Skateboarding at school – isn't that a dream come true? Nothing but like-minded people in class, teachers that can teach tricks – even a principal who pushes? Utopia for most – reality in Malmö. To learn more we sat down Bryggeriets Gymnasium vice principal and long time Malmö local John Dahlquist to learn about the Mark Gonzales of teaching and a school system benefitting from the creative energy inherent in skateboarding.
Words: Jan Kliewer | Portrait: Simon Jorliden | Skate pic: Isak Gustafsson
Where did you first get the idea to start a school out of Bryggeriet skatepark? Where did you see the potential of tapping into the energy inherent in skateboarding to improve schooling?
The idea came from the board of the skatepark that the school now share the building with. Due to a change in the law in 2005 it was possible for NGO´s (the school is a Non Profit Non Governmental Organisation) to start schools. The application was passed and the permit granted. Bryggeriets Gymnasium started in 2006. The idea was simple: To start a high school and include skateboarding as a subject. I got the offer from the hired principals to take care of skateboarding and build a subject according to the laws and regulations around the curriculum. We started ten years ago and it´s under constant change. My approach is to take in the students interests and build the subject around that. Today the courses include injury rehab, nutrition, individual goal setting, studies about the industry, guests from all walks of skateboarding (skate pro is just one thing in skateboarding, filming, photography, organizing contests, art and running companies are just as relevant). It changes all the time depending on what the different groups want to get into. Students tend to be less skate-nerdy and more into the wider perspective the older, which is fun.
How did you build up the schooling department's and the parents's trust in “a bunch of skaters" to let you take over responsibility for the first classes of kids to start the school with? What's been crucial for Malmö skate scene to build this relationship? Why do you think Malmö/Scandinavia is so avant-garde on realising the potential of skateboarding and making the public, the deciders aware?
The first couple of years people were skeptical. I liked that. I was too. It gave us a sense of being the underdog and underground. That´s were skateboarding thrives the most. It was also good since I wasn´t sure myself it was a good idea to institutionalize skateboarding the way it is, per definition, when you make it into a school subject. I decided to take the skaters/students interest and suggestions into consideration and that became my guarantee for keeping it “real" so to speak. Pretty much everything we do has come from students from the start. My job is to make it into something relevant for the course. That´s the easy part.
»The first couple of years people were skeptical. I liked that. I was too. It gave us a sense of being the underdog«
As far as parents go we've found that all they want for their kids is a good education. When they've come into school and realise that there is more to school than just skating they tend to be just as stoked as their kids. The first couple of years were all trial and error. Ten years deep I think it's safe to say we're offering a solid education with teachers that are there to do their best and with the students best interest in focus. I´m proud to be able to write that and I really believe that's what makes our school special.
Is Bryggeriet high school public or do you have to pay a fee to study? If so, do you grant scholarships? And what does it take to get one? Is Bryggeriet reserved for the well-off or would you say you get kids from all social backgrounds?
The school is run as a non-profit NGO. That means that there is no profit. All the money goes back into the school to invest in better education. The Swedish system is based around the students freedom to choose any school in the country and the government pays for tuition. So it's not the parents income that makes it possible or impossible to go. The hardest part is that a lot of our students need to move away from home to come to Bryggeriets gymnasium. About one third of the students are from Norway, Denmark and far off in Sweden. For those it can be tough to find housing as there are not a lot of apartments in Malmö. So if parents can invest in buying an apartment it helps. But in the end it usually works out even. If there's a will there is a way…
We get kids from all walks of life but girls are still rare. We hope to change that and the skatepark's initiative with girls skating will be a big part of that. We have some diversity but skating here as in most places is a white middle class phenomenon.
How would you describe a regular school in Sweden? How would you compare their approach to yours at Bryggeriet?
I think a regular school focuses on grades. That's probably how it is in most of the world. Bigger schools tend to have less relationship with their students. Teachers don't get to know the students. Instead the focus is on lecturing and passing out tests. According to scholar John Hattie, one of the heavy people on school research, the most important thing when it comes to doing well in school is a good relationship between student and teacher. We think that including the students interest helps in that relationship. We're never more than 150 students and always keep the door to the teachers lounge open. I think those two help. Everybody knows each other by name and students can easily get a hold of the teacher and vice versa. We're not much for rules – but one of the few rules we have is no stealing. Of course it's an absurd rule to even have but we've always said that there is no stealing at the school and there has only been one stolen board and second to none vandalizing over the ten years we've been here. I think and hope that's an expression that the students feel this is their place. You don't steal and vandalize your own things.
You call Dylan William the “Mark Gonzales of teaching" and base your work on his formative assessment research. Can you explain? Is regular Swedish school the “Nyjah Houston of teaching"?
The whole school system took William's research to heart a couple of years back and we have spent a lot of thought and work into implementing his thoughts into practice. It's a way of looking at learning as a constant process instead of a static thing. That's where the metaphor with the Gonz came in…
»Having a skatepark in the middle of your school can be a distraction… Be on time!«
The short of it is to check where in your education/evolvement you are and how to take the next step. The traditional way was to get a grade on your test and then go on to the next assignment. The new way is to take the test, so to speak, and see what went wrong or what can be improved and do it over again.
That is much easier to do in skateboarding than most other subjects. Skaters have a drive to learn a trick but not to settle there. The next step would be to do it more consistently or take it to a bigger ledge etc. In that sense we can (hopefully) use the skate insight and apply it in other subject or walks of life as well. Skaters tend to do it in a natural way. At least on the board. I know it´s a tall order, but skateboarding is a good start.
Where and how exactly do you see kids benefit from the skating approach in “normal" classes?
Our student Ville Wester put it really well: "By skateboarding I can get rid of some [physical] energy so I can go into class and focus on studying". The fact that there is no obesity speaks for itself too. Also when the students get to film skating in film class the result tends to be better. The camera works that same way no matter what you film but it's easier and more rewarding to learn if you get to do it with something you're interested in.
But then again, having a skatepark in the middle of your school can be a distraction… Be on time!
What's changed in the way you teach and work with kids in since you started?
It´s been ten years so I hope I have evolved as a teacher. I think my first approach was to just include skating in the schedule and skate with the students. Over the years it´s been obvious that class has to be something different than just skating. Or else it's just like skating outside of school.
Ever had your methods fail completely?
As a teacher you're always passionate for your subject. One day I came into class and just wanted to let the students take full charge of what was going to happen. When I asked them what they wanted to do they all raised their hands to share their idea. Turned out they all had the same suggestion: to leave and go home!
»It´s been obvious that class has to be something different than just skating. – Or else it's just like skating outside of school«
I felt like a complete idiot and had to realize that no matter how cool skating in school may be – getting out of school is more attractive…
How is it switching from teacher to skate buddy? Do you ever get mad at your pupils in class?
That´s a tough one. You have to be able to balance those two. Part of the job is to keep a class going, keeping to the schedule and make sure everyone does what we've agreed upon. I refuse to be someone to rebel against. I prefer they take that with their parents, society in general or somewhere else. I am here for the students, not against anyone.
Disrespect in all forms is not ok. As any other person that's when I have to be clear and use the authority I have in my role as a teacher.
The whole buddy contra teacher thing can also be weird at times. Probably more so to the students who see their teacher at contests or out at the spots. In the end I see way more pros than cons of sharing the same interest and being part of the same scene.
Do you ever hear teacher colleagues from “normal" schools moan about how tough/nerve-wrecking/humiliating their job is? If so, can you relate and what do you tell them?
I think that's more the media side of school and the politics. It tells us that school and youth is on a downward slope. But that has been the discourse since forever.
»Skating is as we all know based around classic male structures with men yelling “yeah" at each other and giving high fives for being “animals" and “machines". It's understandable that is not an attractive culture for a lot of women«
Let me tell you, we moan too. After a bad class with tardy, unmotivated students (like all schools we have those too) we moan and criticize ourselves. That's part of being ambitious and part of being a teacher. School is never a static thing. It needs to change and reinvent itself every day. But at the end of the day you have to believe in what you do with a wider perspective. I believe in a school based on the students' interests and needs. We will never get all the way with everybody but to keep trying is the drive. We have good and bad days, but on a good day nothing beats my job.
Is Bryggeriet a boarding school (lol) or are most of the kids from Malmö?
Funny word play! It's not a boarding school but some of the students come from far away. We wish we had apartments to let but unfortunately we don't. We are currently working with the city to get some apartments but it will take another year. Big up to Malmö City's apartment company, MKB for helping us out!
Assuming most of the students are guys on Bryggeriets Gymnasium. Is that an issue?
That assumption is correct. That´s an issue in skateboarding as well as at our school. We're lucky if we have one skating girl in each class. We are trying our best to be attractive for girls to apply and we talk a lot about it in class. I don't see any negativity against women in skating among the students but skating is as we all know based around classic male structures with men yelling “yeah" at each other and giving high fives for being “animals" and “machines". There are still companies trying to get into skating by using “hot" women to attract skaters to buy their stuff. It's understandable that is not an attractive culture for a lot of women. Change takes time and I really hope and believe things are going to look differently in five years. Then again, skateboarding is opening itself up. We can see that on a lot of levels and I hope change is coming and that we can be part of an accepting environment where everyone feels welcome.
»No matter how cool skating in school may be – getting out of school is more attractive…!«
Bryggeriet has a scene with a growing number of girls skating with their crew, Tösabidarna. Hopefully that will spill over into the school.
How do you see it working out? Isn't “#skatelife" enough of a bubble as is? Isn't growing that bubble into school life making skateboarders even more detached from the “normal" world out there? How do you prepare kids for life after skateboarding (high school)?
Haha! That is so true. This is a school for full on nerds stuck in a bubble. But our aim is to broaden the views and make sure everyone has a high school diploma when they leave. That opens the door to higher studies in the future. From my experience I can see that a lot of cool people that do really good things have sprung from skateboarding. Hopefully we can use that. The students come in as hardcore skaters with just one interest but most actually leave with a more relaxed approach to skating. I think that's just part of the growing up you do when you are between 16 and 19. Also, there are not just skaters at the school. Abut half of the students are not skaters but art-, photo- and film-students.
We also have a counselor who helps out with applications and résumés prior to graduation.
Do you see a change in the kids' attitudes over the years? Especially in regards of the way they see skateboarding and its culture? Is the bond to skateboarding kids grow today the same you experienced as a kid?
Skateboarding in its core is the same: it's kids that don't want to do the other stuff like football or hockey. People that want to decide for themselves and have a drive to do so. The big difference I think is how big skateboarding is and how accessible it is. There are parks everywhere, most people who don't skate know what an ollie is and who Nyjah Houston is etcetera.
»We have good and bad days, but on a good day nothing beats my job«
But the bond is definitely there and it's cool to see kids from all over Scandinavia come together and become friends so easily.
Where do you see Bryggeriet graduates excel in, where do you think you need to improve the curriculum?
The students with a drive tend to do really good things here, everything from becoming pro skaters to going onto creative work and education. The big challenge is to motivate and find the best way for every one to learn. That's super tough. In the end 150 students will have 150 different needs and there will never be enough resources and time to make it perfect for everyone. All my answers above are just my thoughts on the matter. Implementing them day to day is a whole other ball park. All we can do is try our best. School is a make believe bubble often very different from the real world. We try to make it as relevant as we can to things you might actually make use of once you're done by making exhibitions for the art students, taking in guests who work in stuff related to the subjects and so on. We will never get all the way, no school will. But we are trying every day.
Let's be honest, are skateboarders really (still) as special as they like to think? In the long run do you see skateboard high school remaining a way supply skate rats with a way to actually care a bit about learning or do you think it could turn into an academy to train future Swedish Gold medalists?
It is special to them so let them have it! If it changes along the way, that's fine too. I really hope it is a way to open their eyes to other stuff too. As far as making gold medalists, the ones that are going that route would probably do it with or without a skate school. We let students get time off for competitions but very little time is spent on talking about or practicing for actual contests. As long as I'm here I know we will try to cover as many bases as possible not just focusing on tricks. Skateboarding has so much more to offer. The kids already know all there is to know about tricks via Hella clips. Hopefully we can offer something else.
What's the most remarkable memory from your ten years of teaching at Bryggeriet and where do you see skateboarding at Bryggeriet, in Malmö and globally go in the years to come?
Two things come to mind: The first is when Bob Burnquist came into class. He was really hesitant and wanted to skate more than to talk to a bunch of high school students. He said he'd give us 15 minutes between sessions. Once he realized it was a class of skaters he shared all of his stories, stayed an hour and let everybody ask anything they wanted. That was a surreal experience. We got to hear about everything from the start of Anti Hero to his future mega ramp projects. So sick.
»School is a make believe bubble often very different from the real world. We try to make it as relevant as we can to things you might actually make use of once you're done«
The second one was when one of the best skaters to ever attend tried to 360 ollie flip the double set at the park during a lunch break. All the skaters at the school were watching. Another, more of a beginner students, tried to straight ollie it. They landed about the same time and the crowd went trough the roof, sheering and congratulating them both just as much. At that time I thought that this place and skateboarding was the best thing I've ever been a part of.
As for the future it´s hard to tell. We are just getting started here and will keep developing our school. I´d love to be able to accept international students. That would be cool.
Skateboarding seems to be changing and who knows what will happen with the whole Olympic thing? Personally I think it will probably just be another contest for the chosen few but with a lot of main stream interest. Time will tell I guess.
We will just keep on doing what we do and see where it takes us.
John, good luck with that and thank you very much.