5 ways to celebrate Black History Month with kids

 Cargo plan for the wrecked slave ship  Henrietta Marie  at the Bob Bullock Museum

Cargo plan for the wrecked slave ship Henrietta Marie at the Bob Bullock Museum

We’re lucky to have a great array of Black History Month events and exhibits happening across Austin and the whole region that can spark kids’ imaginations and interest. Here are five options to consider checking out this month with your family:

  1. Black History Month Kids’ Day: On February 17, the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center will host a big family event with crafts, activities, and learning opportunities about Black History Month from noon to 4pm. While you’re at the Carver Center, there’s also something for older teens: HBCU Day, when Texas Historically Black Colleges and Universities visit the center to recruit and show off their talents.
  2. At the Bullock Museum, a new interactive exhibit can offer kids a way to explore the tale of a wrecked slave ship, the Henrietta Marie.
  3. The Austin Public Library is celebrating the month with tons of first-rate movies telling some amazing stories that will inspire and educate, including Hidden Figures, Glory, The Jackie Robinson Story, and Akeelah and the Bee. You can check out the schedule on the library’s website.
  4. If you want to take your kids a little farther afield for some knowledge and fun, consider heading to San Angelo and the Fort Concho National Historic Landmark anytime, but especially on February 28, which is Buffalo Soldier History Day. This is a living history experience honoring the African American soldiers who served in the 19th century at forts across the United States.
  5. A little closer to home, you can pile family and friends in the car for a field trip to San Marcos and the Calaboose African American Museum’s exhibits on Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and jazz pioneer Eddie Durham.

Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial


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

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

News that made a difference for Texas students

In the first week of this new year, we want to look back at some of the most consequential education stories—for both public schools and alternative schools—in Texas in 2016. As we look back, we see three major political flashpoints, and also some promising trends and innovations growing out of the alternative school scene in our area. Both flashpoints and innovations are listed below, with links for finding out more information about each.

Political Flashpoints

  • At the moment we were compiling this list, the Austin American-Statesman published a report revealing that “School districts across Texas pulled in lackluster preliminary grades under the state’s new letter-grade accountability system.” The new system, which won’t be fully implemented until next year, is based primarily on standardized testing and got a lot of complaints and pushback from school districts—including Austin ISD—even before the preliminary grades were released. Looks like this grading system will be an issue to watch going forward into 2017 and beyond.
  • August 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy of the sniper attack on UT’s campus, the first modern-day mass shooting. August also marked the beginning of so-called “campus carry” at Texas’s public colleges.
  • A series of investigative pieces by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the Texas Education Agency may have mandated low special education enrollment in public schools, leading to the denial of crucial services for many children and saving the state billions. The investigations are ongoing.

Trends in Alternative Education around Austin

If there are trends or major issues in Texas education you want to see explored on our blog, let us know in the comments below, and we’ll make an effort to address them in 2017. Here’s to a happy new year for all Texas kids!

Post-election in Austin schools: Finding comfort in community

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

The past few weeks since Election Day have posed significant and unusual challenges for educators across the country. When divisions among adults are as strong as they have been during the presidential campaign, tensions, fears, and misinformation inevitably come out among kids on playgrounds and in classrooms.

In a report released this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that schools and universities are the most common places that hate-based incidents take place—including attacks against immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Jews, and the LGBTQ community. More than 10,000 teachers surveyed by SPLC detailed 2,500 fights and threats related to the rhetoric of the 2016 election, increasing use of racial and ethnic slurs, and the appearance of swastikas and Confederate flags around their schools. From the survey’s executive summary:

Ninety percent of educators report that school climate has been negatively affected, and most of them believe it will have a long-lasting impact. A full 80 percent describe heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

We asked some members of the Alt Ed Austin community to talk about what they are seeing and hearing among their students and what kinds of constructive, positive steps they’re taking to support kids, parents, and each other.

Individual and group discussions, with the goal of intellectually understanding the dynamics of the political conflicts, as well as sharing and processing a variety of emotions around the election are important to all the educators we heard from.

Kristin Kim of Sansori High School says, “I encourage [students] to see beyond the layers of realities created by polarization, and be aware of when they are drawn in to reactiveness.” She wants to help them avoid repeating patterns of conflict. 

The team at Skybridge Academy focused on the question of vulnerability, and discussed bullying and how to be an ally to people who need support. Students were allowed to share their feelings anonymously and to discuss them in groups. Skybridge’s co-director, Ariel Dochstader Miller, says she believes the students’ open sharing and discussion helped students, but more discussions are needed to move forward “in a healed and unified space.” “We came to the conclusion that the way through these defensive walls, both literal and emotional, is empathy and compassionate relating and sharing.”

“We focused much more on what we could do for one another than dwelling on what we could not control,” says Antonio Buehler of Abrome. Antonio shares a detailed response on his blog, focusing on how Learners can “transcend electoral politics” and better society in myriad ways.

At KọSchool, the full student body of 8th–12th graders gathered to talk about personal empowerment in times of dramatic change. Students discussed feelings of victimization across the spectrum of political viewpoints and shared their own struggles to keep open minds and not condemn those whose beliefs clashed with their own.

There is also great value, for students and their families, in physical activity—whether it’s work or play—and intimately connecting with the natural world. Erin Flynn of Green Gate Farms says she’s been contacted by several schools that would like to get out among the plants and animals on a “medicinal” field trip. “Teens are especially upset,” she adds, “so I will be putting them to work, giving them some nature therapy.”

Most important, we in the Alt Ed Austin community adhere to the belief that schools must be safe and nurturing homes-away-from-home for all children.  We could not say it better than Austin School Board Trustee Paul Saldaña said it in a moving letter to all the families of Austin ISD:

I want you to know how much I admire the concerns you have expressed this week for your friends, classmates, and schools. And I encourage you to have these thoughtful conversations among your peers and with your teachers in the classrooms. It’s okay for you to express any concerns you may have and to find your voice and use it with conviction. Most importantly, I want to reassure you, that your school and classroom is your home and your sanctuary. It belongs to you and you are safe.

Please take a look at Paul Saldaña’s letter here.

 Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

Photo contributed to the Teaching Tolerance #StudentsSpeak campaign

You may also be interested in some resources designed for Teaching Tolerance by the SPLC. Using the hashtag #StudentsSpeak, the Teaching Tolerance program is collecting photos with a wonderful variety of heartfelt advice for President-elect Trump on their Facebook page (a sampling of which we’ve included in this post). Take a look, and see how your students can participate here.


1964–2014: A half century since Freedom Schools and “How Children Fail”

Earlier this summer I had the privilege of hearing Ron Miller’s keynote address at the annual AERO conference. Ron is a respected scholar and prolific author on holistic education. His sweeping history, placing alternative education within the context of the great social movements of the past 50 years, made for an unexpectedly sobering session at a largely upbeat conference. Yet it was exactly what many of us needed to hear. Ron’s eloquent talk was refreshingly honest, and it resonated with my own concerns. I am deeply grateful to Ron for granting Alt Ed Austin permission to publish his (slightly edited) prepared remarks here in full.



The title of my talk suggests that this year is a historical milestone for the educational alternatives movement; it is, and I’ll get around to that. But I also want to look a little deeper, to consider the history of the past 50 years as a way of understanding the situation that educators, and our entire culture, are facing today. I want to draw some lessons from my own career, which took place during 30 of these past 50 years.

I’m going to make two basic points. One is that alternative educational ideas and practices will not be adopted on a wide scale until our culture as a whole changes significantly. Nothing new there; I’ve said this in many of my talks and writings.

But my other point is new: After all that I have seen and learned during the three decades I worked in this field, I no longer hold out much hope that our culture is going to change in positive meaningful ways; I am more inclined now to think that it is going to continue on its insane and destructive course until it collapses from its own excesses. At least, though, this collapse will provide the opening for building a new culture, the seeds of which the educational alternatives movement has been diligently planting all these years.

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