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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 or contact me at

Sharon V. Munroe


Tips for outdoor exploration with young children

Michelle Carbone is the youth programs coordinator and an instructor at Earth Native Wilderness School. She also contributes to the Kids in Nature Blog, where an earlier version of this post originally appeared. Thanks for sharing your expertise with Alt Ed Austin’s readers, Michelle!

It’s taken time for me to get used to some aspects of outdoor education. Teaching children to use knives and make fire, as well as hiking with preschoolers (we really are hiking, not just walking), have been some sources of apprehension. But each day, each moment I’m with these children, I not only realize anew how capable they are but also discover more ways to help ensure their safety.

Before the first tools, butter knives, were even handed out in a recent class, we discussed knife safety. We explained how knives are tools, not toys; that using knives is a privilege, not a right. We then spent a whole day practicing carving soap and apples with butter knives.

They all had to earn knife certification, where they proved to an instructor that not only could they regurgitate the information, but they could also explain what it meant to them in their own words, while demonstrating with a butter knife and a stick. Then they were able to use the fixed-blade steel knives. We gave them specific tasks, like carve the tip into a square, or remove all the bark. Soon they were ready to learn different skills, such as how to get rid of knots on the sides of sticks, or how to make a “flower” out of a stick.

I was with that same group of students in a later class, and they were carving pumpkins with knives—not the typical carving knife set you buy for $3.99 at Target, but real, stainless steel knives with a fixed blade. One of the children was celebrating his sixth birthday. It. Was. Amazing. The level of focus, care, and observance of safety rules was astounding.

We have a few basic rules at Earth Native; we call them the ABCs of carving, and the children follow them to a T. They even help one another, telling fellow students if they are too close to them while they are carving, or reminding others to carve away from themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, at the preschool program I teach, we went on a hike. It was probably half a mile—some uphill, some climbing over rocks, some down rocks. Before we came to a hill, I would warn them and suggest some options for safe travel. As they climbed, I commented on how they did, using positive reinforcement. I would say, “I like how (name) is using both their feet AND hands to get down the rocks,” or “Way to sit on your bottom and scoot down this slope!” And they did great. I also said that whenever we see poison ivy, we should turn to the person behind us, point to it, and say “Poison ivy, pass it on!” I’ve also called it “P.I.” in other classes, and the kids just love to point it out because it has a cool nickname.

To sum up, I recommend trying these ideas to help create safer and more positive outdoor explorations for you and your child:

  • clear guidelines (especially with knives)
  • options for success (different ways to climb up and down rocks)
  • positive reinforcement (try to be specific with your comments)
  • nature games (for example, Who can spot the most P.I.?)

Best of luck, and happy exploring!

Michelle Carbone


Transforming education: How a grassroots movement is changing the world

Michael Carberry is the founder and director of the Whole Life Learning Center in Austin and a cofounder of the Education Transformation Alliance. He is also a writer, speaker, and educational consultant. Michael is currently completing an M.A. in Holistic Education from the SelfDesign Graduate Institute. Here Michael sums up his views on the current state of education and what truly meaningful reform looks like. At the end of his guest post, you can watch a lovely new video about his revolutionary (and expanding) school.

I believe in standardizing automobiles. I do not believe in standardizing human beings. Standardization is a great peril which threatens American culture.
                                                 —Albert Einstein

It seems like common sense today that a highly standardized education system will only hinder the creativity of both teachers and students, ultimately damaging their ability to teach and truly learn. Students are often lost and disenchanted within this vast, competitive system. I propose that the highest aim of education ought to be supporting every student in discovering and cultivating his or her unique gifts, while promoting a lifelong love of learning.

Rather than stressing and obsessing over grades and test performance, we educators and leaders in the alt ed movement shift the focus to guiding and mentoring youth toward living more fulfilled, empowered, and joyous lives while promoting health and wellness, ecological awareness, and social justice. Author Ron Miller describes education as “the primary vehicle for cultural transformation.”  This is why it is so important to take a hard look at our traditional education system while researching the myriad alternatives that are sprouting up.

When choosing a school for your child, or deciding on an educational philosophy that you are aligned with, you have to ask the questions: What is the purpose of education? What do I want for myself and my child? And what kind of future do I want to contribute to?

A 2012 Gallup poll demonstrated that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become with their own education. The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades 5 through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states. It found that about 80 percent of elementary students who participated in the poll were engaged with their education, measured in terms of “involvement in and enthusiasm for school.” By middle school it fell to about 60 percent, and by high school, only 40 percent of students would be considered engaged.

It’s no secret: public schools (and traditional private schools too) are focusing on the numbers and forgetting about the students. The most-watched TED Talk ever is “How Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson. He makes the case that over the past hundred years our education system has basically emulated the industrial, assembly line model. What we need to return to, then, is a more organic model that understands human unfolding and learning as a natural process that requires diverse environments, specialized attention, and unique inputs in order to nourish optimal growth and well-being.

A glimpse of organic learning at the Whole Life Learning Center in Austin, Texas

John Taylor Gatto is another outspoken advocate of education revolution. Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the Year in 1989, 1990, and 1991, and New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.  He shocked administrators upon his acceptance of this award by lambasting the public school system in a speech that he later expanded into his book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Gatto asserts that schools confuse students by presenting an incoherent array of information that the child needs to memorize in order to compete in school. He explains that rather than teaching kids to be independent, creative, confident individuals, schools are teaching (through built-in contexts) emotional and intellectual dependence and indifference.

Despite these clear arguments for radical reform in our public education system, pervasive and corrosive programs like No Child Left Behind continue to stifle school districts throughout the country by attaching funding to test performance. The good news is that there is a growing movement of families and educators turning to a rapidly expanding array of alternatives.  The increasing drop-out rates and the steep rise in the number of medicated students are just a couple of examples of the fractured system they are leaving behind.

In the past, alternatives were fewer and farther between. Awareness around these alternatives was quite limited; perhaps people had heard through mainstream sources about Montessori or Waldorf education, but they probably had a very limited understanding of what those were or why they might be better choices for their families than the public school system.

Today the education revolution is in full swing, and it’s not led by any one model of education to universally replace public schools. It’s a movement comprising homeschoolers, unschoolers, co-ops, small independent schools, charter schools, families, and educators choosing options that they’re aligned with—options that see their children and students as more than cogs in a machine being prepared for the workforce, options that recognize that everyone learns differently and honor and support each child’s unique strengths and weaknesses, that recognize the importance of social-emotional learning along with academic study, options that facilitate a connection to nature and promote ecological awareness, social justice, and global citizenship.

Happy learners at the Whole Life Learning Center

An invaluable resource in this movement is the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), which hosts an annual conference and acts as an international hub for all things alt ed. In Canada, a great example of government-funded measures to support homeschooling efforts can be seen in the organization SelfDesign, which supports parents financially and with a “Learning Consultant” who helps them create and follow through on an individualized learning plan for their child.

One of the cities at the forefront of this education revolution in the United States is Austin, Texas. Yes, that’s right, the home of the President who brought No Child Left Behind to the nation is also one of the most supportive states when it comes to homeschooling. Austin also happens to be a progressive oasis in a conservative state, so it has drawn a multitude of educational options for the many families moving to Austin every day. Beyond the typical alternative options of the Montessori and Waldorf schools, dozens of small, independent schools have sprouted up, each with its own unique learner-centered approach.

In 2012 educators representing a handful of these schools came together to create the Education Transformation Alliance (ETA). The ETA, a growing 501c3 nonprofit organization, now shares resources and organizes school fairs and other events to reach more families and let them know about all the great options out there. Alt Ed Austin, the family consulting service and online resource center that publishes this blog, works closely with the ETA and serves as a one-stop shop for parents interested in comparing the many educational options around Austin. Hopefully, more and more communities will catch on and follow this model of synergistic collaboration. 

Ultimately, the education revolution is not about fixing the current system or finding/creating another system to replace it. It is about supporting the creation of a diverse range of options for families to choose from, while making those options accessible for families, whatever their economic circumstances may be. Every child is unique, every family is different; so why should we continue to pump billions of dollars into a homogenized, one-size-fits-all education for our future generations? It is time we recognize that in order to transform our world to a more just, sustainable, and peaceful place, we need to start by transforming education.

We’re doing just that at the Whole Life Learning Center, and you can be a part of it! Please consider supporting our work by contributing to our crowdfunding campaign. Watch the new video below to learn more about our unique programs, our expansion project, and how you can help.

Michael Carberry, M.S.



Unplug & Play! A Living School book review

Paula Estes and her intrepid students at The Living School play a lot of games—and learn a lot while playing them. In fact, games are an intrinsic part of their curriculum. So of course they jumped at the chance to review a new book of games for Alt Ed Austin’s readers. Here are their educated opinions.

About a month ago, the students at The Living School set out to explore the book Unplug & Play! 50 Games That Don’t Need Charging, by Brad Berger. Each week we chose a few games to play, discussed our experiences, and worked to get an overall feel for this new book of games. We hope our review is helpful.

The fifty games in this book are grouped into six categories, allowing every student to find games that really spoke to them. While one set of games may require focus and memory recall, another may challenge your word building or problem solving skills. Some of the best games were the bluffing games, where reading the personalities of the other players was key.

We found that most of the games required personal interactions, and many of them led us to learn more about the other players. We were challenged to use our imaginations, let loose, and have fun. The scorekeeping and competitive aspects took a back seat to the laughter and silliness.  

The Six Categories of Games

  1. “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”—making lists to compare with others
  2. “Call My Bluff”—creatively learn more about other players
  3. “That’s My Plan and I'm Sticking to It”—strategy games designed to make a plan to reach a goal
  4. “Ready, Set, Go!”—speed to the answer before others playing the game
  5. “Try to Remember”—memory games
  6. “I’m Puzzled”—easy-to-create puzzles

We all agreed that there were some great new finds in this book. We tried more than 25 games and decided that at least half of those are ones we will play again. Our favorite games came primarily from three sections: “Matchmaker,” “Call My Bluff,” and “Try to Remember.” These games had us laughing hysterically and wanting to play again and again. Our three favorite games were Popular Match, What You Didn't Know about Bob, and Uncommon Combos.

Learning a new game at The Living School
We discussed some of the pros of the book:

  • Great for playing in the car, around a campfire, on road trips, or as party games
  • Nothing but a pencil and paper required
  • A good variety of games, with something for everyone

Some of the cons:

  • It would be helpful to give a suggested age range for the games.
  • Some of the games had very complicated scoring. (We tended to make up our own scoring when needed.)
  • There were some games we tried but never played because the directions were too confusing and frustrating.
  • It would be helpful to put a range for the number of players for each game. (Groups of 4 or 5 seemed best.)
  • The book itself (a paperback) is a bit flimsy and might not hold up well over time and use.

Living School kids play a bluffing game around the campfire

Overall, we think this book is worth the purchase, as it encourages many types of games that will get people laughing and talking, using their imaginations, and challenging their memories. We love games and will continue to play many of these at school, around the campfire, and with our families.

Paula Estes


Nurturing the creative spirit through art and storytelling

Guest contributor Heidi Miller Lowell teaches art and creative storytelling at The Austin Artery, where she draws upon current research in psychology and neurology in her work with children, teens, and adults.

I do not believe anyone who tells me they do not have a creative bone in their body. I usually translate that statement to mean, “Creativity is scary. I might make a mistake. Everyone will see it.” And they are completely right. Creativity is the ultimate act of vulnerability.

Creativity is our spirit and at the core of our heart. Each one of us has a valuable story to share that has the potential to change the world through the very act of making art and sharing our tale. Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” I know that these vulnerable seeds of creativity are waiting inside each of us for the right conditions to sprout.

We humans have an innate drive to tell our stories and connect. Throughout human history, we have strived to tell our stories, even before we had words for them. The earliest humans told their stories through pictures on cave walls. Even babies begin making their marks as soon as they are able. I will forever cherish the memory of watching my own daughter squeal with delight as she discovered her own power to make a mark as she held a paintbrush in her tiny hands for the first time.

Research shows that the happiest human beings are the ones who are connected and have community. For this reason, The Austin Artery cultivates creative storytelling and art-making communities. While technical skills are valuable, we believe that art and storytelling have something far more valuable to offer society. Art is a powerful tool for creating meaning, developing empathy, and furthering our education.

The Artery’s curriculum transforms “mistakes” from stumbling blocks into pathways to new opportunities. You cannot make the wrong choice. We use story prompts with a variety of media to create layered art pieces. These layers and lessons are metaphors for our life. Some psychologists believe that the stories and art we make, even when fictitious, create parallels to our life and provide opportunities for problem solving. Furthermore, X-rays show that Leonardo da Vinci painted 30 layers on the Mona Lisa. When we continue to explore with a variety of media and add layers to our art pieces, we develop persistence. The stories and art pieces can be more touching and stunning than anything we had initially envisioned.

Additionally, I want to honor each student’s unique stories and inspirations. This means that students at The Artery don’t follow a formula to create identical pictures. In this sense, there is a greater focus on the process and meaning behind each piece of art than on the product itself. This allows each artist to unfold at her/his own pace while developing a unique style and story.

This kind of approach is powerful because stories are how we think. They require structure, order, and clarity. Psychologists call this a script or mental model. We use stories and images to persuade others, market ourselves, create our identities, and teach social values. Stories also allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes briefly, increasing empathy.

Telling our stories and creating art are more important now than ever as our schools and society grapple with the issues of bullying and other violence. When we activate the right side of the brain and tell own our stories, we tap into the creativity that is the foundation for innovation, empathy, self-understanding, and change

We live in a world that is vastly different from that of the previous generations. We communicate globally and instantaneously. News is doled out in 140 characters. People love cat memes. However, that is not what we truly crave. We crave meaning, connection, and community. When individuals and organizations identify and nurture their creativity and core stories, they create something that others connect with and believe in. That is something that can create powerful change.

This is why I want to help you cultivate your creative side at The Austin Artery.

Heidi Miller Lowell