Look for the helpers

One of the things parents love about the Reggio Emilia approach is the extensive documentation of children’s conversations and learning moments. Two of the things we especially love about Tigerlily Preschool, a small Reggio-based program in South Austin, are the eloquence of Marie Catrett’s documentation and the fiercely loving ways she teaches social justice. Here’s a recent example, with photographs courtesy of Rusk Photography. (The candle in this scene has a history, which you can read in another piece Marie contributed to this blog back in December 2013).

February 1, 2017

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
                                                                                                          —Fred Rogers

Marie: So I was thinking we have something new that we can do at school. I was thinking we could start a new thing that we do sometimes.

L: Like a birthday?

Marie: Well, there are many different ways that people can use candles. I was thinking that sometimes when we notice that people are being brave, and coming together, and being helpers, that we could be looking for that kind of thing in the world when we see it—maybe here at Tigerlily, maybe when you are out in the world—when you see people making things better . . . we talked some about the march, where I had my sign, and all these people had come together, right? I have another thing to tell you about that happened yesterday, and it was at the Capitol, also where people were coming together. There was a special day yesterday for Muslim people to come to the Capitol. Let me light the candle first to be for part of our time talking together about helpers, to be special. Here’s my special candle. . . .  I’m going to light the candle and tell you the story of what happened yesterday here in Austin. So yesterday was a special day where Muslim people got to come to the Capitol and meet with the people who make the rules. That’s something that lots of people can do, when there’s a rule that they have a question about, or they have a problem to talk about. Yesterday was a special time for Muslim people to come, and some Muslim people have been getting told a really mean message that some people can come, but not everybody is allowed—

I: Yeah, like our president.

[In my classroom, we make time to talk together about the things that are on the children’s minds, and since the election I’ve been urging parents to find a way to talk to their little ones. I think it is very scary for children to sense huge feelings and not know why. Even if you think you’re hiding it from them, I promise you they sense it. In my community, the sense of devastation has been huge. 

I listen to the children's words first, respond to their specific questions, and then give children reassurance that grownups are working on this. Here's how this looked on 1/20/17: 

Marie: So, there are a lot of grownups having all kinds of big feelings today. . . . This is a grownup problem that the grownups will figure out; it's not a kid problem, but I want you to know about it if people around you are having a hard time. I think we should try extra hard to take care of people who are hurting. That's my plan.

Four-year-old: When I feel sad, I snuggle with my friends.

Marie: Oh, that's a great way to help. Would you like a hug?

Four-year-old: Yes!

(We hug, then multiple other kids ask for hugs and we get everybody in.)

Four-year-old: And I think I am going to need another one, too.]

Marie: We're getting told that we will be nice to some people, but not nice to all the people. That some people can come be in our country, but then no to some other people. And I think that is a big mistake. I think that our country needs to be for everybody. Just like at Tigerlily where all the things are for all the people. I think grownups need that, too. All the things for all the people. So, yesterday was a special day for the Muslim people to come to the Capitol and because some people have been saying mean things, they said, “Hey, everybody, if you would like to come be helpers and stand up together and say we think this should be for everybody, come on in, let’s all get together and stand together so that everyone who wants to come can feel safe to be here.” And people said, “Hmmm, I could do that, I could help. . . . ” and I want to tell you, as I’m lighting this candle, that they thought that maybe about 70 people would come and be helpers for the Muslim day. But guess how many people came? It was more than 70 people.

W: A lot of people!

Marie: A lot of people. A thousand people came to be helpers to make it good-feeling and safe for everyone. So that’s so exciting. That’s a lot of people. And you know what, you know some of the grownups that went to be helpers at the Capitol. Josh is one of the people that went, and Carrie, I’s mama, is a person that went there. And you might even know more people that went to go and be helpers!

J: Yeah, I didn’t go to that yesterday.

Marie: Mmmm, yes, I would like to go and be a helper, but I was here teaching and being with all of you, which is really important too. And there will be more days for helpers to come do good things in our world. So I think we’ll do this at Tigerlily sometimes. If we notice a story about people in the world being really good helpers to each other, I think we could have a time at Tigerlily where we light a candle and we talk about the good helping that we’re seeing. I thought that was sounding like a good thing we could start doing. We lit the special candle and I can show you some pictures of the helpers at the Capitol yesterday. Because I think their helping was very beautiful.

L: So it can shine.

Marie: So it can shine. Here are some pictures of some really good helping. There were so many people! These are grownups, these are men and women that live in our city, who came together, there were so many of them and they stood so close together they made a wall of people and they linked their arms to be friendly with each other.

So here’s one picture of the helpers making sure the Capitol would feel like a safe, friendly place for the Muslim people to come. You’ll see some Muslim people standing in the middle. See, they are wearing a kind of special scarf on their head called a hijab? And then all the helpers are around them so they can walk in and out among so many friends.

I: That kind of looks like my grandpa, but a little different!

W: It looks like my daddy!

Marie: I am sure the people that came to help are grandpas and daddies and mommies and grandmas and brothers and sisters.

Marie: The man who is wearing the red sweater is shaking people’s hands to say thank you, thank you for coming and helping us feel welcome here today.

I: My mommy is a helper because she helps me feel better.

Marie: Oh yes, I think mommies are helpers and daddies and grandmas and grandpas . . .

I: Today I helped L feel better because I hugged her.

Marie: Oh, yes, I am remembering that L came to say that the growling was scaring her and when you saw that L was scared you stopped growling and gave her a big hug to show her she was safe. I think that was beautiful. Let’s all keep looking for good helpers.

Marie Catrett

Conversations about schooling: The Smart Schooling Book Group


Alt Ed Austin is pleased to help spread the word about a new book group focused on crucial questions about educational systems and new understandings in the psychology of learning. Antonio Buehler, founder of Abrome, joins us on the blog to explain why he started the group and how you can join the conversations.

The majority of the parents we talk to are not eagerly looking to provide their children with a rich, self-directed learning environment. Sadly, most of the parents we talk to are trying to save their children from the trauma that is so often associated with schooling (e.g., testing, sleep deprivation, depression, bullying). One of the greatest challenges we face when talking to those parents about Emancipated Learning as an alternative to school is that it is often the first time that they have heard of an educational environment that does not rely on coercion. Most of them have never been introduced to the notion of self-directed education, or they believe that self-directed education can be achieved by allowing a student to pick a topic they are expected to write a report about. They might have heard of homeschooling, but have never heard of unschooling, Sudbury Valley, or Summerhill.

Instead of being able to highlight how we are creating a psychologically safe learning space where young people can engage in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that will allow them to lead remarkable lives, we are left trying to educate them on human psychology, the history of schooling, and the science of learning. Needless to say, a 30-minute conversation covering such deep topics is typically not enough to compel parents to take meaningful action to improve their children’s learning experiences in their current schools, to move them to alternative schools that better meet their children’s needs, or to opt out of schooling altogether.

At the same time, there are a lot of teachers and administrators who know that something is not working at their schools but do not know what they can do to substantially improve the situation.  They have most likely never been introduced to much of the research that proves that self-directed learning is the best way to deepen learning, promote lifelong learning, and eliminate much of the trauma associated with coercive schooling. It is not their fault, as the organizations they work for and the education schools that they attended go out of their way to ignore these topics, and instead focus on marginal reforms while pushing the baseline assumption that young people need to be forced to learn, and that schooling environments are where that happens.

In an attempt to spur the necessary conversations around education that are currently not happening, we will be hosting the “Smart Schooling Book Group” at the Laura Bush Community Library for the duration of this year. We will read one book each month that focuses on education, with an emphasis on the psychology that would ideally inform how we approach education, and then come together to discuss it on the last Thursday of each month.

2017 Reading List
Jan 26:  Why Don't Students Like School? by Daniel Willingham
Feb 23:  The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine
Mar 30:  Wounded by School by Kirsten Olsen
Apr 27:  Free to Learn by Peter Gray
May 25:  Overschooled but Undereducated by John Abbott
Jun 29:  Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman
Jul 27:   Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
Aug 31:  Drive by Daniel Pink
Sep 28:  Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood by A. S. Neill
Oct 26:  The End of Average by Todd Rose
Nov 30:  Old School by Tobias Wolff (novel)
Dec 28:  Mindset by Carol Dweck

We hope that young people, parents, future parents, teachers, and school administrators can all benefit from these readings and conversations. Hopefully, some school board members will also drop in.

Antonio Buehler

Come one, come all, to the Austin Alternative School Fair 2017!

Get out your calendar, circle February 25, and rally the kids of all ages!

The nonprofit Education Transformation Alliance is joining with sponsors Free Fun in Austin, Whole Foods Market, and Alt Ed Austin to host the annual Austin Alternative School Fair on February 25, from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Whole Foods Market rooftop plaza.

Check out the event’s Facebook page for updates over the next few weeks.

We like to think we’re doing our part to “Keep Austin Weird” for kids by bringing together highly innovative, creative educators to share information about the number and variety of learning options in our area.

Parents and kids will have a chance to meet with the folks who run schools, enrichment programs, and educational services. The fair is set up on the plaza near the playground and features engaging activities for teens and younger kids, including virtual reality experiences, 3D printing, computer games, a mini nature museum, assorted crafts, as well as movement-based fun like sock poi and flow arts. And of course, there will be healthy food and drinks for sale from Whole Foods.

Alt Ed Austin is proud to sponsor the event again this year. It’s always a chance to talk and share in a relaxed, fun setting. We’re lucky—and more important, our kids are lucky—to have such a caring community of educators.

Participants this year include:

  • Abrome (K–12th)
  • AHB Community School (K–8th)
  • Clearview Sudbury School (K–12th)
  • French School of Austin (PreK–8th
  • Fusion Academy (6-12th)
  • Game of Village (enrichment program for ages 9–14)
  • Growing Curiosity (PreK)
  • Inside Outside School (K–5th)
  • Integrity Academy (PreK–12th)
  • KoSchool (8th–12th)
  • Progress School (K–8th)
  • Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse (K–8th)
  • Sansori High School (9th–12th)
  • Skybridge Academy (6th–12th)
  • Synergy Middle School (enrolling ages 11–13 for 2017)
  • Whole Life Learning Center (PreK–8th)
  • WonderWell (ages 2 through PreK & Kinder)

“A way of learning that’s full of connections”: Socratic discussion in Austin’s alternative schools

One of the most inspiring forms of learning I’ve encountered is Socratic discussion (sometimes called Socratic dialogue or Socratic seminar). Yet I often find myself in consultations struggling to adequately describe it to families who've never experienced it themselves or seen it in action. So I suggested that our staff writer-researcher, Shelley Sperry, delve into some local versions of the Socratic method with the help of students who love it. Here’s what she learned from them.

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

A Socratic discussion at Acton Academy

I remember my old high school was so divided. You were an island. But Socratic is a way of learning that’s full of connections.
                                                             —Cade Summers, KoSchool

Socratic discussions are powerful ways for students to help each other explore ideas, values, and opinions on important political, social, philosophical, and artistic issues. The Socratic method originated, as the name suggests, in ancient Greek philosophers’ methods of teaching and learning. Today, in some of Austin’s alternative schools the focus of “Socratics,” as students often call them, is on listening to all members of the group and finding common ground and new approaches, rather than trying to persuade or rigorously debate. During Socratics students try to develop a shared understanding of a particular essay, poem, or problem through analysis and creative interpretation, but the goal is never winning or losing a point but rather deepening the students’ own thinking.

As a newcomer to this way of learning, I wanted to understand how various students employ Socratic discussion in daily practice, so I interviewed three students who are fans of it. I am deeply grateful for the time they took to talk with me. I came away impressed by their ability to reflect on their own learning and communicate with a novice like me. The students I interviewed are Jesse Estes, age 18, who attends Skybridge Academy; Sam Sandefer, age 14, who attends Acton Academy; and Cade Summers, age 18, who attends KoSchool.

I learned through these interviews that the three schools’ Socratic programs have much in common as well as some differences. For example, Skybridge Socratics place emphasis on drawing personal connections to the issues and ideas under discussion. At Acton, focused Socratic discussions often explore ongoing, overarching themes like the “Hero’s Journey,” but Socratic questioning also takes place throughout the school day. KoSchool’s Socratic courses, much like college seminars, encourage students to delve deeply into complex texts and write clearly about them. I’ve edited my conversations with the three students to make these connections and subtle differences among their schools’ approaches clearer.

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

A Socratic discussion at Skybridge Academy

How would you define or explain Socratic discussions for a total newcomer?

Jesse: It’s an open-ended dialogue where you make sure everyone has a voice, and the goal is less important than the process.

Cade: Socratic is a more personal way to learn. Even if the group is divided somewhat in terms of the points everyone is making, you’re always connecting and learning from other people.

Sam: It’s really about learning to ask questions instead of giving and getting answers.

Can you talk about how the discussions work in practice? What’s a typical Socratic like?

Jesse: In our school, the student leader or the teacher/guide has a topic or question to consider, but then the floor is open to all students. Groups vary in size, but it’s usually about 10–12 people, which I think is optimal. We sometimes have as few as five people, but then discussion is slower. We each voice our thoughts in response to what someone else has said. Sometimes in philosophical discussions people do take sides, but in a lot of discussions there aren’t sides—there’s more of a spectrum. We do things mostly freeform and orally, but there is a whiteboard if someone needs to illustrate a point.

Cade: We practice Socratic dialogues in normal classes every day and I also host a “Bonus Socratic” after school. We usually have around 6 people, but it can be as few as 4 or as many as 11. The number doesn’t matter once you have a group that functions well. Michael—we call him a guide, not a teacher—often brings in a text, but students bring in poems and articles too. We might read the text, or part of it, to start the discussion. Then students just start sharing ideas.

Sam: We weave Socratic discussions through the day, not just in one particular time period. When you ask questions, you usually don’t just get one answer, you get another question to help lead you to an answer. So for example, if I ask someone about a math problem, instead of telling me the specific answer, the person might say: “What do you think the first step is in finding the answer?” Or they might say, “Could you try this? Or could you try that?”

Do you have any favorite discussions or moments during discussions in the past year?

Jesse: One of the best questions we had—and one that people kept talking about after class, like a running joke, was: If you have a boat and you take away one piece each year and replace it, until every piece is replaced, at what point do you have a new boat? We talked about this for three hours with no conclusion, but everyone participated and people changed opinions, and then kept talking about it after class.

Cade: I remember at one discussion a friend of mine was feeling a lot of anger coming into it, but having the Socratic turned the way he was feeling around. Discussion can help you alleviate some stresses because you can say what you’re thinking about issues—political or social or other things—and you can get some different contexts from other people and see things in a different light.

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

A Socratic discussion at KoSchool

Finally, what’s the value of Socratic discussion for you, carrying forward after high school or with your family and community?

Jesse: You learn how to draw people into conversation and to really listen to and understand their points of view. I think I have a much stronger voice than I had earlier, and my perspective is wider. We’re encouraged to lead our own discussions during the semester, so you also gain leadership skills, and now I’m leading my own class. It’s inspired me to look at something related to leadership and teaching when I go to college.

Cade: Learning how to discuss and communicate is invaluable. I definitely spoke more when I started, but I’ve learned gradually to be more introspective and really listen. I think at home I take a more introspective approach now, too, and work on my ability to empathize and understand other people, including my younger brother.

Sam: I think it’s made me much more independent—so rather than relying on someone else to give me answers, I want to find them on my own.

Shelley Sperry

Creative thinking: A fundamental skill that takes practice


Kelly Jarrell is an educator, program developer, counselor, and family wellness coach with more than 25 years of experience working with children, families, schools, and communities. She provides a range of services to help Austin families create success both at home and at school. Kelly joins us on the blog to share her expertise in nurturing children's creative thinking.

The term creative thinking too often is reserved for “artistic” types, or for those few who are considered “creative.” However, creative thinking is a fundamental skill, just like learning how to read. Unfortunately, the structure of our current education system emphasizes quantifiable results and productivity. This hyper-focus eliminates the space to exercise a much more qualitative, process-oriented experience for essential skill development. Creating new pathways for innovative education that meets the needs of the 21st century depends on one's concrete and deepened understanding about creative thinking:

  • what exactly it is
  • how it works and how it is different from other ways of thinking
  • why it is important

Education is filled with buzzwords that lure us to one modality or another: higher-order thinking skills, shared inquiry, the Socratic method, executive functioning, science-based learning, metacognition, a child-centered approach, creative play . . . The list can go on and on. It is important for educators to invest time in learning what these different terms mean, how educational programs are applying them, and how they actually apply to learning. Let’s take a comparative view of two common educational terms: critical thinking and creative thinking.

In his “Introduction to Creative Thinking,” Robert Harris gives a clear explanation of the difference between critical and creative thinking and how they work together.

Much of the thinking done in formal education emphasizes the skills of analysisteaching students how to understand claims, follow or create a logical argument, figure out the answer, eliminate the incorrect paths and focus on the correct one. [Creative thinking] focuses on exploring ideas, generating possibilities, looking for many right answers rather than just one.

Critical Thinking            Creative Thinking

analytic                              generative

convergent                        divergent

vertical                              lateral

probability                        possibility

judgment                          suspended judgment

focused                             diffuse

objective                           subjective

answer                              an answer

left brain                           right brain

verbal                                visual

linear                                 associative

reasoning                          richness, novelty

yes but                              yes and

In an activity like problem solving, both kinds of thinking are important to us. First, we must analyze the problem; then we must generate possible solutions; next we must choose and implement the best solution; and finally, we must evaluate the effectiveness of the solution. As you can see, this process reveals an alternation between the two kinds of thinking, critical and creative.

Critical thinking is classification, analysis, comparison, inductive and deductive reasoning, concluding answers. It is linear, sequential. Creative thinking is brainstorming, imagining multiple possibilities. It is metaphorical, associative. In today’s world, where information and knowledge are changing and expanding at an accelerated rate, our education system must shift to developing citizens that have skill sets to adapt to such a world in proactive, constructive ways.

Sir Ken Robinson is one who has dedicated his life work to doing just that. In his Changing Education Paradigms animation, he defines creativity as “the process of having original ideas that have value.” He shares research that illustrates how creative “Genius” is strongest in young children (which means we all have this capacity), and slowly deteriorates as children get older (which means the capacity is somehow lost). This point brings us back to where we started. Creative thinking is a skill that needs to be developed, nurtured, practiced, and exercised to become stronger and readily utilized.

In the book New World Kids: The Parents' Guide to Creative Thinking, authors Susie Monday and Susan Marcus provide simple yet comprehensive ways to support children in developing their creative process.

It’s not a matter of chance or talent or luck, creative thinking is a matter of focus and practice. Like reading, it’s a skill that is learned by doing. Inborn imagination and natural creativity become fluent thinking tools when children learn to see patterns, use associative thinking and practice creating. Also, just like reading, adults help kids along by supplying the right challenge at the right time. (p.9)

The book identifies “a Creativity Map” (p.17) that includes these components:

  • Imagination: “the more you feed your imagination with observations and experiences and memories, the richer and wiser your imagination becomes”
  • the Sensory Alphabet: a sensory language that provides a new perspective for witnessing the world in order to discover new patterns
  • media: “anything you use to get your ideas from the inside of your brain out into the world”
  • play: “thinking in action”
  • Individuality: recognizing the metacognitive aspects of each person
  • the creative process: 1) collecting or gathering; 2) playing; 3) creating; 4) reflecting

Monday and Marcus describe the NWK approach to practicing this process as follows:

The process begins as children find and identify ideas through observation and interaction with the world around them, using the elements of the Sensory Alphabet as lenses. Next they experiment and play with these ideas to help them “grow.” Creative products emerge and are photographed or saved in a personal portfolio. Finally, children learn more about their creative selves as they reflect on their experiences and choose favorite elements, materials and activities.

The Sensory Alphabetcolor, sound, light, space, movement, rhythm, line, shape, texture— is a sensory language that provides a new set of lenses to see the world, which enables new patterns and relationships to emerge that were previously clouded by cultural and learned preconditions. “Because this sensory vocabulary describes, but doesn’t define, it enlarges the capacity for seeing patterns between disparate objects, fields and cultures. This ability to perceive patterns is one of the hallmarks of a creative mind” (p.27).

With my own educational background anchored in this process of learning, I quickly recognized its absence when I stepped into the classroom as an elementary educator. My students had plenty of imagination about ideas that were “outside the box” of possibilities. But their ideas fell short of how to transform them into something beyond a diorama or poster board. Elementary is a time for Big Work, but my students were stuck—they couldn’t imagine how to create Big Forms for communicating their ideas. I realized they needed to practice the creative process, to focus on the process regardless of the content, to experience the Sensory Alphabet in order to make new connections. And that is what we did.

We first exercised our ability to recognize sensory language. We explored different kinds of materials and media (not technological). We then chose topics of interest (whatever they wanted) and practiced different ways of sharing information they discovered. Then we chose a collective topic and picked different ways to communicate our new knowledge. We exercised all aspects of the creative process to build the mental muscle. Students had a heightened engagement in their work and expanded their ways of approaching it.

As educators, parents, neighbors, and active community members, we all need to nurture and exercise our creative thinking skills to provide the fodder necessary for creating a collaborative, innovative, inclusive, diverse, collective, productive, world in the 21st century. What ways can you begin exploring this week? I am available to listen, share thoughts, and provide ideas for starting places in your learning community.

Kelly Jarrell

Media Monday: On the trail of civil rights in Texas

This week many schools will honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with activities, readings, and projects related to the struggle for racial equality. For this Media Monday, I decided to look for some not-quite-so-well-known civil rights stories based in Texas. Families can visit some historic sites and learn the history together, or students may want to use the stories of these Texas struggles as jumping-off points for their own projects.

Juanita Craft, Texas civil rights hero

Juanita Craft, Texas civil rights hero

  • Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage District includes a wide variety of sites that students can visit and explore, from the Carver Museum (in what used to be the segregated African American branch of the Austin Library system) to the Texas State Cemetery, where many civil rights leaders are buried.
  • The Dallas home of Juanita Craft  is preserved as a tribute to a woman who started an astonishing 182 NAACP chapters and helped integrate universities, theaters, restaurants, and other public spaces in Texas.
  • Bessie Coleman, an “aviatrix” and the first African American to earn a pilot’s license, has an exhibit dedicated to her at the Atlanta Historical Museum in an old railroad depot full of many other history exhibits in Atlanta, Texas.
  • Calaboose African American Museum in San Marcos was formerly a jail, then a USO dance hall for black soldiers, and now features stories of African Americans in Texas, from the era of the Buffalo Soldiers to the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Starr County Farm Workers’ Strike originated in Rio Grande City as part of a labor movement organized by the National Farm Workers Association in the 1960s, protesting low wages and brutal working conditions. The protests culminated on Labor Day 1966 with a march on the State Capitol in Austin.

We all know that Austin has truly amazing, world-class collections related to Texas history, African American culture, and civil rights at the Bullock Museum and the LBJ Presidential Library, and our kids are lucky to have those resources so close at hand. But I also want to point out just a few additional resources for learning Texas history that helped me find some of the stories above:

Shelley Sperry