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

Making student voices matter at SXSWedu

I spent much of last week at SXSWedu immersed in presentations, panels, workshops, films, and informal discussions about education. For me, the most exciting part of the conference was The State and Future of Student Rights, a summit organized by the student-run nonprofit Student Voice. According to the organization’s founder and executive director, Zak Malamed, the summit was “responsible for increasing SXSWedu student attendance by more than tenfold!”

Over the course of the first two days of the conference, students, teachers, and education influencers came together in a large meeting room (and in many informal conversations beyond) to find solutions to what many perceive as an unjust situation for those at the center of U.S. education systems. With more than six hours of programming and two days of discussion, the summit was the first national effort to bring the issue of student rights to the forefront at a major education conference. Its central focus was the creation of a Student Bill of Rights, which is now ready for viewing, voting, commenting, and amending.

The summit began with The Right to Be Heard, a panel discussion on the current legal landscape for free speech on campuses and how students can exercise their right to be heard. Moderated by Kyle Scott, an NBC News associate producer and Cornell alumnus, the panel included Dawnya Johnson, a student leader and advocate in Baltimore; Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center; Dr. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools, where students enjoy an unusual level of input into policymaking; Keaton Wadzinski, co-developer of Student Voice in Action at Student Voice and a University of Virginia student; and Tara Subramaniam, director of Student Voice Live! events and a high school senior. LoMonte pointed out that students are a group that has not benefited from the general human rights movement that has seen so many gains in recent decades.

Another panel addressed The Right to Technology. Participants asserted that all students are entitled to technology and broadband Internet access and should have a say in decisions regarding the adoption and implementation of new technologies for their academic institutions. Guided by moderator Erik Martin, chief editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland student, they discussed equity, privacy, and safety around educational technology as well as the benefits reaped when students and teachers use technology in the classroom. Panelists included Niharika Bedekar, a girls’ empowerment activist, founder of Power Up, and a current Stanford student; Linh Dinh, a STEAM advocate, 3D artist, and high school student; Daniel Kao, director of web and systems infrastructure at Student Voice and a student at the University of California, San Diego; and Larry Magid, a widely published technology journalist and internet safety advocate.

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

“Traditional schools have it all backwards. Teachers shouldn't be the boss, but the inspiration.”—Adrian, an elementary school student from California

In Reaching the Unreached, panelists addressed rising suicide rates, youth violence, sexism, racism, and homophobia—all issues around which suffering students’ voices are too seldom heard. The session explored how we can help marginalized students integrate into classroom conversations and interact with peers for collaborative learning. Along with moderator Jacqueline Emerson, a gender equality activist, Hunger Games actress, and Stanford student, panelists included Erik Martin, editor of the Student Bill of Rights and a University of Maryland Student; Lee Nave, cofounder and director of operations and development at Student Voice and a Seton Hall grad student; and Eva Shang, a Huffington Post blogger, teen adviser to GirlUp, and Harvard student.

One of the most controversial issues in education today is assessment of knowledge—the ways we measure understanding and determine students’ future prospects. Most often, students are left out of these conversations and policy decisions. In The Right to Fair Assessment, moderated by Zak Malamed, founder and executive director of Student Voice and a University of Maryland student, panelists and audience members discussed the fairness of standardized testing and alternative forms of assessment. Members of the panel included John Corrigan, vice president of customer experience at the nonprofit college testing organization ACT; Harold Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and former chancellor of NYC schools; Lillian Van Cleve, a student leader at SAFE Voices and an Oberlin Student; and Joey Vega, part of the True Beef: Pasture to Plate film (screened during SXSWedu) and an Austin Community College student.

Alt Ed Austin salutes young people everywhere (and their older supporters) who are putting themselves on the line for all students’ rights. The Atlantic recently published a great piece on some intrepid students in Kentucky who’ve been working through their state legislature to pass a modest student rights law. Want to make your own voice heard as a student, or know someone who’d like to get involved in shaping the Student Bill of Rights? Contact Student Voice, or follow @Stu_Voice on Twitter.


What job are your kids hiring school to do?

Temp Keller, today’s guest contributor, runs WonderLab, which he founded to “reignite the love and boundless wonder of learning in both students and parents.”

As Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson thoughtfully argued nearly five years ago in a white paper on student motivation, “most of the ‘home runs’ of marketing history occurred when people sensed the fundamental job that customers were trying to do—and then found a way to help more people do it more effectively, conveniently, and affordably.”

The authors went on to share a wonderful anecdote about a fast-food company that was attempting to sell more milkshakes. After extensive focus groups, subsequent product tweaks, and considerable expense, sales remained flat. It wasn't until they asked the question “What job is the milkshake being hired to do?” that they started making progress. They discovered that nearly half the milkshakes sold were bought in the early morning. The “job” for which they were being “hired”? Sustenance during a long, boring commute.

Coffee was guzzled too quickly. Bagels were too messy. But the milkshake took a while to finish, and the chilly container not only kept the driver alert; it fit beautifully in the cup holder. The punch line? Once they understood the job the milkshake was being hired to do, they could build a better milkshake. In fact, they built what we now know as a smoothie.

So what “job” are kids “hiring” school to do? Christensen, Horn, and Johnson hypothesized that “there are two core jobs that most students try to do every day: They want to feel successful and make progress, and they want to have fun with friends.” The white paper makes a compelling case that many schools are not fulfilling either of these jobs very effectively at all.

At WonderLab we believe that the key to success and fun is one fundamental question: What will motivate this individual Learner to love learning? Our experience tells us that once we better understand a Learner’s unique strengths and passions, we can then help them make progress on a project that is as unique as they are—all while having fun with friends.

So for all you parents with the need for your child to be in a safe, productive place outside of school or a homeschool environment, over spring or summer break—or perhaps a new spot for a child’s upcoming birthday party where the job-to-be-done might also include making the other parents a bit envious that they didn’t think of it first—please keep in mind your child’s primary jobs-to-be-done: feeling successful and having fun with friends!

And do keep WonderLab in mind, as it’s a job that we most certainly love doing!

Temp Keller

My whirlwind tour of alternative schools in Austin

Michael Goldberg has been traveling the country, visiting alternative schools, and writing about them. He recently spent a week and a half in Austin and kindly agreed to share his impressions with us. You can read more about Michael’s alt ed adventures on his blog.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

Michael Goldberg navigates Austin feet first on Lady Bird Lake.

From February 2 to February 11, 2015, I visited eight alternative schools in the Austin area. Seeing those schools was part of a larger project of exploring alternative education that I began in September.

Last school year I worked at a charter school in Chicago. While I learned a lot during that year, I was also disillusioned by much of what I saw—particularly by how my school’s near-total focus on raising standardized test scores distracted from students’ developmental needs and did little to foster students’ intrinsic motivation to learn. I felt that there must be a better way to educate, so I started looking into alternative approaches.

I decided that I would travel the country on a mission to learn as much as possible about alternative education. I have a blog where I’ve written about some of my experiences.

I saw some very exciting things during my time in Austin:

  • At Clearview Sudbury School, I sat in on a Judicial Committee meeting. Judicial Committee is a democratic, participatory way of holding people accountable for behavior. Students or staff may fill out “complaint forms” against anyone whom they perceive to be disrespectful or breaking the rules, then J.C. (made up of students and staff) investigates the claims and votes on an appropriate response. The J.C. process strikes me as an excellent example of restorative justice.
  • At Whole Life Learning Center, I took part in “rhythm gym” class. We danced, juggled, and skipped to music in a circle. Later I learned about one class’s efforts to make a film about climate change and the environment for SXSW’s short film festival.
  • I learned about Radical Roots Community Schoolhouse’s noncoercive, play-based curriculum, as well as its focus on sustainability and appreciation of nature.
  • I helped smash acorns into acorn flour at Greenbriar School, then sat in on geography class, and finally joined the community for a potluck dinner.
  • I was immersed in the alternate reality that is Game of Village at Austin Ecoschool. Game of Village involves students taking on a specific role in an imagined community—the “village”—applying for a “bank loan,” building a model home, and putting on an end-of-the-year fair, among other things.
  • At the Inside Outside School I sang along during morning circle. Later, kids learned how to smoke meat over a fire during outdoor survival class.
  • I attended the Austin Alternative School Fair, where I met a lot of great people working in alternative education.
  • I learned about Skybridge Academy's democratic process for choosing classes. This school seems to be on the cutting edge of offering the intellectual freedom of a college-like experience to students in middle school and high school.
  • Lastly, I saw kids busy at independent work at Parkside Community School.

And there are still many more alternative schools in Austin that I unfortunately did not manage to visit.

One common thread of the schools I’ve visited, and of alt ed more broadly, is that students are not approached as being primarily minds, intellects, test-takers, or grade-earners, but rather as whole human beings whose experiences, desires, and intrinsic motivations are acknowledged and valued. That is not to say that the adults in traditional schools do not or cannot approach their students in the same holistic way, but I do believe that the policies and educational structures of many traditional schools make taking that approach more difficult to realize in practice.

So what makes Austin such fertile ground for alternative schools? I imagine it’s not unrelated to the goal of “keeping Austin weird.” Progressive parenting styles likely also contribute. Perhaps Austinites are just willing to try things differently.

I believe that alt ed in Austin, like alt ed throughout the country, has its reasons to celebrate and its challenges to face.

Alternative education seems to be growing—as more people realize that their values and approaches to parenting may not align with the practices of many traditional schools. We should celebrate the fact that people are waking up to this, that they’re feeling comfortable to question the assumptions many of us hold about education and to actively seek out and construct alternatives. And we should celebrate that many kids are experiencing formal education in holistic and liberating ways.

At the same time, alt ed is not without significant challenges. The most pressing and most important of these, I believe, both in Austin and in the country at large, is to make private alternative schools more accessible and inclusive. It’s important to keep in mind that there are many families who do not have easy access to educational alternatives. Addressing this will not be an easy task, and it will not be confined only to factors within the immediate control of alternative schools. Nonetheless, alternative schools should do everything within their power to make the education they offer as accessible and inclusive as possible.

I don’t believe that there is a single approach that works for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities should each be empowered in educational decision-making. The alternative education movement—if there can be said to be such a thing—is largely about offering such freedom of choice. And although there is work to be done to ensure educational quality and genuine freedom of choice for all families, it’s exciting to see Austin offering so many options.

Michael Goldberg