Back to Ed Books page
Back to reviews page
Challenging the Giant:
Vol. II ( vol. I also referred to below -
and see below for volumes III and IV reviews):
The Best of SKOLE,
the Journal of Alternative Education,
Mary Leue, editor,
Down-to-Earth Books
P.O. Box 488, Ashfield, MA 01330
Reviewed by Claudia Berman:
Claudia is an independent consultant in science education and educational alternatives for school districts and universities. She received her Masters in education from Antioch New England Graduate School and has written a book on the School Around Us, an elementary alternative school in Kennebunk, Maine, where she taught for 14 years.
The alternative movement started 25 years ago during the social revolution of the sixties and seventies. At this time, hundreds of small schools were created by parent groups or individuals. Many of the schools were short-lived. Those that have survived continue to provide an alternative to parents seeking a more holistic education than that provided by most public schools.
In 1969, Mary Leue, editor of Challenging the Giant, gathered a group of people in Albany, New York, and started The Free School, now one of the longest running independent alternative schools in the nation. After committed hard work and 15 years of experience, she and a small group of other members of the northeast region of the National Coalition for Alternative Community Schools (NCACS) founded SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education (pronounced Skolay), dedicated to the documentation of small schools such as her own. Important lessons were being learned in these small schools that could benefit educators everywhere, but the schools had little voice in the larger educational public. The aim of the Journal is to supply a voice for the alternative education community with the hope that the small schools could share their successes and failures with a wider public.
This book is an anthology from SKOLE. In this collection, the editor draws on writings from within the alternative educational community and presents rare views on schools that work. It contains writings from teachers, students and scholars. Some selections are written by profes-sional writers, some are not. The tone of the book is one of casual shar-ing and acquaintance. Some pieces are written as journal entries while others are academic in nature. To add to the casual, reader-friendly tone of the book, the editor adds information or commentary after each article that helps put the article or author in context.
The methods, educators and philosophies addressed in the anthology are as varied as the people and schools themselves. Each alternative school has a unique character. Each account of a school's history, philosophy, or methods could stand alone. The beauty of the collection is that, in its entirety, along with Volume I, which was published in 1992, it paints a collage of real people, situations and educational methods that have been the basis of the alternative education movement for 25 years. It provides an invaluable glimpse into the guts of altemative education.
It is only recently that people involved with small alternative schools have found time or energy to write about what they have been creating. Most of them have been busy keeping the schools going and spending time with the children they serve. This anthology marks the beginning of documentation of this historic educational movement from within the schools themselves by the people who created them.
The articles share common elements that reflect the essence of alternative education: student and parent empowerment through democracy, a reverence for nature, and attention to the whole person (intellectual, physical, emotional, spiritual), to new research on the brain and learning styles, and to human relationships. Generally these schools embrace the holistic education vision summarized in the words of Global Alliance for Transforming Education (GATE) members, a small gem included in the book:
This education emphasizes the challenge of creating a sustainable, just and peaceful society in harmony with the earth and its life. [It] seeks to transform the way we look at ourselves and our relationship to the world by emphasizing our innate human potentials&emdash;the intuitive, emotional, imaginative, creative and spiritual, as well as the rational logical and verbal. (p. 265)
This book covers much ground in its casual collage format. The editor has included excerpts from books and reprints from other educational joumals by such prominent educators and authors as Sylvia Ashton-Warner, John Taylor Gatto, Jonathan Kozal, Ted Sizer, Robert Theobald, and Ron Miller - all of whom have been instrumental in educational change and supporters of alternative education in the last 25 years. She has also included a summary of research from the Hofstra University Center for the Study of Educational Alternatives, a long-term public altemative school research project on how to design alternatives for success. This is a short but important piece that could be beneficial to many schools looking to create specialized programs or alternatives within larger schools.
Many alternative schools are family-based, creating a community of parents, teachers, and students. The anthology indudes poetry selections from students, which enhance the character of the collage and remind us of the impact the students themselves have had on the altemative education movement. The anthology would not be complete without this addition. This book, Challenging the Giant Volume Il, and its partner, Volume I, are valuable additions to the growing library of materials that document the alternative education movement and support a holistic world view.
Challenging the Giant: Volumes III and IV
The Best of SKOLE, The Journal of Alternative Education
Down-to-Earth Books
Reviewed by Emanuel Pariser

Introduction of the Reviewer:

Perhaps it would be most honest of me to reveal who I am before I "critically review" "Challenging the Giant" so that I can completely get rid of any shred of "objectivity" which as reader you might bestow upon me or my words. Let me first say that the editor of this compilation from SKOLE (which, by the way, is the precursor of the quarterly "Paths of Learning") is Mary Leue, who was one of the first people who made me feel like my writing held interest for anyone else. She published my thoughts and feelings about the work we do at the Community School in SKOLE for many years, giving me the sense that we did and what we thought, and what we struggled with mattered - even to complete strangers. What SKOLE did for me over the years of its publication was to beckon me to write, to put words to paper, to get "it" out, so that others could participate with me in our adventure and so that I could get my thoughts straight.

Which is all to say that I came to this review with an extreme predisposition that this compendium of essays, interviews, surveys, book excerpts, and, yes , even book reviews, would be a tantalizing assortment of the thoughts and feelings of people like myself who were struggling the same struggles, thinking about the same paradoxes, and coming to a chorus of differing conclusions. I was not disappointed.
Volume III of Challenging the Giant: The Best of SKOLE: The Journal of Alternative Education, is now officially out. Weighing in at 492 pages long the wonderfully diverse range of authors sculpting its pages range from Zöe Readhead, A.S. Neill's daughter, writing about her father, to home schooler Rebecca Furbush-Bayer, on the imperiled European wolf, to Ron Miller and John Gatto verbally duking it out over whether public schools are redeemable or not.
Mary Leue, the editor and founder of SKOLE and the Free School in Albany, has the knack of inviting people to write - whether they be 5 or 50 - anyone who has something to say, something they mean sincerely, can say it in SKOLE. This "Best of" collection is divided up into ten sections including: profiles of alternative schools around the country, essays by teachers on learning (several delightful chapters from Chris Mercogliano's newly released Making it Up As We Go Along&emdash;The History of (Albany's) Free School), student writings, some gripping John Gatto polemics, writing as usual like a butterfly but stinging like a bee, and some pieces on the "Plight of Our Children."
The voices and points of view filling this edition are ones not usually heard from in "mainstream" discussions of education. They are impassioned, dedicated, disgusted, learned, stimulated voices who are writing to communicate, to vent, to celebrate, to broaden their experience and those of their readers beyond the bounds of their own personal horizons. No one point of view dominates, no one writer gets top-billing, no particular vision is put on a pedestal. But there is an urgency to what is said - an urgency which is evident for those of us working with children and adolescents in and out of schools, which grows each day; an urgency which these assembled voices embody. It is an urgency which begs for action.
As Mary exhorts us on the book's back cover: "Don't just sit back and stew....Take back your power!...Make a start now by deciding what you really want (for your children), then begin working to figure out how to get it." Meanwhile order a copy of this book from Down-to-Earth Books.

Volume IV:

All Content All the Time:
You Can hold the Giant in One hand!
Challenging the Giant is not about form. In fact one might call it a conventional format: 8 3/8" by 5 7/16". You can hold the book in one hand and the pages won't droop over. The photos look like they never wanted to stop being negatives, but were forced to. There are no graphs, advertisements, or fancy graphics. It's mostly just words on a nicely sized page that enjoin you to read them. The book fits nicely, as did the journal, on almost any bookshelf.
If the Giant is not about form, then it is about accessibility. Nobody, at least of my generation, could get scared away by this book - the way it looks, its "scholarliness" or "coolness" or "avant gardness". Regardless of how famous or how unknown a person is , The Giant treats them the same way - personal, direct, human. Nobody gets a bigger typeface, ecstatic introductions by fawning admirers; we all are given a space to say what we have to say - and much like school uniforms - it looks all the same between the covers of the Giant.
What I like about this is the lack of pretense. Whether you are a public
luminary like Jonathan Kozol, or John Gatto, or Uri Bronfenbrenner, or a
dedicated teacher or college intern like Orin Domenico or Adam Adler, you
get the same treatment. Of course the familiar names attract, but there is a wonderful leveling effect to the style of The Giant, and there are many wonderful surprises.
Skole: the "Bread and Puppet" of Educational Journals
For the past 30 years an unusual spectacle has taken place in Glover, Vermont, called the Bread and Puppet Circus. Once a summer people from all over the country were invited to watch puppetry and political theater in the Circus's outdoors arena. Thousands came and learned and were entertained and left inspired and invigorated. Sadly the large weekend show has been canceled for the last couple of years, but at one point in my life I went annually with my two young children, partner, and friends in what became almost a pilgrimage for us.
The very special thing I always left Bread and Puppet with was the feeling that "I could do it", that if I wanted, I could start a theater, make puppets, pull together political dialogue, and teach at the same time. This is perhaps one of the most important functions of a political art form - to get the viewer to engage to such a degree, that he leaves the experience certain that he could create something of like value. Reviewing the Giant reminded me of how strongly SKOLE catalyzed that feeling in me. I am inspired to write, to think, to overcome my petty
resistances to being active. It is the opposite of reading "great thoughts" or "writing" which is deemed such by social consensus, and makes one feel "less than", and "what's the point of writing - it's all been said, and better than I can anyhow."
But there's the point, the point that Mary Leue understands to the very core, and it is a point which Challenging the Giant embodies in every article, on every page. The book shouts, " You do have something valuable to say - don't wait for someone else to sort of say it, don't hang back for the "Experts" - out with it - rough, smooth, naive, realistic - say it. We can only save ourselves if we move out of our passive consumer roles and into an active and engaged dialogue, trialogue, conversation about what we passionately believe or feel.
Do you get the general gist here? Well it might help if I gave you a little bit more of an idea of the kind of articles that have been compiled here; I will momentarily succumb to objectivity.
Content: What's in it for You?
Challenging the Giant 4 runs 481 pages with 58 articles, divided into fourteen sections including interviews, essays, studies, book reviews, and excerpts from two books. One of the most intriguing aspects of reading through the Giant, is that you come upon people you probably would not have a chance to read elsewhere sandwiched in with people you can read all over the place - there it is that leveling phenomenon. Take for instance an interview with professor Dayle Bethel who is [or was - he's now in Hawaii, ed.] dean and professor of education and anthropology at the International University center in Kyoto, Japan. Bethel has translated the important work of Japanese educator, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and in his interview articulates idea upon idea which delight and intrigue:
We have failed to understand that in order for a child to develop all of
her many sides, she must grow up an integral part of two systems, two
systems upon which her whole life depends. These are nature, the natural
system where she is, and her family and community, her social system."
Do we fail to understand this when we look at Schools as "preparation for
work, or even the Jeffersonian, "preparation for an active citizenry"?
He continues:
...children must be integral parts of their natural and social life support
systems during their growth years..very few schools in existence today can
qualify in these respects..
and on the role of the teacher:
my first responsibility is to help children and youth discover and learn
how to actualize the unique, irreplaceable potential genius within
them...the lively actualizing learner can and does quickly pick up factual
knowledge when it is needed. My second responsibility is to nurture in
each learner a sense of wonder and respect for life through immersion in
the natural world and in their assist them to enter into
dialogue with their surrounding environment.
Flip through the pages a little further and you might find out that the
reason John Kozol spends a lot of time in the South Bronx is that:
"Most of my best friends are children. If I had my way, I would spend the
rest of my life with people less than three feet high."
A little bit further on Orin Domenico puts down an angry list of the
"primary lessons taught in school" today which include:'
In "Caritas in the Classroom: The opening of the American Student's Heart"
John D. Lawry, a professor at Marymount College in New York, shows that
Relational Education, as we have known and practiced it with high school
students at the Community School, is an equally valid approach for college
More and more I have come to realize that the quality of the relationship
between student and teacher is critical in opening the heart as well as
the mind. Though there is little empirical evidence, I believe the
highest form of learning occurs when the teacher loves and accepts the
students so fully that they feel safe enough to go within to see
themselves and to emerge with new answers about themselves and their
lives. As Parker Palmer asserts, " To teach is to create a space in which
obedience to truth is practiced." Similarly, Goethe said in the last
century that it was not the most brilliant teachers who had the greatest
influence on him, but those who loved him the most.
Nice huh?
This volume is littered with similar jewels. On one page you can read about how Martha Stoner uses meditation to help her college students write, on the next Richard Prystowsky is giving good advice on how to "Construct a good college level essay", which is followed by William Willimon's moving essay, "Has Higher Education Abandoned its Students," which looks at the ways in which we have neglected students in higher education - once again forgetting or foregoing the principle of Relational Education. Jerry Mintz has put together a great list of "Vital Questions for Families to Ponder" in relation to starting an alternative school; and John Potter [the Japanese educator, ed.] argues with Ron Miller that particular alternative educational visions should be celebrated, not criticized for their narrower focus.
I learn all the time when I read in the Giant. Some of what I learn is that other person's point of view; some of what I learn is that I have a good argument to refute what this person just wrote; and a lot of what I learn is the value of conversation, of discourse, of trying to articulate ideas and perspectives.
Very few of us are going to get rich or famous contributing our thoughts and guts to Journals like SKOLE and yet, it is a thrill to see one's writing out there floating around in the print world. Challenging the Giant, Skole, Mary Leue have all played a significant role in bringing new voices into the ongoing conversation we need to be having about our lives, our work, our hearts and souls. Chris Mercogliano's books have all been previewed in these pages, and I would wager that it was within them that he built his love of writing and the confidence to become one of this generations most widely read educators.
There is lots more to find here, believe me, I have just skimmed the surface. The book is available at Down to Earth Books, PO Box 488, Ashfield, Massachusetts 01330. If you find yourself sitting down to write the definitive article on education after reading the Giant, don't blame me, I warned you! Happy reading.
Love, Em

Back to
Ed Books page ..............Back to the top
Back to reviews page