Recommended reading from Alt Ed Austin


If you’re like me, you look forward to summer as a relaxing time when you’ll catch up on the reading that’s been piling up on your nightstand, in your brain, on your device, or somewhere in cyberspace. Then reality sets in. Maybe you’ll finish it before the end of July and declare victory. More likely, you’ll tackle the first book or two and get distracted somewhere along the way. Or perhaps you’ll skip the list altogether in favor of shorter magazine articles, movies, games, or outdoor diversions during your precious free time. No judgment here; they’re all worthy pursuits!

So, with August winding down and the new school year and less laid-back schedules looming, I won’t burden you with more “must-reads” to add to your “must-do” list. Instead, I’ll just briefly let you know about a few education-related books I’ve read since spring that I think you’d find both enjoyable and useful.


What School Could Be:
Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America

by Ted Dintersmith

Ted Dintersmith is best known in education circles as producer of the excellent 2015 documentary Most Likely to Succeed and co-author, with Tony Wagner, of the book of the same title. His follow-up book, published this year, grew out of a full year spent traveling to all 50 states, visiting hundreds of schools (public, charter, traditional private, and alternative), and talking to countless students, educators, administrators, parents, and policymakers about innovative ideas they’ve put into practice in all kinds of learning environments.

Dintersmith is a highly successful venture capitalist, but unlike many of his colleagues in the business and tech world who have jumped into the education reform movement in recent years, he does not demonize teachers or focus on tinkering with new forms of standardized testing. He is less interested in talking about all the things that are wrong with conventional education (though he’s not shy about doing that too when pressed for his opinions) than in sharing and spreading the potentially revolutionary practices he’s seen happening, often hidden and unsung, at local levels around the country.

I had the good fortune to meet with Dintersmith (or Ted, as he prefers to be called by everyone) this past spring when he came to Austin for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed and to talk about his book with local education leaders. I found his knowledge to be vast and detailed; his thoughts on the kinds of education today’s learners need are largely aligned with my own. As you’ll notice if you read What School Could Be, Ted’s enthusiasm is contagious. I imagine you’ll come away from the book as inspired and energized to make change as I did.


Mighty Writing:
College Application Essay Guide

by Laurie Filipelli
in collaboration with Irena Smith

This is a long-overdue public recommendation. For more than a year now, I’ve been privately urging parents of high school juniors and rising seniors to give their kids Laurie Filipelli’s guide to writing effective personal essays for college applications. I’m happy to relay that my own son, who’s heading off to his first year of college at the end of the month, found the advice and exercises in Mighty Writing to be fun, accessible, and just the stimuli he needed to think deeply—and eventually write creatively—about his own experiences, values, and aspirations for a very specific audience: college admissions committees. When Sam was ready to start writing his official submissions last fall, he drew on the lists and vignettes he had composed during the summer while working his way through the guidebook.

For unconventionally schooled students like Sam, those required and optional essays often take on an even larger importance in the college admissions review, helping admissions officers form both a more expansive and a more specific understanding of who the students are and what they might add to the university community. Admissions staff at several colleges that awarded Sam substantial merit scholarships cited his unusual essays as helping his overall application really stand out from the stacks of more formulaic ones.

Austin-based author Laurie Filipelli is an essay writing coach, a former Waldorf high school English teacher, a social justice activist, and an award-winning poet. She’s been busy since publishing Mighty Writing in 2017; in fact, you can meet her and experience her way with words firsthand at the upcoming book launch of her latest poetry collection, Girl Paper Stone.


How to Raise an Adult:
Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

by Julie-Lythcott-Haims

Some friendly advice from a me as a parent and education professional: Read, as soon as you can, either of these two books, or both. The authors take somewhat different approaches to the same general ideas: that children of all ages, but particularly teens, need WAY more independence and agency than our generation of parents has been conditioned to give them; and that we need to do everything we can to lessen the pressures in their lives, especially academic ones. Our kids’ mental and physical health and happiness depend on it. Both books include helpful, practical suggestions for how parents (and educators, too) can do just that.

Finally, if you’re interested in exploring more great books in the alternative education realm, check out the Alt Ed Library on this site. We’ve added lots of new titles since we unveiled it a year ago, and we’re always open to suggestions! Also consider joining the Smart Schooling Book Group, facilitated by Antonio Buehler, which meets once a month at Laura’s Library in West Austin. This month, it just so happens that the group will be discussing How to Raise an Adult.

Happy reading!

Teri Sperry
Founder, Alt Ed Austin

The heart of the college application

Guest contributor Laurie Filipelli is a writer and writing coach who holds an M.F.A from Indiana University. She is the author of two collections of poems, Elseplace (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2013) and Girl Paper Stone (forthcoming in 2018 from Black Lawrence Press). In her work as a college writing instructor, high school English teacher, writing programs manager, and writing coach, she has guided students of all ages to tell their own stories and to become stronger writers and more creative thinkers. Laurie specializes in leading college application essay writing workshops as well as coaching individuals. Learn more at and Facebook/MightyWriting.

The college application process can be complex and at times downright frustrating, and it can also be an amazing opportunity for teenagers to step into their future selves, to prepare for college, and to safely practice for the many decisions they’ll face independently as adults. As parents, counselors, and coaches we could nag and nudge and overreach in our efforts, or we could choose to encourage and allow.

Last March, the New York Times ran an enlightening piece called “Advice College Admissions Officers Give Their Own Kids.” The words of wisdom shared by these officers may make the difference between a highly stressful and a deeply meaningful year ahead and can easily be summed up with two simple phrases: engage from the heart, and start early.

As a college application essay writing coach, I can attest that nowhere is the wisdom of this advice more vital than at the heart of every college application—the essay.

Juniors stand at a threshold; writing can help them cross. Composing personal narratives  requires putting meaning to experiences, defining your beliefs, and setting goals for the future. It’s a monumental and potentially life-changing task.

And like all such tasks, it requires tenderness and courage and time.

In Self-Reliance, Emerson wrote, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He advised trying new things and honoring inspiration. His advice wasn’t original, even in 1841. After all, it was Plato who coined the expression “Know Thyself,” the gist of which is now the basis for a whole industry of self-help books and sports equipment. But while it’s one thing to quote a pithy saying, it’s another to trust our teenagers to take inventory of their own experiences and dreams, and to find an authentic path.

If you have a high school junior, now is the time to make space among myriad commitments, to ask open-ended questions, and to allow whatever answers come. The Common App essay prompts may be available, but trust me, no one needs them . . . yet. What juniors need is freedom to explore and find what lights them up.

Explore Writing

In writing, exploration means reading and drafting freely. Whether your junior loves reading or not, chances are they haven’t read many personal essays. I direct my students to NPR’s archive of essays by everyday folks at This I Believe, or to David Sedaris, or to the Modern Love column in the New York Times. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT read college application essays. They’re bound to cause creative paralysis.

Exploration also means pre-writing, that wonderful phase in which we bumble and make mistakes without pressure. I ask the juniors to make lists, to ponder photos, to reflect on the day’s news, to take note of the objects they cherish, and to discuss their fears and their convictions.  For this to begin to happen, you may need to get out of the way. If they don’t want to talk to you, help create opportunities where discussions can flourish with mentors, or youth groups, or other family members.

And then what?

Support Healthy Risks

I once had a student come to me deeply dejected. She told me she wanted to write her application essay about World of Warcraft. Her counselor, her parents, pretty much everyone she knew warned against it, but she clearly couldn’t let go of the idea. So I asked, why not write a draft that proves them wrong?

And that’s exactly what she did. Her essay turned out to be a smart and lively romp—from her life on a farm to sewing her own Halloween costume based on a Warcraft character—for which an admissions officer personally commended her. Warcraft was the vessel, and her life filled it up. The same goes for the Harvard student who wrote about her love of Half Price Books, and the Barnard student obsessed with Lauren Bacall. And of course, many of us know about the student who wrote about Costco. Last year she made news when she was accepted into multiple Ivy League schools. Again, I insist you don’t share it with your college-bound junior, but you might enjoying reading her essay here.

As you’ll see, it was about far more than Costco. It was about her heart’s joy.  For this, there is no formula. The best you can do is to create ideal circumstances for such creativity to flourish.

Note: The kind of heartfelt writing I recommend is not the same as highly emotive therapeutic writing that reveals a heart’s pain, or an intense  struggle with emotional challenges. Writing a purely therapeutic essay may very well be an important and healthy part of the process of self-discovery;  however, submitting such an essay as a final product is an inadvisable risk.

Start Early

Despite claims about the power of pressure, very few of us write best in time-sensitive, high-stakes situations. Ideally, essays are done (or well underway) in August,  before senior year starts.  My Warcraft student drafted her essay in May.  

For now, I suggest that juniors simply put systems in place—a Google doc with a list of schools, a notebook to track ideas. And, that they hone the craft of writing. The author of the Costco essay clearly prepared for that essay long before she began to compose. She started with a love of words. She read.

It’s a long journey toward college admissions, but it doesn’t have to be onerous. The advice you can give your own child is simple: Trust your heart, read, and write. And take that first step now.

Laurie Filipelli