Let’s be real people

Melissa Menzes, an occupational therapist and founder of Extra Credit! LLC, is whole-heartedly dedicated to helping school-aged kids and families dealing with “hidden disabilities.” She has been successful in best treating children for nearly 15 years and is excited to offer a new specialty OT/educational facility here in central Texas. She joins our blog by sharing some of her own experiences with overcoming neurological dysfunction and early learning challenges.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I frequently get asked certain questions from concerned parents on their first or second visit with me. It is all too often that I hear “Will he outgrow this?” or “Can this be fixed?” The underlying sentiment seems to be “Will my child ever be normal?” My answers to these heartfelt questions generally start with something like “Maybe. Time will tell. With a little bit of intervention and lots of love, understanding, and support, I think your child is going to be just fine.”

But what is normal, anyway? “Normal” is just a setting on a washing machine. I’ve seen variations of this phrase on cards, books, and social media platforms, and I really like it. Openness about being “different” in our society is becoming the new normal, and I think this might be a really good thing. I mean, how boring would we be as a culture without diversity? Nobody’s perfect. That’s a fact. We just are who we are and that’s okay. Adversities help shape us and guide our life paths, dreams, and purposes.

I have accepted the fact that I’m not what my profession would call “neuro-typical,” but I’m me, and I like that. So do my friends, family, and clients! I know that I’m doing just fine (if not better) because of my personal differences and the related support and knowledge I’ve gained over time. I think it’s of value to share my brief story in case it might help a concerned parent dealing with the stress of a new diagnosis or the worry of an uncertain road ahead.

But who am I? I am, in part, a child therapist who is passionate about helping others with unique differences and struggles. It’s something that I happen to be quite good at. I think my focus on serving families dealing with “hidden” neurodevelopmental and learning issues is primarily shaped by personal experience with certain adversities and an overwhelming drive to overcome them.

Perhaps it started for me when I had to repeat second grade in a “move-at-your-own pace” sort of Individually Guided Education (IGE) School. As emotional as it was for me to be unexpectedly separated from many of my friends, academically I moved from the bottom to the top of the class. I worked my hardest to stay there for the rest of my education until successfully graduating with honors in college. Talents in art and athletics, along with a supportive family, helped me cope with the many challenges of schooling (which I kept well hidden) and eventually led me to find an amazing career in occupational therapy. It was OT that helped me learn more about my own unique and “hidden” differences and how to best manage them.

In the early 2000s, while attending an educational workshop on helping people with dyslexia, it was discovered that I had a severe form of perceptual processing disorder called Irlen Syndrome. In short, my brain has difficulty perceiving incoming visual information. The effects of this diagnosis and my eventual treatment were astounding for me. Put simply, it changed my world!

This experience encouraged me to be more open to identifying and managing other conditions that had long remained under the radar. My postgraduate Sensory Integration certification coursework and SPD trainings helped me better understand and handle my sensory over-responsiveness. More recently, I accepted some assistance from a psychologist and counselor for some mild anxiety and attention issues that surfaced while I was starting a business. It was wonderful to see that tools I was using every day to help “my kids” could also help me heal myself.

Most people don’t recognize that I have any of these challenges until I tell them. I think this is because I’ve learned how to manage them better over time and how to leverage my many strengths. I’m beginning to realize that it’s okay to be open about who I really am and how I am different—i.e., a real human being, imperfect and completely normal! It not only helps me heal through a feeling of self-acceptance but also provides some extra encouragement to families of children battling similar issues.

Part of my mission as a therapist is to help my clients see that we all have unique characteristics, none of which are “abnormal” or need to be “fixed” but that might need a little extra support, acceptance, and understanding. Everyone has at least one strength or talent. We all have a cool difference or quirk. Most of us are aware of a particular weakness or need, and every person needs a little help with something. This is normal.

I know that I have grown a lot in the face of some previously unseen adversity. I am writing now to tell you that I am happy and successful. Despite my weaknesses, I will continue to reach my goals and even perhaps some dreams because of my numerous strengths. I’d love to help support the next person or family to do the same.

To learn more about my specialty OT and developmental learning center, please check out Extra Credit! Brain & Body Programs for Kids and like us on Facebook to receive informative postings.

Keeping it weird in Austin,
“Ms. Missy”

The public versus private dilemma

Pamela Nicholas, founder of PEBBLES, a project based learning center, is passionate about keeping kids motivated and engaged in learning. She has been teaching for 15 years and has experience working with gifted students; those with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia; children on the autism spectrum; students who suffer from anxiety; and English language learners. Pam joins us on the blog to share her experiences as both an educator and a parent who has navigated the ups and downs of public and private education—and ultimately decided to start her own school.

I don’t know if you are a somewhat neurotic parent like I am, but the moment I held my precious bundle of joy in the delivery room, I had two—well, no, to be honest, three—thoughts. The first one was “Wow, I can’t believe this little guy is here and mine. I’m in love!” The next, “I hope I don’t mess this up!” And finally, “Can I pass out now?”

As our family has progressed through the years, it has always been thought number two, “I hope I don’t mess this up!” that has played over and over in my mind whenever I’ve been making choices about his education. I was a public school teacher before he was born, tutored privately for a while, and then rejoined the teaching world full-time again once he was ready to go to school. Both of us started back in public school, but I wasn’t satisfied. I knew that my son was systematically being taught the things that needed to be taught in kinder through second grade. I knew there was a clear path, and I certainly knew there was administrative oversight with teachers having multiple observations throughout the school year. What I didn’t like was that some of his teachers were not able to meet his needs.

He was ahead of many of the other students, but his teachers weren’t able to assess him at higher levels because he had already hit their ceiling for his grade level. I was supplementing his homework with work that was more on his level, but he was starting to get bored in school. They offered to have him skip a grade, but we didn’t feel it would be good for him to be the tiniest and youngest in his classes. His father and I had both had that experience, and it was not fun for either of us on a social level. We knew that the next year would bring standardized testing, and, to be honest, we were dreading the months of test prep that were in store for him. We made the decision to pull him from public and embarked on the path to private school.

In private schools, just as in public ones, there are good teachers and not so good. However, it boggles my mind that in some private schools, those who are in charge rarely, if ever, walk into a classroom to see what is going on in their own schools. I have walked through the halls and seen scenarios where a teacher was simply on Facebook while the kids were doing nothing, and where teachers hadn’t bothered to show up for the majority of their class period. Additionally, some of the private schools do not require teachers to be credentialed. This can become a problem for students when they end up with teachers who do not have any idea how to assess students and then meet their individual needs. Teachers who have not gone through a credentialing process also don’t necessarily know how to manage a classroom effectively, or develop age-appropriate lessons that keep students motivated and engaged.

On the positive side of private schools, the class sizes are often smaller, making it possible for teachers to give more attention and individualized instruction to each student. Private schools tend not to have as many bullying issues. Another plus is their lack of emphasis on standardized testing.

Socially, private schools can sometimes be difficult because children have a smaller pool of friends to choose from. Students who have been together for years in a private setting tend to act more like sisters and brothers (though at times it can be like dysfunctional siblings), but at least they know each other well enough to put up with one another’s quirks.

The main results of my son having spent time in a private school are that he made some pretty good friends, had some great teachers who helped him excel in some areas, but also had some inexperienced and untrained teachers, resulting in some major learning gaps.

So what to do? I’ve decided to pull him out, for now, and take matters into my own hands. I am starting my own school and living my dream of getting it right for kids and their families. My vision is a school where the subjects are integrated together, where kids can build from their prior knowledge, and not start in a place too low or too high. I can assess them and provide them with curriculum and activities built for them at their appropriate levels. And I can do it all in a way where I have seen my own students achieve the most success: through project-based learning.

During my years of teaching, I’ve seen students do their best when they receive one-on-one instruction, are excited about their topics (because they are given some freedom to choose), and are encouraged to choose a project that can encapsulate everything that they’ve learned. We all learn best by doing, so why not give kids the opportunity to actually put what they have learned into practice? I LOVE the idea of a happy medium where students learn accountability, learn that they still have to put in the effort to achieve specific academic goals, but get to have some choice and fun too. My vision is to simply do what works in a stress-free way where the kids can feel great about what they have achieved.

Every child is different, and every family has different situations and priorities. After being in both worlds, my advice would be to really know your child and what his or her needs are, and then prioritize them. Obviously, your financial situation can play a big role in the decision-making process as well.

If you’re considering a private school, I would recommend that you ask the following questions to school administrators:

  • May I come in and observe?
  • What types of assessments do you do when placing a child?
  • May I see examples of these assessments (do they include spelling, reading, writing, and leveled math)?
  • Are your teachers certified?
  • How often do you personally go in and observe each of your teachers? 
  • What are the exact homework policies of the school? Can I see examples of the type of homework assignments I can expect my child to have?
  • Would it be okay to contact the parents of some current students?
  • How will my child’s progress be monitored, and how will my child’s progress be communicated to me?
  • What systems are in place to remediate an academic need if my child falls behind?
  • What systems are in place to meet my child’s needs if he or she is academically ahead?
  • If your child has some special needs, definitely ask what support systems are in place to address them. Support systems include specific teacher training and classroom experience, Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs (including teacher accountability for upholding what is in an IEP), and physical environments to help support your child.

Making decisions like these can be extremely difficult, and there can be a lot of trial and error in figuring out what seems to best fit your child and your family. After having been through it (and continuing to go through it), my advice would be to keep looking, and keep asking questions about services. You will really want to hear the details about how these services are implemented, as well as what support and accountability is in place for those services.

Remember, there are always pros and cons to every educational situation. Prioritize your child’s needs, realizing that they may change over time. Most importantly, stay watchful! I’ve come to realize as a parent that yes, I am going to mess up, but as with all mistakes, I will learn from them and keep trying to do what is best. Good luck, and happy school hunting!

Pamela Nicholas

What creating my own courses has taught me about life

Guest contributor Stefany Bolaños works at Junto Studio, a company that helps schools build websites and share what they are doing with the world. They’re about to launch Learnhub, a platform built by independent learners, for independent learners, that empowers students to collaboratively create their own projects. She also writes at the company’s blog, Disruptived.

Classes were about to begin. I checked the school portal to look at the courses I was going to take that semester according to the prescribed academic curriculum. I skimmed the list in a hurry, anxious to find out which subjects I would be learning. Disappointed, I realized that this semester was not going to be much different from the others. While reading the course descriptions of the seven classes I had to take, only three caught my interest.

So I had four classes I didn’t feel particularly excited about, lasting 1.5 hours each, twice a week, for 18 weeks a semester: that’s 216 hours. The math was simple: I was about to spend 216 hours in classes that I didn’t choose, about topics I probably didn’t even like. And that was just one semester, not even including time spent studying and doing homework! The opportunity cost was incredibly high.

But what is the alternative?

Avoiding the tedious process of taking courses you didn't choose has never been easier. And that’s because, fortunately enough, education is not confined to the limits of a physical classroom, a teacher, or a method.

Creating your own education path involves learning project management skills, ownership, true accountability, and being honest with yourself. It also involves being more aware of who you are and what you want to learn. And when you start building your life curriculum piece by piece, it becomes evident that life is a tapestry of limitless opportunities.

When you learn something, it should be either because you need it or because you want it.

The pursuit of our passions results in countless possibilities—but what are the things that you absolutely need to know? Asking questions is a good place to start. Redirecting your efforts toward finding ways to solve problems is a great way of truly learning. Expecting answers from someone else, memorizing, and doing repetitive work without understanding its core purpose are ultimately unuseful efforts. Those who immerse themselves in the adventure of leading their own education understand this very well.

What, then, are the benefits of creating your own courses?

1. Project Management Skills
Whatever career path you choose later in life, one thing is certain: you’ll need to be good at taking a project from start to end. Traditionally, letting students create and manage their own projects has been reserved for the last years of high school. However, there’s no real reason for why it has to be this way. Let’s turn that around! The earlier you start practicing these important skills, the better.

2. Ownership
Give students more responsibility and they will amaze you with what they can do. There’s nothing as empowering as realizing that the failure or success of a project depends on the amount and quality of work you put in.

2. Fun

No one knows what you truly enjoy as well as you do. When you create your own courses, you get to really design them to make them fun for yourself. Fun makes you keep stretching yourself and exploring new possibilities, and it allows you to temper the setbacks that eventually come your way.

4. Accountability

Learning how to keep yourself and others accountable is the skill that takes you from curious observer to someone who can learn a subject deeply and accomplish goals. Can you really stick to a subject when it gets hard? Are you willing to push in order to meet a deadline? Can you keep your word? Who is holding you to a higher standard? These are questions that you learn to ask when you’re forging your own path and that become invaluable in a professional setting.

5. Passion
Passion is discovered with time and by allowing yourself to get lost in solving a problem or pursuing a vision. When you follow your own curiosity, your passion for certain activities or subjects starts to shine through. The perks? The pace at which you learn is accelerated immensely, and you are actively engaged with what you’re doing. Isn’t that every parent’s dream for their children’s education?

How creating your own courses resembles shaping your own life

When students take part in creating their own curriculum, learning becomes a lifelong experience that doesn’t end when the school day is over. In my own experience, taking a project on from the beginning, being responsible for it, keeping myself accountable, and having fun along the way have proven to be replicable habits not only for school, but for life. And when students are empowered and supported in doing this on their own, school becomes an extension of a body of life-learning experiences, rather than an obstacle that leaves curiosity and creativity at the margin.

Today, thanks to technology, creating your own learning paths has become easier because of the unlimited number of courses, mentors, and information out there. And if you choose to jump aboard, you’ll never have to take another boring course ever again!

If you have questions about project-based learning or how to create your own courses, email me at stefany@juntostudio.com or visit our blog, Disruptived: Reimagining Education.

Stefany Bolaños

Getting a summer education

Annette Lucksinger is an instructor at St. Edward’s University, a mom of two, and author of the guidebook and mobile app Exploring Austin with Kids. She stopped by Alt Ed Austin to share some of her best ideas for fun places around Austin to learn with kids this summer. You can find even more ideas for summer adventures in Annette’s guide, or read about her favorite places, events, and people on the Exploring Austin with Kids blog.

Summertime learning is my favorite kind. It’s looser, less structured. There are no alarm clocks. No tardy bells. We can stay at an activity for as long as our focus will hold, and lessons tend to be more hands-on and experiential. Learning comes as fun.

It’s a sensory season too. Blasts of heat greet us as we walk outdoors, balanced by snow cones, ice cream, and sweet plunges into springs and swimming pools. Squeals of joy, splashes, and the whistles of lifeguards fill the air, hushed by the quiet glow of lightning bugs as things wind down after long, full days.

As we jump into summer, here are some ideas for keeping kids’ minds and bodies active while making for a memorable, fun-filled summer. Even better, most of them are free!

Summer Events

View the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats by Boat
While the bats are impressive to watch by land (and free with an informational kiosk nearby), viewing them by boat makes it even more educational. Captain-led tours offer information about bats, as well as history, city planning, and the changing Austin skyline as you tour the lake waiting for sunset. Pack snacks and drinks.
When: Departures 30 minutes before sunset; tours last an hour.
Where: Book through Lone Star River Boat or Capital Cruises.
Tips: Make reservations, and allow time for parking.

Nature Nights at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
This annual event teaches young visitors about Texas ecology and its plants and animals through nature crafts, short expert-led hikes, and interactive presentations and activities. Each week focuses on a unique theme, and the new Luci and Ian Children’s Garden makes it a perfect place to spend an evening. Check the website for this year’s schedule.
When:  Thursday evenings in June and July from 6pm to 9pm.
Tips: Get there early for parking (and for a limited number of auditorium tickets when a presentation is part of the week’s event). Pack bug repellent.

Zilker Hillside Theater
Younger children can absorb the arts as they roll and roam on the hillside while older kids take it in from blankets beneath the stars. Pack a picnic and drinks. (If you arrive early, set up your blanket, then take a dip in Barton Springs Pool or hop on the Zilker Zephyr while you await the evening festivities.) It’s a nice way to introduce children to Shakespeare (Thursdays–Sundays in May). In July and August, performances shift to Broadway musicals. Free.
When: Performances begin at sundown. Stake your spot beginning at 6pm.
Tips: Pack snacks, drinks, pillows, and glow sticks.


Art, history, science, and natural history lessons for all ages can be experienced at nearby museums. Another good thing about these is that many of them are air-conditioned for those hot summer days, and all of them offer free days or times. (Museums are listed below in order of age appeal.)

When visiting Austin’s children’s museum in the Mueller development, add a picnic in Lake Park across the street or a swim in the neighborhood’s Ella Wooten Pool or nearby Bartholomew City Pool. For babies and toddlers, visit the museum during Baby Bloomers hours when the museum is open exclusively for ages 0–3 (Mondays 9am –12pm and Saturdays 9am– 10am). Every Wednesday from 4pm– 8pm admission is free or by donation.

Umlauf Scuplture Garden
This outdoor museum offers lush, shady places to wander along stroller-friendly paths past beautiful sculpture pieces. Ask for the scavenger hunt for preschoolers and up. Free on Family Day, Sunday, June 7th, with special activities for 4- to 10-year-olds.

Contemporary Museum at Laguna Gloria
Strolling the paths of this beautiful spot along Lake Austin, kids can seek out the new art installments added to the grounds or visit the Driscoll Villa to see European-style architecture. You can also check out an Action Pack filled with materials to engage kids during their visit. Second Saturdays Are for Families offers hands-on activities for kids age 2–11. Free every Tuesday.

Bob Bullock Texas History Museum
With plenty of room to roam among three floors of Texas history exhibits and with its two theaters showing feature films and short educational films on animals, the Lone Star state, and history, this museum is a favorite, especially on hot or rainy days. Family storytimes are on Mondays at 11am during the summer. First Sundays offer free admission and additional kid-focused activities.

Texas Memorial Museum
In this museum on the University of Texas campus, you will find three floors of animal, insect, fossil, and bone exhibits from dinosaur times to modern day, with a fourth floor to engage older children in evolution and biodiversity. Free on Saturday, June 6, with family activities 10am–4pm.

Camp Mabry Military Museum
For children interested in Texas military history from 1903 to present day, this spacious museum in Camp Mabry’s old mess hall houses a surprisingly engaging collection for kids that is worth checking out. Tanks, helicopters, and aircraft are on display outside the museum, and a nature trail and pond are also on the base. Take your driver’s license for entry. Free, or by donation.

Texas Capitol Visitors Center
Ever wondered what the white building at the edge of the Capitol grounds holds? It’s not just for tourists! This free museum offers hands-on, kid-focused Texas history exhibits, and the building itself is fun to explore, with hidden staircases and telescopes.

Blanton Museum of Art
My favorite exhibit for young children is Cildo Meireles’ How to Build Cathedrals in the Modern Art Gallery, while older children will find a variety of their own favorites. Free on Thursdays.

Farm Life

Boggy Creek Farm
This urban farm allows kids to see how the food they eat is grown, and with the market open Wednesday–Saturday mornings, they can taste it too. The farm also offers a glimpse into Austin’s past with its old farmhouse on the grounds. Young kids will enjoy the chickens and adjacent dirt pile for playing in.

Crowe’s Nest Farm
For a short day trip, this educational farm near Manor offers tours of themed gardens, a milking barn, and a host of animals, from those you would expect to see on a farm (dairy cows, goats, pigs, and chickens) to more exotic creatures that make their home here (bison, emus, coatimundis, and raptors). Picnic tables are available for lunch/snacks. Contact the farm for reservations. They also host a half-day summer camp in June.

Green Gate Farms
Education is central to the mission of this East Austin farm. While families are welcome to visit during market hours, kids can get a true sense of agricultural life during “Farmer for a Day” camp or in weeklong, themed “Summer Farm Camps.” Learning the skills that used to be absorbed through daily life on the farm, campers become empowered to plant, harvest, cook (in a solar oven), and preserve food. Or they might choose to tend to the livestock, build farm structures, focus on the microscopic (including fairies), or learn of farming systems from around the world. (Another bonus: workshops and “Farm Camp for Adults” are offered too.)

 Annette Lucksinger

Learn, teach, make: Education at Austin Mini Maker Faire 2015

Emily Weerts directs the Nucleus Learning Network, an organization that empowers learners, educators, and mentors to enhance Austin’s innovative learning community. She stopped by the blog this week to give us a preview of the Maker Education Village she’s coordinating at this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, which is shaping up to be the biggest and best yet.

In the handful of years since Maker Faire first came to Austin, we’ve seen the event change and grow in many exciting ways. As the list of participating makers expands, one trend that we’re happy to embrace is the notable increase in education-focused makers, booths, and presenters.

Making and learning are natural partners: making provides opportunities to develop confidence; increase creativity; explore science, math, and art in new ways; and investigate engineering and technology. This year’s Faire features booths from makerspaces at libraries, organizations that teach computer programming to elementary students, and Austin Community College’s new maker program. From pre-K through college and beyond, makers, learners, and teachers will come together on May 16 and 17 to share their skills, ask great questions, and forge new friendships. 

This year’s Maker Education Village is being sponsored by WonderLab, a membership-based, supplemental learning lab for children in upper elementary and middle school. Thanks to WonderLab’s generous contribution, we are able to expand the Maker Ed Lounge and run a Maker Ed Stage at this year’s Faire. Check out the Maker Ed program (below) and join us for some inspiring workshops, stimulating discussion panels, and engaging networking. Alt Ed Austin is supporting this year’s Maker Ed Stage, and Nucleus Learning Network is coordinating the Maker Ed Lounge. 

As always, Maker Faire is free for educators to attend! Tell the teachers in your lives to come to the Palmer Events Center on May 16 and 17 to learn and be inspired. To receive free admission, teachers must bring a school ID or present other proof that they are an educator at the box office. 

Maker Education Schedule: SATURDAY



Maker Education Schedule: SUNDAY

Emily Weerts

Austin alt schools are expanding and diversifying

“Spring is the time of plans and projects,” said Leo Tolstoy. Or maybe it was Martha Stewart? In any case, plans and projects are happening at many of Austin’s alternative schools right now, and we’re excited to share them with you. Here’s a roundup of major changes happening in the near future at Austin-area schools. For more information about any program, check the school’s website or give them a call.

This summer the Whole Life Learning Center is building a new math and music classroom indoors and adding new playground equipment outdoors for kids who want to climb and spin.

Are you in need of an enrichment class for a child 5 to 10 years old? Terra Luz Community School's Karen Hernandez soon will welcome Terra Luz students as well as homeschooled kids to a new class on Fridays. The school is also expecting a new teacher to join the team in the fall.

Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse is adding a class for 5th graders next year. If you’re interested, apply via their website as soon as possible. In addition to new students, RRCS will welcome a new teacher to replace 3rd–5th grade teacher Aaron Goldman, who is heading to Baltimore to study for an MFA. Everyone wishes Aaron all the best as he pursues his dreams.

New adventures are on the horizon at Progress School. Starting this fall, Progress will offer a three-day program focused on interdisciplinary, project-based learning for kids 11 to 13 years old. The program is all about collaboration and relationships and is designed around student interests. Portfolios will allow for self-assessment and sharing learning with others.

As of August 2015, Integrity Academy will expand to include 11- to 13-year-olds in Level 5.

The folks at Inside Outside School have chosen “May the Forces Be With You,” as their theme for the coming school year. During the summer kids will be helping with the school’s CSA and participating in the farmer’s market.

Is your child a maker and an artist at heart? Creative Side Jewelry Academy is now serving students aged 10 to15 years old and starting a new after-school program in the fall. The school’s curriculum is expanding to include bronze and silver casting techniques for Summer Apprenticeships and Jewelry Biz for their Kidz Homeschool program.

Clearview Sudbury School is growing—with 40 percent more space, more students, and more diverse activities. Clearview’s tech offerings are expanding, too. Through a grant from V M Ware, the school is adding a new virtual machine server, which will give school members access to powerful new computing resources on their laptops and tablets or through the school’s own clients. Students will be trained as administrators of the new system, which will include software environments for video, image, and music editing; animation; scientific computing; and even Minecraft.

Shelley Sperry