QUOTE


"We humans are way too imperfect and not understanding enough to be trusted with the power of 'disciplining' others." - SoulRiser

Doc Johnson interviews SoulRiser

Edgar D. Johnson III (Doc Johnson was his username on the forums) interviewed me in 2006 for his book, What About Us? Standards-Based Education and the Dilemma of Student Subjectivity. School Survival is one of the case studies in the book:

In three case studies, the author analyzes several non-school models of education, including Marine Corps bootcamp, Ving Tsun kung fu training, and an online, school resistance community. Johnson argues that examination of these learning contexts provides a better understanding of the shortcomings and dangers of the standards-based model of student subjectivity, and suggests a set of fourteen principles to inform the development of more student-centered alternatives.

Some of the information about the forums and hosting are outdated now.

This is the full interview:

Doc Johnson:
1. When and why did you start School Survival? Give as much detail as possible about the process and your thinking at the time.

SoulRiser:
I started School Survival in 1999, when I was in Grade 11. At the time, the only reason I started it was because every day when I came home from school, I was angry and frustrated. I decided that I needed to write things down, to get it out of my system. So I put together some sloppy pages with some sloppy HTML, and 'School Survival' was the first name that came to mind, so I made a grungy-looking logo for it and put the whole thing together.

I didn't actually expect my interest in it to last very long. But, on a regular basis, I found myself writing more and more stuff on it. To my amazement, people actually visited it and emailed me feedback and told me about their experiences at school. By the time I had graduated at the end of 2000, the site was somewhat interactive and commenting was more-or-less automated. Since I was no longer in school, the thought of discontinuing the site had crossed my mind, but all the site's visitors had convinced me that the site was actually helping people and was worth improving further.

The more I added and the more I read about the people who visited, the more I realized that there are a lot of young people out there who feel the same way I did back in 1999, but they don't know that other people feel the same way. So they come to the conclusion (probably due to pressure from teachers and parents) that there is something wrong with them for thinking the way they do. The mere realisation of finding out that you're not alone and not insane can do a world of good for a person. This has become one of the main goals of School Survival - mainly because it doesn't seem that anyone else is focusing on it.

Doc Johnson:
1a. What, specifically, did you *not* like about school.

SoulRiser:
I was bullied and picked on since grade one, because I was always a quiet person and didn't really talk to people. I never liked the work much either, most of it was boring and I only did it to "get it over with". The only subject I ever liked was Art. Most of my teachers were alright, but there were two or three over the course of my 12 years that really terrorized the kids. My grade 1 teacher was vicious. One time she twisted one kid's ear so badly it bled all over her, and she wasn't even sorry. My grade 3 teacher was always hitting us with her ruler for the stupidest things. We had to get our parents to sign our homework every day, and one day my mom forgot to sign it, so the teacher hit ME in class, in front of everyone and made a big scene to humiliate me. As if the bullying wasn't bad enough already.

What specifically drove me to start School Survival was actually the private school I was in from grade 9 to grade 12. At first (in grade 9), it was amazing. It wasn't like the "school" that I had known. Everyone treated me with respect and even the work was interesting (or at least taught in the most interesting way possible). But the school changed over time, and the teachers started to give in to pressure from the parents about their kids' grades and how "sloppily" they wore their uniforms. The school slowly started becoming more and more like the regular public schools, and I was immensely saddened by this. It made me so frustrated every day, to watch these teachers I used to have great respect for, throw away their principles in order to impress stuck-up people and to make more money. That is why I needed a place to vent.

Doc Johnson:
1b. What, in your fondest dreams, do you hope School Survival will accomplish?

SoulRiser:
There are a lot of things I hope for in my fondest dreams. In reality, one site can only do so much. All I can realistically hope to accomplish is that the site will be a place where you can go, and be accepted for who you are, you can get all your frustrations about school out of your system, without everyone telling you it's wrong, or that you'll amount to nothing in life because of it. In that sense, I could hope for School Survival to be a sort of stepping-stone towards making things better. If more people could realise just how many people there are in the world who don't like the way schools work, maybe they could work together and make it easier for everyone to get out and try alternatives, or come up with much better alternatives. It would of course help a lot if more parents would actually listen to their kids instead of judging everything they say - but old habits die hard.

Doc Johnson:
1c. Given that you are no longer in school, what benefits do you get from running the site?

SoulRiser:
Mostly just the satisfaction of having made something that people find useful. In a way, it helps to give me a sense of purpose, it makes me feel like I'm actually doing something useful with my life. I've learned a lot from all the people who visit, and from visiting other related sites, none of which I probably would have done if I had never started the site. It's also a great source of entertainment, people post some hilarious things quite often, and "hate mail" is also usually quite fun.

Doc Johnson:
1d. Do others help you with the site (e.g., other moderators)? If not, what role do they play?

SoulRiser:
There are a few moderators who help keep the forums organized, and two site moderators who can edit and delete comments on articles and news. Also, there is one very generous person in Italy who lets me use space on his hosting account for the site.

Doc Johnson:
1e. What establishes "appropriate" and "inappropriate" comments on the site? I know we've had a few people who are difficult to deal with, but I don't think I've ever seen anyone outright banned. Would you do so, and under what circumstances?

SoulRiser:
Nobody has ever been banned (except for a few spammers, but they're usually not even human, so that doesn't count). I believe in free speech, so you can say whatever you want, even if you make yourself look stupid. I've never even censored racist comments. I don't agree with or even condone racism in the slightest, but I believe it's good to get all views expressed, even the ones that hurt people's feelings, because people will never learn to truly get along if they don't try to understand each other's point of view.

Occasionally people will post guides on how to do things that can be used to harm others. That's the sort of thing you don't want to have on a public forum, because some random nut could go and do something stupid with it. But I don't delete it - I just move it to a hidden forum that most people can't see. It wouldn't help if I deleted it, they could just post it anywhere else anyway. You can't stop people from doing things you don't agree with, but if you remove the means to talk with them about it, you're just driving them further underground - and that's never a good thing.

Doc Johnson:
2a. What kinds of people come on the site? Why do they do so?

SoulRiser:
All sorts of people visit the site - students, teachers, parents, intellectuals, people who can barely type... the list goes on. Most of the students come there because they hate school, but some of them seem to come there simply to berate everyone else on the site. Only a few teachers have ever posted anything, and surprisingly, most of their comments were in support of the site.

Doc Johnson:
2b. Have you checked to see where the members are from? Can you tell me anything about the site users' demographics?

SoulRiser:
By a large margin, most of the site's visitors are from the US, but quite a few people have come from the UK, Canada, and various European countries. I think at least one person from each country in the rest of the world has visited the site at some point.

Doc Johnson:
2c. In what ways do you see School Survival to be a community, if at all?

SoulRiser:
I think a good community is a place where different people can get along, no matter how much they may disagree on things. From that point of view, School Survival doesn't do too badly. Sure, we argue a lot and like to throw insults around, but it's mostly just for fun, and we try to keep it in a special forum so that it doesn't get in the way of more serious conversations. So, on the one hand, it's nice that School Survival is a small community, because everyone gets to know everyone, and on the other hand it's also nice to get new members joining. We'll have to figure out some sort of balance between expanding and keeping things simple.

Doc Johnson:
2d. You were asking a while back about running advertisements. Have you decided not to do that for some reason? How else do you pay for the site? Have you ever considered using PayPal to solicit donations?

SoulRiser:
Actually, the advertisements are there. They only show up to non-members, so people who are logged in won't see them. I personally find ads annoying, so I wouldn't want to subject regular visitors to them. A lot of people just come and go, so if they click an ad every once in a while, I won't mind. I pay for the domain with my own money, but domains are pretty cheap. It's hosting that costs a lot more, but one very generous person in Italy is letting me share space and bandwidth on his account. All in all, the site hardly costs me any money, and I don't make a profit either. If I was getting lots of money from the site I'd worry that I might put more emphasis on making money than spreading the message, and that would be bad. If someone wanted to donate, I'd recommend they rather invest that money into printing some articles, t-shirts, posters or anything to help spread the message.

Doc Johnson:
3. Explain why and how you learned to do web design, and so forth. I assume that you learned it outside of a school, so how did that work?

SoulRiser:
It was shortly after I had acquired internet access in 1998, and I got curious as to how websites were made, so I basically just started messing around in a Frontpage 98 demo I had. My first "site" was only about 4 pages about the game Quake 2, and for a first try, most of it worked. I quickly learned the differences between having the pages on your own computer, and the uploaded version online, because the images wouldn't load on the online version. I made a few more mini-sites about random things after that, but lost interest in them all quickly, until I started School Survival in 1999. It wasn't until 2000 that I started learning about server-side programming, by installing a few Perl scripts to handle the comments on School Survival. Perl scripts were a bit dodgy, they didn't always work right depending on the server, and I had to change settings and set permissions to make them work. In 2001 I discovered PHP, by installing a secure login script. It worked perfectly without my having to change anything about it, so I was instantly impressed with PHP, and decided to get PHP equivalents of all my Perl scripts that were handling comments. I couldn't find any that did what I wanted, so I decided to write my own and learn PHP in the process. Granted, I had already dabbled with programming in TurboPascal and Delphi, so I caught on rather quickly. I still made a lot of stupid mistakes however, so the script worked, but I kept on finding bugs and fixing them until I got a basic idea of what you really shouldn't do. As for the design, I was never satisfied with the look of School Survival, so I ended up redesigning it over about once a year. When I look back at the old versions now, I'm glad I changed them!

In college (2002) I actually took a web design course. It was quite amusing how the things they taught us were mostly things I had taught myself in 1998, and most of their techniques were considered old-fashioned by other webdesigners I had spoken with. The other students in my class actually asked ME how to do things rather than ask the teacher. In retrospect, I probably should have studied something else. The course did more to put me off web design than make me look forward to making sites for other people.

Doc Johnson:
3b. What are some of the attitudes toward learning that you most typically see on your site?

SoulRiser:
There are two attitudes I mainly come across - people who don't like learning in school because they find it boring and they think they could do it better on their own, and people who find the schoolwork too hard and don't understand what's going on. People who are bored often complain that the teacher moves too slowly, or just states the facts without trying to make anything interesting. People who find the work hard are usually upset with the teacher for not explaining properly, or also for just stating facts without making it seem relevant to anything, which makes it hard to relate to.

Doc Johnson:
3c. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of learning in an out-of-school context?

SoulRiser:
The most major advantage I think is that you can do it your own way. You don't have to conform to other people's standards which may not work well for you. You can do it at your own pace, as quickly or as slowly as you want to or need to. If you're particularly interested in something, you can spend as much time on it as you want, without being forced to "move on" to the next chapter.

The main disadvantage I think is that if you're stuck and don't understand something, you have to figure it out yourself, even if you don't want to. Granted, there are always ways to find things out, but if you want someone to guide you through something, then teaching yourself might not be the best option.

Doc Johnson:
3c.1. How might you overcome the disadvantages?

SoulRiser:
If you know of someone who may be able to help, you can ask them. If not, you can find almost any information on the internet - quite possibly even a step-by-step guide. There are many online forums that have a section where you can ask about schoolwork - which would probably still be relevant even if it's not technically "schoolwork". If you don't have internet, your options are more limited, but there's still always the library.

Doc Johnson:
3c.2 Do you think high school could be done differently in order to exploit the advantages (above) that come from learning outside of school?

SoulRiser:
It probably could. It would involve a mindset change on the behalf of almost everyone involved in running schools, as well as many teachers. If schools could be considered more as places one can go and do research and receive guidance as needed or requested, instead of places you go and receive rigid instruction, then I think they would cater both for people who want to do things their own way, and people who want to be guided a lot more.

Some people will probably respond to this with something along the lines of "But how will you test that they learned anything?". If you absolutely must test them, you can ask them to do a presentation for the other students. That way the student who learned about that topic gets to organize what they found out into a way that will make sense to other people, and the other students may just find that they're interested in that topic as well. You can even grade it if you want to. The thing with tests and exams is that they tend to test memorization skills more than whether or not the student actually understands the topic at all.

Doc Johnson:
4.1: Are there any circumstances in which you think learning MUST be done in a classroom with teacher supervision?

SoulRiser:
It's quite possible that there are circumstances where it would be better or easier if done in a classroom with supervision, but I think that approach will never be able to cater to 100% of the students in the class. Learning in a classroom context with supervision is not a bad thing in itself, so long as if a student wants to pursue it on his own instead, he can do so.

Doc Johnson:
4.2: If someone is not interested in learning something that may prove useful later (e.g., math), how can they be motivated to learn it?

SoulRiser:
I think the best way to convince someone that they need to know something is to show them where they can use it. The way math is done in most schools is so vague that it bears no resemblance to anything in the real world. So, for example, instead of showing a student a drawing of a triangle and making them work out the lengths of the various sides, show them something real, like a bridge, and give an example of why it's useful to know how to work out the sides in the first place. The trick is to cater to different interests. Not everyone is going to care about the triangles in a bridge, and then they won't be motivated by it.

Doc Johnson:
4.3.2: Can/should students be a part of school governance?

SoulRiser:
If there were no students, there would be no school. Therefore, since the whole purpose of school is to supposedly benefit the student, I am convinced that if students had more say in how the school was run, they would feel like they matter, instead of feeling like things just happen around them and they're powerless to change anything. I've read numerous stories of students being asked for their input in school matters, and grades and attendance and morale in general improving dramatically after their ideas were taken seriously.

Doc Johnson:
4.3.2: What roles should students play, and/or what domains should students have control over w.r.t. how the school runs its business?

SoulRiser:
Many people seem to have this idea that young people are too immature and that older people know what's best for them, but the fact of the matter is that it's the young people who have to go to school, so I think they would be the ones who know what's best for them. Therefore, I would insist that students have control over absolutely everything, from which textbooks get used, to which teachers to fire or hire. I'm not saying the students should completely take over (though that probably wouldn't be as bad as it may sound), but that students and adults should have equal control over matters, like a true democracy, and that most importantly, everyone involved in decision-making should talk and listen equally.

Doc Johnson:
4.4: In what ways does the idea that parents know what's best for their kids tend to fail in the context of school? How should that problem (assuming it is one) be addressed?

SoulRiser:
If the parents were to accompany their kid to school, sit next to them in classes all day, do all the same work and homework, then maybe they might have a better idea of what's best for their kid. But they don't do that. The only insight they really have is what their kid tells them and what the teachers tell them. Unfortunately, if the two sets of information differ, many parents would rather believe the teacher. This problem has a very simple, yet difficult solution: parents should listen to their kids more, and not just listen, but actually take them seriously.

Doc Johnson:
4.5: On School Survival, there are a few kids whose parents are not exactly... supportive, shall we say. What options do they have in gaining more say in their lives?

SoulRiser:
That is a very tough situation to be in, especially if both parents are unsupportive. It is often a case of the parents not listening to the kids and not taking them seriously. Sometimes parents find it easier to take things seriously if it's in writing, because if it's right in front of them, and there's nobody nearby to yell at, they're almost forced to read it and consider what it is saying. So kids could try writing to their parents. If that doesn't work, they should try to find an adult that their parents do take seriously, and try talking to them. Maybe that person can act as a kind of middleman. If absolutely everything fails, and life at home is unbearable, there are emancipation laws that make it possible to legally move out before the age of 18. These laws probably differ from country to country and I think they often involve the kids having to prove that they can support themselves financially.





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