Alt Ed “on the air”

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We often tell our kids that it’s important to try new and scary things, from calculus and Beowulf to roller skating and brussels sprouts. A few weeks ago, I tried something new and scary, and the result was a truly delightful experience that you can actually hear for yourself now. I was honored to be a guest on one of my favorite education-related podcasts, Ba Luvmour’s Meetings with Remarkable Educators.

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I already knew and respected Ba as a colleague, and he immediately put me at ease, as he does with every guest. His warm manner and deep engagement with all things related to alternative education are on full display in the interview. We talked about the development of Alt Ed Austin and about some of the big questions that parents and students face today—and ways to help answer them. I even had a chance to mention a book I’m working on called the Alt Ed Explainer. We also discussed ICARE, the exciting new alternative school accreditation project that my partners at Enlight Ignite and I have the honor of collaborating on with Ba and his work and life partner, Josette Luvmour, at Luvmour Consulting.

If you listen to the show, please drop me a line via email (teri@altedaustin.com) or Facebook (facebook.com/altedaustin) and let me know what you thought. You can find this episode and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you prefer to listen. Please also consider supporting! Meetings with Remarkable Educators with a small donation via Patreon.

Many thanks to Ba for the chance to talk about what I love with a new audience.

Puppetry with objects unlocks the imagination and opens the mind

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Guest contributor Caroline Reck is the founder and artistic director of the award-winning
Glass Half Full Theatre, which has created some of the most creative, educational, and emotionally moving theater productions I’ve experienced in Austin (or anywhere). I can’t wait to see their latest work, Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story, and you’ll understand why whey you read Caroline’s inspiring post below.


A few weeks ago, my young daughter and I were lying on my bed, reading a story. I wanted her to nap. She wanted to talk to me about the patches in our ceiling plaster, where a leak in the roof had caused some discoloration and peeling sections. I always avoided looking at those patches, a reminder that despite having our roof repaired, I had yet to chip away the plaster and repaint the ceiling. But Clementine saw something else. Unaware of my angst about those patches, she told me, “Mama, I love your ceiling! It’s so beautiful. There’s a mama fish, and a baby fish, and that one’s a bear. They’re taking care of each other, in case the bear isn’t a friendly bear . . . oh, no, it’s OK . . . the bear is smiling. . . .”

I was reminded, once again, of how important imagination is in creating a sense of positivity, of possibility, of aspirational thought. I shouldn’t have to be reminded. I’m the founder and artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre, an Austin company, where my job is dreaming up ways to help audiences look at life in imaginative and optimistic ways, through puppetry and other live theater forms.

But it is so easy to let the everyday drudgery pull you down, make you forget your natural imaginative urges, and I see it happening to kids at younger and younger ages. Many factors contribute to children using their imaginations less often: screen time supplying ready-made images and predictable stories, exhaustion from long hours at school and aftercare, overscheduling of overly structured activities. As an educator, artist, and mama, I’m always looking for ways to promote imagination in children’s lives, and I particularly like to do bilingual work, so it’s accessible to kids whether English or Spanish is the language they are most confident in.

I wrote a play that was originally produced in 2015 at ZACH Theatre, in collaboration with Teatro Vivo, and is currently touring to schools in the Greater Austin area. It’s called Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story and features the character of Belinda, a young girl banished by her uncaring stepfamily to the basement. Undeterred, Belinda befriends the objects around her, inventing characters with her unbridled imagination.

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The show opens with Belinda giving voice(s) and movement to a two-headed desk lamp. Kids in the audience lean in. They’ve never seen this before. They are intrigued. They want to figure out what’s happening. Sometimes audiences of children will talk aloud at this point: “What’s she doing? How is she doing that?” but they quickly settle into a fascinated silence as the lamp characters (Gustavo and Ernesto) set up the backstory.

Belinda is stuck in the basement, preparing for a party that’s happening upstairs later on. She begins to recount the story of Cinderella, using a napkin with a napkin ring for Cinderella, an upside-down teapot for the Fairy Godmother, and a set of kitchen funnels for the stepfamily. She (and we) notice the parallels between the story of Cenicienta and Belinda’s own life, but it takes the duration of the show, and the unexpected opportunity to meet her hero, real-life poet Gary Soto, who’s upstairs at the party, for Belinda to gain the confidence to recognize her own self-worth in the world outside her imagination.

We’ve been touring this show to Austin-area campuses for the past year. I sit near the audience in the auditorium to run the sound cues, so I get to experience their youthful reaction to unbridled imagination being validated onstage. Their eyes get brighter. Their focus is intense, different from the glazed look children get when they are watching digital content. They are watching and listening, piecing together the story. Teachers and parents report to me that after the show, their kids start making up stories using brooms and straws and other objects they find around them. Kids who don’t speak Spanish experience the unique opportunity to follow along with the parts that are in Spanish, without being left out, because the action provides the links to understand what’s happening onstage. Tapping into their imaginations improves their ability to approach ideas with an open mind.


I still haven’t fixed the ceiling in my bedroom, but I also don’t avoid looking at it anymore. After all, my daughter finds it beautiful. She peers into the constellation of peeling drywall and sees a family of fish taking care of one another. I see the blooming artistry in her eyes, and I can’t remember why I disliked those patches in the first place.

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Cenicienta: A Bilingual Cinderella Story, by Caroline Reck and Rupert Reyes, is being presented at the Sin Fronteras Festival at UT Austin January 23–24, 2019, and is currently available to tour to schools in the greater Austin area. For information on the Sin Fronteras festival, visit here. For information on bringing Cenicienta to your school, please visit here.


Caroline Reck

Walk and talk with your family in the free Marathon Kids summer challenge!

Heidi Gollub is familiar to many Alt Ed Austin readers as the founder and former editor-in-chief of Free Fun in Austin, the award-winning family website. Now Heidi has joined the Marathon Kids team, and she stopped by the blog to let us know about a cool summer program for building both connection and physical fitness with your kids.
 

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Hey, summer is a great time to connect with your kids! The days are longer, shadows shorter, and all of you have a chance to decompress from school and take a break. It’s the perfect opportunity to be with your family in new environments and in unique ways that you haven’t explored during the school year.

One way to get your kids talking is through exercise, and this summer Marathon Kids is helping families facilitate that through their FREE summer Walk and Talk challenge.

In schools all over the country, teachers are using social-emotional learning (SEL) tools to help raise kinder, more empathetic, more positive kids with fewer instances of depression and stress. SEL can improve achievement, and it also increases positive behaviors such as kindness, sharing, and empathy and improves attitudes toward school.

Marathon Kids Walk and Talk program, which is partnering with the TODAY Parenting team to reach more families, was created with that SEL connection in mind. The program is absolutely FREE and will help keep your kids active and engaged with you all summer!
 

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When parents register online, they’ll receive a link to two resources:

  • a set of conversation topics created by family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa (each topic—26 in all—matches up with a mile of walking or running)
  • a special mileage log to track your progress

After 26(.2) miles, parent and child will have completed the equivalent of a full marathon and will have gotten to know each other a little better in the process.

The topics cover a broad range, from health, education, and friendship up through knock-knock jokes and dreams of travel. Dr. Gilboa wrote starter questions for each topic, which are appropriate for the youngest child all the way into the college years.

All are welcome to register for free here: MarathonKids.org/WalkandTalk


Heidi Gollub

Media Monday: Celebrating Cinco de Mayo with kids

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The anniversary of May 5, 1862, when outnumbered Mexican soldiers defeated French invaders in Puebla, Mexico, is observed with much more hoopla in the United States than in Mexico. But sometimes it’s tough to find ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo that don’t revolve around half-price drinks at local restaurants and bars or chihuahua races for charity.

For kids, who certainly sense the festivities in the air around this time of year, it’s a great excuse to explore local Mexican culture in a variety of ways. Here are some great options in the Austin area:

The Mexic-Arte Museum has some exhibits any kid with an interest in the visual arts will enjoy. Right now they’re featuring colorful prints focused on the desert Southwest and a wide range of photos and videos about Latinx and Latin American history. You can go back later this spring when they will also provide a space for showcasing art by Austin teens. The museum has some downloadable booklets that can be jumping-off points to inspire creativity and curiosity. The booklets include a guide to how prints are made for younger kids and a detailed introduction to Mexican popular art and to the work of San Antonio’s clay tile artists for older kids.

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At the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, an outdoor space features Exoskeleton, a cool sculpture that also “generates, stores, and processes energy through its solar panels.” The artist, Victor Pérez-Rul, is from Mexico City. His work should spark some excitement for kids whose interests also cross the boundaries of science, art, and engineering.

And on the eve of Cinco de Mayo, an evening of Mexican Folklórico dance is happening at Austin High School! At the Gran Show de Primavera "Alegría" families will be able to see traditional dances from more than a dozen regions of Mexico accompanied by teen mariachi musicians. What a treat!


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

 

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
 

Autism and the art of fierce love

As guest blogger today, we welcome Dr. Laurence Becker, an educator and advocate for the autistic community and creative savants, who is also an award-winning film director and producer based in Austin. Dr. Becker first tackled the subject of autism and artistry 35 years ago in his film Eyes Wide Open, about artistic savant Richard Wawro. His new film, Fierce Love and Art, premieres on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, at 7pm at the Performing Arts Center of Austin ISD. You can learn more and support the film via the website. You can also see art related to the film from February 25 to April 8 at Hyde Park Bar & Grill.
 

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To journey and to be transformed by the journey is to be a pilgrim.
—Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening


My real mission with Fierce Love and Art is to open the eyes of the world. We need to realize that all of us are related, and we can all make the world a better place. In the film we meet individuals with autism and other disabilities who have been able to transform their own lives and contribute to their communities through art, music, and words as a result of powerful support and love from parents and grandparents.

The film explores the lives of seven savant visual artists, a savant musician, and an author and minister who are living extraordinary lives today because their families used art as a means of connection, bringing them home from solitary confinement on “Autism Island.”

Some of the incredible people we meet and spend time with in the film include savant musician Tony De Blois, who plays 23 musical instruments and sings in 11 languages. Tony is a Berklee College of Music graduate who plays in a jazz band and composes original music at his home in Boston.

Another great story I’m delighted to share is about Houston native Grant Manier, whose autism and obsessive repetitive behavior led him to repeatedly tear paper. With encouragement from his mother, Grant soon began collecting and recycling bits of paper, creating amazing collages, which he calls “coolages.” The artworks are a form of therapy for Grant but also a contribution to the eco-art movement, as he recycles materials and helps us all look at them in new ways. Grant now also participates in educational outreach to share his vibrant, colorful art and point of view with others. His slogan is “Different is More.”

Sadly, one of the young people we had the honor to work with for the film passed away in 2016 as a result of an injury connected to her epilepsy. Kimberly Dixon was a warm and lively spirit who wrote poetry and painted as a way of connecting with her family and community, despite being nonverbal in a verbal world.

I’m eager to have everyone join us in May to see these amazing stories. To me they’re a real testament to what happens in the lives of children with autism when their families fiercely take charge of their development—and also a testament to the power of art in all our lives.

Laurence Becker, PhD