Austin Alternative School Fair 2016!

Mark your calendars for February 20th, and plan to bring your whole family for a whole lot of fun! Our friends at the nonprofit Education Transformation Alliance are gearing up to put on the annual Austin Alternative School Fair, and I can see already that it’s going to be the best ever.

I’m pleased and proud that Alt Ed Austin is sponsoring the fair again, along with the good people at Whole Foods Market and Free Fun in Austin. I always have a great time talking with families at the fair, so please don’t be shy! Come on up to the Alt Ed Austin table and feel free to ask me your burning questions about Austin area schools, from pre-K through high school.

Then make your way around the Whole Foods rooftop plaza and playground, visiting with educators from 21 innovative schools, enrichment programs, and educational services. Each booth will offer a different hands-on activity for kids—including some very cool stuff for teens!—so while they're happily engaged, you can talk to the educators about their unique programs. Check out who will be there:

If you have kids in the preschool-to-elementary range, don’t miss the special show at noon! Lizzie Samples has been enchanting young audiences and their parents all over Austin with her Happy Face Storytime Performances. This is a perfect chance to see Lizzy enact a beloved children's story, in costume, with her signature charm and artistry. And, just like the fair itself, it's FREE!

Thinking ahead to potential hunger meltdowns or thirst-induced doldrums at the fair? The friendly folks at Whole Foods Market will be on hand with healthy snacks and beverages for sale! So plan to stay a while, play, talk, munch, and learn with us. If you have questions for me or any of the participating program directors before the fair, please leave them in the comments below, and we’ll do our best to answer them. Be sure to follow our Facebook event page for updates as we announce more fun, engaging activities for your kids.

See you at the fair!


Why storytelling is better than lecturing

Guest contributor David Sewell McCann is chief tale spinner for, a streaming website of original children’s audio stories. He has honed his four-step process of intuitive storytelling from years as an elementary school teacher and parent and now teaches workshops around the country. He and his family live in Austin, where their children attend alternative schools. We are thrilled to bring you some of David’s wisdom, along with a very special Sparkle Stories offer just for Alt Ed Austin readers!

My son left the gate open again, and the dog is in the street.

My daughter is worried about catching the Zika virus.

He is afraid of grasshoppers, while she is sure she doesn’t have to brush her teeth.

Every day we parents hear about our children’s fears, aspirations, assumptions, confusions, and concerns, and we, as the primary adults in their lives, want to help. We want to tell him it’s OK. We want to explain to her why it is important to recycle. We want him to know that it is extremely unlikely that he will encounter a member of ISIS. We want to list out all the reasons why it is not OK to pinch her sister.

We want them to understand—and then we want them to feel better or change their behavior. And yet, most of the time, nothing really changes.

She is still worried. He left the gate open. Why don’t they listen?

Well, I believe it is because you are not speaking their language. You are explaining, when you might want to try describing.

Explaining is the language of science, statistics, and law. It is factual— fixed—and basically a dead language. It works for specificity and clarity but doesn’t work as well for change.

Describing is organic. It develops, it changes, it is dynamic, and it is what happens when we tell a story. Storytelling is the language of children.

If you don’t believe me, next time you want to get your child’s attention, try saying the four words “Once upon a time,” and see what happens. Those four words are the most potent spell any wizard can utter. It means that something very magical is about to unfold—something transformative, something unexpected: a story is about to be told. The room quiets, eyes glaze over, jaws slacken, and your child becomes a vessel ready to hear your wisdom.

And then comes your chance to deliver the wisdom of your choice. Tell a story about a boy who left the gate open one too many times and his favorite chicken ran away to live at the neighbor’s farm. Spin a yarn about the most charming, lovable grasshopper that ever was. Unfold a tale about a girl who was so surrounded in love that no illness could touch her.

And here is the thing: the story doesn’t have to be any good. Really. It can be the worst story ever told, and yet your child will manage to extract the magic, will find the wisdom, will sift through all the rubble and find the gold.

And they will thank you for it.

For inspiration, or if you find the craft of storytelling too daunting, then try out and listen to some of our stories. You can input search words like “chores” or “fear of bugs” or “valentines” or “sensory integration” and several audio story options will appear before your eyes. There are now almost 900 original stories in the catalog, so there will surely be something there for you and your child.

If you input the code ALTED (all one word, all caps) then you can extend your free trial period to 15 days at no charge. And you will love the app that comes with a subscription!

For more information on storytelling, child development, and child study, you can click on the “Sparkle Schoolhouse” category on our blog here.

Meanwhile, when you are faced with a behavior or emotion or dynamic with your child that you would like to change, try this:

Close your eyes and take a breath. Do whatever you can to inch toward a grounded, peaceful place (even if it is only an inch) and then, ask your child, “What is one of your favorite animals in all the world?”

He or she will stop and think about it. Give a reminder that it’s “in all the world”—in Africa, Australia, in South America, in the jungle, the savannah, the arctic—anywhere.

When an animal is declared, say, “I’m going to tell you a story about that animal.”

Then tell one. Go ahead and tell a clunky, awkward, poorly formed story starting with “Once upon a time” all the way to “The End,” and . . . see what happens. As best you can, try not to judge yourself. You are just starting. Listen to some of our stories, or those of other storytellers, for inspiration. And then . . . try again. It will be well worth it.

David Sewell McCann

8 ways to encourage creativity in your child

Heidi Miller Lowell is a frequent contributor to the blog. She is a multimedia artist and educator who leads classes and workshops for all ages and summer camps for kids. Learn more about Heidi’s offerings here.

Prospective employers list creativity as the most sought-after quality in potential employees today. Our education system struggles mightily to design a curriculum that promotes creative thinking. Research shows that children’s brains are growing differently than ever before because of a lack of unstructured play and an overabundance of pre-made entertainment.

How do we promote creativity in our children? Here are my favorite eight tips and sources for supporting your child creatively.

1. Modeling is everything. Children learn by example. If you don’t feel confident, get some help online. There are tons of great e-classes teaching tinkering, sketching, painting, design, and writing for folks who are busy. If you want your children to be creative, do creative activities in their presence and with them.

2. Provide a creative provocation for your child. The provocation is a concept used in the Reggio Emilia method of education. The blog The Artful Parent has some great ideas for setting up provocations.

3. The book Young at Art by Susan Striker focuses on the creative development of children from birth through preschool. It talks about strategies for keeping creativity at the forefront of your daily life when you have small children. Some of the strategies would work great in a home with older kids too.

4. Engaging Learners through Choice-Based Learning by Katherine M. Douglas is an essential resource for all art teachers, homeschool families, and anyone interested in progressive education. This book emphasizes that even young artists need to be treated like real artists. This means giving students a say in what and HOW they make things. Douglas details setting up art stations and offers tips on teaching with a variety of media.

5. After you read the book above, you may want to stop and visit Austin Creative Reuse in The Linc. This center is stocked full of recycled materials that can be used for a bevy of art projects. The prices are great, and you can leave knowing that you are actually helping take care of our environment!

6. The book Creating Pathways to Literacy through Art by Beth Olshanky is also a game changer. It promotes creativity and literacy and comes with a DVD that models some of the lessons.

7. Look at any camps, schools, and extracurricular activities you’re considering for your child to see if their focus is on product or process. Any school that display 15 of the exact same penguin pictures in a display might be focused more on making pretty pieces of art for parents to see than on offering kids a valuable learning experience. Process-based art gives kids a chance to find their own creative voices rather than giving them step-by-step directions. Kids make mistakes. They work on finding solutions. Mistakes are the best teachers.

8. Come join us at Art Camp this summer at Four Seasons Community School! You can find out more at my website,

Heidi Miller Lowell

Media Monday: Pearson pares down

timlewisnm | cc-licensed

timlewisnm | cc-licensed

For our January 2016 Media Monday, we want to take note of big news in the world of education publishing and courseware. Pearson, often cited as the world’s biggest education company, announced major layoffs amounting to 10 percent of its workforce of 40,000 last week. The company is based in the UK, but most of its business is in the United States, and it has approximately 20,000 U.S. employees, many of whom are Texas-based. In fact, after losing a lucrative Texas testing contract last year, the company laid off more than 200 workers in Austin.

Today, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the State Board of Education is meeting this week to discuss dropping Pearson as the supplier of state GED tests. The cost of the tests is $135, which many advocates argue is too high. In addition, failure rates for the Pearson GED are climbing, with only half of 20,000 people who took the 2014 exam receiving a passing grade. Texas ranked 50th in the nation in the percentage of adults who hold a high school diploma, according to a 2012 Census Department survey, and thousands take the high school equivalency exams each year.

Pearson controls an estimated half of the U.S. standardized test market. Education blogger and teacher Mercedes Schneider argues that committing heavily to Common Core testing, which has been under attack from parents, legislators, and educators lately, was one of the company’s big problems. “There are those who insist that Common Core is a success. Looks like Pearson reality prevents it from joining that brigade.”

The company says that it will now be putting more money into “adaptive, personalized, next-generation courseware,” focusing more on blended and virtual learning, and improving its English-language-learning programs.

Shelley Sperry

Teaching driving readiness to young teens

Missy Menzes, occupational therapist and founder of Extra Credit! LLC, is dedicated to helping school-aged kids and families dealing with “hidden disabilities” and learning differences. As program director of Driving Readiness for Teens (DRT) and a member of the Texas Teen Safe Driving Coalition (TTSDC), Missy is excited to be able to add a unique and valuable perspective to caregivers of potential drivers. She hopes to reach the central Texas community as part of her volunteer roles in the TTSDC’s Zero Teen Driving Fatality Initiative and others nationwide as a guest blogger for the Drive it Homeproject.

Community mobility is a necessary part of human independence and socialization. While most individuals can use public or private transportation, not everyone can or should drive. As a pediatric occupational therapist, one of the most important and unique roles that I have taken on is facilitating driving readiness potential for high-risk teens. Principles of my DRT therapy program and concepts of “driving fitness” are relevant to any parent raising a potential driver.

The first step of assessing readiness for driving is to notice how the child moves, sees, thinks, feels, and takes on general responsibilities. All of these attributes will, in some way, affect driving performance. Parents of middle school and even younger school-aged children should ask the question “Is my child coordinated, attentive, and adaptive?” Start addressing noted concerns in any ways you can on your own, and seek assistance for areas of need from qualified therapists or other professionals early on.

Pre-driving skills include coordinated use of extremities, quick/accurate visual & cognitive perceptual processing functions, and safe attention and reasoning abilities. A driver must be able to effectively filter and process incoming sensory stimulation while attending and responding to “most critical” information. One must also be knowledgeable about rules of the road, have good anticipation skills, and be capable of managing unexpected events as well as stressful situations.

My DRT therapy program activities vary among families to enhance the areas that we determine to be specifically problematic or at risk for their children. Students perform individualized home activities between sessions. These vary from simple postural and coordination exercises to more complex visual and cognitive processing games. I occasionally prescribe the use of cutting-edge technologies such as Drive Fit® or Interactive Metronome® at home. These modalities help build skills of noticing, prioritizing, and reacting to information both quickly and over time.

Once foundations for driving are well established, it’s time to proceed to pre-driving “passenger level” training activities. Most of my program recommendations at this stage are based on specialty training I received from Miriam Monahan of the Driver Rehabilitation Institute. If you have a child with unique needs, I highly recommend you work with an occupational therapist trained in American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) courses, if not a certified driving rehabilitation specialist.

For ideas to guide your own “backseat driver education” before permit time, my advice is to thoroughly check out from the National Safety Council. I have all my DRT participants reference Drive it Home™ because it offers free parent resources, including digital driving lessons, courses, programs, and videos. Parents can use this information as a way to initiate dialogue about teen driving risks and road safety, but much of it can also provide ways to approach aspects of driving earlier on with your children.

Every parent has the opportunity to help teens be better prepared for driving by addressing some readiness skills before permit time. You can ask them to put down their phone or tablet, stop thinking about what happened today and what’s to come, and stay focused on the road when a passenger. Teens could practice identifying cars in the blind spots with you, help navigate by providing directions, and notice general distractions or obstacles to avoid.

Of course, safety is always Priority Number One. If implementing this or any other type of parent-initiated readiness training is in any way distracting or emotional for you as a driver, don’t do it! There are other ways to practice pre-driving skills safely. From afar, one can safely observe traffic flow at a neighborhood intersection or community traffic signal. Individuals can also take note of driving behaviors while shopping somewhere busy. An important aspect of readiness is awareness that people break rules sometimes. A safe driving practice is to make sure the careless actions of others don’t cause you to have an accident.

Perhaps most importantly, caregivers should practice good habits for teens to follow. You know the big ones: buckle up, follow the road rules, always be a defensive driver, no texting or phone use (even over the speaker), only initiate use of navigational systems if necessary when the vehicle is in park, and keep your vehicle in good shape. There is really no good excuse to break these safety measures, but some habits can be difficult to curb.

Drivers should also avoid eating/drinking, listening to the radio/movies in the car, putting on/taking off things, reaching for objects, glancing at a phone or other device, or having distracting conversations/thoughts. These actions have led and can lead to serious accidents. It’s also important for drivers to keep emotions in check and practice time management. It’s never safe to drive under the negative influence of added stress or pressure.

I know that many of these tips can feel difficult if not impossible to follow at times. The important thing to remind yourself of is this cold, hard truth: driving is the number-one killer of teens. Teenagers cannot comprehend their levels of risk as inexperienced drivers and are more likely to engage in distracting behaviors. It is also much easier as a caregiver to set driving rules and say assertively to a teen, “You absolutely cannot _____ while in the car” if they can’t argue back to you, “But YOU do it, so why can’t I?!”

As seasoned drivers, we need to remind ourselves of how stressful the learning-to-drive process can be for everyone involved. As parents, we can start teaching kids early on, and they will (hopefully) listen to us, imitate us, and do as we say. More work ahead of time should mean less of it later on, and this will be especially useful when dealing with a teen who is hormonal, emotional, distracted, or stressed.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you have found this perspective and some of the suggested recommendations of value. It has been a pleasure acting as a guest blogger. Please use any of the tips I’ve provided here as loose guidelines. As a parent, you are ultimately the only one responsible for actions taken with your child. Driving is one of the most dangerous things that we regularly do, and this important privilege should never be taken lightly.

Drive safely!
“Ms. Missy,” OTR

P.S. To learn more about Extra Credit! LLC, visit and like us on Facebook to receive informative postings. For more information about OT’s role in driving rehabilitation and community mobility, please check out AOTA and the Driver Rehab Institute.

Let’s donate before we celebrate

If you’re anything like millions of other Americans on December 31st, you’re trying to decide where to make some last-minute donations before finding just the right person to kiss at midnight. Let us make a few suggestions of admirable nonprofits here in the Austin area and farther afield, all aimed at helping kids and spreading knowledge. Any of these organizations would be worthy of your 2015 dollars. In alphabetical order:

Amala Foundation runs the Global Youth Peace Summit, Camp Indigo, and many other youth empowerment programs.

Austin Book Arts Center engages Austinites of all ages in creative, interpretive, and educational experiences related to the arts of the book.

Austin Bat Cave offers free writing workshops for kids to spark creativity and enhance literacy skills.

Children's Defense Fund provides a strong independent voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby, or speak for themselves, with special attention on the needs of poor children.

EcoRise Youth Innovations inspires young leaders in Austin to design a sustainable future with its school-based programs teaching environmental literacy, social innovation, and design skills.

Education Transformation Alliance is a collective of alternative educators around Austin who organize the annual Alternative School Fair. The next fair will be held February 20, 2016.

Khan Academy seeks to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere through videos and exercises.

Wikipedia. You know it. You use it. And so do your kids. It’s not perfect, but it provides valuable information to millions every day and is designed to reach everyone in the world with free knowledge.

Happy New Year!

Shelley and Teri Sperry