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The Blog

Friday
Jan232015

The Six Seasons: Empowering kids to deal with climate change


That environmentalists need the goodwill of children would seem self-evident—but more often than not, children are viewed as props or extraneous to the serious adult work of saving the world.

—Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

I recently attended a preview performance of The Six Seasons, a uniquely beautiful and moving play about climate change. Glass Half Full Theatre adapted its original award-winning show aimed at adult audiences into this brilliant production for ages seven and up. Using tiny puppets, ingenious sets made of recycled materials, gorgeous music from around the world, and simple language that made complex socio-ecological processes come to life, these artist-environmentalists earned the goodwill of the children watching with me.

Presented on ZACH Theatre’s Kleberg Stage, the story depicts people and ecosystems all over the planet coping with the very real effects of climate change: polar bears stranded by melting Arctic ice, families in Texas and Malawi forced to leave their farms because of severe drought, villages and entire islands disappearing in the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh as sea levels rise and uproot mangroves no longer able to hold coastlines together. Heavy stuff for children, right?

Concerned parents and educators struggle to find the right tone, the right images, the right amount of detail when talking to kids about the climate crisis. Most experts agree that kids can handle scary truths, presented in age-appropriate terms, as long as they’re also given the chance to do something with that information. As Alfie Kohn, best known as a crusader for more humane education, writes in his book Unconditional Parenting, “Empowered kids are in the best position to deal constructively with disempowering circumstances.”

Zach Scott education director Nat Miller and his team are working hard to make sure that the young (and older) people who see The Six Seasons feel empowered. Immediately following both family shows and special performances for school groups, they lead “talkback” sessions to draw out questions and concerns. They’ve also created a free study guide that parents and educators can use to help kids delve deeper into the geographic, historical, social, economic, and ecological issues the play addresses.

Most importantly, the talkbacks include suggestions for specific actions that young people can take to address the causes and effects of climate change. Some of these suggestions came out of a post-performance discussion I participated in along with other invited audience members representing local environmental organizations, including Austin Citizens Climate Lobby, Environment Texas, Keep Austin Beautiful, and TreeFolks. Miller and Caroline Reck, the play’s director, writer, and puppet designer, asked these leaders important questions and listened carefully to their input on the kinds of direct action that are most effective.

Also in the audience were students and teachers from the Austin Ecoschool. This was an especially appropriate group to preview the play, as EcoSchool kids are accustomed to learning in the company of very small puppet-like figures they call “peeps” every Thursday in their ongoing role-playing curriculum called Game of Village. During their talkback, the students were engaged and forthcoming. Clearly, they not only enjoyed the play (especially the polar bears, which the kids mentioned repeatedly) but also really got it. Some remarked that parts of the story were sad. And indeed they were.

But the play’s later scenes are more hopeful, imagining futures in which people come together creatively to build more resilient communities and where concrete cities become revegetated. Finally, the puppeteers circle back to the beloved polar bears we met in the first scene, reminding us that their habitat remains precarious and precious.


Grab a kid, or a bunch of them, and head over to see The Six Seasons while you can. Tickets are available for Saturday family shows through January 31 and weekday school group performances through February 13. And let’s keep the conversations about climate change going—with our kids and with each other. 

Teri

Wednesday
Jan142015

Connecting Texas children with nature

Johnnie Smith, Conservation Education Manager at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, joins us on the blog to let you know about three great programs that help students, educators, and families learn about nature firsthand.



Texas Children in Nature

Texas Children in Nature is a network of more than 300 partners from around the state who are dedicated to connecting all Texas children and their families with nature to be healthier, happier, and smarter. TCiN reaches the many diverse Texas communities through regional collaboratives that bring together nonprofits, government agencies, businesses, and individuals to focus on the issues and solutions that are relevant to them.

Through our unified messaging, our partners help raise awareness about why kids need nature and how everyone benefits when children and families spend more time outside. No one agency or organization can get every single child outside—but together we can! In 2013 we conducted a survey of our partners; the 28 percent who responded reported serving almost 4 million youth with their outdoor programs and events. 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children and teens today spend between 7 and 11 waking hours per day indoors, isolated, and with media. You can help stem the tide of nature deficit disorder and create real solutions to get kids plugged into nature. Find your regional leaders at TCiN! 


Project WILD

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sponsors a suite of Project WILD programs, each offering a special iteration of this outstanding, hands-on approach to learning. Project WILD is a kindergarten through 12th grade environmental and conservation education program emphasizing awareness, appreciation, and understanding of wildlife and natural resources. It is interdisciplinary and supplementary and can be used to teach basic skills in science, social studies, language arts, math, art, music, and physical education.

TPWD offers Project WILD through hands-on workshops for educators. With an unbiased approach to basic wildlife management practices, Project WILD

  • teaches young people how to think about wildlife, not what to think;
  • provides a set of fun, hands-on, easy-to-use educational activities;
  • trains teachers and youth group leaders in an outstanding six-hour, hands-on workshop;
  • includes helpful, scientific background information with all activities;
  • incorporates powerful techniques and methods for teaching problem-solving and decision-making skills; and
  • is kid-tested and teacher-approved!


Saving Water for Wildlife

Texans know about drought. What they may not know is that, due to global weather patterns, the chances are high for another 10 to 15 years of persistent dry weather. Our water habits must change.

Wildlife needs clean, fresh water in the habitat, in seasonally appropriate amounts. Whether that habitat be upland, forest, riparian, subterranean, wetland, or estuarine, wildlife will not survive without it. While terrestrial species require water for sustenance and for the vegetation that supports the food web, aquatic species rely on water not only for these needs but for completion of their life cycle as well.

Everything we do on public and private lands affects our natural environment, directly or indirectly. Unlike plants and animals, however, we can choose a role that determines our impact. Texas Parks and Wildlife has put together a special website with resources to help prepare both children and adults for informed, effective action in saving water for wildlife. Every positive step you take helps us all.

Johnnie E. Smith


Wednesday
Jan072015

A new home for Austin Tinkering School!

Kami Wilt runs both the annual Austin Mini Maker Faire and the year-round Austin Tinkering School, where there are big changes afoot. Kami joins us on the blog today to share the good news.


As some of you may know, Austin Tinkering School recently ran a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to create a kid-friendly, community-oriented, centrally located Makerspace. A space like this doesn't exist in Austin yet, and it seems necessary (and awesome!) for a growing, vibrant, Maker city like Austin.

Lucky for us, the Kickstarter was a success, and we were able to raise $23,000! After months of looking and, truthfully, feeling a little worried that even with that handsome chunk of change we might not find a place that met our needs, we managed to secure a fantastic spot that is going to allow us to bring many more great tinkering experiences and adventures to kids and adults than we have before.

Introducing the new Austin Tinkering School:
1122 Airport Blvd.

This place is ideally located in East Austin and is just two minutes away from Hausbar Urban Farm, Canopy, Blue Genie, Splinter Group, a playground at Govalle Elementary, and scads of awesome East Side artists and artisans we can go visit whenever we want. It has a HUGE backyard! It also has AIR CONDITIONING! I'll tell you, $23,000 sounds like a lot and it definitely is, but when you start looking at places, you realize you might have to give up on some things, like temperature control or an easy-to-get-to location.

And since we didn't know how long it was going to take us to find a new place, we decided to build a nice new outdoor workshop at Austin EcoSchool, so now we have a South Austin hub as well! We offer a Friday program there for homeschoolers and alterna-schoolers, and will be running summer camps all summer long at both locations, along with lots of great classes and workshops for kids and adults.

​2015 is a brand spankin’ new year with so many tinkering adventures ahead! Can’t wait to have you all over to the new digs. Check us out at austintinkeringschool.com.



Kami Wilt

Tuesday
Jan062015

Celebrating informal science education in Texas

Emily Weerts has been an educator and program manager for museums, preschools, special education classrooms, and afterschool classes. She has been a member of the Informal Science Education Association of Texas (ISEA) since 2011 and currently serves on its board of directors. Emily is passionate about connecting with fellow educators and believes that great learning opportunities can happen anywhere.


Frank Oppenheimer, the visionary founder of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, once noted that “no one ever flunked a museum.” As a lifelong learner, I find the sentiment resonates with me—there are countless venues rich with educational opportunities, many that celebrate a learner-driven, informal approach to attaining new knowledge.

The field of science is particularly rich with informal venues; from museums to zoos, from state parks to aquariums, there are many science-rich institutions welcoming individuals, families, and classes interested in self-directed learning experiences. The Informal Science Education Association of Texas (ISEA) was founded in 1997 to support partnerships among informal and formal science educators to improve science education in Texas.

ISEA Texas defines informal science education as providing unique learning environments that increase appreciation and understanding of science, mathematics, and technology and their applications through voluntary and often self-directed experiences for individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Those interested in alternative schooling and inspiring learning experiences will relate deeply to the educators and professionals brought together by ISEA.


The firepit at Sky Ranch, venue for this year’s ISEA Texas conference

ISEA's annual conference will be held February 18–20 at Sky Ranch in Van, Texas. This year's conference theme is “Creating Connections: Building the Future,” and Dr. Gerald Liberman, PhD, will be delivering a keynote address focused on designing and implementing successful environmental education programs. As a museum educator I've had the pleasure of attending three previous conferences, and I always gain a great deal from the experience. As the name might suggest, the ISEA conference experience is informal and friendly; topics are accessible and participants are extremely welcoming. Through ISEA, I've connected with other educators, learned new skills, and talked late into the night about new approaches to education.

This year’s ISEA conference features a number of sessions that will be of interest to members of the alternative education community. Several focus on creating successful partnerships between educational groups and their communities. Gina Higby from UT will teach workshop participants how to engage diverse audiences in STEM activities through a parachute design class. Dr. Finkelstein and Dr. Silverman from the McDonald Observatory will overview activities about stars and galaxies and advise on how to successfully incorporate astronomy content into science curricula. There's even a session for fearful grant writers; in “It Was a Dark and Stormy Grant Application,” author and educator Christina Soontornvat will apply tools from fiction to write more successful grants.


Informal science educators delving into hands-on activities at a past ISEA conference

The ISEA conference always features an incredible silent auction, with participating museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and educators donating great swag to support scholarships for the conference. This year’s attendees can opt in to participate in a pre-conference workshop focused on crafting engaging social media or attend a post-conference field trip to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. More information about the conference, including registration and a scholarship application, can be found here. Hope to see some of you there!

Emily Weerts


Saturday
Nov152014

How do children as young as three learn in three languages?

Sharon Munroe serves as outreach coordinator at Austin International School, where her own children happily learn in three languages. In this guest post she explains how the school’s unusual model works.



It is possible for young children to be educated in three languages, even if they have only spoken their native language prior to starting school. In fact, this is both the philosophy and the practice at a unique preschool and primary school called Austin International School located in Northwest Austin. I have seen it myself, both as a parent of young children and now working at the school on the outreach team.

AIS began like many international schools around the world. Founded in 2001 by French nationals seeking to keep their own children immersed in French language and culture during their time in Austin, the school has evolved into one serving both local families and those from as many as 20 different countries, making a very diverse community of learners. Students from all ethnic and cultural backgrounds learn in French, English, and Spanish through immersion with native speakers who are experienced teachers. There is no language prerequisite for entering pre-kindergarten or kindergarten at Austin International School.

What makes the school unique is less readily apparent in the published curriculum than in the way it is delivered and in classroom interactions. Looking around on any given school day, I can see that it is happening:

  • I walk into a Petite Section classroom designed for three-year-olds, and they are singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in English.
  • Four-year-olds down the hall are painting outlines of bodies, drawing in the heart and lungs using Spanish vocabulary.
  • Kindergartners are dancing with their native French-speaking teacher in the multipurpose room.
  • Fourth graders in the Science Lab are having a lesson in French about organs and how the heart and lungs work in humans.

The curriculum is not the juxtaposition of three curricula (one French, one English, and one Spanish); instead, it is one unified curriculum in three languages that includes all subjects. It builds on the core learning from year to year, based on the French Baccalaureate curriculum.

In the unit of inquiry on the human body, all students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten learn vocabulary and the science behind their bodies, incorporating art and music in their classroom as well as physical education instruction. Over three weeks, they learn all of the age-appropriate information from three teachers who come to their classroom on a rotating basis throughout the week. The seamless delivery of the unit allows a dialogue among cultures and languages and develops critical thinking skills. Yes, it happens in children as young as three.

The international faculty leads by example by always working collaboratively. For a typical kindergarten class, a team with a teacher from the United States, France, and Mexico are a classroom team. Each teacher brings his or her personal background, culture, and professional expertise to deliver the best learning experience possible.

Each week when school is in session, they spend at least three hours as a teaching team, planning the units of inquiry and daily lessons and discussing both the needs of the class overall and of individual students. Where one child may need extra support in one language that is new to him, the same child may need to challenge his vocabulary in his native language.

“Fundamental language skills develop in all three languages simultaneously; however, some skills are language specific. Communication between teachers is critical to ensure that students are successful and that we meet their needs in each language,” according to Carol Shay, who joined the first grade teaching team in 2012 after many years in Austin’s public schools.

An assistant teacher helps and nurtures the children alongside each team of three classroom teachers. These vital staff members support the children’s needs both in the classroom and on the playground. Teacher-student ratios are intentionally low to provide support to all learners from preschool through fifth grade.

Many young children are ready to learn at age three in a full-day school environment. They are able to learn a great deal from their classmates and teachers; they see and hear the differences among their schoolmates, who come from many different countries but all now live in Austin, a microcosm of the world. This is the start to their global citizenship.

Austin International School graduates go on to many of the area’s top middle schools—public, charter, and private—and thrive in all settings. One recent graduate, David, who began in kindergarten with no prior background in language or culture beyond his own (as an English-speaking American), has been recognized as a “connector” and won a sixth grade leadership award at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. Other students are learning a fourth language and excelling in advanced math and science. They are well-rounded young people. Most come back weekly for the Alumni Club activities held on campus.

I have seen the progress of the school, the students in general, and my own children over the past four years. Austin International School develops global citizens and critical thinkers.

For more information, please visit austininternationalschool.org or contact me at outreach@austininternationalschool.org.

Sharon V. Munroe