrariness, and just plain weariness, it’s what comes of former educational reformers. They don’t go quietly into the dark night but go down kvetching loudly right to the very end.

Bitterly complaining about the quality of American education is part of our history.

When I first became a teacher in the 1950s, it was James Conant, former President of Harvard, and Admiral Rickover, father of the atomic submarine.

In 1957, came the political outcry in reaction to fears of Russian global ascendancy with the launching of Sputnik — attributing America’s failure to be number one in space to lack of rigor in our schools.

Over a half century later, President Obama revived that specter, recalling how Sputnik provoked the United States to increase investment in math and science education and helped America win the space race.

He warned that with billions of people in India and China having been “suddenly plugged into the world economy,” only those nations with the most educated workers would prevail,” and how, “America is in danger of falling behind.” Here we go again — more fire-bells ringing in the mid of night.

Back to the 1960s and the Great Society — a time when federal efforts in education ramped up significantly in the form of assistance to schools and colleges seeking to eliminate racial segregation, developing new strategies for educating disadvantaged children and in broadening access to higher education for previously neglected youths.

Many programs failed; a few succeeded. Lessons from these efforts provide instructive experiences that can guide future efforts in educational reform. But for the most part they have been ignored.

The late ’60s and ’70s featured a blossoming of educational reform and a progressive vision.

Programs of compensatory education were joined with the free school and alternative education movements. Most of these efforts, however, were not taken seriously and were prematurely aborted — succeeded by a wave of counter-reaction.

They have also been banished from recent memory.

The 1980s were driven by A Nation at Risk, a report chronicling the latest “crisis,” citing abysmally low basic skill scores, low basic comprehension rates, and high drop-out rates, recommending more rigorous standards, the standardization of curricula, and a program of National testing… Sound familiar?

In keeping with its recommendations, by the mid-1980s, 45 states had gotten with the program, expanding their testing programs, instituting more strenuous graduation requirements, cutting frills, and returning to basics (as if they had ever left them in the first place).

In the end, however, it all proved so much sound and fury…signifying nothing.

Research revealed that this highly orchestrated and costly effort had not the slightest effect on student learning and comprehension. Even when legislated merit pay systems were added to the mix, little of this trickled down to the classroom. None of it ever enhanced the students’ ability to learn.

Shouldn’t this historical backdrop have been at least noted amid the current hue and cry for more rigorous standards and high-stake testing procedures?

If not, the current effort must be judged to be more about public relations and politics than serious educational thought, in which case, damn the torpedoes (and the history) and full speed ahead!

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Shooting My Mouth Off: Thoughts About Gun Violence & Education

Old black and white photo of children playing with guns

Shocked by the horrific event in Charleston? That’s America, baby — Columbine, Aurora, Newtown — its everyday stuff — just the way life is in our country.

Each night children go to bed with “Bang, bang, you’re dead . . . thirty bullets in your head,” At school, they learn to give things their “best shot,” and to meet “bang-up” expectations. When their efforts finally “go over with a bang,” they attain recognition as a “top gun.”

Shooting Their Mouths Off

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, I would like to engage in my passion for etymology and the insights it provides on the topic. “Top guns” were once synonymous with “great guns.” Our first “great guns” were simply large firearms like cannons, as opposed to smaller ones such as muskets or rifles, a distinction which held up to the end of the 19th century. They also came to name a person of note or consequence. The man we used to call a “great gun” was really something. Today we know him better as the real “big shot.”

Speaking of “big shots,” no one “goes great guns,” is more successful in pushing arms, than the manufacturers of guns and ammunition and their proxy, the NRA.

More Bang for the Buck

The expression, “going great guns” comes from British naval slang of the 18th century when “blowing great guns” signified a violent gale. For manufacturer of arms, however, it’s less a threatening storm than a windfall of profits. Gun makers churned out nearly six million guns last year — double the number that they did a decade ago. This year, the industry is expected to rack up in excess of $11.7 billion in sales and $993 million in profits.

They are literally getting “more bang for the buck.”

In 1953, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff came up with a ‘New Look’ policy promising more combat effectiveness for less money, by substituting atomic firepower for manpower and conventional weaponry. They described it as the ‘bigger bang for your buck’ theory, a variation on Pepsi-Cola’s ‘More Bounce to the Ounce’ (c.1950).

Today, “more bang for the buck” speaks directly to those seeking great returns for an investment in arms. It’s not just guns. It’s ammunition as well. As one gun lobbyist once put it, “You make a product for $300, and somebody could buy this revolver and, by the time they are 80, they’ll have fired $10,000 worth of ammunition through it.”

Better perhaps we should rephrase investment in armaments as “More bucks for the bang.”

Calling the Shots

Massacres are good business at creating “more bucks for the bang.” Critics may dramatically depict the results and fill the airwaves with talk about the need for new restrictions, but they only serve to convince gun owners that government is going to take away their right to buy guns, further spurring sales.

Feeding that frenzy is their mantra that everyone should be armed. When tragedies involving guns occur, they even go so far as to blame victims or their protectors for not having been properly armed. Their answer to gun violence, you see, is simply more guns.

That’s hardly a new idea. People have been keeping the peace with guns ever since 1330. The soldiers at Windsor Castle named their favorite and most prominent weapon — a huge catapult which hurtled large stones and balls of fire at the enemy — “Dame” or “Lady Gunhilda” from Icelandic gunnr, meaning “war” and hildr, a “battle”. Later, with the advent of the cannon, it was first shortened to gunne and later to gun, thus naming the world’s first firearms.

Though 75 percent of the American people favor some form of restriction on handguns, the big shots at the NRA work relentlessly towards its goal of a fully armed America. The sights of its 2.8 million members trained on Congress, it continues to “call the shots,” setting the substance and pace of the national debate. Congress is their target and they are dead on in compliance. It hasn’t passed a gun control measure since 1999.

The results are in. Today, you can find those sons of a gun everywhere. The horrors continue. And there’s no leadership in Congress willing to act decisively in any organized fashion to curtail their proliferation.

A Farewell to Arms

Sooner or later, we’ll just have to “bite the bullet” on the subject. A century ago, before anesthesia, it was common to give a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on in order to divert his attention from the pain of a battlefield amputation

No easy task to bite the bullet. In 1857, the Sepoys, many of whom were Muslim and Buddhist and constituted a large portion of Britain’s crack regiment in India, refused to fight, the mutiny ultimately breaking out into a full scale rebellion. The cause of their discontent was their belief that the bullets they first had to bite prior to firing were wrapped in a protective coating of lard and beef wax. Fact or fiction, the rumor managed to offend at once both the Buddhists to whom the cow was sacred and the Muslims to whom the pig was taboo.

Like good soldiers, we too will have to grit our teeth and do what has to be done. As Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Bite the bullet old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.” (“The Light that Failed,” 1891).

Iver Johnson Ad for Revolvers
They are not toys: they shoot straight and kill.

              

I wrote in my new book, how I twice had the opportunity to fulfill the dream of every progressive educator: to create his or her own school. These were truly humbling occasions—I had not only to confront the contradictions and shortcomings of the system but my own personal ones as well. No longer could I take comfort in merely railing against the system. I had to be proactive and constructive.

I thought of my own children: What kind of school do you want them to attend? What kind of a world do you want them to grow up in? What do they need to know in order to build that world? How can the educational process help them acquire the skills and mind-sets to do so? The questions I asked then are the very same ones you need to address now. The world I see now is one of metal detectors and armed guards. Is that the world you want?

 Schools cannot be value-free in the process.

To paraphrase James Carville, an advisor of Bill Clinton, “It’s the values stupid!”—especially so, given what confronts us today.  In the wake of the tragedy at Parkland, we have seen hundreds of thousands of students organize, march, and protest against the rising tide of gun violence in our nation.  Most heartening is broad membership of this emerging coalition—well-to do, predominantly white suburban students from the privileged towns of Littleton, Newtown, and Parkland, joined with less advantaged urban young people of color from cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and New York, who are demanding action against the gun violence they are forced to live with each and every day of their life.

With it has come an emerging understanding that many of the issues which they face, transcend racial, geographic, and class divisions—requiring a new coming together on behalf of a future in which they can all believe.

They also challenge our schools to step to the forefront – to emphasize student autonomy and creativity, moral growth and engagement and put community at the very center of the educational process—not just through establishing checklists of social-emotional “skills,” or encouraging virtual communities on-line —but by actually  embodying community and living it daily.

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Take Me to Your Leader: The Kind of Principals Schools Deserve

Photo of Mug: I'm a school principal. What is YOUR superpower?

Much has been written about the need for leadership in education. That if we hope to turn our schools around, we need not only great teachers, but also great principals.

It’s not an unreasonable premise. The school executive plays a significant factor in determining a school’s fate. He sets the tone of the enterprise, determines its priorities; holds its participants to account; and is responsible for the overall energy of the setting.

The title “principal” is, however, a dated concept from our educational past, carrying with it certain connotations and expectations.

Old School Principals

The primary concern of the traditional principal is maintenance of order. He presides over a tightly run no-nonsense organization, committed to the amelioration of conflict. As the chief disciplinarian, he moves swiftly and surely to exorcise any “unreliable” or uncertain elements, ensuring that the rules are properly enforced by his underlings, i.e. the teachers, even if he has to intervene personally in punishing offenders.

He is protector of the status quo, staff, curriculum, and the school’s way of life from the “uneducated” onslaughts of its students, the community, and the media. His actions are informed primarily by political considerations and guided by conventional ethics and what passes as the conventional wisdom.

Though he welcomes the imagery of change and being thought of as forward-looking and progressive, he is fearful and apprehensive of genuine innovation given the unrest and anxiety it brings in its wake. Real change is messy and anarchic and replete with errors. There is no place for error in his school.

As the institution’s most visible figure, he embodies and articulates the conceptual framework of the institution — “L’école, c’est moi” — ” and is, in fact, the one least critical of it. All look to him as that force which will assuage their fears and render them secure. A goodly portion of the energies of the school is spent alternately praising or damning him.

Its public spokesperson, and its focal point, he is the head public relations man for the school. His task is to “sell” the school to the community.

Educational Leaders

He is not what is needed today. Agreed that, “We need to figure out how to get more people with the right training and support to take on one of the hardest jobs in America,” as the author argues. But what exactly are the job requirements? What is the job?

The job is to head up a school, but it is not school as it is currently known, but school as it might be — one in which new ideas might be incubated, alternate approaches to life explored, and the conventional wisdom, challenged.

The role of the leader is to initiate and expedite that process, relentlessly questioning existing practices and procedures, paving the way for innovation and change, and supporting and encouraging his staff in those efforts.

The path forward is neither neat nor linear. Much of the terrain is unchartered and marked by trial and error. Negotiating it requires that she learn to live with the impermanence and failure without which true education cannot occur.

Unlike the traditional principal, who engages in PR and “sells” his program to the community, the leader “educates.” Her efforts are directed at not giving her audience what it wants, but what it never knew it wanted. Rather than engaging in a slick sales pitch, she employs rational discourse, explaining and defining the actions of her school and its people to the public. First, last, and always, she is a teacher.

Her primary task is to guarantee the one permanent feature of the school — reason and self-reflection, which she, herself, must embody.

That Certain Something

It is fashionable today to treat education as an impersonal business enterprise whose efforts are dictated by the cult of efficiency. It is in reality a deeply intense and personal process. Dare one even speak the word “love?”

Without love and the accompanying passion, schooling is but another hollow corporate venture, commanding the allegiance of its participants only superficially. There is no joy. And without joy, there is no learning.

The educational leader is a lover of life and people. Her love is unconditional, manifesting itself as respect for her students, accepting them fully for where she finds them as opposed to where she would have them be, supporting them in their striving towards personhood, rather than obsessing on issues of external validation.

But as they say, love is not enough. A school must also have a certain mindfulness about it — a conscious purpose. The school principal, or leader, has to be not only a philosopher queen but a technologist as well, one versed in educational history, and the variety of ways one can learn and the most creative and imaginative ways they might be deployed.

Rather than recruit and train the right people for an anachronistic position and ask recruits to accommodate to it, we need to reformulate and redefine the job and the context, clearly articulate the values which should shape him/her and inform their actions and then recruit and train based on those same values.

We also need to muster the political will and determination to stand by these leaders, providing them with the moral support and political backing they require. Then and only then will we get the educational leaders we need and deserve.

***

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Is There a New Angle on School Reform?

Geometry Equation on Chalkboard

Many eons ago, I taught plane geometry. I took special pleasure in its leitmotif which was both simple and elegant.

The subject matter started with a few simple axioms which students could then use to prove a series of theorems.

The neat thing about the process was that after you had proven a particular theorem, there was no need to reprove it. You could simply cite it in proving subsequent theorems with which you were confronted.

And so the subject matter built, brick by brick, theorem by theorem — a glorious superstructure of thought unfolding before your very eyes.

There is no such historical consciousness in American education.

We go through a variety of experiences, bad and good, yet learn nothing from them. We invent terrific programs but go on to forget we had ever done so. Can you detect a trace of not only bitterness but also sadness in my voice, as one who led such efforts?

There is no reason that any profession should ignore its past and spend its current energy reinventing everything it knows.

Imagine if medical research, seeking to create new and effective vaccines, ignored past failures and successes to do so. That would be totally unacceptable.

Yet in education such insanity is an ingrained and acceptable pattern.

Meanwhile, articles appear regularly in our press, celebrating new approaches, often billed as “revolutionary.” In reality, however, they are only shadow replicas of what has been done before.

They are characterized by a remarkable failure of attribution; and by promoting their novelty and exaggerating their potential impact, lull readers into a false sense of complacency and a congratulatory attitude that we are at last on the right track, perpetuating the myth that society really cares about such matters while fostering the illusion that the culture is truly thinking outside the box.

Does anyone out there remember Title III?

Title I, yes: additional funding for schools serving poor kids; Title IX, yes: gender equity in schools, and its impact on women’s athletics. But Title III? “Doh!”

Decades before charter schools became our anointed savior, groups of eager parents and inspired teachers nationwide, started their own schools, serving public school students using public funds, both federal and local. How soon they forget.

There has never been a dearth of good ideas, good people, and good programs. There has only been a failure of will — to act on what is already known. “Been there, seen it, done it.”

What were those lessons? Stay tuned. Is anyone there?

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Gone Fishin’: Creating Relevant Educational Curriculum

Photo of Sculpture: Teacher and Student

Going rummaging through my old papers, I found my notes on comments made during the last presidential primary by the noted academic, Stanley Fish in a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education. OMG! Strange bedfellows indeed — a philosopher, detached from the real world and an entrepreneurial opportunist thoroughly immersed in it. As silly as it was, it sparked a variety of thoughts.

Fish takes on the people he calls “Solutionists” who decry that despite hundreds of years of innovation and technological progress, the 21st century classroom is basically just like the classroom in Plato’s dialogues: eager students sitting at the feet of a master teacher — a condition he fully endorses: “As far as I am concerned, that’s the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week.”

Alas, the good old days that Fish yearns for existed only as a Platonic ideal.

They were anything but good — a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, were cluttered with irrelevant curricula, emphasized rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Forina, who knows firsthand about jobs, having played a major role in destroying large numbers of them, nobly states that education’s great task is not to prepare people for jobs, but to “fill children’s souls,” to make of them the kinds of citizens who can contribute to a participatory democracy.

Agreed, the purpose of education in a Democracy is not to elevate the quality of Boeing or Microsoft personnel, enhance our GNP, or better allow us to compete in the world.

Its true purpose is to help the individual person act more effectively as an autonomous center of power and responsibility; to help her to be more creatively engaged, and to assist her in learning how to best use the gifts with which she has been blessed. It teaches her how to act not only better towards herself but towards others, helping her in her spiritual development so she night better act in accord with moral purpose.

That is the tripartite purpose of education — hopefully resulting in a free, autonomous, responsible, and moral being. Knowledge is understood for what it is, a means towards those ends, not an end unto itself.

But one does not “fill children’s souls.” That speaks of “pouring it on or in,” or what noted educator Paolo Freire called “jug to mug education,” whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student’s mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Might they better follow Freire, rejecting the traditional banking approach — the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student’s account, replacing it with a process that is mutual and dialogical, one in which students continually question and take meaning from everything they learn.

In the process, students learn how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, developing an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

It’s easy enough to single out standardized testing as a villain in the piece. Everyone knows the excesses of same and the preoccupation, if not obsession, with quantifiably verifiable indices of success. And the havoc such obsession is wracking on contemporary education.

But cool your jets on the issue of technology.

Agreed, there is a misplaced faith in technology that it can somehow deliver us to the promised land of enlightenment. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water or become a Luddite on the subject.

Ironically, the very technology generally regarded as cold and impersonal, also offers the best opportunity for re-humanization of the culture.

It has the potential to return learning to the learner. By recognizing his unique identity and personal interests, it can assist him in addressing his primary concern: liberation, affirmation, and acceptance of self, helping him to regain the right to determine his own experience.

This does not mean a diminished role for the teacher, but a new one.

No longer will the teacher be relied on as the source and primary transmitter of data. Employing the new technology, the student instead will have the ability to access information faster and more accurately through his own efforts.

This, in turn, allows the teacher to redefine himself — to embrace a new role as mentor and catalyst, guiding the student in an intelligent application of his knowledge and helping him explore new connective principles.

Technology also puts up for grabs the very concept of school as a building. Transcending time and space, technology frees educational thinking from the impersonality of constrictive brick and mortar structures. Technology does all of this… and more.

What technology does not do, however, is provide the conceptual framework for its employment and the values which inform its use.

Technology can be put to whatever use we want. Rather than being employed to insure greater compliance with mandates from Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues; its services can be employed on behalf of a higher calling.

Why not enlist it on behalf of the regeneration of intimacy and redefinition of community we so sorely miss?

This very same technology which puts us each into our own individual orbit, dividing and setting us apart, which personalizes our buying habits and identifies us as good consumers — also offers the best hope for bringing us together.

We first need, however, to affirm those values loudly and clearly, lest that same technology become yet another set of tools for our enslavement, rather than our liberation.

What is missing most from the Fiorina-Fish vision is an examination of the larger questions which go to the heart of the educational process and the most basic assumptions on which the entire superstructure rests.

  • What social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process? Education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?
  • How might our own educational history and past efforts at reform inform our current efforts?
  • What role do the larger social, political, economic, and technological forces play in shaping our schools? How do they help or inhibit our efforts to create a more just and humane educational system?
  • What are the alternatives to what presently exists? What are its essential components?

Neither Fiorina nor Fish makes mention of social justice, the meritocratic ethos which dominates to the exclusion of children of color and those who are less advantaged or the failure of our schools to meet their needs.

We’re all for greater exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy — the very subjects identified as victims of the current infatuation with computer learning and the STEM subjects. As for ideas, indeed — but not simply ideas for ideas sake.

This has led to an intellectual bias in the educational process which falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged.

Why don’t they mention how our schools might instead consider identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ? What of creativity and independent thinking? What of emotional and social intelligence? — enhanced self-awareness and self-control, how intellect and emotion might work in tandem, political and social consciousness/conscience, the capacity for working with others and helping them work more effectively?

We believe that the classics, including Plato, can play an important part in the educational process. But not as ends unto themselves, not as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

Our job as educators is to make the classics, and the questions they pose, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students.

Creating a relevant curriculum means developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It is one that speaks to them directly and to the times in which they live.

Education would then be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

I’m not sure that’s what either Carly Fiorina or Stanley Fish had in mind.

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.

Fudgsicles and Emergency Teaching Certificates: My Inauspicious Beginnings in Alternative Education

I wasn’t always a radical educator, very far from it actually. Creating atmospheres in education conducive to democratic community and choice have never come easy. Not during the Vietnam War and the race riots of the 1960s and 70s when I was an educator, and certainly not today.

I got my start in ice cream.

Popsicles, fudgesicles, and creamsicles to be specific. You name it, I dunked it.

“So for this, we sent you to college?” my mother would routinely ask at dinner time. 

Many of us have seemingly inauspicious beginnings.

And many of us also have “aha” moments, turning points in our lives or careers that marked the beginning of a grand new adventure. Call it fate, destiny, or plain dumb luck.

These are the moments when we saw a sign, in my case a literal sign—“Friendly Teaching Agency.”

Given that I’d just been fired from my aforementioned ice cream job (for a single act of defiance performed out of an unquenchable curiosity. . . a hint of things to come. Read more about it here.), and that I did not wish to hear my mother’s sighs again that evening, I thought, “Why the fuck not?”

I needed a job, and they needed a math teacher. I was a history major, and they weren’t picky.

Our path through life often looks like a series of steps and missteps as we move ever onward and also circle back around.

When did you first know that education was your calling? Do you remember the moment you knew that no matter what happened, you’d be a teacher first and foremost?

For myself, that moment happened my very first day in a classroom.

I fell in love with my students, with their innocence and openness. There was no going back. I wanted to do everything in my power to support their growth and autonomy. It was and always has been for them that I have continuously asked, “But what if?” and “Why not”

In my life I’ve pushed the bounds of traditional schooling methods and ways of thinking. Not because I meant to be a troublemaker by disrupting the status quo and challenging the system, but because there is no other way when you believe deeply in the potential, ability, and diversity of all students.

Alternative educators believe in the transformative power of education, of free expression and choice in a democratic community, of firing up the imagination to find ways to come together on behalf of a future we can all believe in.  

And maybe we believe in ice cream too, if not for its nutritional profile, at least for the joy it brings.

As Don Kardong said, “Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”  

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About the Author:

Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.