Written by Ashley Dier | Media Team | Toronto
Reimagine high school as a skateboard factory, a place where you earned all your credits by conceptualizing a brand, designing logos, pitching ideas, creating and DOING. History, geography, math they're all still there, the only difference you're learning them through the lens of skateboarding. That's Oasis Skateboard Factory, and alternative high school within the Toronto District School Board.
I sat down with Craig Morrison, the passionate founder teacher of Oasis Skateboard Factory and discussed alternative schooling, today's youth and creative new pilot project with the Academy Of Lions called Together We Are Stronger.
"In a way we're kinda like a design agency for students, for youth who have kinda fallen through the cracks. Each semester I look for like 25 creative misfits, skaters and creators. We assemble a team and then over the course of the semester we run a business manufacturing skateboards and doing other design work for people," Craig said.
Alternative schools are places where students find their way through learning environments that vary widely and often include self-directed projects, experiential learning, business and entrepreneurial mentorship programs, strong co-op programs and credit recovery opportunities - all while earning OSSD credits. (TDSB.on.ca)
Oasis Skateboard Factory is wrapping up its seventh year (graduation was last week) and has been incredibly successful - high credit achievement, graduation rates, high quality products, incredible portfolio's (Justin Beiber, AGO) and professional, employable teenagers the result.
"I'm dealing with at-risk youth, youth that have fallen through the cracks, and they're facing a lot of issues in their lives. I mean you look at our classroom, we have homeless kids, kids struggling with mental health issues, addiction issues, poverty issues, so when I started the program I was trying to convince local businesses saying things like, 'you should work with us. Look at these kids, you need to help them'. But then in year three my thinking completely flipped and I was like actually these kids are a resource for our community, I wanna flip this around now. We never approach it now as if you're doing us a favour. We're doing work for you. That's the kind of attitude the kids are bringing to things," Craig said.
A passionate teacher enhances the learning experience. I think back to my own schooling and the teachers that made the greatest lasting impressions on my life are the ones with passion, the ones like Craig. Imagine yourself not fitting into traditional schooling, the stress, pressure and frustration. You want to learn and society tells you that you should be, but it's just.not.working. What the TDSB, Oasis Skateboard Factory, and Craig are doing is connecting to the kids on their level in a context that works for them.
"Throughout the semester the students start to develop really amazing portfolios and resumes and a big part of that is connecting to people. I think with teenagers there's the stereotype of so much about teenagers are the things that offend adults. So I think I give them a really positive outlet to connect to cool adults. We've kinda let youth go wild without any real mentorship and have in a way just abandoned youth and treat them as just a group that gets marketed to. I'd really like to flip that around and it's like actually these are the creators," Craig said.
THE MEETING OF THE TRIBES
"Skateboarders, like many kids in highschool hate phys-Ed class. You think back to Phys Ed class in highschool, you're picked last, there are team sports where you get pummelled. Skaters are kind of a different bread, it's about doing a trick, and then doing it over again...it's about challenging yourself. So first of all because students have to get a phys-Ed credit to graduate, we were thinking how do we do that at Oasis Skate Factory. It should be obvious, we're skating and active all the time," Craig said.
After discussing ideas with Dhani Together We Are Stronger was born - a Physical Arts & Mindful Living program for the students of Oasis Skateboard Factory at Academy of Lions. The sessions were structured as a work out, followed by a discussion on some of the ideas surrounding a healthy lifestyle and mindfulness including harm reduction, stress management and communication, and then designing; the sessions mirroring the idea of design emerging from the experience of working out.
The program was a success, every student passed and a product (a t-shirt) was created and is now available in the Academy Of Lions store. "Their learning is embedded in the world now. We saw within our students some awareness and different levels of commitment to actually starting to think about their bodies in a healthy way. Students were starting to work out on their own time now. We started to see the connection of if this thinking of I wanna increase my skills as a skater, there are some other ways to condition," Craig said. The programming ran through the winter (a grim season for skateboarders) and ended with a t-shirt launch party on June 9th and is currently available in the Academy Of Lions Store.
Education is not a one size fits all model, alternative schools within the TDSB, like Oasis Skateboard Factory are crucial. When I asked Craig about life without alternative schools like Oasis his answer was heavy, "For some of the kids it's a matter of survival. Some of the kinds they feel that if it wasn't for schools like Oasis, they just wouldn't be here. Which is a powerful message. That we need to make sure that there are homes for all different kinds of kids," he said. Craig pointed out that this project based learning model can be transferred to anything, and expressed his gratitude to be a part of a school board in a city (a leader in alternative schooling) that sees the importance and necessity of alternative schools like Oasis.
"There's amazing things you can do with a teacher that's passionate and learning through that experience," he said. Oasis Skateboard Factory and Academy Of Lions are both examples of that.
To learn more about Oasis Skateboard Factory and other alternative schools within the TDSB click here.