Learn, teach, make: Education at Austin Mini Maker Faire 2015

Emily Weerts directs the Nucleus Learning Network, an organization that empowers learners, educators, and mentors to enhance Austin’s innovative learning community. She stopped by the blog this week to give us a preview of the Maker Education Village she’s coordinating at this year’s Austin Mini Maker Faire, which is shaping up to be the biggest and best yet.

In the handful of years since Maker Faire first came to Austin, we’ve seen the event change and grow in many exciting ways. As the list of participating makers expands, one trend that we’re happy to embrace is the notable increase in education-focused makers, booths, and presenters.

Making and learning are natural partners: making provides opportunities to develop confidence; increase creativity; explore science, math, and art in new ways; and investigate engineering and technology. This year’s Faire features booths from makerspaces at libraries, organizations that teach computer programming to elementary students, and Austin Community College’s new maker program. From pre-K through college and beyond, makers, learners, and teachers will come together on May 16 and 17 to share their skills, ask great questions, and forge new friendships. 

This year’s Maker Education Village is being sponsored by WonderLab, a membership-based, supplemental learning lab for children in upper elementary and middle school. Thanks to WonderLab’s generous contribution, we are able to expand the Maker Ed Lounge and run a Maker Ed Stage at this year’s Faire. Check out the Maker Ed program (below) and join us for some inspiring workshops, stimulating discussion panels, and engaging networking. Alt Ed Austin is supporting this year’s Maker Ed Stage, and Nucleus Learning Network is coordinating the Maker Ed Lounge. 

As always, Maker Faire is free for educators to attend! Tell the teachers in your lives to come to the Palmer Events Center on May 16 and 17 to learn and be inspired. To receive free admission, teachers must bring a school ID or present other proof that they are an educator at the box office. 

Maker Education Schedule: SATURDAY



Maker Education Schedule: SUNDAY

Emily Weerts

Austin alt schools are expanding and diversifying

“Spring is the time of plans and projects,” said Leo Tolstoy. Or maybe it was Martha Stewart? In any case, plans and projects are happening at many of Austin’s alternative schools right now, and we’re excited to share them with you. Here’s a roundup of major changes happening in the near future at Austin-area schools. For more information about any program, check the school’s website or give them a call.

This summer the Whole Life Learning Center is building a new math and music classroom indoors and adding new playground equipment outdoors for kids who want to climb and spin.

Are you in need of an enrichment class for a child 5 to 10 years old? Terra Luz Community School's Karen Hernandez soon will welcome Terra Luz students as well as homeschooled kids to a new class on Fridays. The school is also expecting a new teacher to join the team in the fall.

Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse is adding a class for 5th graders next year. If you’re interested, apply via their website as soon as possible. In addition to new students, RRCS will welcome a new teacher to replace 3rd–5th grade teacher Aaron Goldman, who is heading to Baltimore to study for an MFA. Everyone wishes Aaron all the best as he pursues his dreams.

New adventures are on the horizon at Progress School. Starting this fall, Progress will offer a three-day program focused on interdisciplinary, project-based learning for kids 11 to 13 years old. The program is all about collaboration and relationships and is designed around student interests. Portfolios will allow for self-assessment and sharing learning with others.

As of August 2015, Integrity Academy will expand to include 11- to 13-year-olds in Level 5.

The folks at Inside Outside School have chosen “May the Forces Be With You,” as their theme for the coming school year. During the summer kids will be helping with the school’s CSA and participating in the farmer’s market.

Is your child a maker and an artist at heart? Creative Side Jewelry Academy is now serving students aged 10 to15 years old and starting a new after-school program in the fall. The school’s curriculum is expanding to include bronze and silver casting techniques for Summer Apprenticeships and Jewelry Biz for their Kidz Homeschool program.

Clearview Sudbury School is growing—with 40 percent more space, more students, and more diverse activities. Clearview’s tech offerings are expanding, too. Through a grant from V M Ware, the school is adding a new virtual machine server, which will give school members access to powerful new computing resources on their laptops and tablets or through the school’s own clients. Students will be trained as administrators of the new system, which will include software environments for video, image, and music editing; animation; scientific computing; and even Minecraft.

Shelley Sperry

Examining our exam mania: A review of “The Test” by Anya Kamenetz

Shelley Sperry is a writer, editor, and researcher who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She's currently writing an article about volcanoes for National Geographic's Explorer kids magazine and having a blast.

Anya Kamenetz is a veteran reporter on the education beat and the mother of a daughter on the verge of entering preschool. In her new book, The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing—But You Don’t Have to Be, Kamenetz is driven by her need as a journalist to assemble evidence and anecdotes to make her case. But her work is equally inspired by her desire as a parent to protect her child’s “innate resilience, curiosity, and joy.” What she ends up with is a valuable read for anyone who wants to understand the role standardized tests have in the lives of the vast majority of American children today—a role that is becoming even stronger with the implementation of new Common Core tests in the majority of states this year. Texas is one of a handful of states that have not adopted Common Core testing.

Parents of public school students will find the final section of the book especially useful. Kamenetz provides a checklist of strategies to help families cope with mandated testing—from how to emotionally prepare kids for hours of test prep and the tests themselves to how to approach and implement a decision to opt out of testing entirely. The rest of the book includes a fascinating history of how early intelligence tests evolved into school achievement tests, how and why testing went off the rails in the past 20 years, and innovative suggestions for getting our schools back on track.

Texas was on the cutting edge of the modern high-stakes testing movement in the 1990s. The use of carrots and sticks to push states to adopt stricter, more frequent tests to measure achievement became national policy under No Child Left Behind in 2001. NCLB is still the law of the land, but Congress is now debating various ways to revise and improve the law’s approach. There is fairly broad agreement that the tests most states use in assessing students each year are ineffective and actually may be counterproductive in promoting quality teaching and learning. Unfortunately, Common Core and other attempts to reform the system in recent years ignore that consensus.

The intentions of the policymakers and educators who embarked on NCLB and the standardized testing experiment were noble for the most part, but were based on false premises, according to Kamenetz.  In the 1980s, reports of failing public schools and a “rising tide of mediocrity” were probably the result of inaccurate data, but the belief that the United States was falling behind other countries played on Cold War–era fears, so policymakers ignored or suppressed questions about the data. The 1980s and ’90s stock market and tech booms influenced the business-management and number-crunching mindset that now permeates education reform: collect and analyze data, provide incentives to improve performance, and demonstrate to shareholders (also known as taxpayers) that investments in public education are sound.

What’s more, all that data collection, test writing, and test prep provided a huge windfall—now in the billions of dollars—for a few big publishers and testing corporations. Now, of course, those corporations lobby for maintaining and expanding their business. Academic and charitable institutions—especially the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the 800-pound gorilla of education philanthropy)—also contribute mightily to the demand for more quantitative assessments of kids and teachers.

As demonstrated in last week’s protests in New York in which thousands of families opted out of spring testing, we are approaching a point when demands for change may reach a critical mass. Kamenetz outlines several possible solutions for schools that are testing the wrong things, wasting teachers’ and students’ precious time, and driving good teachers away from the profession.

The Test’s look at alternatives to NCLB, Common Core, and standardized testing in general will ring true for parents who are already involved in the alternative education movement. Kamenetz suggests that we need approaches—two of which she labels the “butterfly” and “unicorn” models—that encourage students to be creative and collaborative and to embrace their own unique learning styles and interests. As an ideal goal, she favors a “multiple-measures” system for public schools, akin to that promoted by Stanford researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, that can assess and help guide students to meet their potential as learners. She offers many examples of schools that are experimenting with new visions, including mindfulness and meditation, student assessments based on video games, and more humanistic ways of “doing school” that include peer review, portfolios, and self-reflection. Teachers should also be evaluated using multiple measures, she says.

Kamenetz argues that change “has to come from families who are not only fed up, but also can see the alternatives clearly.” Those alternatives look an awful lot like innovative schools operating right now in Austin and across the country:

Students work together and separately to build, make, read, write, conduct experiments, solve problems, and present their work. ‘How am I doing?’ is a question answered continuously, by self-reflection, teacher feedback, peer review, and public exhibition as well as by referring to external standards such as the Common Core.

There is still a place for national, standardized assessments, she thinks, but only administered sparingly.

Kamenetz makes a strong case for reform of student and teacher assessment, and reform looks achievable if a broad coalition of parents, teachers, and policymakers agree to pursue it, especially because there is now some bipartisan agreement in Washington that something must be done to reform the testing system. Unfortunately, what seems less likely is that a broad coalition will be able to agree on the “kind of world we are creating for our children,” which Kamenetz suggests is also essential to debates about school reform. “Child welfare, foster care, juvenile justice, and maternal health are all part of this conversation. So are minimum wage, the pay gap, and maternity leave.”

Kamenetz notes that a 2013 study demonstrated that in North Carolina 85 percent of school performance issues can be explained by the economic well-being of a child’s family, as measured by eligibility for subsidized lunches. Today, of the 50 million students in American public schools, almost half receive free and reduced-price lunches, and only 14 of 50 states attempt to give poor schools more aid than rich schools.

If you have questions about the standardized testing and anti-testing movements, it’s likely that you'll hear the answer in the video below. It was taped at Politics & Prose, a bookstore and community center in Washington, D.C., where Kamenetz recently gave a fascinating talk about her book and how high-stakes testing is affecting learners everywhere.

Shelley Sperry

Learning science as a community at Austin International School

Austin International School’s outreach coordinator, Sharon Munroe, and school staff member Suzanne Krause join forces in this guest post to let you know that AIS kids learn much more than language and culture. One of the subjects AIS takes very seriously is science—so much so that it dedicates an annual night of fun to it.

When you think of science events at elementary schools, what do you think of? For many parents and students, it means creating an original science project or invention for a fair on a deadline, often with the parents doing a lot of the work and getting stressed out the night before it is due. At Austin International School, we take a different approach.

At our second annual event, held on March 26, students in Kindergarten through fifth grade experienced science at hands-on activity stations that allowed them to play with sights, sounds, and smells; be physical; make observations; and solve puzzles. The approach was inquiry-based, hands-on, fun, and educational all at the same time.

Our teachers found inspiration for the project in collaborating with our partner elementary school in France, and then we made it our own. Family Science Night is one aspect of the international educational exchanges that regularly occur in our unique learning environment. “Family Science Night is designed to be a special event where elementary-age children and their parents truly have fun, and we promote science learning together as a community,” explained Cedric Herve, Austin International School teacher and science night coordinator.


“Why does the egg float?” has become one of the most popular stations. Involving water, salt, bowls, and eggs, it lets students get a bit messy and keeps them entertained and curious until someone at the table can solve the mystery. To explore the five senses, students tried matching the ringing of a hidden bell with a choice of bells before moving on to a series of herbs and food to smell and taste. Some classes had a quiz table with trivia about odors and the noses of different birds and animals.

Older students guided their younger friends by explaining the activities and purpose of each station. With parents and children working together at stations, the setup provided for an engaging atmosphere where kids could experience science outside the classroom. Parents were actively participating with groups of children too. This helped students to see that science happens everywhere, every day. It fostered interaction among parents, children, and teachers with a fun, educational experience that surpassed the benefits of simply doing homework or a project.

Hypothesis: Holding an annual Family Science Night will build students’ confidence to understand science and to experience its wonders in a holistic way. A stimulating educational activity outside the regular school day will help families come together to learn outside the regular school day.

Conclusion: Our observations showed that Family Science Night does indeed foster a curiosity about science and the hidden world around us. Our students sought to educate themselves and guide their schoolmates on their educational journey. They inspired (and will continue to inspire) each other, their parents, and themselves to discover, imagine, experiment, and take risks. This is an annual tradition for the Austin International School community worth keeping.

Sharon Munroe and Suzanne Krause

Giveaway: Class Dismissed, a provocative new documentary

The Austin homeschooling and unschooling communities have been abuzz this week in anticipation of next week’s screening of “that homeschooling movie,” also known as Class Dismissed. I’m excited to see the film—and to offer Alt Ed Austin readers a chance to win a pair of tickets! Read below about director/producer Jeremy Stuart’s documentary about one California family’s decision to take their kids’ education into their own hands, and find out how to enter our drawing.

The makers of Class Dismissed point out that we live in a time when education is under siege from every angle: overtesting, underfunding, teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms, increasing rates of depression and anxiety among students. Readers of this blog are well aware of these issues, and many are seeking solutions. In response to such grim news, parents in Austin and throughout the country are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the state of public education, and a growing number are choosing to pull their children out of school to seek alternative ways to educate them.

Class Dismissed asks some big questions:

  • What does it mean to be educated in the 21st century?
  • Is it possible to get an education without attending school?
  • Can learning outside of the classroom really provide a nurturing and educationally rich experience in which children can grow and blossom?

According to the filmmakers, Class Dismissed “challenges viewers to take a fresh look at what it means to be educated and offers up a radical new way of thinking about the process of education.” Check out this brief trailer:

The documentary is showing in Austin for one night only: Tuesday, April 7, 6:30pm, at the Galaxy Highland. Buy your tickets here. But first, enter our giveaway below for a pair of free passes! You have several ways to enter, for up to 6 entries per person. The winner of our random drawing will be announced on Sunday, April 5.

Good luck, and check back Sunday morning here on the blog or on Alt Ed Austin’s Twitter or Facebook page to find out the winner. See you on Tuesday at the movies!

UPDATE: Congratulations to our winner, Cynthia J.! And thanks to everyone who entered the drawing. There are still some seats available for the Tuesday screening as of this morning, so I hope to see you there!

Mandalas and art as tools for personal development

I’m happy to welcome back artist and art educator Heidi Miller Lowell with a new guest post that includes some of her own artwork featuring mandalas. Heidi teaches art and storytelling workshops, homeschool classes, and camps at The Austin Artery.

Mandala is a sanskrit word that means circle. Mandalas are ancient spiritual and ritual symbols believed to represent the universe. Some cultures believe that mandalas are important tools for meditation. You might recall having seen monks spend endless hours pouring delicate sand designs into mandalas only to let the sand be carried away by the wind as a reminder of the impermanence of life.

In my life, mandalas have been a helpful tool for gaining insight, clarity, and becoming more authentic. Creating any piece of art is a process. When we quiet down and pay attention to that process, we learn a lot about our mind, emotions, and creative process. Sometimes the process of creating a piece of art is more important than the finished product itself. I believe that the lessons we learn in creating art can be taken back and applied in our lives, work, or relationships to help us reach our highest potential.

For example, I began creating this watercolor mandala several years ago with the intention of paying attention to my tendency toward perfectionism. As I painted delicate designs for hours, I began to know that my creative process was lacking the spontaneity and joy that I desired when making art. I was often tense and focused on making a finished product that other people would enjoy looking at.

After coming to that realization, I picked up my brush and begin painting dark streaks of what I imagine it might look like in the darkest corners of outer space. The painting might not look like much to a viewer. However, this mandala hangs on the wall in my studio and serves as a powerful reminder that I can let go and make art that is imperfect and deeply meaningful. This piece of art marks a very powerful moment in my artistic career.

I also often use mandalas to teach children mathematical concepts like radial symmetry, angles, division, focus, and proportion. Geometric mandalas have helped to teach me patience, focus, and discipline. These geometric designs have informed much of my current work.

You can learn more about making simple mandalas online. I also am hosting several workshops  on creating 3D sculptural mandalas from natural materials, as well as geometric watercolor mandalas, this spring and summer. You can find out more at theaustinartery.com.

Heidi Miller Lowell