Mandalas and art as tools for personal development

I’m happy to welcome back artist and art educator Heidi Miller Lowell with a new guest post that includes some of her own artwork featuring mandalas. Heidi teaches art and storytelling workshops, homeschool classes, and camps at The Austin Artery.

Mandala is a sanskrit word that means circle. Mandalas are ancient spiritual and ritual symbols believed to represent the universe. Some cultures believe that mandalas are important tools for meditation. You might recall having seen monks spend endless hours pouring delicate sand designs into mandalas only to let the sand be carried away by the wind as a reminder of the impermanence of life.

In my life, mandalas have been a helpful tool for gaining insight, clarity, and becoming more authentic. Creating any piece of art is a process. When we quiet down and pay attention to that process, we learn a lot about our mind, emotions, and creative process. Sometimes the process of creating a piece of art is more important than the finished product itself. I believe that the lessons we learn in creating art can be taken back and applied in our lives, work, or relationships to help us reach our highest potential.

For example, I began creating this watercolor mandala several years ago with the intention of paying attention to my tendency toward perfectionism. As I painted delicate designs for hours, I began to know that my creative process was lacking the spontaneity and joy that I desired when making art. I was often tense and focused on making a finished product that other people would enjoy looking at.

After coming to that realization, I picked up my brush and begin painting dark streaks of what I imagine it might look like in the darkest corners of outer space. The painting might not look like much to a viewer. However, this mandala hangs on the wall in my studio and serves as a powerful reminder that I can let go and make art that is imperfect and deeply meaningful. This piece of art marks a very powerful moment in my artistic career.

I also often use mandalas to teach children mathematical concepts like radial symmetry, angles, division, focus, and proportion. Geometric mandalas have helped to teach me patience, focus, and discipline. These geometric designs have informed much of my current work.

You can learn more about making simple mandalas online. I also am hosting several workshops  on creating 3D sculptural mandalas from natural materials, as well as geometric watercolor mandalas, this spring and summer. You can find out more at

Heidi Miller Lowell

Making student voices matter at SXSWedu

I spent much of last week at SXSWedu immersed in presentations, panels, workshops, films, and informal discussions about education. For me, the most exciting part of the conference was The State and Future of Student Rights, a summit organized by the student-run nonprofit Student Voice. According to the organization’s founder and executive director, Zak Malamed, the summit was “responsible for increasing SXSWedu student attendance by more than tenfold!”

Over the course of the first two days of the conference, students, teachers, and education influencers came together in a large meeting room (and in many informal conversations beyond) to find solutions to what many perceive as an unjust situation for those at the center of U.S. education systems. With more than six hours of programming and two days of discussion, the summit was the first national effort to bring the issue of student rights to the forefront at a major education conference. Its central focus was the creation of a Student Bill of Rights, which is now ready for viewing, voting, commenting, and amending.

The summit began with The Right to Be Heard, a panel discussion on the current legal landscape for free speech on campuses and how students can exercise their right to be heard. Moderated by Kyle Scott, an NBC News associate producer and Cornell alumnus, the panel included Dawnya Johnson, a student leader and advocate in Baltimore; Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center; Dr. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, where students enjoy an unusual level of input into policymaking; Keaton Wadzinski, co-developer of Student Voice in Action at Student Voice and a University of Virginia student; and Tara Subramaniam, director of Student Voice Live! events and a high school senior. LoMonte pointed out that students are a group that has not benefited from the general human rights movement that has seen so many gains in recent decades.

Another panel addressed The Right to Technology. Participants asserted that all students are entitled to technology and broadband Internet access and should have a say in decisions regarding the adoption and implementation of new technologies for their academic institutions. Guided by moderator Erik Martin, chief editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland student, they discussed equity, privacy, and safety around educational technology as well as the benefits reaped when students and teachers use technology in the classroom. Panelists included Niharika Bedekar, a girls’ empowerment activist, founder of Power Up, and a current Stanford student; Linh Dinh, a STEAM advocate, 3D artist, and high school student; Daniel Kao, director of web and systems infrastructure at Student Voice and a student at the University of California, San Diego; and Larry Magid, a widely published technology journalist and internet safety advocate.

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

In Reaching the Unreached, panelists addressed rising suicide rates, youth violence, sexism, racism, and homophobia—all issues around which suffering students’ voices are too seldom heard. The session explored how we can help marginalized students integrate into classroom conversations and interact with peers for collaborative learning. Along with moderator Jacqueline Emerson, a gender equality activist, Hunger Games actress, and Stanford student, panelists included Erik Martin, editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland Student; Lee Nave, cofounder and director of operations and development at Student Voice and a Seton Hall grad student; and Eva Shang, a Huffington Post blogger, teen adviser to GirlUp, and Harvard student.

One of the most controversial issues in education today is assessment of knowledge—the ways we measure understanding and determine students’ future prospects. Most often, students are left out of these conversations and policy decisions. In The Right to Fair Assessment, moderated by Zak Malamed, founder and executive director of Student Voice and a University of Maryland student, panelists and audience members discussed the fairness of standardized testing and alternative forms of assessment. Members of the panel included John Corrigan, vice president of customer experience at the nonprofit college testing organization ACT; Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of NYC schools; Lillian Van Cleve, a student leader at SAFE Voices and an Oberlin Student; and Joey Vega, part of the True Beef: Pasture to Plate film (screened during SXSWedu) and an Austin Community College student.

Alt Ed Austin salutes young people everywhere (and their older supporters) who are putting themselves on the line for all students’ rights. The Atlantic recently published a great piece on some intrepid students in Kentucky who’ve been working through their state legislature to pass a modest student rights law. Want to make your own voice heard as a student, or know someone who’d like to get involved in shaping the Student Bill of Rights? Contact Student Voice, or follow @Stu_Voice on Twitter.


What job are your kids hiring school to do?

Temp Keller, today’s guest contributor, runs WonderLab, which he founded to “reignite the love and boundless wonder of learning in both students and parents.”

As Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson thoughtfully argued nearly five years ago in a white paper on student motivation, “most of the ‘home runs’ of marketing history occurred when people sensed the fundamental job that customers were trying to do—and then found a way to help more people do it more effectively, conveniently, and affordably.”

The authors went on to share a wonderful anecdote about a fast-food company that was attempting to sell more milkshakes. After extensive focus groups, subsequent product tweaks, and considerable expense, sales remained flat. It wasn't until they asked the question “What job is the milkshake being hired to do?” that they started making progress. They discovered that nearly half the milkshakes sold were bought in the early morning. The “job” for which they were being “hired”? Sustenance during a long, boring commute.

Coffee was guzzled too quickly. Bagels were too messy. But the milkshake took a while to finish, and the chilly container not only kept the driver alert; it fit beautifully in the cup holder. The punch line? Once they understood the job the milkshake was being hired to do, they could build a better milkshake. In fact, they built what we now know as a smoothie.

So what “job” are kids “hiring” school to do? Christensen, Horn, and Johnson hypothesized that “there are two core jobs that most students try to do every day: They want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with friends.” The white paper makes a compelling case that many schools are not fulfilling either of these jobs very effectively at all.

At WonderLab we believe that the key to success and fun is one fundamental question: What will motivate this individual Learner to love learning? Our experience tells us that once we better understand a Learner’s unique strengths and passions, we can then help them make progress on a project that is as unique as they are—all while having fun with friends.

So for all you parents with the need for your child to be in a safe, productive place outside of school or a homeschool environment, over spring or summer break—or perhaps a new spot for a child’s upcoming birthday party where the job-to-be-done might also include making the other parents a bit envious that they didn’t think of it first—please keep in mind your child’s primary jobs-to-be-done: feeling successful and having fun with friends!

And do keep WonderLab in mind, as it’s a job that we most certainly love doing!

Temp Keller

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg

Using art to teach history

Tyler Merwin teaches history and philosophy and leads Socratic Seminars at Skybridge Academy. He joins us on the blog to share his experiments with making art in the history classroom.

I have always had an interest in art, whether paintings, literature, propaganda posters, or pottery. That being said, I have never been much of an artist. Even something as trivial as shading inside the lines of a fourth-grade coloring book can feel less like fun and more like the New York Times Sunday Edition crossword for me.

With this in mind, I have had an aversion to using art as an instruction method, partly because I felt that in order to properly teach something I should have some level of competency, and partly because I didn't want my students to see their 26-year-old history teacher struggling to draw something a 6-year-old could whip up during snack break. But after seeing the work that our art teacher, Johnny Villarreal, was doing to help his students navigate their anxieties with art, and witnessing students bravely posting their artwork across his classroom walls, I decided to take the leap—and the results have been astounding.

“Anyone? Anyone?”

“Anyone? Anyone?”

One of my biggest concerns as a history teacher is that my lessons are going to be boring. I am always working to use humor, academic controversy, or anything else that may seem remotely interesting so that students feel fully engaged—and so that I don’t feel like the economics teacher from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Most students are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of writing research-based papers. So how can we help prepare them for research-intensive college courses while at the same time keeping lessons fun and engaging?

One answer can be art.

For example, I’m currently teaching a class called Civilizations, which explores various aspects of many of the major societies of Earth’s history, starting with precivilized humanity and ending with the Mongols. Currently we’re learning about ancient Egypt. For the first few classes I used a short lecture along with an informative YouTube video and student-led research about Egyptian culture. Over the next few days, students wrote a historical fiction piece based on this prompt:

Imagine you are someone alive at the time of the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Write a two-page story about a day in your life. You can be the Pharaoh, you can be a pyramid builder, a merchant, or any other entity relevant to that time. The goal is to research about the time and write a short story that could have actually happened.

(These assignments can also require students to cite their sources, giving them a taste of what the academic research process is like.)

The results were fascinating. The stories’ narrators included a woman who is questioning the applied gender roles of the time, a pyramid builder planning a workers’ revolt, a Pharaoh who has become consumed by materialism and is refusing to escape his burning town in fear of abandoning his possessions, a revered cat in charge of watching over the grain stores, and a tomb thief who meets an untimely demise, among many others.

The level of effort students put into their research and writing was incredible. To create more immersion, we played ancient Egyptian–themed music we found on YouTube, alternating with a loop of construction noises (kind of corny, but actually kind of cool). To help create a sense of community, between times spent helping students as needed, I too wrote a story that I shared with them.

Being in a room with 15 high schoolers ditching their phones and iPods to work fastidiously on ancient Egyptian historical fiction pieces was the highlight of my week (which has also indicated to me that I am officially transitioning into boring adulthood; I think I’m OK with that). To finish the assignment, we shared the stories together in class, and it served as a great way for students to compare, contrast, and ask questions pertaining to the subject.

Modern cave paintings recently discovered on the walls of Skybridge Academy

Modern cave paintings recently discovered on the walls of Skybridge Academy

Another example of using art projects to teach history also comes from my Civilizations class. In learning about the Neolithic Period, we studied the struggles that cave dwellers endured and examined their cave paintings. We then used charcoal to create original cave paintings that emulated the styles of examples from sites throughout the world. Students (and teacher, in this case) who didn’t feel competent in drawing found themselves comfortable with this assignment because of the lack of complexity of many cave paintings; they didn’t require a high level of artistic sophistication or skill. We covered the classroom walls with these simple paintings, creating a cave-like feeling in the classroom.

Propaganda posters are almost universally fascinating to high school students. So playing off of my students’ interests, in our World War II: A World at War class we spent a day discussing and exploring forms of propaganda. We also had a Socratic Seminar discussing the serious nature of propaganda in its various forms and the dangerously powerful effects it can have on a society. To finish the lesson, students independently researched posters used in World War II by all sides, looking at the artistic styles, the messages they transmitted, and their potential effects. I then prompted students to create posters that would not glorify violence or be vulgar (because allowing for these kinds of negativity, while perhaps more realistic, is a slippery slope that we discussed and decided against as a class).

The student who drew this propaganda poster wanted to depict the urgency of the Allied nations’ need for a "hero" to help fight the war.

The student who drew this propaganda poster wanted to depict the urgency of the Allied nations’ need for a "hero" to help fight the war.

Students took many different approaches to the posters. Those who were confident in their artistic abilities made posters that were visually arresting, using imagery that forced you to pay attention. Others chose to concentrate on the verbal aspect, creating posters with original slogans that evoked the sense of urgency associated with the propaganda of the time. Most students were very engaged, and many said they had gained a better understanding of how propaganda seeks to manipulate emotions to promote ideologies. A few students, however, were rather curmudgeonly about the idea of doing art in history class and complained that they were “not an artist” or that they didn’t “know how to start.” That’s OK. It gave me time to work with these students, encouraging them to abandon their inhibitions. I used my own work as an example of why you don’t need to be the next Gabriel García Márquez to write a fun historical fiction piece, that you don’t need to be a young Da Vinci to make an awesome cave painting.

The creator of this poster wanted to point out the evil nature of concentration camps. The gate reads, “Work Will Set You Free,” a slogan used cynically by Nazi camp officials.

The creator of this poster wanted to point out the evil nature of concentration camps. The gate reads, “Work Will Set You Free,” a slogan used cynically by Nazi camp officials.

Every couple of months I spend some time reflecting on myself as a teacher and evaluating my progress. I try to figure out what has been working, what hasn’t been working, how I can improve, how I can adapt. Implementing art into my classes has been one of the biggest breakthroughs I have ever experienced as an educator. Although I still cannot color inside the lines, I have seen major progress from my students in engagement and productivity. Art appeals to all ability levels and works for most learning styles, and this is why it can engage students in meaningful and emotional ways.

Tyler Merwin

Join us for Ruckus Parade!Club and Honk!TX in March

Caitlin Macklin is back on the blog with a cool invitation for your kids. Caitlin plays many roles in the Austin community, including those of founder and teacher at Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse, trombone player in marching bands, parade enthusiast, and, most recently, new mom!


Here at Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse, we’re gearing up for Parade!Club 2015, and you’re invited! This will be our third year to put out the call for families with children of all ages to be part of the Honk!TX excitement. Come march in the parade with us!

Honk!TX is one of our favorite Austin festivals. Twenty-some community brass bands descend on the neighborhoods around town to play for free! Come out and participate in the transformation of our public places into joyous celebrations of community and music.

This year we are the Ruckus Parade!Club. Since we moved off 9th Street last June, we have become the Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse, aka RRCS, which we pronounce “Ruckus”! See below for more about the Schoolhouse name.)

To join the Ruckus Parade!Club, follow our Vimeo channel and like us on facebook so you will not miss any of our video installments or Club announcements. Your family prepares for the big day at home by making cool costumes and parade crafts (our colors are RAINBOW, so be as colorful as you can!), and learning the parade songs we will sing and dance to.

Another way to participate is the Parade!Club Open Shop. The illustrious Austin Tinkering School will be hosting this crafternoon on Sunday, March 8, from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. Bring raw materials to make your own costume, musical instrument, flag, or ribbon dancer. Participate in the creation of giant street puppets. Play games and get to know other families. RSVP here. It will be a blast!

Then join the Club for PARADE DAY on Sunday, March 29, 2015, at Pan Am Park! Line up at 11:00 a.m. sharp; parade rolls at 12 noon. Show up in your hand-crafted finery ready for a jaunt through East Austin led by the combined forces of the Yes Ma’am Brass Band and the Hey Lolly Brass Band. So fun!

WHO:  Parents with kids of all ages
WHAT:  Ruckus Parade!Club: make costumes / crafts to be in the Honk!TX Parade
WHERE:  Pan Am Park
WHEN:  Sunday March 29th, 2015 line up at 11am sharp, parade leaves at 12noon
WHY:  Reclaim public space for joy and music!

This call is open to one and all, so pass the word along to anyone you want to dance in the streets with. YOUR KIDS are the main source of creativity for this spectacle, so go all out! Get together with friends for a Vimeo watching party, host a costume crafternoon for your school, or come up with dance routines to the songs with some neighborhood kids.

Parents need to accompany their children during this family event; strollers and wagons are welcome to assist little legs. The parade is a mile and a half long or so—that’s about two hours.


More about the Schoolhouse

Last June, we said goodbye to our original East Austin home on 9th Street and loaded up bikes, trikes, and trailers to relocate the Schoolhouse. In our new spot at 3310 Red River, we’ve become Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse! We are sharing the space with the incredible and creative after-school and summer camp program Spilled Milk Social Club. That means we are better able meet the needs of working families by offering on-site after care. We already strive to keep tuition as low and accessible as possible. We are excited to have plenty of room to grow in this beautiful building, and we look forward to this new chapter in the life of our learning community.

You may have noticed the spelling of our new name. We do embrace methods that are a departure from the traditional schooling model, though we wish that learning through direct experience, participating in community democracy, and being led by the innate curiosity of children were not radical ideas. However, we’ve adopted the biology term for our appellation:

rad·i·cle noun \ˈra-di-kəl\
1: the smallest part of the seed that becomes the root.

One of the things this means to us is that we guide our students to seek within to discover their passions, talents, gifts, and interests during Self-directed Learning. If you’d like to find out more, we’d love to show you around during a parent tour, happening every Wednesday until March and alternate Wednesdays after.

See you in the streets!

Caitlin Macklin