Middle school programming: How AHB Community School’s progressive model keeps middle years students engaged in the learning process

I asked AHB Community School Executive Director Sasha Cesare to explain the unique school’s approach to middle school education. In response, she submitted this guest post, written collaboratively by staff and other community members, including insights and images gathered from AHB teachers and real, live students.


What can middle school feel like? What should middle school feel like? Sadly, in our culture, it is often the accepted default that tweens and teenagers are “difficult,” and middle school is just basically a rotten time. “Everybody gets through it. You will too,” is often the response of even the most caring and connected parents.

But what if you don’t accept that? What if you expect something more for your child in their middle years? What if you continue to expect your child to be enthusiastic about and dedicated to school, and you expect school to continue to engage, nurture, and challenge your child?

What would that look like?

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“Every morning I am happy to come to school and have fun with my best friends!”
“Always fun, not boring. Always, just fun.”

These quotes are the words of middle school students at AHB Community School, a progressive K–8 school in Central Austin that has been providing a creative and collaborative educational alternative for Austin families since 2004. In those 15 years, we have learned a few things about how to keep middle school students involved, challenged, and happy, while preparing them for the target high schools of their choice. It is not the only good model for educating young adolescents, but it’s a model worthy of study.

The AHB Community School Middle Years Program (MYP) is a four-day-per-week (with optional fifth day) program designed for students aged 11 to 14, working together in what is known internally as the “Delta” class. The MYP, built on the best of international and national standards, emphasizes intellectual challenges, interdisciplinary understandings of the world around them, and a sense of belonging and service to one’s community.

Specifically, the AHB Middle Years Program is built around five key tenets:

  1. Inquiry-based, interdisciplinary projects

  2. A student-centered curriculum

  3. A developmentally appropriate social-emotional learning (SEL) environment

  4. A community-minded, service-oriented focus

  5. Strong academics

What does that look like in the classroom?

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Here’s a week in the life, as described by the MYP teachers:

Currently, the MYP students are studying world geography as their theme, and therefore, along with map work, we have math, reading, and writing work that all relates to our world studies. Each week, students have the opportunity to explore the part of the world on which we are focused through cooking, art, theater, poetry/literature, music, architecture, politics, and/or wildlife. We are learning about the building of the Panama Canal, the endangerment of the Amazon rainforest, and mining of precious metals in Africa by researching, presenting to, and teaching one another in small groups.

In math we did some algebraic arithmetic in the African language of Hausa, which is spoken by 40–50 million people. Students had to decipher what value each Hausa word meant in numerous equations using substitution. We then got into small groups and tackled a major algebraic and logic problem where we had to create a formula for how many fields were required to feed a community in Africa when concrete numbers were not known. The overall goals were to be able to manipulate variables even when the values are not known and be able to work with them in terms of each other. Each group did an amazing job and made huge conceptual headway in terms of learning how to think algebraically.

Later, we switched gears and did a Lorax Stock Market Game project that included reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, coming up with potential rules for the Once-ler to have created a sustainable business and environment, taking the Once-ler to trial and acting out the trial complete with judges, attorneys, jury, foreman, a bailiff, the Lorax, and the Once-ler. We also discussed the concept of environmentally responsible investing and how the students could diversify their own Stock Market Game portfolios to be more diversified, including incorporating more “green” organizations into their teams’ stock holdings.

In Language Arts we are learning how to write descriptive settings that use effective figurative language and how to develop an integral setting as a “character” that drives the characterization, plot, and mood of a fictional story. We are researching real-world geographic locations as inspiration for settings and creating different types of maps to illustrate settings for these original narratives.

Throughout each week, our students apply the concepts of theme to the learning objectives and are able to exercise significant choice in their projects.

—submitted by Kirsten Coleman & Alice Elder, the MYP co-teachers
Together, they have over 15 years of experience teaching at AHB Community School.

What do the AHB middle school students have to say about this model?

About the inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary projects:

“AHB has a great way of teaching kids about how to tackle problems.” 

“The Delta teachers make understanding tough subjects a more community-centered and in-depth experience by including captivating projects into the curriculum.”

“AHB makes learning as fun as can be by doing project-based learning, which is better than sitting around doing worksheets.”

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About the student-centered curriculum:

“Students are engaged because we have choices, responsibilities.”

“The teachers will teach you according to your intellectual level, not your age/grade.”

“The students get to have a major say in upcoming projects.”

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About the developmentally appropriate SEL environment:

“We do a lot of group projects that help you interact with your peers and get better relationships with them.” 

“There is both freedom and structure.”

“We have daily recess time and get to be outside.”

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About the community-minded, service-oriented focus:

“We do Hope Food Pantry every month.”

“We do projects that are aimed at helping our community.”

“We did science fair projects that were about solving world-wide problems.”

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About the academics:

“AHB is academically flexible but also pushes the students to the point of being ready for high school.”

“AHB is very good at preparing children for high school. It meets children at their level and tries to teach them in the best way possible for that kid. I have been here seven years and I have never experienced feeling unprepared for a certain task or assignment.”

“Some [students] are better at math, some at language arts, and we really accommodate that.”

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A Different Paradigm for the Middle Years

Every stage of childhood and the coinciding parenting phase has unique challenges, but the AHB Middle Years Program challenges the assumption that school bores “big kids.” We are convinced, and see daily evidence in our classrooms, that 12- and 13-year-olds can be just as smiling, curious, and energetic as our youngest learners. They simply need a classroom and teachers that grow with them, taking on the delicate dance of both nurturing and challenging the students as needed.

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Learning (and loving) math through games

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Dr. Mandy Menzer is a psychologist in private practice in South Austin. In addition, she is currently the Math Pentathlon coordinator at AHB Community School. Dr. Menzer has been involved in the Math Pentathlon program as a coach, game monitor, and parent for nine years. We’re excited to welcome Dr. Menzer to the blog today as a guest contributor. If you have any questions about Math Pentathlon or participating in the AHB Math Pentathlon program (your kid does not have to be enrolled full-time at AHB), you can contact her at mandy@drmenzer.com.
 

Why do smart people enjoy saying that they are bad at math?
Few people would consider proudly announcing that they are bad at writing or reading.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor


It is a common refrain for adults in our society to talk about how math is boring or complicated when it comes time to divide up a check or calculate the compound interest on our mortgage, for example. Is it any surprise that kids from an early age pick up on math as something to be avoided at all costs? As parents, we struggle with how to help our kids get through the never-ending grind of multiplication tables and percentages before moving on to the mysteries of Algebra and other advanced-level math, where we really start to feel out of our league.

And yet, there is an activity that kids actually enjoy doing that integrates all different types of mathematical and quantitative reasoning. GAMES!  Virtually any game that you can think of incorporates some type of mathematical concept that kids already understand at a practical level and that a sneaky parent or educator can further build on. Monopoly? Keeping track of the money in your hand and adding and subtracting to your stash. In fact, any game involving dice (or cards, for that matter) can lead to discussions around probability, even in terms of something as simple as which properties you should buy (the answer is anything within 7 spaces of a frequent landing spot such as Go or Jail).

Have a kid who is into sports? Chances are that they know a lot of numbers and statistics around their favorite player or team, which they may be more than happy to spend time digging into. Even a “word” game like Scrabble contains a lot of math, in terms of Which letters give me the most points? and How can I stick those letters on some big multipliers?

And lest we forget, video games can also integrate math skills, such as visual-spatial reasoning, problem solving, pattern recognition, and strategic thinking. I know that nothing else in life has challenged my brain as much as some of the puzzles in the Legend of Zelda videogame series.

As a psychologist and mom to two boys, as well as a huge math dork myself, I have long believed that games can be the gateway drug to achievement in math. Certainly, kids who enjoy mathematical activities are more likely to spend time practicing it (or at least make the nightly math homework less of a battle), and there seems to be data to back this up. “A new study led by Johns Hopkins University psychologists shows Bedtime Math’s Crazy 8 club significantly reduces children’s feelings of math anxiety after eight weeks of participation in the club. The effect was more pronounced among younger kids in kindergarten through second grade club.”

So how can I get started?

  1. Figure out what kinds of games your kids are into, and play with them! Depending on the age of your kid, sneak some extra thought questions in here and there (“Hmmm, is it worth selling off a cheaper Monopoly property here to build a third house on this property over there?”) or simply play dumb (“I’m not sure if I have enough money to build all three of these things . . .”). Engage them in a conversation as to whether LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan and make them back it up with stats and data.
  2. Make everyday activities into math games. In my carpool, we routinely guess what time we will arrive at school. We have discovered that it generally takes about 11 minutes from Lady Bird Lake to get to school, so if they want to claim the “11-minute guess,” they have to do the math to figure out what time it will be 11 minutes from now. Older kids may really get incentivized by the whole concept of compound interest if you make it worth their while (“If you’ll save some of your allowance, I’ll give you 10% interest, compounded weekly.”) After all, who doesn’t like free money?
  3. Find games and activities that have math components that YOU enjoy, and model that for them. Candy Crush? Pattern recognition. Gardening or building projects require a lot of geometry and measurement. You may not need to add anything new; simply verbalize and acknowledge the mathematical elements in what you are already enjoying and let your kid see your enjoyment.

In addition, there are numerous games, apps, and activities that are specifically geared toward “math fun.” Some of my favorites include:

If you are interested in a way to get some consistent and fun math time in this school year, you can consider joining the Math Pentathlon program, which is offered by many local schools. If your school does not offer a program, feel free to join ours, which starts up September 12. We have a few slots available for kids who are in Kindergarten through 3rd grade. My family has participated 10 times with two wildly different children, and it’s always been a wonderful experience for us. Contact me, Dr. Mandy Menzer, at mmh20cornell@yahoo.com with any questions.


Dr. Mandy Menzer

Home-brewed education at AHB

Nicole Lessin is an Austin-based writer whose work has appeared in the San Antonio Express-News, Edible Austin, and the Hundreds of Heads Survival Guides. She has recently returned from a two-year adventure living in Denmark with her husband and two daughters, both of whom are thriving at AHB Community School. We invited Nicole to the blog to write about the school and its unusual fundraising and community-building tradition.
 

For the past eight years, Austin Home Base Community School (AHB), a small, progressive elementary and middle school in Hyde Park, has been hosting the Austin Home Brew Festival, an annual fundraiser that celebrates Central Texas’s finest home-brewed beers, meads, ciders, and kombuchas.

Though the brewfest began as a small backyard gathering of parents swapping their homebrews and tossing cash into the kitty, the event has in more recent years emerged as a player in the city’s iconic festival landscape, offering participants a unique, DIY Austin experience.

“People say the beers at our festival taste professional, but they are not mass marketed,” says AHB parent and longtime festival volunteer Wendy Salome. “They are unique and individual and they exist in that moment.”

Indeed, this year’s uncommon flavors—all preselected by a panel of certified beer judges and not otherwise available for sale in any stores—will include Sweet Coffee Stout, Summer Cider, and some great traditionals like Helles Lager.
 


While small-batch beer and progressive education may seem at first glance to be unlikely bedfellows, festival organizers say the slow-food spirit of home brewing is a perfect match for AHB’s creative and collaborative approach to education.

“We talk about AHB a lot as a hybrid, taking the best of different things and creating something even better out of it, and I think that’s what homebrewers do as well,” Salome says. “It’s kind of taking the things that you like about your different beers and making the beer that works best for you. That’s what families and administration have done all along at AHB.”

To be sure, in an era of increasingly standardized education, testing, and grades, the emphasis at AHB is on authentic, project-based learning, critical thinking, and community participation. Instead of standard grade levels, kids work in mixed-age classrooms. And instead of mandatory attendance five days a week, the students’ school week ranges from three to five days—depending on age and interests. 
 


“When I first discovered the school and came into the classrooms, the thing that hit me the most was the confidence and the importance of the narrative voice of the child to be heard, to be understood, to be supported, and that follows along in everything we do in our integrated curriculum,” says AHB Director Mary Williams. “The teachers set the agenda, but then it’s up to the children to help drive the curriculum and to complete the process and the products and the projects.”

Parents say the result is a unique blend of creative freedom with rigorous academics, often at the level of or even exceeding international standards.

“We wanted to find a place where kids could grow and be free and be creative, but also have structure, so we knew that there was accountability for their learning,” says festival volunteer and AHB parent Valerie Sand. “I wanted someone who knew what they were doing to say, this is what’s going to happen now. Let’s make it fun. Let’s give you ownership of it. And I really believe in that, and that makes it easy to get involved.”
 


The 8th Annual Austin Home Brew Festival will be held from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Friday, November 4, 2016, at Saengerrunde Hall. For more information, go to facebook.com/AustinHomebrewFestival or ahbfestival.org.
 

Nicole Lessin

 

Movers and shakers

Austin’s alt ed community has seen lots of movin’ and shakin’ this summer. Here’s a roundup, in no particular order, of some changes you should know about as you're looking for schooling options for your kiddos.

A new school serving ages 3 to 103 is forming in Central Austin, just south of the river: Integrity Academy at Casa de Luz, Center for Integral Studies. Led by executive director Ali Ronder, formerly of AHB Community School, and founder Eduardo “Wayo” Longoria, the school is currently enrolling (and hiring!) for the 2014–2015 school year. You can help shape the school’s future or just enjoy a stimulating discussion about how humans learn by attending one of Integrity’s weekly salons.

Taking over the helm at AHB is M. Scott Tatum, who brings a wealth of experience in arts education, administration, and integration. Meet Scott and learn what makes this part-time elementary school in Hyde Park special by watching its new series of short videos.

Bronze Doors Academy has a new campus and a new name. According to director and chief motivator Ariel Dochstader Miller, Skybridge Academy will continue the same liberal arts college–like program for junior high and high school students for which Bronze Doors was known, but with some additional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) opportunities made possible by its new location at the Stunt Ranch in Southwest Austin. As always, both full-time and à la carte options are available.

Accompanying Skybridge in the move to Oak Hill is its elementary school partner, the Soleil School. Cofounder and head of school Carly Borders says the new location on the Stunt Ranch will give her young students access to a ropes course, a pool, and more than 20 acres of beautiful land to explore.

Another unique school on the move this summer is Acton Academy. Construction on its permanent home on Alexander Avenue in East Austin is nearly complete. Laura Sandefer, Acton’s cofounder and head of school, invites you to check it out at the open house on October 24; meanwhile, take a peek at this architect’s rendering. It looks plenty big to house the academy’s current elementary and middle school students as well as the high school program slated to open in 2016.

The Olive Tree Learning Center, a Reggio Emilia–inspired preschool, recently opened its second campus, at 6609 Manchaca Road, near Garrison Park. Like the original Bouldin Creek campus, the new one is currently enrolling children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. Director Michelle Mattalino says she is “very proud of the staff at both locations” and excited to fill the beautiful campuses with happy children.

Mariposa Montessori is also opening a second campus in South Austin. It will house this American Montessori Society full-member school’s new Lower Elementary program. Head of School Whitney Falcon recently reported that there were a few spots open for fall enrollment.

Progress School is expanding this fall to serve kindergarten through 5th grade. Located in Hyde Park, Progress offers “authentic education for natural learners,” with full- and part-time options as well as an after-school program. More exciting news from director Jennifer Hobbs: “We're getting chickens!”

Likewise, the Inside Outside School has expanded to serve kindergarten through 6th grade this fall, says executive director Deborah Hale. Its current enrollment of 24 will make up three classes—primary, intermediate, and upper elementary—on the school’s seven wooded acres in Pflugerville.

9th Street Schoolhouse is growing, too. The East Side home-based school will serve ages 5 through 9 this fall, with 8 students currently enrolled. 9th Street now has two mentors: founder Caitlin Macklin and Laura Ruiz.

Finally, the Whole Life Learning Center is rolling out a new nature-based one-day program called Mother Earth Mondays, which fosters a connection with the earth through gardening, wilderness survival skills, arts and crafts, games, and other fun activities with mentors Braden Delonay, Caroline Riley Carberry, and Leesalyn Koehler. In addition, director and founder Michael Carberry says he is excited to introduce the newest mentors for the Teen Mentorship Program, Kizzie, Etienne, and Adam, whose bios will soon be posted on the WLLC website alongside those of the school’s veteran staff.

Any questions or comments for these movers and shakers? Feel free to leave them below.

Teri

Open houses and open doors

On the heels of last weekend’s wildly successful Education Transformation School Fair, many participating schools and other alt ed programs are following up with open houses, tours, and special events for this week. In fact, the entire month of March is positively bursting with opportunities to get to know the people and places of Austin’s alt ed community—and find the right fit for your kid. Check our calendar for all the details. Here’s a preview:

On Saturday, March 2, visit The Natural Child Learning Community, a Montessori-inspired, nature-oriented preschool in the heart of Georgetown. The program provides a part-time, holistic learning environment for children between the ages of 2-1/2 and 5.

The next day, Sunday, March 3, head over to the 9th Street Schoolhouse in near East Austin to meet Caitlin and Laura, who place radical faith in children and, following the Free School model, offer guidance and experiences to develop lifelong learners. They have one immediate opening for a girl and are enrolling boys and girls age 5–12 for the fall.

Monday, March 4, is a great day to check out two South Austin alternative schools. The Whole Life Learning Center, part of the Self-Design network, is a two-acre school where kids age 5 and up work with mentors to develop holistic, individualized learning plans, honoring each learner’s physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development. The Austin EcoSchool is offering a family tour of its "Edible Campus," where you’ll see students’ work, meet the staff, and learn about the school’s unique programs, including Game of Village. It is currently enrolling for ages 5–14.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 5, the Clearview Sudbury School will host a free talk and Q&A with scholar and author Peter Gray (who is also speaking in town this week at the SXSWedu conference). Dr. Gray, a research professor at Boston College who blogs regularly at Psychology Today, is a leading authority on the role of free play in children’s development; his new book, Free to Learn, will be officially released the same day. Clearview staff, students, and parents will be on hand to answer questions about this democratic K–12 school in Central Austin.

Friday, March 8, is your next chance to visit the Inside Outside School. Let them know to expect you, and you'll get the full tour of this community-based, intentionally small learning community situated on more than seven wooded acres in Pflugerville. “Teaching for Human Greatness” is their creed, and they’re now enrolling kindergarten through 5th grade.

And now for something completely different: On Wednesday, March 13, the Growin' Together Hands-on Afterschool Program will host a SXSW Youth Showcase, featuring some of the hottest bands in the 18-and-below universe. It’s free for all ages (donations accepted) and will rock the Austin EcoSchool campus.

After spring break, on Wednesday, March 20, join the parent tour of AHB Community School, a creative and collaborative educational alternative that seeks to cultivate authentic, balanced critical thinkers who are prepared for a life of learning and community engagement. AHB serves ages 5–12 in Central Austin. Be sure to give them a heads-up that you’re coming so they can prepare the best tour possible for you. Can’t make it that day? You’ll have another chance on March 27 and on other Wednesdays in April and May.

To stay up-to-date on alt ed events, make a habit of visiting our calendar and clicking on any listing for details. Much more is coming up this spring, with many doors opening to you and your children.