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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


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.


Inspiring STEM learning in Austin youth

Alt Ed Austin doesn’t often publish guest posts from representatives of large corporations, but both the local Girl Scouts and the Microsoft Store staff were so excited to share the fun learning they’ve been doing together that we couldn't help but pass it along. Guest contributor Marco Cervantes is the store manager of the Austin Microsoft Store at The Domain, which offers free YouthSpark summer camps.

Brownies learn about the history of the computer to earn their “Computer Expert” badge in a recent workshop.
With all the available tech currently on the market, it’s easy for today’s youth to get sucked into a stream of unconscious thumb scrolling and finger tapping. As a manager at the Microsoft Store in Austin, I find frustrated parents sometimes pointing the finger at us, claiming that we are the source of their children’s lack of focus. However, our intention is quite the opposite. Microsoft is taking action to help involve today’s youth in meaningful and productive activities.

Amidst Austin’s booming tech scene, the next generation is deeply immersed in the digital world and will soon be the new employees managing projects and writing code. Yet these skills are seldom taught in elementary, middle school, and high school classrooms. To address this issue, the Microsoft Store at The Domain offers workshops to local youth to give them a head start in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The Girl Scouts of Central Texas (GSCTX) is one of the many nonprofit organizations we have partnered with in the Austin area since the store opened in April 2012. To help meet the growing demands for hands-on STEM learning and to provide increased opportunity for girls, Microsoft has donated more than $500,000 in software to GSCTX. We host merit badge workshops two or three times a week for the Girl Scouts to teach them about internet safety, apps, and more. We extend free instruction to GSCTX staff members as well, with dedicated sessions to share Windows and Office proficiency tips so they can better organize and lead their troops.

“We strongly believe that investing in today’s youth and providing opportunities beyond the classroom are some of the most beneficial ways we can help set up the girls for a successful future,” says Lolis Garcia-Baab, director of marketing and communications at GSCTX. “We are helping to create the female leaders of tomorrow. By offering an outlet for youth to learn about technology, we are empowering them to reach their full potential, which may not be possible in many traditional classrooms.”

Microsoft’s dedication to helping the next generation extends far beyond the store walls. In addition to donations, our companywide YouthSpark initiative aims to create opportunities for 300 million youth around the world, including 50 million young people in the United States, by 2015. Through partnerships with governments, nonprofit organizations, and businesses, we connect them with education, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities. For example, through our DreamSpark program, students gain access to professional developer and designer tools at no cost so they can get a head start on their careers or create the next big breakthrough in technology.

We are excited to help Austin youth create the world they want tomorrow, starting today. To learn more about Microsoft’s community and educational activities in Austin, please visit the store website.

Marco Cervantes


Step outside for learning

The Inside Outside School is known for its innovative incorporation of the outdoors into its academic curriculum. This guest post from IOS director Deborah Hale is adapted from photo essays she posted earlier this month on the school’s blog. Reading this might just lead you to try a few of these activities with your own kids this summer!

We are always looking for ways to get outside for math and science. Some of the most popular ways at our school involve math trails. In fact, a few months ago I decided to write a book about math trails. I thought it would be easy because I am so passionate about the topic, but it’s hard to convey on paper the excitement of an outdoor math adventure. I'm wondering if this should be a movie instead.

On this math trail there are a few stations where students find a whiteboard with a problem typical of what we've been doing in class. They have a trail map to record their work and answers on a clipboard.

The magnetic garage door of the theater building is an excellent stop on the trail, now that we have a set of large magnetic money.


By the way, when you are studying money-related math outdoors, money can grow on trees . . .


. . . and even in the garden. This kind of math adventure is so much fun because it is a lot like an Easter egg hunt!



Speaking of Easter egg hunts, at station #3 on the trail, students found three eggs hidden under a traffic cone, each with six shells in it. The traffic cones are a great way to make it clear where the math stations are set up.

The driveway is part of our outdoor classroom. We used concrete paint to mark large number lines and a blank hundreds chart.


Here you can see examples of some of our manipulatives: wooden number blocks that the shop classes helped to create, felt number patches made last year in sewing classes, and wooden ten sticks. This student has just solved 82 minus 29. These activities all happened on the school grounds not far from the buildings.

Next we found out what a math trail can look like in the woods down by the creek. Upper elementary students used the stick method to measure the height of trees. All you need is a stick and a measuring tape. They also worked to find the diameter of trees after determining the circumference. The circumference is measured at 4.5 feet up from the ground. Then you divide the circumference by pi (3.14). It is great to estimate before measuring, and then you can always throw in a little subtraction when you determine the difference between the estimate and the actual measurement. A final activity was measuring the canopy of a tree.

Another great way to integrate math and science is with a square foot garden. You can see the string that the students used earlier in the year to mark off the squares after measuring the perimeter and area of the planting space. Once the garden is divided, students must research the plants they want to cultivate to find out how many each square will support. We have harvested and replanted this garden throughout the school year. Growth of plants can be measured, recorded, and compared.

Another part of gardening is weighing the harvest and recording the data. Then you get to use the basil and tomatoes for making lasagna! Integrating math into cooking is another great way to make connections. This has been indoor work for us so far, until we get the rest of our outdoor kitchen set up (unless we are using our cob oven).

During our Native American cultural study, students created active learning connections in the garden by setting up a “three sisters” garden with Helen, our nature science teacher. We even “planted” a dead fish from our creek to enrich the soil. The corn provides a pole for the beans, the beans stabilize the corn plant and fix nitrogen, and the squash acts as mulch to prevent evaporation of moisture in the soil. The nutritional elements of these foods add additional material for learning.

Helen recently noticed some caterpillars and chrysalises on a mustard plant, so she brought in a number of books for the students to use to find out what they were seeing. It turned out to be a cabbage butterfly, and the following week we all got to see one of them freshly emerged and drying its wings.

We encourage you to step outside whenever you can, too, and see what you can learn!

Deborah Hale


9th Street Schoolhouse is moving . . . by bike!

On Sunday, June 1, starting at 9:00 a.m., the 9th Street Schoolhouse community will move the entirety of the school’s belongings to its new location using only bicycles. Austinites with cargo bikes and trailers of all shapes and sizes will make the three-mile trek from 2006 E. 9th Street in East Austin to 3310 Red River, fueled by free coffee and doughnuts. The group will ride slowly in a pack together, obeying all traffic laws and keeping to residential streets.

Families with children who are road-ready cyclists are invited to participate. Caitlin Macklin, founder and teacher at the schoolhouse, said, “It’s a great opportunity for our youth to see what is possible when a community comes together.”

Caitlin was inspired by the Yellow Bike Project shop move in 2008, which accomplished the shipment of a 3,000-square-foot bike shop via a caravan of over 100 people on bikes. She added, “At the schoolhouse, we are always looking for ways to harness people power and live sustainably—and have a lot of fun in the process!”

The Schoolhouse is an independent alternative school founded in 2010. It is a democratic, experiential learning community that has the freedom to pursue meaningful learning, joy, and connection. The Schoolhouse currently serves youth in K–4th grades and will grow to serve K–8th grade youth.

You can RSVP here to join the event!

9th Street Schoolhouse is Moving by Bike!


9:00 AM at 2006 E. 9TH STREET


The 9th Street Schoolhouse will move the entirety of the school’s belongings to their new location using only bicycles. Austinites with cargo bikes and trailers of all shapes and sizes will make the three-mile trek from East Austin to 3310 Red River, fueled by free coffee and doughnuts. The group will ride slowly in a pack together, obeying all traffic laws and keeping to residential streets.

Families with children who are road-ready cyclists are invited to participate. Caitlin Macklin, founder / teacher at the schoolhouse, said, “It’s a great opportunity for our youth to see what is possible when a community comes together.” Macklin was inspired by the Yellow Bike Project shop move in 2008, which accomplished the shipment of a 3,000-square-foot bike shop via a caravan of over 100 people on bikes. She added, “At the schoolhouse, we are always looking for ways to harness people power and live sustainably—and have a lot of fun in the process!”

About 9th Street Schoolhouse

The Schoolhouse is an independent alternative school founded in 2010. It is a democratic, experiential learning community that has the freedom to pursue meaningful learning, joy, and connection. The Schoolhouse currently serves youth in K–4th grades and will grow to serve K–8th grade youth.

You can find out more at

You can RSVP to join the event at