Cockroaches, coyotes, and connection: A talk with Barbara Croom of the Austin Nature & Science Center


We’ve been thinking an awful lot about experiential education here at Alt Ed Austin lately, and maybe you have, too. Unfortunately, as my daughter moves through high school, there seem to be fewer and fewer opportunities for the sort of amazing outside-the-classroom experiences she had as a little girl. That’s unfortunate because many teens are desperately searching for inspiration for future careers and for their own creativity. And that’s part of what experiential education is all about.

This week I had a chance to talk with one of Austin’s premier experiential educators, Barbara Croom, who runs the school programs at the Austin Nature & Science Center (ANSC). She helped me understand a little more about why experiential learning centers like ANSC are usually filled with elementary and preschool students rather than teens:

As students get older, the rules and expectations for teachers increase, and it becomes more difficult to request funds for extra enrichment like they would find at ANSC. Students and teachers have to worry about passing tests. And buses often are spoken for by band directors and athletic coaches. But we do sometimes have older students who come on their own to work on science projects and papers, and our staff members are happy to help them.

Here’s the rest of our conversation:

What are some of the programs students respond to most enthusiastically?

Well, we’ve done our Wild about Wildlife for 40 or 50 years! Nothing connects a child to nature like touching a snake or a bunny or a cockroach. Those are instantaneous connections that are not forgotten. We have some staff members here who vividly remember coming as first-graders to see the cockroaches!

It has evolved over that time, of course, and now it’s about an hour-and-a-half program where students rotate through stations where they can touch and learn about live mammals, birds, and reptiles. They also see and hold pelts, skins, and skulls. Older children begin to learn about evolution and adaptations of animals to their environment. Other programs during the year involve geology and fossils, astronomy, and aquatic ecosystems. We try to follow the standard curriculum topics so that we can support what teachers are doing in their classrooms with our hands-on experiences.


What’s the role of your staff of educators?

What’s most important is that they connect with the children as quickly as possible. We stage the environment so that happens: Everyone—staff and students—sits on the floor at first, in a horseshoe shape—“crisscross applesauce” style—so that our educators can make eye contact with every student. We want to create a comforting atmosphere so kids aren’t intimidated by someone towering over them. We say hello and start chatting about the animals or geology, and soon the kids are enamored.

The key for us is to have people who love teaching. Many of them begin with us and then go on to school settings. They all have undergraduate or masters degrees, some in the sciences and some in other subjects, but all of them spend time in intensive training before they begin. And they are involved in experiential studies too, just as the students are. They go to the Hill Country to dig for fossils. They get their own hands-on experience learning about reptiles, plus discussions with experts from around the state. They are lifelong learners—just as we want the kids to be.

How do you know what level the children are at in their science knowledge?


We ask a few questions and let them ask questions so that we quickly understand where they are, then we start “coaching” them while they’re handling the animals or the rocks or other materials. We help them realize that they can understand a lot just by observing, touching, and listening. We ask them to compare skulls and see if they can suggest reasons the coyote has a long skull and a snout that’s very different from a rabbit’s or a human’s, for example.

Can any child, including one with some special needs, have a good experience at ANSC?

We make all our programs inclusive now. It’s a process we’ve been working on for the past 8 or 10 years. We provide extra staff and help for children who may be on the spectrum. We have a staff member who is learning American Sign Language, and several special programs for students who are hearing- or sight-impaired. This is a priority.

Do you have many homeschooled children visiting ANSC?

Yes! Hundreds! We have a monthly homeschool program that lasts four days, and that includes children from preschool through high school. We do such a variety of programs, and our staff are so good, that even if children end up in a classroom setting when they’re older, their parents bring them back for the homeschool events!

And finally, do you have a philosophy related to the kind of educational experiences you offer at ANSC that you want to share with parents and kids?

Mindfulness! As an educator my goal is to connect children and adults with nature and science. I believe that if you come to it mindfully, the connection will happen. Even a child who is afraid to go for a walk in the woods at first—with mindful attention that connection will happen.

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Learning with our senses


I recently happened upon a beautiful photo essay by Morna Harnden on some of the ways experiential learning takes place at Austin Children’s Garden. She has kindly granted Alt Ed Austin permission to publish excerpts here. Morna is a co-founder and co-teacher there, along with her husband, Ben Harnden, where they offer a variety of preschool programs as well as elementary-level homeschool science classes in South Austin.

Children use their senses to explore and try to make sense of the world around them. They do this by touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, hearing, and moving.
We love to provide opportunities for children to actively use their senses as they explore their world. “Sensory play” is crucial to brain development—it helps build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways. This leads to a child’s ability to complete more complex learning tasks and supports cognitive growth, language development, gross motor skills, social interaction, and problem-solving skills.

Sit Spots

To start off our unit on the senses, we searched out our first Sit Spots. (We first learned about Sit Spots from Earth Native Wilderness School. If you haven’t had a chance yet to check out Earth Native, you must! They have amazing camps, preschool programs, workshops, and more!) In our Sit Spots we focused on our senses and discussed all the different sensations we experienced.

Sit Spots 1.jpg

We listened to all the sounds around us and heard:

"church bells"
"my breath"

Sit Spots 2.jpg

With our eyes closed, we touched our surroundings and felt:

"something tickly"
"sticky grass"

Sit Spots 3.jpg

With our eyes closed, we smelled our surroundings and smelled:


Sit Spots 4.jpg

With our eyes open, we focused on what we could see:

"my friends"
"magic tree"

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We focused on what we could taste in the air and had some surprising responses:

"ice cream"
"just air"

Our Sensory Garden

We planted a garden for each of the five basic senses!

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The kids dug their own holes with a spoon and learned how to gently loosen the roots of the baby plants before planting.

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In our Scent Garden, as it is pretty shady, we planted many varieties of mint:

Chocolate mint
Orange mint
Pineapple mint
Grapefruit mint

Taste Garden.jpg

In our Taste Garden, we planted many different seasonal herbs:

Fennel (fun taste test to do with the dill, as they look so similar)
Lemon Balm

Listening Garden.jpg

In our Listening Garden, we planted grasses and plants with crispy leaves that make interesting sounds. Adding wind chimes and windmills enhances the listening quality of the garden.

Touch Garden.jpg

In our Touch Garden, we planted a variety of plants with soft leaves and interesting textures, including rubbery succulents.

Sight Garden.jpg

In our Sight Garden, we planted edible flowers with all the colors of the rainbow!

For an extended version of this articleincluding recipes for salt-preserved herbs and spice-scented play dough, instructions for “Easy Peasy Tie-Dyed Socks,” a scientific explanation of why mud pies make you happy, and much morevisit Morna’s original post on the Austin Children’s Garden blog. And don’t miss ACG’s upcoming events on Saturday, December 9: an Open House, including a free children’s yoga class, from 2pm to 6pm (RSVP to; and a Kids’ Night Out from 3pm to 7pm, where children aged 3 to 10 will create their own candles with crayons and beeswax (tickets and more info available through Eventbrite).

Morna Harnden


Opening the door to gratitude

As we rush toward Thanksgiving this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to model and teach gratitude. During this past year of political and environmental turmoil, it’s often been difficult to pause and remember to be grateful for the many good things in my life.

One thing I’m always grateful for is my weekly yoga class where serenity reigns for at least an hour and my instructor always brings in the perfect quote to set the tone for meditation. So instead of looking for Media Monday inspiration online or in the news or entertainment world, I’ll return to the spoken word. The quote last week was from Melody Beattie:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

How can we help our kids experience gratitude? The answer isn’t a big surprise. Recent research confirms that parents who show gratitude are more likely to create experiences that develop a sense of gratitude in their children. It’s important to teach children not only how to express gratitude as a form of politeness but also to talk about how it feels to be grateful.

Back in 2014, we learned from Nicole Haladyna how Austin’s Woodland Schoolhouse encourages empathy and gratitude through bonds with nature.

Back in 2014, we learned from Nicole Haladyna how Austin’s Woodland Schoolhouse encourages empathy and gratitude through bonds with nature.

We can also look for schools where gratitude is a part of daily rituals and make sure to put kids in situations where people talk the talk and walk the walk of gratitude during everyday life—family dinners, community yard sales, charity food drives, even birthday parties. Writing thank-you notes and taking time each day to list a few things for which they’re grateful are easy but proven ways to increase children’s understanding of what it means to be grateful.

One interesting bit of information in the research is that both optimism and extraversion are strongly associated with gratitude. Extraversion seems to lead people toward the kinds of social activities with larger groups where it’s easier to demonstrate and learn gratitude. And optimism tends to lead people toward activities where they can make the world better, which then boomerangs back and increases gratitude. Because gratitude is such a bedrock part of most religious traditions, parents who are involved in organized religion also seem to increase opportunities for children to feel and understand gratitude.

For the past five years, a psychology project of the Center for Developmental Science, jointly run by the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina State University, has specifically been working toward understanding the teaching and learning of gratitude. They’ll hold a conference about their insights on gratitude in January.

In an article by Alyssa LaFaro for UNC, researcher Andrea Hussong says, “We think that a lot of gratitude lessons are learned in daily conversations, rather than big, sit-down, let’s-instill-a-virtue discussions.” The team has recently started producing some short videos to help model such conversations, but the goal is not necessarily to change kids’ behavior, but “helping parents learn how to listen to their kids, how to help kids share with their parents, and then how parents can appropriately share back with their children.”

One more good thing about gratitude: UNC psychologist Sara Algoe says, “Gratitude may actually alert us to people in our environment who are looking out for our best interests. And that’s really central to survival, to the human species. We need to be able to find people who have our backs.”

So in the interest of my own survival: Thank you to everyone who is part of the Alt Ed Austin and Alt Ed NYC communities online and in person, including my sister Teri in Austin and Karen Sullivan in New York, who let me contribute from afar. I’m grateful that I had a chance to meet so many of you a year ago at the 5th Anniversary party, and I look forward to meeting more of you next time I’m in Austin or New York! Happy Thanksgiving!

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

New graphic novels workshop for high school students and adults


Jess Hagemann is an award-winning author and accomplished biographer. She owns and operates Austin’s premier ghostwriting service, Cider Spoon Stories, through which she helps seniors, veterans, small business owners, and others write their life stories as books. She’s helping us celebrate National Novel Writing Month (#NaNoWriMo) with this guest post about her upcoming workshop, Graphic Novels and Novel Graphics.

I was six years old when the Bosnian War broke out in 1992. Protected in my little corner of Kansas, I watched Sesame Street, not the news. I didn’t know that 100,000 people were dying in this artificial conflict, the result of one group of people asking for their independence, and another group of people deciding they had no right to live at all. The largest European instance of ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust didn’t end for three bloody years. By then I’d graduated from PBS to MTV: a rapid coming-of-age that left me wise to the ways of pop culture—but not the politics to which pop culture responds.

It wasn’t until college that I read Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, a graphic novel published in 2000 that recalls the journalist-author’s four months spent in the middle of the conflict. Based on the stories of several Bosniaks that Sacco interviewed in Gorazde between 1994 and 1995, the extent of the violence is revealed through a series of graphic vignettes and black-and-white illustrations more powerful than any photo essay. I learned then what it means for an author to give voice to the voiceless. For an artist to render truths we couldn’t otherwise have known. For trauma victims to share their stories, and finally be heard.

This eventually led me to start Cider Spoon Stories, a ghostwriting and editing service, in 2014. Ghostwriting means that if you have a story to share, but don’t have the time or confidence to write it down, you’ll tell it to me, I’ll write it for you, and you get the credit. It’s just that important to me that firsthand experiences and critical truths be disseminated.

When I’m not writing, I’m teaching other people to write. This month, the topic is (naturally) graphic novels. On Saturday, November 18, we'll be discussing Lynda Barry, Marjorie Satrapi, Mat Johnson, Mark Danielewski, Chris Ware, Tom Phillips, Sophie Calle, and more. We'll look at how they use illustration, obfuscation, and found objects—all layered with (or revealing) text—to create beautiful, whimsical, or disturbing stories—some for the social good, some for the sake of telling a dang good tale.

If you want to learn to create engaging, active characters; develop coherent narrative around those characters; write detailed, scene-by-scene story outlines; and script through page breaks and panel descriptions, register here. The class is appropriate for ages 16+.

Jess Hagemann

You’re never too young for your first draft: A roundup of resources for kids who write

As National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, gets into full swing this week, I thought it might be nice to review some of the options out there for kids who love to create lots of words—poetry, short stories, nonfiction, and yes . . . novels! I’m reminded every day that we live in a sort of golden age for young makers of all kinds, including writers. Kids can create their own blogs for free, and even produce books for their friends and family almost for free. They can review books and share their own work via YouTube, Facebook, Wattpad, and other social channels for creators.


Last year we talked about the Austin Public Library Foundation’s Badgerdog writing program, and we really can’t recommend those folks highly enough for their amazing summer workshops and other events throughout the year. This month, the library is holding NaNoWriMo workshops on Wednesday evenings at the drop-dead gorgeous new Central Library, and for younger kids, they’re sponsoring a songwriting workshop on Saturday, November 11, at Twin Oaks Branch Library. Details about both are here.


As for the elephant in a room of its own: the nonprofit Young Writers Program (YWP) is sponsored by the folks who bring the world NaNoWriMo every year. Kids and teens set their own writing goals, often along with a teacher or mentor. Some ambitious young writers over 13 choose to join the adult NaNo community and shoot for the full 50,000-word goal. Both kids and teachers have plenty of tools available, including workbooks that help with character building and plotting, prompts, and community events. Author superstars, including John Green, Daniel José Older, and Jenny Haan provide inspiring pep talks.

When I was looking for an example of a young writer who embraces the spirit of NaNo, Alice Sudlow, an editor at a writer-enabling enterprise called The Write Practice, suggested I check out a 17-year-old writer and super-reader who goes by the name of The Magic Violinist. A homeschooled dynamo, she and her family do NaNoWriMo together every year, and she has written novels, short stories, and hundreds of blog posts about writing and reading. In fact, she just wrote a post to help people find extra time for writing during November. And for skeptics, she explained 4 Reasons NaNoWriMo is Great for Writers. For kids who may feel isolated in the lonely endeavor of putting words on a page, The Magic Violinist praises the community created by NaNo:

Some of my best blogging friends have come from NaNoWriMo, and we keep in touch to this day. It’s hard to go into something like this alone, especially if it’s your first year.

When you sign up, if you sign up, poke around the forums for people who are attempting this for the first time. Strike up a conversation, ask the experts for advice. They’re more than happy to help a newbie out.

The amazing 826 Project is a national nonprofit that celebrates “the power of young voices, the possibility in their ideas, and the value of their words.” Long a community-based project with groups in seven big cities, 826 is affiliated with Austin Bat Cave but does not have an official presence in Austin. We talked about the valuable programs Austin Bat Cave provides for young Austin writers earlier this year, and we encourage everyone to check them out. In addition, the 826 Project recently added a rich digital component to reach more kids, parents, and communities—and this may be especially helpful for homeschooling parents or parents who want to supplement their kids’ school experience with more writing opportunities.  

Calling All Young Writers.png

The 826 digital site requires a sign-up and asks for a donation (which you can skip if you’re just looking around and exploring). I like the fact that it includes a variety of skill-building activities that are grouped by age and also by type of writing (informational, persuasive, poetry, etc.). There are lessons built around particular topics and genres and examples of student writing to inspire kids from age 7 or 8 through the teens. For example, Alexa Torres, a  Detroit fourth-grader, shared a poem about pizza that she wrote in English and in Spanish:


Smells like melted mozzarella cheese.
dripping on the side of the plate.

The pepperoni smells like spicy wasabi.
I can see pepperoni faces that are happy,
and the cheese looks shiny,
the dough peeking out the side.
The crust looks like crazy bread, and it
looks like a long snake.
On my tongue, it feels hot like chips from
the fryer.
When I chew, it sounds like mushy
Tomatoes, squish, squish.
When I eat five pieces, I feel as happy as
when I get presents from Santa.
The pizza feels heavy from the toppings,
and the cheese is like a gray tiny rock.


Huele como queso derretido de mozzarella
goteando de un lado del plato.
El pepperoni huele como wasabi picoso.
Yo puedo ver caras de pepperoni que están
Felices y el queso se ve brilloso,
la masa asomándose del lado.
El borde parece pan loco y como una serpiente
En mi lengua se siente caliente como papas
recién sacadas del sartén.
Cuando lo mastico sueno como tomates
pulposos, squish, squish.
Cuando me como cinco pedazos, me siento tan
feliz como cuando recibo regalos de santa.
La pizza me cae pesada de todos los toppings, y
el queso coma una roca pequeña color gris.

Writer and editor Maya Rushing Walker and her daughter, young writer Allegra Walker, recently appeared on a podcast called Mom Writes, talking about their experience writing novels together and independently. Allegra, who is now 15, has written several novels during NaNoWriMo, the first in elementary school. Allegra is thinking of self-publishing some of her work and is in the process of revising a novel. She publishes now through the Wattpad platform and has a following of devoted readers. The podcast discussion provides an interesting user’s view of Wattpad’s pros and cons. Maya cautions parents to “take a look around” before suggesting Wattpad to their kids, and to understand exactly what’s on the platform. And Allegra talks about comments sections, reassuring listeners that negative comments are rare or nonexistent in her experience:

You can comment quite a lot on people’s individual chapters. . . . The people who bother to comment are the ones who love it. . . . If you don’t love it, you’re probably not going to say anything.

Another recent episode of Mom Writes discussed how young writers can use fanfiction to improve and distribute their writing. The guest was Michelle Hazen, who advocates for the creative power of fanfiction.

Go Teen Writers is a blog (plus Facebook community) that offers teens helpful tips, general encouragement, and a way to share ideas. It’s run by three published authors and writing coaches who clearly enjoy connecting with young people. They’ve written a book, also called Go Teen Writers, about how teens can go from first draft to published book.

Are your kids in search of real-life instead of online comrades for their writing adventure? In Austin, Recycled Reads Bookstore, which is affiliated with the public library, holds “write-in” events on Saturdays and welcome kids, teens, and adults for a little community and discussion after the writing is done. So pack up your crayons, pencils, or laptop, and let’s go write!

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Nurturing young writers and entrepreneurs through NaNoWriMo

Betty Vine is a teaching assistant at The Joule School in Cedar Park, just north of Austin. She joins us on the blog to explain her school’s approach to National Novel Writing Month and the ways it has changed how its young students view writing, entrepreneurship, and themselves.

When first-grader Ripley Martinez walked into a school assembly, she had no idea she would soon be showered in cash. Within 30 minutes, she was jumping up and down with joy as $76—all her own—rained down around her onto the floor.

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

Ripley celebrates her writing and entrepreneurial achievements at The Joule School’s NaNoWriMo kickoff

That's how much Ripley made selling her novel since last November. You read that correctly: a 5-year-old had written and marketed her own book. Even more impressive, Ripley’s book, Lollipop Girl in a Lollipop World, had just broken the school’s record for number of copies sold. She was surrounded by cheering classmates engulfing her with hugs, and her teacher was crying with pride.

The Joule School, a progressive K–8th private school in Cedar Park, participates each year in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Young Writers Program. You might be familiar with the adult competition, in which anyone can attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The NaNoWriMo organization offers suggested word-count goals and a certificate for grade-school students who complete a modified version of the competition.

The Joule School does NaNoWriMo in a big way. First, it raises the bar—increasing the word count minimum for their students by up to 3,000 words per grade level. Suggested word-count goals for Kindergarten, when Ripley wrote her book, range from 20 to 200 words, but she was encouraged to hit 500. (This is equivalent to the “advanced” category for second-grade students in the national program.) If students rise to the challenge, Joule celebrates by arranging to have their hard work published and placed for sale on Amazon. Then, at the beginning of every November, authors from the previous year are recognized at an awards ceremony and handed cold, hard cash—their royalties from a year’s worth of online sales.

Of course, merely placing the book on Amazon doesn’t sell copies. Ripley publicized her book all over Austin, wherever she went. Her mother reported, “I went to get my oil changed and stepped outside for a few seconds. When I came back, Ripley was encouraging the receptionist to buy her novel.” (She even went behind the desk and pulled up the link to make the checkout process easier!) Her sales pitch was simple: “Can you please buy my book? It’s on sale on Amazon if you look up ‘Ripley Martinez.’” Determination and a dash of innate childlike charm did the trick, and now Ripley has 76 more bucks to spend on “Hatchimals, LOL Dolls, and . . . more books.”

Ripley’s novel is about “a candy girl adventuring and finding her friends,” according to the young author. When asked where she derived her inspiration, she said simply, “Candy.” (A glimpse into the mysterious creative processes of a visionary.) Her teacher, Meredith Allen, said Ripley was encouraged by meeting—and then exceeding—her incremental word-count goals. All over the school, individual floor-to-ceiling progress trackers (similar to a fundraising thermometer) were plastered on the walls. At the end of each day, Ms. Allen would type up her students’ handwritten work and let them check their totals. (Incidentally, this is not unlike Margaret Atwood’s writing process.) She says the students felt gratified when they used the word-count tool to see how much they had accomplished each day. It quantifies their success in a way that is readily accessible to them.

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

Students’ published works on display at The Joule School

The Joule School’s approach to NaNoWriMo develops more than just literacy skills. As the students complete the process, they learn about gross versus net income, active versus passive income, marketing, and other elements of entrepreneurship. The entire student body, from three-year-olds to eighth-graders about to matriculate to high school, can opt in. Ripley’s novel grossed $285 in 12 months, but she knew she would have to pay publishing costs and taxes. She also knew that the money she would get on November 1st was all her own, free and clear. What better way to teach a young child about net profit?

More importantly, however, students at The Joule School associate joy, achievement, and success with the act of writing—something that can be a hard sell in the elementary grades. “I’ve seen kids go from reluctant writers to enthusiastic just by completing one round of NaNoWriMo,” said Madison McWilliams, the school’s founder and principal. “You see their whole attitude change—it’s suddenly I CAN do this. Once they start believing in themselves, we can roll that over to the classroom. Suddenly the kid who wasn’t such a huge fan of writing is the most attentive student in Language Arts.”

These days, Ripley often chooses her own book to read as her bedtime story. In doing so, she generates new ideas and thinks of ways she could improve her writing. One year later, she’s decided to tackle a more complex subject: this November, she’s working on a rags-to-riches tale of redemption about a young girl living in poverty. Soon, you’ll see it on Amazon. Soon, you might just see a young girl around town asking you to buy her second book.

Betty Vine