Media Monday: The First Lady’s Diary

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs a student during a tour of the WISE Summit Learning Labs during the 2015 World Innovation Summit for Education at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 4, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs a student during a tour of the WISE Summit Learning Labs during the 2015 World Innovation Summit for Education at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 4, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

“You have no idea how powerful your voice can be if you choose to use it.”

On this Media Monday I’d like to recommend a terrific “diary” by First Lady Michelle Obama about her trip to Qatar and Jordan to visit schools and speak at a global summit on education.  All the posts are written for young people of middle and high school age.  

The diary may be of special interest to students right now because one of the schools Mrs. Obama visits in Jordan includes many children whose families are refugees from Syria.

The posts discuss girls’ education in particular, addressing the question of why as many as 62 million girls in the world are not in school.  In clear, direct language and many beautiful photos, Mrs. Obama explains some of the circumstances that hold girls back from reaching their full potential, including lack of money, violence, and cultural prejudices.

For those who might want to learn more, she also mentions a White House–supported program that allows teachers and researchers to be involved in supporting education for girls all over the world and lets kids and community groups be involved by raising money for Peace Corps schools that empower girls. The program is Let Girls Learn.

And for kids who are interested in where the First Lady is going next, they can follow her on Twitter @FLOTUS or on Instagram @MichelleObama.

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: Crash Course

I’m a fairly recent convert to the wonders of YouTube as part of my regular media diet, but like many converts, I’m now an evangelist. For my own work, I take advantage of YouTube regularly to watch clips from nature and science documentaries, with the BBC and NOVA as the gold standards. But often, it’s just a 5- to 15-minute “explainer” young learners need, and YouTube has got ’em by the thousands. Today I’d like to point you toward a couple of channels that specialize in short science videos aimed specifically at kids.

The Crash Course Kids channel is full of clever, colorful, animated videos on science topics designed for elementary-school-age kids at about fifth-grade level. What is gravity? What’s the difference between weathering and erosion? What do plants need to grow? The answers are here, usually in 5-minute chunks that are easily added into a school day or study time at home.  Host Sabrina Cruz is terrific— enthusiastic, funny, and proud to call herself a nerd.

If Neil deGrasse Tyson is the reigning rock star of the astronomy world, Phil Plait is its Pied Piper. I would follow Phil anywhere. His Crash Course Astronomy series is information-packed and addictive. The format of a host who uses illustrations and animations to explain a scientific concept is similar to that of the Crash Course Kids channel, but Phil’s explanations are designed for middle and high school students and adults, with lessons usually 10–15-minutes long. He covers things like cyclical phenomena in the universe, how telescopes work, and everything you ever wanted to know about binary and multiple stars but were afraid to ask.

Watch and listen to Sabrina and Phil, respectively, explaining different kinds of stars:

The Crash Course empire on YouTube was started by YA novelist John Green and his environmental scientist/musician brother Hank. It now includes courses in history, psychology, literature, economics, and any number of other topics, so if you like the science channels above, you may want to check out more. Happy watching!

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: Slate’s podcast on getting into college

Envelope by iStock. Photo illustration by Holly Allen.

Envelope by iStock. Photo illustration by Holly Allen.

This is the first entry in our new Media Monday series, in which contributor Shelley Sperry briefly reviews noteworthy media coverage of education issues and other resources of interest to our readers. Shelley is a writer, editor, and researcher based in Alexandria, Virginia, who was recently spotted in Yellowstone National Park working on assignment for National Geographic.

Because it’s that time of year, when many high school students are thinking about college, I want to alert you to a new podcast designed to help students and their parents navigate common questions.

Getting In is a podcast from Slate magazine that follows a diverse group of high schoolers through the process of applying to colleges. The host, Julie Lythcott-Haims, is a former Stanford University dean, and she brings in terrific, plain-talking experts to answer listener questions.  The episodes are short (around 15 minutes), but packed with real-life drama, the voices of students themselves, and practical advice on topics ranging from the value of extracurricular activities to “easy As vs. hard Bs” and writing the dreaded college essay.

Check it out via your favorite podcast app or on the home page here.

Expressive movement for kids

We welcome alternative educator extraordinaire Colleen Sears to the blog to introduce herself and her new Expressive Movement program at Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies.

Our bodies were meant to move, and we are meant to enjoy being inside them!
—Colleen Sears

Hello, lovely families of Austin! My name is Colleen, and I’d like to tell you a little about myself and my work. For the past 23 years, I have been extensively involved in childcare as well as movement and musical arts. I’ve always been passionate about connecting with people. A graduate of St. Edward’s University in communication studies and a student in counseling and acupuncture master’s programs, I began dancing 31 years ago and working with children 23 years ago.

My most recent accomplishment was assisting in the opening and success of Integrity Academy at Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies. There, I created the curriculum for and held the role of mentor for Level 1 (3- to 5-year-olds). Prior to this, I worked professionally in child care via after-school program directing, preschool teaching, substitute Montessori teaching, and in-home care for children as young as 3 months up to 16 years. In 2013 I took a year off of work to focus on dance at Austin Community College, where I studied ballet, jazz and modern dance, choreography, and dance performance.

Though I enjoyed and had success in my experiences at ACC, ultimately, my greatest passion is what I like to call “Expressive Movement.” My definition of this is: movement that involves authentic, personal expression from the soul. It is basically the opposite of technical dance; there is no “right” or “wrong” to this movement. It is movement inspired by the music and what it brings out in the individual, not from an instructor who teaches specific movements.


When: Monday–Thursday, 3:00–5:00pm (later care available if needed)
Where: Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies, 1701 Toomey Road, Austin, TX 78704
(Este Room on Mondays & Sur Room on Tuesdays & Thursdays)

Because it is authentic movement, I give each child the space and freedom to move according to what feels good to him or her. The music provided in my classes allows for a spectrum of movements, feelings, and energetic releases.

My theory is this: Children are filled with energy and often don’t have the communication skills that we attain as adults to express how they are feeling; so this class gives them the opportunity to tap into the moment and move in whatever ways their body, mind, and soul wish, without anyone telling them they are doing something wrong. Too often, children are told that they need to “calm down” or what they are doing isn’t “right” in many (but not all) school settings. They need a space that allows them to be their full selves (within physical and emotional safety boundaries, of course).

My intentions and goals for this expressive movement class are the following:

  • Help children connect with their bodies on a deep level
  • Build confidence
  • Help release excess energy and emotions that children don’t have the communication skills to process on their own
  • Provide physical exercise
  • Learn movement, physical expression, and musicality
  • Explore space in relation to ourselves and each other
  • Create a calming effect

Providing a safe space where there is no judgment is crucial to attaining these goals. The only rule of the class is to respect others’ space, bodies, and feelings. It is a very free, welcoming, accepting space for all kids.

I have always had a natural gift of helping others, young and old, to feel comfortable in moving. I have been asked for many years to teach others to dance. It doesn’t feel right for me to teach specific dance moves, but rather to create a safe, comfortable, judgment-free, nurturing space for others to explore their own bodies, emotions, and souls.

On occasion, music according to the chakras will be included to help create balance and grounding. Besides this, the class provides diverse genres and styles of music to inspire different experiences with a flowing, flexible agenda for each class. I usually like to let the children decide what music they would like to hear. If they are at a loss or if some inspiration is needed for music options, I am always prepared with an extensive variety of music to offer them. Costumes and instruments are available to assist with expression, and occasionally children like to create dances and songs to perform for each other!

For questions or to sign your child up for classes (registration available up until noon the same day), please email me at or call/text me at 512-785-8839.

Colleen Sears

Sex in the library (books)! How our students helped me develop a plan to handle mature content in their Skybrary

Kendra Fortmeyer is an award-winning author, a teacher at Skybridge Academy, and a graduate student in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She blogs about her adventures in school librarianship at The Skybrary and graciously shared with Alt Ed Austin this fascinating post about how she handles one of the stickiest aspects of her job.

In the summer of 2015, I developed a school library for Skybridge Academy, the small, progressive private school where I’d been teaching English for the last two years. I was (and am) enrolled in a graduate program in library science, the school administration was passionate and supportive, and I used to reorganize my books for fun when I was eight—a perfect fit, right? Though I knew, intellectually, that it would be a mighty endeavor, some part of me was dimly certain that it would be a summer of dancing through the school Maria Von Trapp style and depositing books into the hands of shining-faced students.

Well, let me tell you.

What followed was a summer of less (though certainly a bit of) singing and dancing, and more buckling down and facing question after question I never could have anticipated. I walked away three months and one library later with an immensely deepened respect for librarians. The business of getting books into people’s hands—especially young people’s hands—is one riddled with challenges. Perhaps the most basic of these is: What do we give them to read?

 In the alternative education field, all of us understand the tightrope walk that is navigating the dual identity of responsible educator and champion of intellectual freedom. When do you give your students hard-hitting material? How do you decide they’re ready? This was a unique challenge for me at Skybridge Academy, a combined junior high and high school that serves students in grades 6–12. This population runs the gamut from smart but very (emotionally) young ten-year-olds to 18-year-olds with part-time jobs and coffee addictions. Obviously, books for one age group might not be of interest, or appropriate, for the other. This is what we call having a dual-audience library.

What do public libraries do?
In a public library, all library content is available to all patrons. It’s detailed in the American Library Association Bill of Rights—the librarian’s job is to allow everyone access to all information. A parent may tell his eight-year-old that he may not check out
Sex Criminals. However, the librarian may not do so.
     It’s different in a school library. For one, the parent isn’t present, and many schools have privacy policies so that parents may not even know what their child has taken out. Also, because the library collection has been selected especially for youth (as opposed to a public library, which caters to all ages), there’s an expectation that the materials in the library already are youth-appropriate. In making that collection development policy, the librarian is putting her implicit seal of approval on each book. There’s no expectation that she’s
read every book, but her collection development should be so intentional that she could stand behind every single book in a challenge (and she certainly wouldn’t put Sex Criminals in her collection).

How could we properly serve users at all stages along this development spectrum? There are a few options:

  1. Shelve all materials for all ages together, and trust students to choose material that is appropriate for them developmentally.
  2. Shelve all materials together, but label “mature” content (i.e., content that you’ve identified in a written policy as not appropriate) with stickers or other signifiers. Only allow older students to borrow these materials.
  3. Keep “mature” content in a secured closet or other locked area that older users may access with teacher permission.
  4. Do not keep mature content in the library at all; students may access such material at home or from a public library.

Frankly, none of these options sounds great. The first two put an awful lot of trust in 11-year-olds to not hang out in the library at lunch and giggle over naughty bits of lit; the third stigmatizes material that may be developmentally important for high schoolers (like “first time” sex narratives, or stories in which characters fight to recover from sexual abuse) in the manner of the XXX back room of a video store. And that fourth one—the so-called safe route? It cripples your collection by making it irrelevant to teens who may not be able to get that kind of information elsewhere, thus gutting your own mission statement.

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit:

Not the vibe we’re going for. (image credit:

To solve this dilemma, my director and I set aside abstraction and philosophy and took a more radical, direct approach: we talked directly to the students. Enter Oleanna, Rose and Tav [names changed to protect the children], three of our high school girls and most vocal readers (and, as a result of this discussion, the newly minted Student Library Council). After about an hour, the council ultimately decided this:

  • The Skybrary will contain material suited for teens only, which can be borrowed only by high school students, as well as middle school students whose parents have given written permission.
    • This allows developmentally appropriate students to have access to the material. It also protects this material from being challenged (librarian-speak for “attempted censorship or banning”) by the parents of younger students who don’t want their children reading that material.
  • The material will be kept on a shelf in the office marked “Mature Readers.”
    • The school’s office is a walk-through room directly outside of the library, and is almost always overseen by the co-directors or an administrator. This allows the administration to enforce the high-school only rule.
    • Additionally, because this is a high-traffic space, it is more difficult for kids to clump up and giggle, thus decreasing the self-consciousness of those who may want to borrow the material.
Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

Beautiful, Orpheus-inspired book for high schoolers; too much sex and teen drinking to endorse it for middle schoolers.

The student council members also suggested that some books with sexual content may remain in the main collection if sex is discussed abstractly, or if the writer employs the “fade to black” narrative lapse that eclipses the actual sex scene (such as in Twilight or Divergent, where sex occurs in the timeline of the book but is not described for the reader). Books that discuss sex explicitly would only be appropriate for the mature readers section. Additionally, books that take a casual, more adult attitude toward sex (as opposed to treating sex with the great importance that many “first time” high school narratives do) are questionably not appropriate for the library and will be handled on a case-by-case basis. (Fifty Shades of Grey and Lolita? No way.) And again, this isn’t preventing the students from obtaining those books—they can easily do so at a public library. However, as an adult responsible for their education, I don’t feel that I can so actively endorse their consumption of these materials as to put the books in their hands myself.

Both the director and I came away exceedingly impressed with the intelligence, eloquence, and depth of consideration of these young women. Their solution was mature and responsible and, most importantly, spoke deeply to the needs that they felt as teen readers and learners. Sometimes, when puzzling over how best to serve your students, it’s powerful and formative to set down the books on education and librarianship, break out of your own brain-box, and talk to those students. They’re just as invested in their learning community as you are, if not more! And in libraries, valued, invested readers will become your greatest advocates: they will do more to build a community than you and your books could ever do alone.

Kendra Fortmeyer

Teaching improv

Carrie Carter recently wound up her work as an intern at The Hideout Theatre’s summer camps and teen intensives in downtown Austin. She graciously agreed to share some of the lessons she learned there as a young improv teacher.

When I first found my internship at The Hideout Theatre’s youth program, I thought it must be too good to be true. When I told my friends about it, they agreed.

During the school year, I attend Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. I study English and Educational Studies and am in the teacher’s licensure program for early childhood education. I love all of my classes, my professors, and fellow students whom I have the privilege of learning beside. The thing I love most about Mount Holyoke, however, is that the learning goes beyond the classroom. Education spills over into the organizations, traditions, and relationships one finds there.

Mount Holyoke is where I stumbled into improv. My best friends said, “You can totally do this, and if you don’t know how, we’ll teach you.” They allowed me to be brave, and I trusted them. So, lo and behold, they did teach me how to do improv. I trusted them because it was their best friends who taught them how to do improv. It is this chain of teaching each other that makes Mount Holyoke a wonderful place.

The college encourages this not only vocally but also financially. By that I am referencing Mount Holyoke’s Lynk Universal Application Funding Program, in which the Career Development Center agrees to fund students for an internship that pertains to their future career. Without this program, I would not have been able to study this summer at The Hideout Theatre. I wanted to make sure that in this blog post I expressed my extreme gratitude to the school that I attend.

So, I found this amazing internship, one that somehow encompassed two things I love—teaching and improv—and it turned out to be way harder than I ever expected. Before starting I thought, “I’ve worked at plenty of summer camps before: day camps, art camps, even an eight-week sleep-away camp. I’ve also done improv and am pretty okay at it. How hard can this be?”

Well, just because you are good at two things individually—no matter how many principles they share—doesn’t mean you can do them both at the same time. I found myself in a situation that I had never been in before: I had been “trained” in my program at school to follow the guidelines of what students are required to learn by the state when making lesson plans. But when teaching improv, that of course doesn’t exist. Where was my checklist of what the children must learn? What if I taught the principle of being obvious before I taught students how to agree with each other in the “Yes, and . . . ” lesson?

Teaching improv made me realize how reliant I had become on structure, and how it may have been squelching the growth of both my students and myself as a teacher in the classroom. When I went in, I found myself asking students questions and then answering them myself if they didn’t understand after a few moments. It is so obvious to me, now that I reflect, how silly and counterproductive that is—but, again, I had become caught up in the “checklist” that teachers often begin to follow religiously, and had forgotten about the needs of the students right in front of me.

There are a lot of “unknowns” in teaching. Your students might understand what you are teaching themin the way that you have written down on your lesson plan, or they might grasp the concept in ways that only they truly understand. Working with improvisers who are also educators this summer taught me how to dive into all of these “unknowns” and get comfortable with them. Whether you are doing improv yourself, teaching improv, or teaching something completely different, you never know what will happen next. And isn’t that the most fun part?!

Carrie Carter