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The Blog

Friday
Oct032014

Why Shakespeare now?

A scene from ImprovEd Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Guest contributor Andee Kinzy is the director of ImprovEd Shakespeare, a playground where kids and Shakespeare explore the past, the present, and the future—improving upon our own introductions to Shakespeare education.


Shakespeare, ugh. For many of us, the name conjures up feelings of dread. We’re reminded of the fact that we just never understood the archaic language, and if anyone drags us to see a Shakespeare show—it’s usually time to catch up on our sleep.

So if we, ourselves, are not excited about Shakespeare, why should we bother introducing Shakespeare to our kids? It can wait ’til high school, right? Wrong.

You should be introducing your kids to Shakespeare now. Think about it: the entire world is new to your children. As they’re growing, they are adding new experiences to their knowledge on a daily basis. If you can get Shakespeare in their hands before they reach the age of “coolness,” he’s just another new experience. There’s nothing scary or intimidating about new experiences when your purpose in life is to experience everything.

A scene from ImprovEd Shakespeare’s As You Like It

What about the language, you ask? I say, they’re learning new words every day. What about the adult themes, you wonder? Sure, there are some Shakespeare plots that should be left for later years. But for the most part, Shakespeare is following story themes that are ingrained in human psyche. In fact, much of the so-called “children’s fare” shares some of the same plots. The Lion King? Hamlet. Beauty and the Beast? Gaston is a bit like Lady M riling her husband up to kill the king. And let’s not forget Gnomeo and Juliet.

Okay, so this is all great and good, but how are you, a Shakespeare-phobe, going to add yet another of those things-to-make-you-feel-guilty-because-you-haven’t-exposed-your-child-to-it-yet to your To Do list? There’s too much, already!

Fair enough. And in the case of full disclosure, I have to admit that my organization, ImprovEd Shakespeare, exists to help solve your dilemma. So you could check us out online. But even that takes time, so here are three easy ways to add Shakespeare to your life:

  1. Pull up some of those famous quotes you hear all the time (everyone knows at least part of a Shakespeare quote) and ruminate on your daily happenings: “To be or not to be cooking dinner tonight?” “All the world’s a stage, and you, my little imp, belong on it.” “Out, out, darn spot!” The internet abounds with famous quotes, but if you’re feeling the need for more, these can get you started.
  2. Every time you use a word given to us by Shakespeare, say, “Thank you, Shakespeare!” Here are a few common ones: belongings (“Don’t forget your belongings! Thank you, Shakespeare!”); eventful (“Well, that was an eventful day! Thank you, Shakespeare!”); eyeball (“Ow! There’s something on my eyeball! Thank you, Shakespeare!”). Need some more suggestions?
  3. Check out some Shakespeare stories from the library: Tales from Shakespeare, by Marcia Williams; any of the Shakespeare for Kids books by Lois Burdett; Bruce Coville’s Shakespeare books; or a different Tales From Shakespeare, by Tina Packer.

Before you know it, you and your kids will be bedazzled (Thank you, Shakespeare!) by the bard and ready to welcome his fun into your lives.

A scene from ImprovEd Shakespeare’s King Lear

Or, if you live in Austin and are ready for more Shakespeare, check out a full-length production. Present Co. is performing The Tempest in October. Use one of those books from the library to introduce the story beforehand.

And, of course, there’s always our ImprovEd Shakespeare productions. One sure-fire way to get your kids excited about Shakespeare is seeing his work performed by kids, for kids. This November we present Henry IV (Part 1!). For more information about performances and Shakespeare for kids, visit our website or follow us on social media.

A scene from ImprovEd Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

Andee Kinzy


Tuesday
Sep232014

Wilderness Awareness School: Professional development for alternative educators

This interview is adapted from one that recently appeared on Dandelion, Breana Sylvester’s blog about her family’s adventures in exploring educational alternatives. Thanks for sharing it with us, Breana! You can meet all three of the fiercely committed educators involved in the interview at this Saturday’s Alternative School Fair.

Ever wonder what your teachers did over the summer? Chances are, whether you went to public or private school, large or small, your teachers did some sort of professional development to become better at what they do. That might mean they took classes at a local university or attended a conference, or worked with other teachers to learn from experts in their field. I know teacher learning is very important, but I wondered, just as each alternative school tends to have its own style, does teacher learning take on its own flair in an alternative setting?

Laura and Michelle, two Austin alt educators, went to Wilderness Awareness School to learn the Art of Mentoring from experts. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, though, they made the great outdoors their classroom, learned through experience, and brought home lessons in becoming better teachers and happier individuals. They shared experiences neither is likely to forget! 


Michelle Carbone, youth programs coordinator and instructor, Earth Native Wilderness School, an outdoor education program. Job description: Facilitating the building of connections with nature through games and songs, as well as teaching survival skills (e.g., friction fires, learning about edible plants). Background: Studied Environmental Affairs, worked at Keep Milwaukee Beautiful and Outdoor Education programs in Texas and Ohio.


Laura Ruiz Brennand, teacher, Radicle Roots Community School-house, an experiential democratic school. Job description: Mentoring child learning based on play, place, projects, and inspiration; balancing class lessons and self-directed time, with a focus on sustainability and connecting to nature. Background: B.A. and Masters from Texas State; taught 4th grade in Kyle, Texas, before learning about alternative schooling opportunities through Caitlin Macklin.

An interesting side note: Michelle and Laura did not know each other prior to this experience. Even though Radicle Roots was planning on working with Earth Native in the fall, these two educators hadn’t yet met. They were on the same plane and saw each other with their gear and wondered, but when they got to Wilderness Awareness School, they ended up together in the Chipmunk Clan. So it was quite a way to meet!

I had some questions for Michelle and Laura about their experience, and I had so much fun learning about their learning that I wanted to share it. So here’s my interview with these two amazing teachers!

*     *     *

What appealed to you about Coyote Mentoring before you went?

Laura: Wilderness awareness school is a model school for Radicle Roots, along with the Albany Free School. Caitlin [the school’s founder] had attended the Art of Mentoring program two summers before, and so she knew a lot about it. She talked to me about the 8 shields and the different philosophies. She gave me this big textbook, and it was really dense. She’s like, “Yeah, you’ve just got to go. You can’t read about it, you’ve just got to experience it.” This past summer we were able to afford to go. She wanted me to experience what she experienced, so that way our visions could be more connected. When I got there I was like, “YES! This is what she was talking about.”

Michelle: Dave Scott, the founder of Earth Native, he got his start at Wilderness Awareness School, so it is the model we look to for Earth Native. He went there and learned and he was very involved and then he stayed and taught there. It was his inspiration for starting Earth Native. [My experience with] outdoor education is definitely less structured than classroom education, but it’s somewhere in between a Wilderness Awareness model and public school. I’m still trying to figure out where I can use my experience as an outdoor educator. Going to Earth Native was very important for me to experience. I was teaching summer camp this past summer, and I threw myself into that, and part of me didn’t feel ready to go and have another experience, but it was the most rejuvenating experience I have ever had. Everyone should go, it’s magical. 

From your perspective, based on your experience, what is the philosophy of the Art of Mentoring program?

Laura: Finding your role as a mentor, getting to know your students really well as a mentor, and figuring out where your students are using the 8 shields, and then you get to help them grow. For example, if a student is highly motivated to a project but they’re not very organized, you can help them in that way. Or if they’re struggling with motivation, you can come in as the coyote trickster and get them super motivated by being goofy and silly and bringing joy to the process, and also remembering they’re kids and they have child passions in them like playing and singing and storytelling, and remembering that adults need to play as well. When you’re mentoring a student, when an opportunity arises, you find those opportunities and you figure out what kind of teaching style you want to use. If they’re ready for lots of information, you can use a more didactic style; if they’re curious, you can be more inquiry-based.

Out of everything you learned from the program, is there something that you either immediately wanted to share, or while you were learning you made a connection to how you could have used it in the past?

Michelle: My biggest struggle has been setting boundaries guidelines, because the idea of outdoor education is letting a lot of that go—so knowing when to intervene and when you just need to let the kid figure out their own boundaries through natural consequences. For me that’s really hard. When I see a kid struggling, my instinct is to help them and do whatever I can to keep them from harm. Trying to find that balance is really hard, so going into it that’s what I wanted to figure out. Students are often asking for something, like, “Hey, I’m really thirsty, and I have been running around and I’m dehydrated and now I don’t want to drink water, so I really need you to make me drink water.” Being able to go outside your comfort zone a little is important. I spend so much time doing trickster, and being goofy and crazy. I realize I need to be a little more didactic or use the art of questioning. It was humbling, and made me realize I had a lot to learn. Maybe children respond in another way, and not always the way I tend to do things. Learning that I need to get to know my kids on another level, it was really helpful.

Laura: I think the most beautiful thing about the whole process was that there were all kinds of people coming together. We all are naturalists, and all work with kids, no program was alike, and just knowing that all these people are coming together for the same things and then dispersing back to our homes to spread the warmth and nurturing we learned there was really amazing. I am really looking forward to storytelling. There was this amazing storyteller. He was a performer, and the way he told stories was really artful and inspiring. He brought in these characters that were really interesting, and so real. He brought lots of movements; his body was so dynamic. I want to do that, I want to be a better storyteller. He was so great that you realize the possibilities of storytelling are endless. I felt like I didn’t have stories to tell, but he mentioned that everyone has their own stories to tell. Use your own life experience, and stories will come to you; everyone has something to teach. I am really excited about using the different teaching methods as they arise, especially the trickster, because I think that is my discomfort zone. Thinking about putting on a costume or a mask and then coming into a character, it sounds so fun. I think I’m going to be a raccoon. I’m going to put on a mask and become a raccoon. 

 

What was something about the experience that surprised you, that you didn’t expect going in?

Laura: I was surprised by how much everyone let themselves be themselves, even in the mornings at 8:00 a.m., when we were all pretending to be penguins or salmon. Everyone got into it and was so open to the program. There were some pretty emotional experiences for some people, because it was such a safe environment. Everyone was really supportive. It was amazing to hear 30 adults singing these songs. We learned a lot of songs. I sing them in the shower, on my bike, on my walk. We wrote them all down. It was so beautiful out there, incredibly beautiful, and the connection with the land that everyone within the community had was also really beautiful.

Michelle: I met someone there, and he was a quieter individual. I could feel him watching me sometimes, and after a while he approached me. He said, “I don’t want to infringe upon who you are and what you’re doing, but I noticed you’re constantly apologizing for who you are and what you’re doing.” I do that. He challenged me that every time I apologized I had to say something nice about myself out loud. To me that felt gross, it was scary and uncomfortable, but I did. Since I’ve gotten back I still do it, in my head, and I’ve been really watching that when I do say I’m sorry, I truly am apologetic for my behavior, because I want to work toward being a strong woman. I was going to learn about mentoring, and I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to grow so much in such a small time. Everyone there was so awesome. You could just feel the love, and it was awesome. It was hands-on, experiential education, and I learned so much!

On leaving:

Michelle: At the end we were asked to say goodbye, to leave the space empty and not leave ourselves, and to leave our clan. It was really difficult! So we lay down on the ground with heads touching and made noises. The noises started working together and harmonizing and it ended up feeling sing-song, and then it was beautiful—we all stopped at the same time.

*     *     *

What a great way to say goodbye to the people, and the place, and the experience. Thank you, Laura and Michelle. I am really excited to have gotten to share some of your experiences with my readers!

A final note: Earth Native will be holding an Art of Mentoring program here in Austin this March! Please click here for more information.

Breana Sylvester


Wednesday
Sep032014

College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game.

Antonio Buehler is a college admissions consultant and cofounder of Abrome, a unique online learning community based in Austin. With degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and West Point and experience working in top-tier admissions, he has plenty to tell you, especially if attending a highly ranked college or university is your child’s goal. Many thanks to Antonio for sharing these valuable and timely insights.

 

College admissions is not a meritocracy. It’s a game. Those who know how to play the game began years ago. They’ve donated consistently and substantially to their alma maters, they’ve provided their children with ample opportunities to stand out in the admissions game through their experiences, they’ve provided the support necessary for their children to get top grades, and they’ve paid for SAT prep courses.

The college admissions season is nearly one month in; the Common Application went live on August 1. Those who know how to play the game have already paid an admissions consultant to help their children craft their essays, and their kids are cozying up to their recommenders and getting ready to submit an application to their dream school (or their strategic reach school) via Early Action or Early Decision. If your child (or you) plan on attending a highly selective college or university next year but have not started the application process, you’re already behind the curve.

This past year, only 2,145 out of 42,167 (5.1%) of Stanford’s applicants were accepted.  Of Stanford's applicants from 2008 to 2012 with SATs of 2400, the highest score possible, 69 percent didn't get in. Over 24,000 of the applicants vying for one of Stanford’s 2,145 offers had a 4.0 or higher GPA.

The odds at Harvard weren’t much better; only 2,048 out of 34,295 (6.0%) of the applicants were accepted. It is said that Harvard rejects four out of every five valedictorians who apply, and this past year over 3,400 applicants who were vying for one of the 2,048 slots were ranked first in their class. While most colleges don’t have the benefit of having 20 applicants for each available spot, even state schools such as the University of Texas now reject more applicants than they accept.

Many guidance counselors will claim that the admissions process is random and that every applicant who wins a spot at one of these coveted institutions is extraordinarily qualified for admissions, but that is a lie. There is nothing random about admissions, and the process is not fair.

Many people mistakenly believe that where the process is the least fair is that athletes and underrepresented minorities have an advantage in the admissions game. Schools need to balance the need to field winning sports teams and to ensure that their classes are sufficiently diverse, but athletes who are among the best in the country (e.g., Stanford football or tennis, Harvard crew or squash) and also are outstanding students can hardly be considered unworthy, and while underrepresented minorities get a small benefit in the admissions game, the ones who are admitted are typically well qualified. The average SAT score of black students in the Harvard class of 2017 was 2107. (Diversity is measured in many ways, not just along ethnic or racial lines. Diversity can also come in the forms of family circumstance, socioeconomic status, geography, nationality, religion, sexual preference, life experiences, and academic and extracurricular interest.)

Where the process is less fair is in the advantages it offers children of professors and alumni. These connected students are essentially double dipping, having benefited from their parents’ education and/or source of income, and then receiving the added bonus of gaining admission to elite schools over better-qualified applicants. However, where the process is least fair is in the benefits that underqualified children of the very wealthy, corporate elites, and the politically connected receive. This benefit is so large that “[r]esearchers with access to closely guarded college admissions data have found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America's highly selective colleges are white teens who failed to meet their institutions' minimum admissions standards.”

So what can you do, now that it is almost the eleventh hour, to play the game well and ensure that your child gets into her dream school? Sadly, if you haven’t been giving your child the opportunity to lead a remarkable life by allowing her the space to dive deep into areas of interest, to develop and demonstrate her intellectual curiosity, to attain excellence in ways that are relevant to her life, you are behind the eight ball. However, I have specialized in helping students who are behind that eight ball get into top colleges and universities for years, and there is plenty of gaming that can be done even at this late stage.

First and foremost, your child must be able to tell a story that convinces the admissions committee that he has led a remarkable life filled with excellence based on what he has experienced. He may not have started a company, done graduate level research, or started a social movement, but he should have unique interests that he can speak to. The process of doing an audit on one’s life experiences and then organizing and presenting those experiences in a compelling way through the essays is time-consuming but necessary. In the admissions game, packaging is as important as substance; without either, the chances of getting into a top school are zero, but with one, there is a chance.

Second, applications to the elite schools must be as perfect as possible. GPA (if the student goes to a traditional high school) is set, and SATs are unlikely to shift much. However, the candidate has full control over her essays (her story) and significant control over the recommendations. Those essays must be perfect because they are the most important part of the application. Unlike law school, where a perfect GPA and LSAT will get you into Harvard, a perfect GPA and perfect standardized test scores are no guarantee that you will get into a Top 5 undergraduate program. The story that comes through in the essays (and to a lesser degree in the recommendations) must accompany the numbers in a way that convinces the admissions committee members that they need a particular applicant in their incoming class. That story is much simpler for the children of senators and Fortune 500 CEOs than it is for a middle-class or upper-middle-class child, but not even Harvard or Stanford can completely fill its incoming class with development cases, legacies, children of professors, recruited athletes, and diversity candidates.

Third, your child must begin working on her applications today. Creating those perfect essays and ensuring that the recommendations are just right takes time. It is not uncommon for my clients to do up to 20 turns of an essay before they are ready to submit it. Every single word must add value to one’s story, even articles and conjunctions. And the candidate must begin today because she must submit an Early Action or Early Decision application this fall, before she submits the bulk of her applications by the regular decision deadline for most schools.

Those who play the game know that the chances of admission skyrocket through Early Action and Early Decision. At Harvard, for example, a candidate had a 21 percent chance of being accepted through Early Action, but only 3.1 percent of regular admissions candidates (which included deferred Early Action applicants) were accepted. Stanford, meanwhile, accepted 10.8 percent of their Early Action candidates, compared to only 4 percent of regular admissions candidates.

The time to act is now if you want your child to get into Harvard, Stanford, or another top program. The time to act is now, as well, if your child wants to attend a competitive state school or a more local private college such as those listed in the table above. If your child is applying this year, he should be working on his essays each day, working with his recommenders, and continuing to excel academically and at extracurricular activities.

However, if your child is not applying this year, and has several years to prepare, then she can play the game by simply focusing on living a remarkable life, today. Those clients are the ones who are always the easiest to get into top programs.

Antonio Buehler

Wednesday
Sep032014

Use crowdfunding to engage students and develop 21st-century skills

Guest contributor Paul Phelps is cofounder of culturebooster, an award-winning curriculum and fundraising platform for 4th–12th grade students to raise money for self-directed projects benefiting their school and community. Students design and lead a 35-day crowdfunding campaign while learning real-world employability skills for their careers, including business fundamentals such as marketing, design, customer service, budgeting, and much more. Parents and educators can learn more about the curriculum here.


Crowdfunding is an online activity in which a person or group asks for small amounts of money from many people. When combined, these small amounts are enough to fund that group’s idea. Successful crowdfunding projects have included motion pictures, music albums, published books, scholarships, theatrical productions, inventions, small businesses, and many more. Recently, LeVar Burton raised $4.5 million to produce new episodes of his legendary Reading Rainbow TV series using crowdfunding.

Collaboration

Many teachers are thinking about the benefits of crowdfunding for classroom needs using sites like Donors Choose and our own culturebooster.com. But they should also consider getting their students involved in their crowdfunding campaigns. This will benefit the fundraising efforts, but more importantly, including them is a huge benefit to the students. It’s an ideal project to forge great social bonds and trust right from the start of your school year because it’s a team effort with you as the mentor.

Crowdfunding inspires students to drive their own learning as they learn how their own natural abilities and interests need to be applied to making real-world projects come to life. It also gives them an opportunity to work together as a team and introduces them to career options that could be good choices for them. When you lead kids through these experiences, their fundamental question of why they need to learn the content you’re teaching them becomes self-evident. Behavior problems are minimized as kids want to work with you and cooperate with the team to succeed at the class crowdfunding goal.

Problem Solving

Crowdfunding campaigns are also an excellent way to develop students’ problem-solving skills. What should the goal of the campaign be? What rewards should be offered to the campaign boosters? How can we tell the world about our campaign? By allowing the students to take charge of the process, educators give them a self-defined purpose and a sense of responsibility for the project. The learning that happens during the campaign can be enhanced if you use a well-constructed set of lesson plans like those at culturebooster.com. Guiding kids through such lesson plans also fulfills academic standards like using applied financial math and persuasive writing in a real-world project.

Creativity

Traditional lecture-style classrooms can work for students with the right skill set and temperament for that style of learning. For others, though, this structure can lead to boredom. Your “other” students are likely extra-creative, social, artistic, or just bursting with an energy they may not know how to channel. In a traditional classroom, it is easy to see how these students would come to believe they have less value than their “easier to manage” peers. But those same character traits are real advantages in many careers. When students see how their personalities are great for a classroom crowdfunding campaign, they become engaged in the learning process even beyond the crowdfunding classroom. Their skills and personalities will be valued in a crowdfunding campaign, just as they will be valued when they begin pursuing careers and hobbies as adults. These are the kids who may invent the incredible, fun rewards that your supporters will love, while others double-check that the team’s math and message (and deadlines) are on track! Harnessing your creative kids is a real boost for their own self-confidence and that of the entire group.

Communication

Recently, culturebooster had a class of fifth grade students. One in particular admitted he had been a bit of a troublemaker until he joined his peers in an ambitious crowdfunding campaign for the school. There, he found his skills for communicating and his unbridled energy perfectly suited for making outbound calls to local businesses he thought would consider donating to their campaign. When he convinced not one but two local businesses to donate $300 each, he discovered he had a unique value and a marketable skill. His self-confidence soared and his peers celebrated his successes, providing him more focus in the classroom going forward and a renewed sense of purpose to his education. You can see Bradlees’s comments about his experience in this video.

What’s your why this year for your classroom?

For even the most studious learner, engagement is a challenge when they are unable to determine why they are being asked to learn something. A crowdfunding campaign is an excellent way to introduce students to the real value of learning. Math is used for budgeting. Writing skills are needed for the video script and for press releases. If funders are located around the country, or around the world, geography comes into play. And when using a well-designed curriculum, these lessons can be aligned with education standards such as Common Core. Crowdfunding is a straightforward approach to keeping students of all backgrounds engaged in the learning process.

Give your why a try

Is there any classroom in America that couldn’t use some extra resources today? Why not plan on making that ask a little differently this year: Involve your students in a crowdfunding campaign and watch their engagement and learning soar (and your job get more fulfilling and easier to manage)!

Paul Phelps

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