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Thursday
Aug072014

How should a four-year-old spend her day?

Nicole Haladyna has a great passion for the outdoors and has been teaching in natural environments for years. She founded the Woodland Schoolhouse, where she is currently enrolling children 3-1/2 to 5 years old. In this guest essay for Alt Ed Austin, Nicole provides a sparkling window into the world of Woodland kids.


The morning after the downpour, we hike to our favorite creek and check out “our waterfall.” The air is fresh and damp. Some of us sit in a meditative-like state, arms wrapped around knees, watching water flow over rocks. Some scale the surrounding embankments seeking a higher perspective. Others crouch, carefully collecting small fossils or making fairy houses.

Whispers and giggles are muffled by the moving water.  We notice the discarded insects beneath a spider’s web and ask each other “How?” and “Why?” Then we retrieve our sketch pads and draw what we see. We shake wet branches and pretend it’s raining as their leaves empty upon us.

New discoveries are always welcome, but there is something more profound about knowing a place. Really knowing a place. In our short lives we’ve been here so many times—not just visited but been here with all of our senses.

We’ve felt this place weather the seasons. We know its sounds when brisk or icy. We know its voice when the air hangs still and hot. We’ve crunched on its leaves, sipped its raindrops. We’ve watched its caterpillars descend from the trees and reappear as delicate butterflies and moths. We’ve buried our hands in this gritty soil. We’ve dipped our bare feet in these creeks. We’ve observed how buds spring from the tiniest twigs and transform into lush leaves in only a matter of days. We’ve snuck up on deer—so many deer!—beneath our special tree. We’ve discovered their bones beneath the fallen leaves. We witness signs of birth and death every day, and we embrace it all. We seek to understand it all.  


Every child deserves to have such an intimate relationship with the natural world.  This sense of place does not develop through periodic field trips but with learning and loving one place first.  Holding and protecting a place and its inhabitants so dearly, knowing it isn’t yours at all: this is the most beautiful lesson in sharing, empathy, and gratitude. 

Much of our curriculum at Woodland Schoolhouse derives from our inspirations, and in this place, inspiration and wonder envelop us. There are countless creatures, relationships, landforms, and concepts here worthy of in-depth study. We re-create our findings in paint, clay, pencil, and more. We document our questions and make a plan for learning answers.


In pursuit of these higher objectives, unintended lessons abound. We bump into each other, intellectually and physically, and practice navigating these conflicts constructively. Without the rigid time constraints so often present in a preschool schedule, we take our time and really get to the bottom of the issue. We’re eager to master basic mathematical concepts when they’ll help us confirm exactly how many tadpoles are here today versus last week, or how high that deer had to reach to eat the fruit from that branch. Writing is meaningful when we’re drawing and labeling animal tracks we’ve discovered or dictating a letter to our grandmother about the bird’s nest we found . . . and how we can’t wait to see her again.

We do not need to be pushed or coerced into learning. We must be trusted, supported, and inspired. 

Can you think of a better way for a four-year-old to spend her day?

I can’t.

Nicole Haladyna

 

Friday
Aug012014

The Austin Maker Ed Meetup

Mike DeGraff is a former high school math teacher currently working with secondary STEM teacher programs across the country as part of the UTeach Institute. He is passionate about education and extremely interested in the role of the emerging maker culture in schools. As a new guest contributor, Mike is here to invite Alt Ed Austin’s readers to the first in a series of Maker Ed Meetups on Wednesday, August 6, 7–9pm at the TechShop in Round Rock. Join the group and RSVP for the event on the Meetup page.


Making, the heart of the growing “maker movement,” has become one of the most exciting developments in education. You could barely attend a session at last year’s SXSWedu conference without hearing about it. Even the White House is into it.

Part of what makes it exciting is that making is so accessible and is starting to happen everywhere. Right now, for example, Make magazine and Google + are hosting the third annual virtual Maker Camp (July 7–August 15), where anyone with a computer or access to a library can participate in making cool stuff. According to the Maker Camp FAQ, “many of the materials you need for the projects are likely already available in your home.” This means we’re not talking about projects that need to be done at a place like TechShop with extensive equipment.

Speaking of TechShop, it is AWESOME! If you are an educator, you should seriously check it out. It has the tools for you to build anything you can imagine (even battery-operated human exoskeletons).

In fact, you should make plans to be there Wednesday, August 6, at 7pm for the very first Austin Maker Ed Meetup. There will be amazing maker educators showing off super cool stuff like the MaKey MaKey (banana piano? why yes!), stop-motion animation, and a mini nerdy derby. It’s open to makers, educators, and anyone else interested in this movement.

The Austin Maker Ed Meetup is a result of my interest, and then immersion, in maker culture over the past few years. I am a former high school math teacher with an interest in project-based/inquiry-based/constructivist approaches to education. As I got into maker culture, I found that it resonated with my understanding of and beliefs around how people learn and how schools can support hands-on learning.

I finally jumped in with both feet after attending the World’s Maker Faire 2013 in New York City. I saw a lot of people already making explicit connections between education and the maker movement, most notably the Maker Education Initiative (launched in 2012) and the associated space at the Faire dedicated to these efforts.

I came back from that event eager to get involved with the maker education activities in Austin, but I wasn’t sure how. So in true maker fashion, I began doing instead of just reading and thinking. I reached out to the maker organizations in Austin, like the Thinkery, Austin Tinkering School, Austin Mini Maker Faire, TechShop, and others. Not surprisingly, maker folks were willing and excited to show me all the things they were doing in the realm of education.

We’ve met several times over the last year as a loose collection of people with a shared interest. And we put together an Educators’ Lounge at the Austin Mini Maker Faire last May, connecting with a ton of educators with similar interests. Lots of great discussions and connections took place, some prompted by open-ended questions we posted:

The meetup at TechShop is our effort to continue those discussions and strengthen the connections between makers and educators. We’ll have cool stuff to share and do, with the hope that educators will be introduced to new ideas that can have a positive impact in their classrooms. However, the power of this group will not be what it shows educators, but in the exploration and connection between two overlapping groups: makers and educators. What making looks like in our schools is just now entering the national education discussion, so there’s plenty of room for experimentation and innovation.

A lot of this national discussion is about the specific tools and resources of the maker culture, such as 3D printing, CNC machines, laser cutters, and other innovative technology. I think all of this stuff is worth the discussion; it’s amazing. But what excites me most is not the flashy new tech, but the connections to the progressive education movement, which has been around since the late 19th century, and other current research-based practices. Some examples include an emphasis on understanding over rote knowledge, a focus on critical thinking, learning by doing, and personalized education based on students’ individual interests.

The tech will come and go (and hopefully come again after kids destroy and rebuild it into new stuff), but this approach to learning seems much more accessible, targeted, and individualized. I hope it will prove to be the most influential aspect of the maker movement on education.

Mike DeGraff

Thursday
Jul312014

1964–2014: A half century since Freedom Schools and “How Children Fail”

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of hearing Ron Miller’s keynote address at the annual AERO conference. Ron is a respected scholar and prolific author on holistic education. His sweeping history, placing alternative education within the context of the great social movements of the past 50 years, made for an unexpectedly sobering session at a largely upbeat conference. Yet it was exactly what many of us needed to hear. Ron’s eloquent talk was refreshingly honest, and it resonated with my own concerns. I am deeply grateful to Ron for granting Alt Ed Austin permission to publish his (slightly edited) prepared remarks here in full.

 

 

The title of my talk suggests that this year is a historical milestone for the educational alternatives movement; it is, and I’ll get around to that. But I also want to look a little deeper, to consider the history of the past 50 years as a way of understanding the situation that educators, and our entire culture, are facing today. I want to draw some lessons from my own career, which took place during 30 of these past 50 years.

I’m going to make two basic points. One is that alternative educational ideas and practices will not be adopted on a wide scale until our culture as a whole changes significantly. Nothing new there; I’ve said this in many of my talks and writings.

But my other point is new: After all that I have seen and learned during the three decades I worked in this field, I no longer hold out much hope that our culture is going to change in positive meaningful ways; I am more inclined now to think that it is going to continue on its insane and destructive course until it collapses from its own excesses. At least, though, this collapse will provide the opening for building a new culture, the seeds of which the educational alternatives movement has been diligently planting all these years.

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Tuesday
Jul292014

My school is my chalkboard

Guest contributor Peter Hobbs is a cofounder and teacher at Progress School, a relationship-based learning community in Central Austin where work and play nurture whole child development. The school is currently enrolling students five to ten years old and now offers options to attend one or two days per week in addition to its three-to-five-days-per-week program. Progress School is hosting an open house on Saturday, August 9, from 10 a.m. to noon.

 

 

I remember cleaning erasers and chalkboards in elementary school. Every student had a turn. You’d have to take the erasers outside. When you clapped them together just right it would make quite a bang. If you got too excited you just might end up with a face full of chalk dust. After you were done with the erasers, you’d go back inside, fill a bucket with water, and soak a big yellow sponge.

It was on a Friday, I think, that the chalkboards would get cleaned, so there was a week’s worth of writing and erasing. With the wet sponge you’d wipe the entire board clean. I remember starting at the top from one end and making columns. Up and down, up and down, up and down, like the Karate Kid. If you weren’t too careful or went too fast you’d lose the sponge and maybe even catch a fingernail on the board. Arghhhhhh!!! Column after column, the chalkboard would become a dark glistening green, only to slowly dry and dissolve into a dull blank board, awaiting another week of spelling words, random sentences, math facts, lists, rules, names, diagrams.

I didn’t know or even imagine back then that I would become a teacher myself someday. Perhaps watching a teacher stand in front of a chalkboard all day wasn’t very inspiring (I can’t even remember her name). Maybe it wasn’t a profession that was really encouraged or sincerely valued, in spite of the lip service paid to the importance of teachers in our society. And yet, I am a teacher. I don’t, however, stand in front of a chalkboard (or a dry-erase board for that matter) all day. I teach at Progress School, where, I like to think, we put a little more “progress” into progressive education.

At Progress School, the entire school is my chalkboard.

Schools have changed since the days when you would see chalkboards in every classroom and the desks were arranged into a uniform grid. Resources have improved in quality, seating arrangements have broken classes into groups or stations, and curricula have identified additional skills and knowledge that are deemed essential for every student’s comprehension. But there is a fundamental difference between change and progress where education is concerned. Change is often static and superficial. Progress is living and evolving. Teachers can change the design of a classroom (provided they have the permission of the administration), but how does education progress beyond what we expect from a school? How could education evolve if teachers and schools had the freedom to live the innovation they aspire to create?

At Progress School I have the freedom to teach because our students have the freedom to learn. We have designed our school so as to allow children to learn wherever, however, and whenever their innate desire to learn takes them. What our students find is that you don’t just go to school to learn some stuff like math and how to read and spell; you learn how to learn. Moreover, you learn that reading, writing, and arithmetic are only as important as the relationships in your life that allow you to share and use the knowledge you gain.

When you go to Progress School, you don’t learn just from teachers, but from everyone around you. You don’t just learn in class and have fun at recess; you learn that learning happens everywhere and all the time (yes, even when you’re playing):

  • At Progress School learning happens when you’re snuggled up with a teacher on the couch with a lap full of books you chose to be read (even if it’s the same one three times in a row).
  • Learning happens when you can go outside whenever you want (except when there’s lightning!), because you just have to run, and you find a 100-foot-long ruler chalked on the basketball court, and you run 5, 10, 15, 20, 50, 100 feet five times, which means you ran 500 feet! Water break!
  • Learning happens when you want to build a plane in the woodshop, but first you need the A encyclopedia for airplane, and then you need to choose what kind of plane you want to build, and then you find a piece of wood, and then you measure how long the wings should be, and then you get a ruler and draw a line, and then you get a saw, and then you hear “Capture the Flag! Who wants to play Capture the Flag?” and then maybe you work more later, or tomorrow, or next week.
  • Learning happens when you’re inside helping me measure vinegar for a science experiment this afternoon and you decide to write signs to put up all over the school inviting everyone else to come if they want to come, at what time, and how do you spell today?
  • Learning happens when you and a friend are bored and decide to get out a puzzle and put it together, but when there’s one last piece, you both want to finish the puzzle, and you start to argue, and it’s not fair, and—hey, why don’t we do another puzzle and I can put the last piece in for that one? Yeah!

And all this could happen in a single hour of a single day at Progress School. Because our students have the freedom to move throughout the school and choose what activities or projects they want to participate in or initiate on their own, I am teaching all the time.

  • When I have prepared a game about nouns and maybe just one or maybe six students give it a try, I am teaching—even when we turn the game into noun tag and have to go outside.
  • When I’ve started a project about sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks and one student asks if he can trace the labels I’ve written in marker and another wants to weigh the different groups to see which is heaviest, I am teaching.
  • When I am pushing a student on the swing and we’re talking about why Halloween is the best holiday ever, I am teaching.
  • When I am helping a student design his own board game and we count the spaces for landing on a square that doubles your roll, I am teaching.
  • When a little girl is curled up in a ball crying because her friend said her picture was dumb and I quietly sit next to her and ask if she would like to help me draw a really dumb picture (maybe a dog wearing a tutu and flying a kite underwater while a shark is playing the piano) and she slowly lifts her head, sniffs, and smiles, I am teaching.

Teaching is challenging in any school. As a teacher at Progress School, the challenge for me isn’t getting my students to complete a worksheet, turn in their homework on time, or achieve a specific learning outcome during a compulsory activity. My challenge—my lesson, in fact—is finding learning in every moment of a child’s day, whether it be in a book, with a pencil on paper, during a game, from a conflict or a joke, in a box with a fox, or with a friend or a teacher.

My school is my chalkboard. Every day we start with a clean, blank surface and end with a work of art.

Peter Hobbs

Monday
Jun302014

Julia’s Garden reopens on an urban farm oasis

In this guest post from Katherine Parlette, you’ll learn about Julia’s Garden, a Montessori program in the heart of Travis Heights where young people will have the opportunity to grow and thrive right alongside the garden plants they tend.

Welcome to Julia’s Garden! Or, for some of you, welcome back. This year, with the construction of our first Children’s House, we are concentrating on a nature-based Montessori curriculum. The home space we will be teaching the classes from is an urban farmland conveniently located in South Central Austin. It’s a place where city kids can benefit from getting their hands dirty, seeing the process of where and how their food is grown, and helping harvest, prepare, and serve it in their very own “house.”

Children who are coming into their third and fourth years of life are in their sensitive periods for reading and writing. Many programs offer a chance to explore nature, exposure to languages, and music and/or arts and crafts activities. Although all of these things are important for the preschooler and are also part of our curriculum, what sets us apart is our AMI-trained Guides, who have the time, resources, and expertise to sit down with your three-year-old and make sure that lessons are offered at the exact point in the child’s development when he or she is ready to receive it. It’s this accountability for academic learning that makes us different from many other home-based programs.

Julia’s Garden classes will be held in the sacred space of a private home, which, through years of teaching in various environments, we have found to be young children’s preferred kind of space for absorbing knowledge. Traditional school buildings in commercial settings are not ideal places for small children to spend their formative years. Vinyl flooring, fluorescent lights, and limited outside time all go against the child’s natural tendencies to learn through their senses and through movement. Plastic toys, unbreakable dishes, and padding send the message that children are clumsy and not to be trusted.

In contrast, AMI Montessori environments are lovingly prepared with materials that are pleasing to touch and to see. The Children’s House, or “Casa de Bambini,” as Dr. Maria Montessori called her first classroom, is a true home for children where they can work, play, and take ownership of their environment. Having access to materials made from nature, like wood and wool, show respect for young children and in turn help them develop respect for and knowledge about nature. Items made of ceramic and glass help children learn balance, patience, and responsibility. The result of this approach is a confident and capable child.

In our backyard, where nature leads the way, children are able to develop concrete language and fine motor skills literally from the ground up. In a garden classroom, touch, taste, smell, and sound allow them to fully take in the world around them. Harvesting their own ingredients teaches respect for food, and learning the process by which it arrives at our table helps avoid future battles around nutrition and eating disorders in the teenage years.

Gardening also builds important life and survival skills that will assist in your child’s development all the way into her adult years. In the fall, the children will have the opportunity to harvest the summer crop and prepare snacks made from organic ingredients. Simultaneously, they will be preparing the winter garden. We will talk about which vegetables and fruits grow best in our climate in the winter months and choose our favorites as a class. Then we will plant them together and continue to water them and weed the garden in order to truly see how an organic garden grows. Composting is also a big part of our daily regime: all food we do not consume goes into the compost bin so that children see the importance of recycling and that nothing goes to waste.

Julia’s Garden is a community-based class program. We encourage parents to help us in the garden and form adult friendships. Montessori is a family, and the mixed ages give the children opportunities to be teachers as well as students. We bring children into our Primary classroom before age 3 so that they can remain with the same teacher for a longer stretch of time. Having fewer transitions to work through during this tender time means more space for growing and learning in the environment. It also means that there are no delays in the child’s education from toileting training setbacks. By starting children at school in the midst of their process, we can help them to become successful at independent toileting well before their third birthday.

There’s a lot “growing on” at Julia’s Garden in 2014! Come and see for yourself or visit our website. We hope to see you soon!

Katherine Parlette, AMI M.Ed.