Learn With Them
Joel Weber's learning, teaching, growth, teens, & Holden High School blog
Many years ago a mom from Colorado was in Orinda visiting Holden on recommendation of her own mom, who knew Holden from being part of the National Coalition of Alternative Schools (NCACS). Addie first met Co-Director Jeanie of the perennial purple hair, then Joel of the long curly hair. This gave her pause. But she set a meeting with Counseling Director Renee. And with a sigh of relief, she thought, “Finally! A normal looking professional person I can really talk to about my kid’s needs!” Alas, Renee arrived at the meeting with her own flaming purple hair. Addie enrolled her kid anyway, and didn’t tell me this story till I saw her next at an annual NCACS conference.
Origins of Holden High
(Blogger’s note: In 2005, Carolyn Cogan, co-founder of Holden High School, set down the story of how Holden came to be. Here in her words is the first part of that story.)
“In the 1950s and more in the 1960s, “between the civil rights movement in the South, the Vietnam war, and the feminist movement, young people, thinking people, civic-minded people everywhere were speaking out for freedom and justice. Churches and schools, often the last institutions to invite change, were engaged in a close look at how they could serve young people in more personal, creative, authentic ways….
“In l968 Cogan went on her first sabbatical year, ostensibly to research the military-industrial complex so she could teach the U.S. history that is not in the textbooks. During that year she also joined the Orinda-Lafayette Peace and Freedom Party. This group decided to focus on local education.
“Mostly parents of children in Orinda schools, they shared Cogan’s vision of a public school where their children would have the encouragement to pursue their own learning in more child-oriented environment. They decided put their support behind three candidates for the Orinda School District School Board. Two candidates lost by fewer than 100 votes. The third candidate, our own Elizabeth [Betty] Karplus, won a seat on the board, and has continued to advocate for open classroom and relevant learning; she also has been a supporter of Holden for many years.
“In a de-briefing session after losing the election, many members realized that one board member was not going to be able to make the institutional changes we wanted for our children in Orinda’s schools. Someone suggested we start our own school, and pointed to Cogan. Immediately three families said they would enroll their children. Lucy and Skip Henderson, Betty Barrie and Glen Spencer, and Paula Reese [another longtime Orinda Community Church member] helped Cogan organize the first community meeting to find others interested in enrolling their children in a “free” school, which they initially called Our Place.
“Through a series of community meetings held throughout the spring and summer of 1969, Our Place inspired people to volunteer their time and skills to set up the school. Naïve about fund raising, Cogan decided to become the first director and teacher running on idealism and love for kids. Two personal friends and Inland Valley Intermediate School teaching colleagues donated the first $325. An Orinda neighbor whose two daughters Cogan had been tutoring enrolled her girls and gave the school its first campus: a poolside room in the home of her parents, the owners of Hooper’s Chocolates.
“They opened in the fall [of 1969] with two teachers and seven students: three fifth graders, one seventh grader, and three high school sophomores – a definite challenge to individualized learning.
“Heroes come in many disguises. Enter Dr. Chauncey Blossom of the Orinda Community Church. Ray Roberts, former principal of Monte Vista High School, advocate of alternative education, and friend of Cogan, asked Rev. Blossom to consider renting the church basement to Holden School. [The Church answered yes, and] [I]n the fall of l970 we invaded the hallowed halls of the Orinda Community Church and became a true “underground school,” and the pool table in one of our rooms replaced the swimming pool as a way to cause doubt in Cogan’s mind about play as an important way of learning.”
“Beautifully Weird”: Renee Beck’s “Graduation” Speech (after 33 years as Holden High School’s Clinical Director)
(Bloggers note: Renee was my remarkable colleague for more than thirty years at Holden High. She started and anchored the school’s counseling program. This little address is from her retirement/graduation barbecue in June 2014. She is a profoundly wise and wonderful woman. Learn more about Renee at www.reneebeckmft.com)
One of my favorite moments this year was in Community Meeting during Praises: a senior, somewhat quizzically, but quite sincerely said, “I just want to praise the school for being beautifully weird.” (Thank you, Dash, for giving me permission to quote you!)d being Beautifully Weird, for me, describes the heart of what is right & good with Holden, with CCAS, with our roots in alternative education. It is Beautifully Weird that a bunch of folks who have been disrespected or felt as though they don’t fit in the larger society can come together as a group, & even though we don’t necessarily fit in with each other, figure out how to work together as a community that is based on respect & on the belief that we can all grow & change.
We always ask graduating seniors how they have changed. And since I’ve spent over half of my life in high school, I wanted to answer our Senior Conference Questions:
My first Impressions of the school: December 1980: I looked up from the bottom of the stairs to see a 6′ tall, leather-clad, metal-studded, foot-high-mohawked young man scowling fiercely at something. He looked up, saw me, & beamed, “Oh, hi! Welcome to CCAS!” And I was.
After an internship interview with Co-Directors Joel & Jeanie, who asked questions that actually made sense, I left the school feeling that it was a lot like Goddard, & I knew I was home. The one problem was: Joel had graciously invited me to his Christmas party!
Now, what I was like then: I was an incredibly introverted, quiet young woman, deeply passionate but teeteringly unsure of myself. I had no idea how to make small talk on-on-one, let alone socially, & going to a party where I knew no one filled me with dread & terror. I went, innards trembling, & the only thing I remember is meeting some really wonderful people, &, again, feeling welcomed. I started at Holden two weeks later.
The main way I’ve changed since then: Holden helped me to find my voice, & taught me that people will listen, & that what I say can actually create change.
Things I’m proud of/accomplishments: That we have been able to support, supervise & train about 80 beginning therapists, & send them out into the world knowing how to work respectfully & deeply with teens & their families.
My Goals: To keep dancing with & integrating my own Shadow.
To have time to work in my garden, & to write.
To keep developing my skills & helping others, as an alternative educator, & as a transpersonal therapist & supervisor in my private practice.
One of my favorite memories: Students calling an all-school go-round to voice their objections about a director-made disciplinary decision: we asked a student to leave. The students told us we were wrong; we said we were right. They said they felt it was useless to talk with us about this, but they kept telling us how we were wrong. It took 3 days of meetings for the Co-Directors to get it, but we did; the students were right (again). The student was invited back to school, & CCAS had its first Student Council.
Other fond memory snippets:
* Co-Director Jeanie & I being separated in Community Meeting by the student Chair because we couldn’t stop giggling.
* An SAT or CHESPE prep class I was teaching working studiously while spontaneously doing quiet base line, drum & vocals to Sunshine of Your Love.
* Students writing essays in English that convinced the Co-Directors to stop the library parking lot from being off-limits.
* Students adding Apologies to the Community Meeting agenda
* Co-Directors coming in to school one spring morning to find the Seniors all there, in pajamas (Oh, no, what kind of prank is this??) — to have them surprise us with breakfast.
* And being able to teach to my passions, including classes on Tarot, & on Cults, & being able to call class by yelling out the front door, “Serial Killers in the Lounge!!”
How Beautifully Weird is that?
A few thank-yous are in order: To the founders of the Free School /Alternative Education movement, for believing students know what they need to learn, & for respecting the human thirst for knowledge as a basic need.
To all of the staff for your deeply-driven love & devotion to our students, to learning & teaching, & to alternative paradigms.
To the Co-Directors over the years: for supporting me — especially through difficult times — in becoming who I am; for the hard work it takes to reach consensus & to run an organization collectively; & for your commitment to the school’s mission, & to community.
To the counselors: for your skill, your heart, & your courage in facing your own shadows to better help your clients.
And, most importantly, I want to thank the students: As a group, for your ability to adjust to a rather peculiar but important little culture, & for reminding us, tenaciously when necessary, that you often know much better than the adults what you need & what is right. Please keep reminding us adults; &, as adults, please keep remembering & encouraging young people to remind us!
And thank you to the students past & present, as individuals, for allowing me into your lives, for teaching me to really listen, for opening my heart. Thank you for extending to me the honor of trust, of allowing me to accompany you for a short while on your inner journeys of discovery. Please keep discovering; please keep facing those inner demons; slay those you must, but befriend those you can, for they hold jewels that are yours.
Please keep following your heart, your passion, & what you know is right, & good, & great.
Lastly, a wish for my fellow Co-Directors & staff: Please do whatever you can to keep providing Holden students, both individually & as a community, the connection & the safety they need & deserve to explore & empower themselves.
Please do whatever it takes to keep Holden Beautifully Weird.
* Renee Beck’s Graduation Speech, June 14th 2014. Renee is Clinical Director Emeritus (1981-2014) of Holden High School (formerly Contra Costa Alternative School), which started as part of the Free School Movement in 1969, & serves teens & their families from all over the San Francisco Bay Area. Renee is now in full-time private practice in Oakland. Contact her for Dreamwork, Transpersonal Therapy, Personalized Ritual & Tarot, or for Clinical Consultation & Supervision.
At my student Karen’s lesson today, we figured out something important. Karen already knows that if she doesn’t want to play a song anymore, she doesn’t have to, whether she’s learned it perfectly or not.
She also knows that she can practice whatever she wants during the week and choose not to play it at all at her lesson. This lessens stress for her, and it means she’s playing for her and not for me. And we use lessons to work on sight reading and various techniques and hints for her to be able to work on her own better.
Today Karen was lamenting that she didn’t remember the songs she learned for very long—not as in memorizing, but as in when she went back to them later she felt like she had lost a bit. So what we figured out is that she doesn’t have to ever go back and play the old songs unless she wants to, and that she totally has my permission on this. I will never press her to develop a current repertoire. She doesn’t need one if she doesn’t want it.
Even better, it clarifies that what she loves is the process of practicing and learning new songs and techniques. It doesn’t matter how much or how little she remembers of specific prior songs. Inevitably she keeps getting better at playing and keeps bringing more to the process of learning and playing songs for herself. It’s perfect process learning—she practices and learns because she wants to practice and learn, and in her practice she never has anything to worry about for lessons.
How remarkable that people from as many as 40 years ago would make time to travel to their high school reunion.
And remarkable again that although many of you had not met before, and many of you hadn’t been near Holden in years, you were all comfortable sharing your feelings because you were all part of the Holden community.
The common theme in the circle go-round, from 1973 graduates to 2014 graduates: Holden let me be or become my unique self. (Even though I might not remember the exact years I was there!) And again, it being Holden and teens being teens, no two unique selves were alike.
And the common theme from staff: you say you were lucky, but we were the lucky ones: we got to learn from you and grow with you, and we got to see miraculous transformations. All the time.
And for me, maybe the most luck of all: 38 years before I graduated from Holden. Thanks alumni for being who you are. And let’s do it again next year! I love you all.
Many parents and teachers are unduly fond of forcing kids to do things the kids don’t want to do. The authorities may not admit it, but it makes them comfortable to thus reaffirm their position of authority, or their position of being one-up to the kid. It’s kind of like giving a spelling test: “I’m the teacher, you’re the learner. Fill your head.” (Giving spelling tests may need not always be a bad thing.)
(Sometimes I think the less secure an authority is, the more likely they are to try to force people to do things.)
One of the ways this gets expressed is: “You’ve got to learn to do things you don’t want to do.”
This never sounded exactly right to us at Holden. We were always suspicious of clichés anyway. So here’s what we figured out with our teen students: “If there are goals you want to reach, there may be pieces of your effort that you don’t really like or aren’t really interested in. But if you can’t reach your goal without these tasks, and if you can’t or won’t modify your goal, then you’ll have to figure out how to do these ‘undesirables.’ We can help you chunk these tasks in doable pieces, or intersperse them with things you like to do, so that they get done and you get the satisfaction of achieving that bigger goal. Or we can help you refine that larger goal.”
In short: “You may need to learn to do tasks you don’t like or want to do in the interests of some bigger goal.”
The adolescents I’ve known line up on two sides of a dichotomy: some come upon some boring or distasteful task and often say, in effect: “That’s stupid. I’m not going to do it.” Others often say: “That’s stupid. How can I learn something from it if it’s something I have to do?” This of course is not any pure dichotomy, but it does seem to be there in real life.
So to me, it will help people if they can broaden what they’re willing to do if and when they’re serious about meeting large or longterm or fixed goals. Otherwise, let’s talk about changing goals.
I’m sure you know of examples in your life or in lives around you—from music, from building things, from applying to and getting admitted to college, from finding a job, etc.
These ideas relate to that other cliché: “You can do anything you want to do if you just set your mind to it and work hard.” More on that later, but for now I would just say that the cliché is only true if you have flexibility in your set of “anything you want to do.”
(Bloggers note: Renee was my remarkable colleague for more than thirty years at Holden High. She started and anchored the school’s counseling program. This talk at the Orinda Community Church on November 10, 2013, distills much of what she knows and of what the school has learned in lo these many years. Learn more about Renee at www.reneebeckmft.com )
Learning is about relatedness.
As a teacher, I am thrilled to see that “Aha!” look of curiosity & wonder when a student makes new connections between concepts.
As a therapist, I am honored to witness people finding hidden parts of themselves – both beautiful & horrific — & integrating them into a larger concept of Self.
As a human, I am delighted when people start new friendships, make good jokes, learn new skills, or find ways to increase relationship with our own & other cultures, our world, our universe, & the Holy One.
At Holden, we get some students who seem uninterested in learning, who may feel defeated about learning, or whose curiosity has been squelched, or has gone into hiding under the weight of life’s pains & trials. Sometimes even trying to learn can seem too big a risk. We work to help them feel valued in relationship, to feel better about who they are, to recognize the incredible learning they’ve already done & the skills they have already honed. We know that when people feel good about themselves, they will love learning, because, well, we’re humans. We take in all kinds of information & make connections all the time!
And all learning happens in relationship.
Several years ago, a student asked me a question in class, to which I replied, “I don’t know.” The student, new to Holden, looked at me, perplexed, & exclaimed, with a bit of agitation, “I’ve never heard a teacher say ‘I don’t know’ before!” That was a risk for her. That was also a further connection in our relationship, & in her relationship with herself, with teachers, & with the process of learning.
Now, saying, “I don’t know,” comes pretty easily to me, having had lots of practice with it, & I sometimes find that not knowing can be rather delightful, because it means there’s a new mystery to explore.
We humans love mysteries & puzzles, & that seems to me a metaphor for our relationship with the Holy Mystery. Not knowing allows us to formulate questions, which opens us to possibilities we never would have considered, if we already knew. Not knowing can be scary, but it is inspiring. Not knowing allows us to learn, & to grow.
And when we learn, we become more aware of our relationship with the Divine One. When we learn, we open ourselves more to Spirit. And learning involves risk.
On a skateboard, when we risk attempting a new trick, we open ourselves to Spirit.
In a relationship, when we risk reaching out, we open ourselves to Spirit.
In society, when we know something is wrong, & we risk creating change, we open ourselves to Spirit.
With new ideas that challenge our beliefs, & we risk our assumptions, we open ourselves to Spirit.
When we stand at a blank canvas, & risk that first brush-stroke, we open ourselves to Spirit.
When we pray, & risk not being answered in the way that we hope, we open ourselves more to Spirit.
And every time, we learn. Every time that we become more aware of who we are, of how we are connected to information, to people, to nature, to beauty or ugliness, we learn, we become more intimately involved with the Mystery of Spirit.
And you life-long learners of the Orinda Community Church keep taking risks & making connections. 44 years ago, you took a risk by taking a bunch of teenagers & a few hippie teachers into your basement. For over 40 years, you have helped the students & staff of Holden High to deepen their relationships with themselves, with each other, with knowledge & skills, with community, & with the larger One. We thank you from the depths of our hearts, for learning is a priceless gift.
Learning is about relatedness.
"I don’t want to tell you not to cross the picket line; I want you to decide for yourself not to cross."
When my son Roy was a junior at Oakland Tech, he made the Junior Varsity basketball for the first time. They were in preseason when the Oakland teachers went out on strike. The district decreed that you couldn’t play sports on days you weren’t in school. Athletes were required to cross the picket line.
One day I came home before my wife Julie. Roy told me that he and his friends had figured out that they could sneak in the side of the school to get their attendance slips signed, then sneak back out, but still be able to play ball. The teachers didn’t have pickets on the side of the school. I told him it was important to support the teachers on strike and not to cross the picket line or go into school at all.
We went back and forth for awhile, and finally he thought a minute and said, “Well, honestly, if someone would tell me not to cross the picket line, then I won’t.” I thought a minute, and being a lifelong alternative school teacher, said, “I don’t want to tell you not to cross the picket line; I want you to decide for yourself not to cross.”
Our conversation ended there; Roy went downstairs to do homework. Julie came in a little while later and I told her the whole story. She immediately marched downstairs and said, “Roy, don’t cross the picket line.” And so he did not.
Very determined and clear Julie and Roy were. Giving kids options and freedom is not always the way, and not the only way, clearly. End of story.
When Ed was about 11 years old, he knocked on Dan’s door down the street in Richmond and asked if he could mow Dan’s lawn. This changed their lives. Ed’s buddies were hanging out, robbing houses, and getting into trouble. The only way he knew to stay out of that trouble was to be able to tell his friends that he had something else to do. Dan said sure, mow my lawn, and pretty soon Ed was asking for other jobs to fill more of his time. Dan always found work for Ed. In fact, after a few years, they became such good friends that Dan invited Ed to move in with him.
It was shortly after this that we first got to know Ed and Dan. Because of the kind of person Dan is, and because he is a teacher, he looked for something that would work for Ed. Ed enrolled back when Holden was called Contra Costa Alternative School (CCAS). My first real conversation with him was on his first day, in the morning, in the bathroom, when he told me how nervous he was because he hadn’t been in school or learned anything at school in years. He wondered and worried how he would do.
It was very hard at first. Ed was rusty at school, and it was never his favorite or easiest thing anyway. But he came every day, he came on time, and he worked hard. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a student who worked so close to his potential. His family still lived down the street; his brother was regularly getting in trouble, and Ed tried to help out but never really got support in return. Where he got the energy to work so hard in school I will never know.
He had lots of trouble with the small amounts of homework we gave in his first year, but Dan always helped him, and he learned how to complete the stuff, often by doing marathons in the last week of the semester. CCAS has a college style schedule that is not the easiest to read. Ed had trouble finding his classes for months. By his second year, though, he was reading his schedule like a pro.
Ed was never anything but respectful to us. He was one of the most likeable kids we ever had. But we struggled with him like crazy about rules and about substances and alcohol. At one point he was restricted to campus because he drank alcohol in Orinda. At another point we quizzed him extensively about whether he had been smoking marijuana on campus. He always denied doing anything wrong. He was afraid to admit if he did something wrong. We think this was because he got beaten before he moved into Dan’s. We tried to invent situations where he could tell us the truth about doing something wrong. It never worked.
In his senior year he was near the end of his chances to quit using around school. We smelled alcohol on him from time to time. He still denied it. We said he needed treatment. Finally he and Dan suggested that he provide us with a breathalyzer to check the next time we smelled alcohol. We never smelled it again. He may have stopped drinking before or at school on that day.
Ed struggled and we struggled. Like all the students, he always had an advocate on staff; his psychological counselor. This served him well and helped insure that the rest of the adults didn’t overreact. We also helped him hook up with Kris Picklesimer, a wonderful psychologist in Lafayette and longterm friend of the school. Kris did marvelous work with him one on one exploring good and bad, faith and love, lying and truth.
As someone from a family where no one had ever graduated from high school, Ed was in some ways very different from all staff. But he learned, and we learned, and we always loved him. He completed all his work and was ready to stand for graduation. Every year in the week before graduation we had a senior dinner at my house. As part of the dinner, kids could confess anything they did at school and there would be no consequences. Ed came to the dinner under the influence of alcohol. I really didn’t want him to stay, but I really did. You don’t take senior dinner away from somebody. At least we did not. I asked him if he had been drinking and he said no. Staff reluctantly decided that we’d let him stay.
But later came the confessions. It turned out that Ed had really needed to drink to fortify himself to say what he needed to say. He said he drank or smoked marijuana every day at school and even supplied some other kids. He admitted that he had drunk before he came to dinner. This was the first time he had ever admitted any wrongdoing, and again, without the alcohol, I’m not sure he could have admitted it.
So over the next couple of days, I’m wondering, as I do from time to time, ‘Am I an idiot?’ We knew he had been using some, but every day? Shouldn’t we have guided him to treatment a long time ago? We thought and thought and talked and talked about this in meetings for a few days. We realized that Ed had grown profoundly as a person in his four years, even while he was using almost every day. Dan and the school and the substances actually created a container for him in which he could grow and grow. In retrospect I don’t think we would have done anything different. It isn’t the normal pattern of a four year student to use substances in this way. I really can’t think of anyone else with a pattern like this, especially including alcohol. It’s not that we would want to change school rules, which say clearly: no substances or alcohol at school or in Orinda or before school.
But Ed was Ed, and somehow he figured out his own way to bumble through and come out the other side. If he hadn’t found Dan, he might be dead now. If he hadn’t found CCAS, he would not have finished school and he would have felt like a failure. But the thing about Ed is that he not only finds opportunities, he uses them. He made the best of those opportunities, and the staff has only the greatest respect and love for him.
At Ed’s graduation he had everyone in tears. He was so nervous, but he made such a beautiful speech. Here it is, in part:
“… at Holden, when I first came, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read; I couldn’t even understand half of the words that were being said in class, because, to tell you the truth, learning is hard for me and when I went to school in Richmond nobody cared if I tried, nobody cared if I attended or not, nobody cared if I could learn and nobody even cared about me. That’s the truth. Before I came to Holden, every day at school was just surviving. Hanging with the gangs was the only way I felt safe because in Richmond, I was different, and in Richmond, if you are different and no one’s got your back, you’re not going to survive.
I was different at Holden too. I came with my own problems, but when I looked around, I saw that other people came with their own problems too and instead of kicking me out, the staff at Holden helped me to overcome my past and they are helping me even still.”
When it was the next graduate’s turn to speak, all he could do was sob. We have had many great graduations, but Ed’s might have been the greatest. We learned so much from him, and he benefited so much from being at CCAS.
I think there are lessons here for how we’re supposed to teach the children. Bill Clinton doesn’t understand learning as it must be implemented for kids. Jerry Brown doesn’t understand this either. They are neither of them qualified to prescribe what a school district or country needs by way of educational standards, because they don’t stop long enough to perceive, cherish, and learn from individual kids. In fact the term ‘educational standards’ is wrong, but that’s another story.
I believe that what we do is really very simple. In a way it amazes me that there aren’t CCAS’s everywhere. I don’t think there are more than a couple of dozen schools in the country like ours. Lucie Hupp reminded me once that we said we loved the kids before we knew them. This is true, and to me a very religious idea. We take all the money we can find, invest in adults who want to work with kids, respect them, learn from them, and love them. Maybe these are the keys. Love them before you know them. Be prepared in humility to learn from them. Give them support till you can’t support them anymore; then support them some more. We have been accused of offering ‘relentless support,’ and I think that’s true.
How is Ed doing now? Kris has continued to work with him, shaving his fees as need be, getting Ed in an Vocational Rehabilitation program from the state. Ed is training for janitorial service, and getting the highest grades and most honors of any kid ever to go through the program. Just writing this stuff brings tears to my eyes. So Holden will find more Eds, and they will find us, and we will learn from them, and they will learn from us, and we will love them, and they will love us, and these are great, great things.
When I was younger, Educational Philosophy was easy for me because I was dogmatic. Now that I’ve been working with people one at a time for more than 40 years, it’s harder to generalize. That said, here are some thoughts.
This country does not support its youth very well. If you don’t want children left behind, pour much more time, energy, people, money, and other resources into kids from a very young age. Tailor initiatives to each community and then to each kid. Get wonderful people of all ages — credentialed or not -- to work and play with youth. Decentralize and downsize their schools. Create alternatives to schools, including mentorships, jobs, and community service. Give the young only the limits they need. Go light on zero tolerance, because it’s almost never what you or the kids want or need. See them as the individuals that they are. Respect them. Hear them. Listen to them. Love them before you know them. Show up, be there, keep being there, love them when they do well, love them when they’re struggling. Expect to learn a lot from them, and you will.
Copyright Joel B. Weber 2013 forward. Disclaimers: This blog is not affiliated with Holden High; views are my own. I have no official connection to Holden other than Director Emeritus and friend. Dates and many student names have been changed; facts have not.