Are we nearing a tipping point for a new model of education? A talk with Peter Gray


Peter Gray is a true pioneer in exploring alternative education models, a serious researcher in the field of education and play, and an inspiring parent and activist. He speaks and writes eloquently without academic jargon about the needs of children. He’s currently on the faculty of Boston College in the Psychology Department, with dozens of books, articles, and blog posts to his name. His most recent book is Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. And that title says it all! We also recommend a recent article that clearly explains the differences between progressive education models—which we know a lot about here at Alt Ed Austin—and self-directed learning. You’ll also find a whole universe of helpful resources on the Alliance for Self-Directed Education website.

Peter will be speaking at several locations in Austin at the end of April (listed at the end of this post), so we decided to take this opportunity to let the Alt Ed Austin community know a little bit more about his philosophy and predictions for the future. Peter is a passionate advocate for play as the most natural and powerful way children learn. And he is leading a national movement for self-directed education through the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, as he discusses in the interview below.


Tell our readers who might not be familiar with your work how you got started in the field of education research and alternative schooling in particular.

As a researcher, I was originally doing brain research, looking at hormones in the brain and how hormones affect behavior. But when my own son was nine years old, he reached a crisis point in school, in the fourth grade. He hated school, and they didn’t know what to do with him. We decided we needed to find something very different from traditional schools for him as he had always been rebelling against it. And so we found the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts.

Since then, Sudbury has become a model for self-directed education. The Clearview Sudbury School in Austin follows this model. Sudbury and schools like it are places where children are free to play and explore and do what they want to do. There are children of all ages, and the rules are all made by children themselves—the opposite of typical schools.

When we enrolled my son, he was immediately happy and thought this was just what school should be. But I was concerned that he might be living in my basement for the rest of his life. Fathers tend to need more convincing than mothers about this type of education. I see that all the time. I needed some evidence that it worked. I tried to convince some graduate students in the field of education to do a research study, but no one was interested, so I decided to do the study myself. The results impressed me. Graduates of Sudbury who wanted to go to college did go to college. Others went on to various careers and they were all happy. None of them regretted going to Sudbury, which comforted me as a father and intrigued me as an academician.

All of this launched my interest in play, and I began to study why children all over the world have this drive to play and play in certain predictable ways, which we now believe are part of natural selection and designed to make them ready for adulthood.

I’ve been pursuing these ideas for many years, and I’m now concerned about what our coercive schooling system is doing to our children in terms of time taken away from play and creating anxiety. Now I’m not just a researcher; I’m also an advocate for what we call self-directed education. We have an organization called the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, and we educate people and promote these ideas, whether through schools or through homeschooling and what is sometimes called “unschooling.”

 

Are you hopeful about the future direction of self-directed education in the United States? Where do you see our education moving in the next few decades?

The biggest barrier to self-directed education that has to be overcome—and I’m hopeful about it—is that the great majority of people just don’t know anything about it, don’t understand it, and don’t see how it will work! Most Americans are third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation traditionally schooled. School has a certain meaning for us, and there’s a lot of social propaganda about how important it is, so it’s not surprising that most people in our culture believe that school as traditionally defined is essential in order to be successful or not become homeless. We hear that all the time. But I think that the barriers can be overcome.

In the most recent statistics available from a few years ago, we saw that about 3.4 percent of American children were homeschooled, and the trend is increasing. In the past homeschooling was done primarily for religious reasons, not to add freedom to children’s lives. But now the reasons for homeschooling tend to be more about improving the learning environment, making children happier and less constrained. I think that as homeschooling becomes more common and not so weird, we’ll see the numbers increase rapidly.

We also think somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of homeschoolers are pursuing “unschooling,” but I prefer the more positive term of “self-directed education.” Both homeschooling and self-directed education allow children much more time in the day to find hobbies, discover their own interests, make friends, get involved in community activities, and all the things that are important to learning. And now there are more centers being opened to create communities and support for families who are doing this.

I see it all as a grassroots movement, and we’re heading toward a tipping point. The next stage is that there will be enough people doing this that they have some political clout. I’m not sure, but that will come when somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of families are embracing self-directed education. So what leads me to be optimistic is that we always see social change occurring slowly, gradually, as courageous people do non-normative things, but over time we reach a tipping point at which everyone knows someone who is doing it, and it no longer seems weird. It no longer seems like it’s something you’re going to be blamed for doing. That’s when real change happens. The most recent analogy is the acceptance of gay Americans and same-sex marriage. For education, I don’t know if it will take 10 years or 40 years, but we’re on a trend, and I think it will happen.

The other thing that makes me optimistic is that self-directed education is easier than ever before. The Internet has made it easy. When schools were started, there were only certain people who had knowledge and you had to go to institutions where knowledge was sequestered in order to learn. Really and truly, the Internet has now made schools obsolete. We haven’t as a society come to terms with that, but all children know that any information they need is available to them at home or anywhere by Googling it.

But what we still need is community. So i have hope that libraries will become the replacements for schools. I’d like to see libraries become community centers for activities—places for learning, recreation, and friendship. We are suffering from being isolated from each other, and there’s real value in connecting with others, especially for kids. Schools aren’t solving this problem right now.

What we’re trying to do at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education is to change from individual people trying to solve a problem to an organized movement tackling the problem. We want people to see themselves as part of the same movement, whether they’re doing unschooling at home or sending their children to a Sudbury-style school. We’re trying to create local groups to support each other.

Are there places in the country that are pushing forward faster than others in this movement?

I’m not sure we know exactly—we don’t have all the information. But it’s interesting that in Austin you have a Sudbury model school and Abrome and many unschoolers. Austin may be one of the places where there’s a real concentration of people who are interested in self-directed learning.

What new projects are you working on right now besides the Alliance?

I have a new book in mind but am not far enough along on it to talk about it. It will be about the obsolescence of schools and how their functions have been taken over by other, more efficient means.

I’d also like to mention another organization I’m involved in, which is called the Let Grow Foundation. This is run by Lenore Skenazy, who wrote the book Free Range Kids. She is concerned that we’ve really excluded kids from public spaces, and we’ve developed irrational fears about letting children be free to play and explore the world. Utah just recently passed the a “free range children” law, so the idea is gaining momentum. Lenore is the main force behind this, but I’m conducting some research and supporting it.


Thank you to Peter for taking time to talk with us! He will be speaking at four events in Austin at the end of April, so if you’re interested in his thoughts about where education is heading, you have some terrific opportunities to listen and ask questions:

What Is Self-Directed Education, and How Do We Know It Works?
Wednesday, April 25, 7pm at Abrome

Smart Schooling Book Group Discussion with Author Peter Gray
(on his book Free to Learn)
Thursday, April 26, 6pm, at Laura Bush Community Library in Westlake

Play Deficit Disorder: A National Crisis and How to Solve It Locally
Thursday, April 26, 7pm, at Laura Bush Community Library

The Biology of Education: How Children's Natural Curiosity, Playfulness, and Sociability Serve Their Education
Friday, April 27, 7pm, Clearview Sudbury School


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial
 

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

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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.
 

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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?

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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
 

Is your teen ready to take the dual credit plunge?

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About 40 percent of all US undergraduates are attending community colleges today, and that percentage is on the rise for many reasons, including lower tuition costs, smaller class sizes, and the ability for students to explore several interests before deciding on a major and transferring to a four-year college or university.

 Zach Denton, ACC’s Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach

Zach Denton, ACC’s Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach

Here in central Texas, the Austin Community College (ACC) system is especially robust, with many opportunities for students who are still in high school as well as those who’ve just graduated. Currently, about 7,000 students are enrolled in high school “dual enrollment” programs, in which kids are able to pursue college credit and high school credit simultaneously. Zach Denton, Manager of High School Programs – Enrollment & Outreach at ACC, estimates that around 10 percent of those in dual enrollment programs are homeschooled.

According to Zach, the overwhelming majority of dual enrollment students are taking Core Curriculum courses, which cover a broad variety of traditional academic subjects, including math, English, history, life and physical sciences, foreign languages, and psychology. “The advantage to taking Core Curriculum courses is that they are widely transferable to other public colleges/universities in the state of Texas, as well as many private institutions.” And these courses are often eligible for reduced or waived tuition fees.

 Camille North, homeschooling leader, consultant, coach, and parent

Camille North, homeschooling leader, consultant, coach, and parent

Camille North, whose three homeschooled kids all took advantage of ACC in different ways, now provides help for students grappling with college decisions through workshops, coaching, and lots of resources available on her website, Brain Bump Consulting. Camille warns parents and kids that going to ACC isn’t what they may imagine—it’s not all 18- and 19-year-olds out on their own for the first time. “The problem I’m seeing most,” says Camille, “is that kids are getting interested in going to ACC at younger ages, and they may not be ready socially or emotionally, even if they’re ready academically.” Most ACC students are adults, not teenagers, and therefore younger students have to be comfortable hearing adult language, possibly sitting in a classroom with other students who are trying to start over after having been in prison, being “hit on” by people five or ten years older, and lots of other things that could be a shock.

Zach agrees. “It’s one thing for a test to say you are college ready,” he explains, “but there are many other characteristics and skills that will determine whether a student (regardless of age!) is truly ready for college and will be successful.” Time management, maturity, attention to detail, and personal responsibility are all vital.

Both Camille and Zach also emphasize that students and parents have to understand that ACC courses stick with students as part of their college transcripts forever. Zach advises young people that “this is not a situation where you can just simply dip your foot in the water to see what it’s like—you have to be ready to jump in head first and swim!”

All these warnings aren’t meant to discourage kids, but to make sure their eyes are wide open. Camille adds, “I’m a big fan of community college as an option for kids who want to move ahead academically, but it’s not for every student. And that includes online courses, which some families opt for instead of on-campus classes.” Self-directed learning, she says, is a big transition for young people who are used to one-on-one guidance and learning in a close-knit community or family.

One of Camille’s own kids has chosen the “2 plus 2” option of living at home and completing a full two-year course of study at ACC after high school so he can make sure he knows what he wants to study before committing to a four-year college or university. This option, she says, is a nice, “gentle transition” to life away from home for students who don’t want an abrupt change at age 17 or 18.

Overall, says Zach, there are some clear positives for students who decide to attend ACC before moving on to a four-year school: 1) the cost, 2) smaller class sizes (which are usually capped at 36 students), and 3) lots of convenient locations. If you have (or are) a teen who is interested in “jumping in head first and swimming,” check out these ACC sites:


Shelley Sperry

Fun leads to mastery in game-based education

Some of the most innovative, forward-looking alternative learning experiences for kids today are built on the notion of games and gaming. Edutopia, the teaching and learning website, even has a Pinterest board devoted to game-based learning. Many commercial games that teach biology, math, history, geography, and every other subject imaginable are infiltrating traditional classrooms, and for particular subjects or problems, that makes a lot of sense. But for this blog post, I wanted to look at why educators would create an entire curriculum based on gaming.

 Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

Thinking hard, gaming hard at Quest to Learn, an alternative public school in New York City

In New York City an innovative school for grades 6–12 called Quest to Learn is an evolving project to improve kids’ learning, empathy, and collaboration skills. In reading about Quest, I learned the basic tenets of the gaming approach—and then I was lucky enough to interview Austin’s own Cheryl Kruckeberg, who has been advocating for game-based education and running Game of Village, a program based on these tenets, for years.

Quest’s founders, a nonprofit group called the Institute of Play, created an alternative, publicly funded “school of choice” entirely focused on games for a few key reasons, including:

  • Games ask us to collaborate with others and learn by doing.
  • In a game, teachers and students can see immediately whether they are succeeding or failing and can go back and try again, or “iterate.” Failing is an important part of learning in any game, and (unlike a failing grade in a traditional classroom) helps motivate kids to keep trying.
  • Learning happens by doing!
  • Everyone gets to participate and contribute something unique to the process.
  • Feedback happens in the moment, not days or weeks later in an exam.
 A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

A long-running Austin program centered on interdisciplinary learning through role playing and world building

My talk with Austin’s Cheryl Kruckeberg reinforced many of the notions above with real-life examples from Game of Village. Cheryl says that one of the best things about learning through play is that the consequences aren’t dire, so kids can go all out to win, but if they lose or make mistakes, it’s just a game. “Tomorrow they come back and try again.”

The problem in most grade-based education, says Cheryl, is that it tells kids that an “F” is a statement about who they are, and that may very well change how they think about themselves. “All of that judgment is gone in the concept of the game,” she explains. Kids are having fun and working together to improve, not anxious about judgment and evaluations from others.

“Play is the modus operandi of learning—the way to knowledge, to intimacy, to relationships with the world and people in it,” Cheryl continues. “Jean Piaget [the pioneering child psychologist] said that play is for the pleasure of mastery, and I think that’s right. Kids will do things for play and bend themselves into pretzels to overcome any challenge for the sheer pleasure of mastering something—to get to the next level in a digital game or board game, for example—when they wouldn’t do that for the sake of rote classroom learning.”

Readers of the blog may have met Cheryl a few months ago, when she wrote a blog post about exactly how Game of Village works—creating an entire alternative village-world on a 1/24 scale, with 3-inch avatars, or “peeps” who inhabit the village. Games ideally last about 25–30 days and include around 25 kids, but the time period can span an intensive five or six weeks, or can be spread out over an entire school year for one day each week.

 From a recent Game of Village showcase

From a recent Game of Village showcase

I wondered what kind of learning objectives and structures the Game of Village mentors begin with, and Cheryl explained, “What we do is set some basic take-aways and usually a time period and geographical setting. It’s important to have some parameters, so that kids have something to push against. From there, they have a lot of freedom to explore.”

“Recently, we launched a village of the future, which kids love because of all the gizmos they can try. Our goals were to talk about sustainability and climate, including exploring sustainable living systems. The kids got an invitation to help the inhabitants of a distant planet that had used up all its resources. They had to build a model sustainable village and educate the aliens on how to use it. The kids had to research carbon footprints, carbon capture, how to produce electricity through solar, wind, and wave technology versus fossil fuels—explaining their impacts and long-term viability. They designed homes and civic systems. It’s exciting because the way each village evolves is organic, and the mentors release control of the game to the kids as soon as possible.”

 A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

A Game of Village participant tinkering toward mastery

Often the kids in Game of Village are of a similar age—around 10 to 14, but sometimes there are 8-year-olds, and those kids find unique ways of playing the game, says Cheryl. “The older kids get into the heady stuff and deep research, but younger kids do more of the crafting.” Just as in real life, both thinkers and crafters are critical to success.

Cheryl also believes that interactions between the students are invaluable in teaching students about nurturing and supporting each other. “We have kids who begin at a young age and then move into leadership roles as they get older. There are times when something the little ones need to do is a task they can’t handle, so we have older kids who are ‘village mentors in training’ and do safety training that allows them to help younger kids and reinforce their own learning at the same time. Our traditional schools separate kids so much that this important mentoring time is gone, and that’s a huge loss in our society. The Game of Village tries to avoid that separation. Kids need the opportunity to nurture.”

“For me, somewhere along the line education got separated from learning,” Cheryl explains. “People really want to learn, and that distinguishes us as a species. Sparrows will just build nests the same way, over and over—but human beings want to try this, that, and the other thing, always trying new alternatives.” In a nutshell—or an eggshell—this is what game-based learning provides.

 Pacifica Village

Pacifica Village

Game of Village kids completed their creation of Pacifica, a sustainable village for the planet Kepler-9D, on May 19 at AHB Community School. Students at Integrity Academy will experience a full unit of Game of Village next year. More information about Game of Village and how your kids can get involved is available here.

And for another fascinating take on role-playing games and learning, check out a recent article by Paul Darvasi for KQED News, about Sword and Sorcery Camps.

Game on!


Shelley Sperry
 

Austin writing camps keep kids’ creativity thriving in the summer and all year long

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Because of Jenna and other volunteers from Austin Bat Cave, my words finally feel important. Through her tending and caring, my writing blossomed into something I could never have imagined. Now that I’m in college I feel especially thankful for my Austin Bat Cave experience, which taught me skills that translated into my academic writing and make even my informative papers more engaging. The most important thing is for kids to write and express themselves. The best stories are those that make us laugh and cry, and the most memorable are the original ideas which make us stop and think, or help us see the world in a new way, and therefore both types of writing are essential. Austin Bat Cave understands that.

—Xochi, an Austin Bat Cave alum, and the first in her family to attend college

 

One of the things writers do, especially when they don’t want to start a new project, is read books and listen to podcasts and lectures about writing. I do it all the time. One of the notions I come across most often in discussions of the craft is, “I really don’t know what I think until I start writing,” or “The process of writing itself shapes my arguments, my characters, my plot.” Even writers who create detailed outlines before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard usually admit that the story they finish is very different from the one they started. When I decided to write a blog post about creative writing workshops and camps for kids in Austin, I learned this lesson again.

Ali Haider, program director at Austin Bat Cave (ABC), told me that when kids in their writing workshops learn to analyze how stories and poems are put together, they take that understanding on to everything else they study in school or read and see out in the world. If a student can learn to analyze and then write her own science fiction story, she can also learn to dissect an argument in a history book and write an essay about it—or critique a politician’s speech.

In the experiences offered by Austin Bat Cave and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation’s Badgerdog program, writing coaches demystify paragraphs and sentences, and students learn how stories are built from scratch. Ali’s approach at ABC reminds me of a tinkering workshop where budding engineers might learn to take apart and put together a toaster or a computer motherboard, gaining an understanding of how things work and the power to create their own entirely new inventions in the process.
 

World Gone Gray
     by Kurion Terrance, an Austin Bat Cave 7th grader
When the ice starts to shiver,
When the fire starts to fade,
When all the water’s in the river,
When you finally get paid.
The world gets cold and gray,
The sea no longer beautiful,
The night is in the day,
Beauty no more, the Earth is dull.
The world is cold or heartless,
It feels like hope is lost,
The smart one from the smartest,
Can’t even help our cause.
The underdog can’t save us all,
’Cause no one seems to care,
The pretty birds no longer call,
This world I cannot bear.
 

At Austin Bat Cave, about 1,700 students a year get creative in writing classes at participating schools, weekend workshops, and summer camps. Groups are kept small so that the one-on-one mentoring ABC values so highly can happen. “All writers need a good guide and mentor. So ABC builds workshops around one-on-one coaching and feedback,” says Ali.

“We’re lucky that Austin is the perfect place for an organization like ours,” Ali explains. “We have about 50 volunteer mentors each spring and fall, and about 40 more during the summer. They’re really teaching artists—people who write for a living themselves or have a lot of experience in creative writing or journalism and want to give back. They have a passion for storytelling, and it’s hard for kids not to get excited when their mentors are excited.”

At Badgerdog, manager Cecily Sailer finds a similarly talented group of writers fueling her camps and workshops. “Austin is home to a robust writing community,” she says. “Many of the teaching artists in our program are graduate students in the UT Michener Center or New Writers Program or Texas State Creative Writing Program.” Badgerdog’s summer camps and workshops are held in libraries, schools, and community centers all over the city.

Ali works with volunteers to prepare a curriculum that’s fresh each semester and interdisciplinary, brainstorming projects that encourage kids to make paintings, podcasts, or compile zines to showcase their stories. “We want to have projects each student can walk away with, and we want to reach different kinds of learners, so variety is important. Plus each school and each group of students is unique, so flexibility is key.”

Are there any constants in all the variety? “The one-on-one time is something we give all students because we know it’s important and something most teachers don’t have time enough to do. Feedback is important for the growth of a writer. The other constant is that we make sure each student has a notebook to keep—and we provide them if the school can’t afford them.”
 

Breath Notes
    by Emma Baumgardner, a Badgerdog middle schooler
I shape my way with movement
emerging in my throat
and slowly thread the needle
of song.
Bursting to breathe
open my lungs
sound takes moments. Standing
I move to the will of the way
my tongue clicks.
Lips hum,
body sways,
head resonates, bubbling.
And voices cling together,
linking arms,
thumbs pressed against index fingers.
Melody paints piano keys,
never grounded.
Lights pinch our eyes
Laced with sweat,
we burn
with the moment
of performing.
Teeth engulfing our sorrows
like we have wings.
Fourteen of us
living on the stage.
With our passion for music
curling around our chins
and stretching to our ears,
we smile.
We’re not going to be finished
as long as we carry
the note.


In Badgerdog’s many summer writing camps, each classroom has no more than 15 campers. A typical day might start with a free-writing exercise with sharing time afterward. Kids have structured lessons related to some aspect of fiction or poetry, followed by some time to stretch and relax and have a snack. Reading together and playing language games usually rounds out the day.

Even if campers start out as reluctant writers, Cecily says the welcoming, fun, and supportive environment inspires them. “The lessons are less about ‘You will like poetry!’ and more about asking what patterns they notice or why they think the writer decided to repeat herself. We approach learning more as an investigation, an inquiry, rather than a top-down hand-off of knowledge.”

Badgerdog’s philosophy is to offer kids options, not rules. “We show them how writers break rules effectively, and encourage them to take risks. We celebrate weirdness and new ideas, and take the pressure off the writing process,” she explains. “This go-for-it approach helps reluctant writers discover they have talent and interesting ideas and builds their confidence.”

Cecily also explains why Badgerdog emphasizes reading aloud as a way of sharing what the students have created. “Writing becomes immediately more meaningful when it’s read and enjoyed by someone else. It becomes even more real, it lives outside the page it’s written on and inside the imagination of another human being. Reading your own work aloud helps you hear yourself. It’s validating. You take ownership of something you created and then people tell you what it meant to them. It’s about connection and increasing the power of your work. What if Steve Jobs designed the iPhone and then put the plans in a box at the bottom of his closet? What if Prince played all of his songs alone his bedroom?”

I asked both Cecily and Ali if they have any writing tips for parents or kids who aren’t able to attend a camp. Cecily said, “Do anything that interests you enough to keep you writing, whether it’s journaling, writing down all the stuff your brother says, creating an imaginary place where you’re the boss of everything. Like any other skill, practice counts. Playing what if can be another helpful approach. Write for awhile about some absurd scenario. What if toasters spit out pizzas? What if traffic lights started flashing purple? What if your dog was actually helpful? Trying to imagine something unreal forces you to think of details, which is what makes writing powerful for the reader.”

Ali believes in always starting slow. It’s daunting for anyone to sit down in front of a blank page and try to conjure a story, so ABC mentors begin by building relationships and doing world-building and character-building exercises. Parents and their kids can do that too. “We do a lot of work with the building blocks of writing, and that’s more fun than just drafting a story from scratch. At one school students start by making maps and globes about the  worlds they will write about, and the next step is thinking about their characters and all their quirks.”

If you’re ready to stop reading about writing and sign up to WRITE, check out the programs, and consider donating to help them keep thriving.


Shelley Sperry

 

A conversation with Dr. Karen Rayne about transgender students and SB6

Of the Texas respondents, 73 percent of transgender schoolchildren said they’d experienced mistreatment because of their gender identity, with nearly half saying they’d been physically attacked and 14 percent leaving a school because of how they were treated.

Another 14 percent of those surveyed said a professional—like a psychologist or religious adviser—had tried to stop them from being transgender, and 41 percent said they experienced “serious psychological distress” sometime in the month before they took the survey.

Lauren McGaughy, “Transgender Texans skip the bathroom to avoid violence, new survey says,” Dallas News, January 26, 2017

 

With all the controversy heating up in the Capitol over SB6, and growing concern over the problems faced by transgender kids in Texas schools, I decided to talk with Dr. Karen Rayne, a local educator and author with expertise in gender and sexuality issues, particularly related to teenagers. Below is some background on the issue, followed by an edited account of our conversation.

Many thanks to Dr. Rayne for her time and thoughts. Alt Ed Austin highly recommends her UnHushed, “Sex Ed Done Right,” classes and her book, Breaking the Hush Factor.

The debate over SB6, the Texas legislature’s so-called “bathroom bill,” is one that continues to dominate political media, but more important, it is one with sweeping consequences for students across the state. If approved, the bill would prohibit trans people from using bathrooms and locker rooms matching their identities in schools and other public buildings. The law also allows Texas businesses to ignore local ordinances that protect trans citizens’ rights to choose facilities in keeping with their identities.

Nearly 150,000 American teenagers (1 in every 137) would identify as transgender according to a new report from UCLA’s Williams Institute, cited in a recent, enlightening New York Times article by Niraj Chokshi.

Last week the White House weighed in on the controversy, declaring that the federal government would no longer support a stance by the Obama administration that defended transgender students’ rights under 1972’s Title IX, which bars discrimination based on sex for schools that receive federal funds. The decision to stop supporting the Title IX argument affects not only states and localities that want to pass laws requiring that students behave according to the gender listed on their birth certificates, but it also affects an upcoming Supreme Court case originating in Gloucester County, Virginia, in which Gavin Grimm was barred from using the boys’ bathroom at his school.

Last week national attention again focused on transgender rights in Texas. Trinity High School junior Mack Beggs, the 17-year-old boy who competed in and won the girls’ state wrestling championship, was in the news because he had to compete under the gender listed on his birth certificate.
 

I asked Dr. Rayne to tell me a little about how she sees kids and schools reacting right now to the SB6 issue in Texas.

The reaction of a lot of kids, including my teenage daughter, is “Why should anyone care?” The interest in where someone chooses to go to the restroom is oddly invasive, putting the government in someone else’s personal space. It’s strange that we’re in a place where Republicans are no longer the party of small government in many areas, including this one.

The best-case scenario for schools in the future is probably that transgender kids’ classmates will not care at all and will not comprehend that this was ever a serious controversy. I think in the long run that’s where we’re headed, but we’re not there yet.

In general, how do schools and students cope with the process of gender transitioning?

A number of schools are good at supporting students—both public and private schools. The problem with public schools is that they are so large, with very diverse communities. So, in a large community of students and educators, there will always be some people who are not supportive. I do find that in some smaller schools you have a whole community that is supportive of trans kids.

Austin ISD has an array of LGBTQ resources for students and parents, and hosts its own Pride Week in October. Area alternative schools that specifically welcome LGBTQ kids and faculty include, but are not limited to, KọSchool, Skybridge Academy, Griffin School, Integrity Academy, and Radicle Roots Community Schoolhouse.

My experience is that younger kids—elementary school age—are still strongly under their parents’ influence, so if parents are willing and strong advocates, the kids follow their lead and become strong advocates for themselves. Parents can talk with school administrators and are often able to make transitions easier. And of course, transitioning isn’t quite as salient for a six- or seven-year-old, and most other kids that age are fine with it because fewer judgments are made in that pre-adolescent stage.

The older kids are when they transition, the tougher the social, cultural, and biological structures are. The stresses and strains that play out in social lives at school are difficult for all teenagers, and they are less under their parents’ protective wings, so there’s just less that parents can do, even if they want to be supportive.

I think we have to remember that teens have a rough time navigating identity issues, even without the added complication of gender transition. There are issues with self-esteem and self-compassion, and figuring out who you are in relation to the rest of the world. For all teens it’s a socially and politically charged time, and for transgender teens the stresses are multiplied.

Out Youth is a Central Texas organization serving LGBTQ young people with a variety of programs. Right now, they are sponsoring a campaign called #TakeMyHandTexas, and giving away free buttons to symbolize support for transgender rights, explaining: “When you wear a #TakeMyHandTexas button, you’re showing that not only are you an ally to this community, but you’ll also gladly accompany someone to any gender-specific space they feel uncomfortable going to alone, including the bathroom.” 


How can allies talk with legislators, friends, and family about issues of civil rights, privacy, and fairness when it comes to the transgender community?

 It really depends on whom you’re talking to. Some people are lacking good information and quite open to incorporating new ideas when they’re presented. So in that case, statistics and examples you might find in news coverage are helpful. I think one of the best books on the subject is Sam Killermann’s A Guide to Gender: The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook, which is coming out in a new edition on March 8.

We can talk about the real-world impact of SB6 on vulnerable students, and we can talk about the fact that if protecting people against sexual predators in private spaces like restrooms is the goal, those laws are already on the books. If you think someone is open to new information, then have some solid facts available.

A 2015 Media Matters report found that in 17 school districts with a total of 600,000 students, protections for trans people resulted in no problems with harassment in bathrooms or locker rooms as a result of the protections.

I think one of the biggest problems this kind of legislation introduces is that it encourages and gives license to ordinary people to police others’ behavior.

One real-world impact that people may not be aware of is how laws like the one proposed in Texas stratify gender-nonconforming communities into those who “pass” in the larger community and those who do not. So, for example, if you have undergone hormone treatments or had surgery as part of your transition and you look very feminine, you will be much less likely to be questioned or attacked for using the women’s restroom, and more likely to be questioned or attacked for using the men’s. Transgender women who still look more masculine and cis-gender women who happen to look and dress in a more traditionally masculine way face questions and attacks no matter where they go.

Two advocacy and support organizations with great collections of resources for students, families, and schools are Trans Youth Equality Foundation and Gender Spectrum.

And what about talking with people who don’t seem as eager to receive new information, facts, and statistics?

There are people who have a perspective on gender that is narrow and specific, so for them the idea of a transgender person is an emotional and cultural assault. I think it’s usually not about religious doctrines—I’ve found many religious communities that are strong supporters of transgender people. A lot of religious people hear and feel salience in the notion that “God made me a girl, but then my body did not follow instructions.” Often religious communities support people trying to align themselves physically with what they feel God intended for them.

So, for those who feel assaulted by the idea of transgender people, I think it’s more about inherited cultural values and expectations than religion. We often grow up tied to our culture’s gender structures, without much evidence as to why. In that case, it’s hard to break through unless something happens that makes them question those values and structures.

Do you have any predictions on what we’ll see in terms of both the politics of SB6 and the culture as relates to transgender students?

I would never underestimate how conservative the legislature is, so I would really be stunned if the bill doesn’t pass. But that said, the way our school districts run is somewhat independently, so the implementation might vary a lot.

It’s an interesting time to be alive and looking at these issues. And overall, I think we are coming into a time of more openness. I see us swinging toward openness and acceptance among young people toward each other and toward diversity in terms of gender and sexuality. The current political climate is about reacting to that swing toward openness, and we may lose some footing for a while, but in the long run, openness and compassion and diversity will overcome.
 

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Finally,  for some good laughs with a Texas-style political edge, don't miss this short web ad by Oscar-nominated Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater!


Shelley Sperry