The public versus private dilemma

Pamela Nicholas, founder of PEBBLES, a project based learning center, is passionate about keeping kids motivated and engaged in learning. She has been teaching for 15 years and has experience working with gifted students; those with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia; children on the autism spectrum; students who suffer from anxiety; and English language learners. Pam joins us on the blog to share her experiences as both an educator and a parent who has navigated the ups and downs of public and private education—and ultimately decided to start her own school.

I don’t know if you are a somewhat neurotic parent like I am, but the moment I held my precious bundle of joy in the delivery room, I had two—well, no, to be honest, three—thoughts. The first one was “Wow, I can’t believe this little guy is here and mine. I’m in love!” The next, “I hope I don’t mess this up!” And finally, “Can I pass out now?”

As our family has progressed through the years, it has always been thought number two, “I hope I don’t mess this up!” that has played over and over in my mind whenever I’ve been making choices about his education. I was a public school teacher before he was born, tutored privately for a while, and then rejoined the teaching world full-time again once he was ready to go to school. Both of us started back in public school, but I wasn’t satisfied. I knew that my son was systematically being taught the things that needed to be taught in kinder through second grade. I knew there was a clear path, and I certainly knew there was administrative oversight with teachers having multiple observations throughout the school year. What I didn’t like was that some of his teachers were not able to meet his needs.

He was ahead of many of the other students, but his teachers weren’t able to assess him at higher levels because he had already hit their ceiling for his grade level. I was supplementing his homework with work that was more on his level, but he was starting to get bored in school. They offered to have him skip a grade, but we didn’t feel it would be good for him to be the tiniest and youngest in his classes. His father and I had both had that experience, and it was not fun for either of us on a social level. We knew that the next year would bring standardized testing, and, to be honest, we were dreading the months of test prep that were in store for him. We made the decision to pull him from public and embarked on the path to private school.

In private schools, just as in public ones, there are good teachers and not so good. However, it boggles my mind that in some private schools, those who are in charge rarely, if ever, walk into a classroom to see what is going on in their own schools. I have walked through the halls and seen scenarios where a teacher was simply on Facebook while the kids were doing nothing, and where teachers hadn’t bothered to show up for the majority of their class period. Additionally, some of the private schools do not require teachers to be credentialed. This can become a problem for students when they end up with teachers who do not have any idea how to assess students and then meet their individual needs. Teachers who have not gone through a credentialing process also don’t necessarily know how to manage a classroom effectively, or develop age-appropriate lessons that keep students motivated and engaged.

On the positive side of private schools, the class sizes are often smaller, making it possible for teachers to give more attention and individualized instruction to each student. Private schools tend not to have as many bullying issues. Another plus is their lack of emphasis on standardized testing.

Socially, private schools can sometimes be difficult because children have a smaller pool of friends to choose from. Students who have been together for years in a private setting tend to act more like sisters and brothers (though at times it can be like dysfunctional siblings), but at least they know each other well enough to put up with one another’s quirks.

The main results of my son having spent time in a private school are that he made some pretty good friends, had some great teachers who helped him excel in some areas, but also had some inexperienced and untrained teachers, resulting in some major learning gaps.

So what to do? I’ve decided to pull him out, for now, and take matters into my own hands. I am starting my own school and living my dream of getting it right for kids and their families. My vision is a school where the subjects are integrated together, where kids can build from their prior knowledge, and not start in a place too low or too high. I can assess them and provide them with curriculum and activities built for them at their appropriate levels. And I can do it all in a way where I have seen my own students achieve the most success: through project-based learning.

During my years of teaching, I’ve seen students do their best when they receive one-on-one instruction, are excited about their topics (because they are given some freedom to choose), and are encouraged to choose a project that can encapsulate everything that they’ve learned. We all learn best by doing, so why not give kids the opportunity to actually put what they have learned into practice? I LOVE the idea of a happy medium where students learn accountability, learn that they still have to put in the effort to achieve specific academic goals, but get to have some choice and fun too. My vision is to simply do what works in a stress-free way where the kids can feel great about what they have achieved.

Every child is different, and every family has different situations and priorities. After being in both worlds, my advice would be to really know your child and what his or her needs are, and then prioritize them. Obviously, your financial situation can play a big role in the decision-making process as well.

If you’re considering a private school, I would recommend that you ask the following questions to school administrators:

  • May I come in and observe?
  • What types of assessments do you do when placing a child?
  • May I see examples of these assessments (do they include spelling, reading, writing, and leveled math)?
  • Are your teachers certified?
  • How often do you personally go in and observe each of your teachers? 
  • What are the exact homework policies of the school? Can I see examples of the type of homework assignments I can expect my child to have?
  • Would it be okay to contact the parents of some current students?
  • How will my child’s progress be monitored, and how will my child’s progress be communicated to me?
  • What systems are in place to remediate an academic need if my child falls behind?
  • What systems are in place to meet my child’s needs if he or she is academically ahead?
  • If your child has some special needs, definitely ask what support systems are in place to address them. Support systems include specific teacher training and classroom experience, Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs (including teacher accountability for upholding what is in an IEP), and physical environments to help support your child.

Making decisions like these can be extremely difficult, and there can be a lot of trial and error in figuring out what seems to best fit your child and your family. After having been through it (and continuing to go through it), my advice would be to keep looking, and keep asking questions about services. You will really want to hear the details about how these services are implemented, as well as what support and accountability is in place for those services.

Remember, there are always pros and cons to every educational situation. Prioritize your child’s needs, realizing that they may change over time. Most importantly, stay watchful! I’ve come to realize as a parent that yes, I am going to mess up, but as with all mistakes, I will learn from them and keep trying to do what is best. Good luck, and happy school hunting!

Pamela Nicholas

What creating my own courses has taught me about life

Guest contributor Stefany Bolaños works at Junto Studio, a company that helps schools build websites and share what they are doing with the world. They’re about to launch Learnhub, a platform built by independent learners, for independent learners, that empowers students to collaboratively create their own projects. She also writes at the company’s blog, Disruptived.

Classes were about to begin. I checked the school portal to look at the courses I was going to take that semester according to the prescribed academic curriculum. I skimmed the list in a hurry, anxious to find out which subjects I would be learning. Disappointed, I realized that this semester was not going to be much different from the others. While reading the course descriptions of the seven classes I had to take, only three caught my interest.

So I had four classes I didn’t feel particularly excited about, lasting 1.5 hours each, twice a week, for 18 weeks a semester: that’s 216 hours. The math was simple: I was about to spend 216 hours in classes that I didn’t choose, about topics I probably didn’t even like. And that was just one semester, not even including time spent studying and doing homework! The opportunity cost was incredibly high.

But what is the alternative?

Avoiding the tedious process of taking courses you didn't choose has never been easier. And that’s because, fortunately enough, education is not confined to the limits of a physical classroom, a teacher, or a method.

Creating your own education path involves learning project management skills, ownership, true accountability, and being honest with yourself. It also involves being more aware of who you are and what you want to learn. And when you start building your life curriculum piece by piece, it becomes evident that life is a tapestry of limitless opportunities.

When you learn something, it should be either because you need it or because you want it.

The pursuit of our passions results in countless possibilities—but what are the things that you absolutely need to know? Asking questions is a good place to start. Redirecting your efforts toward finding ways to solve problems is a great way of truly learning. Expecting answers from someone else, memorizing, and doing repetitive work without understanding its core purpose are ultimately unuseful efforts. Those who immerse themselves in the adventure of leading their own education understand this very well.

What, then, are the benefits of creating your own courses?

1. Project Management Skills
Whatever career path you choose later in life, one thing is certain: you’ll need to be good at taking a project from start to end. Traditionally, letting students create and manage their own projects has been reserved for the last years of high school. However, there’s no real reason for why it has to be this way. Let’s turn that around! The earlier you start practicing these important skills, the better.

2. Ownership
Give students more responsibility and they will amaze you with what they can do. There’s nothing as empowering as realizing that the failure or success of a project depends on the amount and quality of work you put in.

2. Fun

No one knows what you truly enjoy as well as you do. When you create your own courses, you get to really design them to make them fun for yourself. Fun makes you keep stretching yourself and exploring new possibilities, and it allows you to temper the setbacks that eventually come your way.

4. Accountability

Learning how to keep yourself and others accountable is the skill that takes you from curious observer to someone who can learn a subject deeply and accomplish goals. Can you really stick to a subject when it gets hard? Are you willing to push in order to meet a deadline? Can you keep your word? Who is holding you to a higher standard? These are questions that you learn to ask when you’re forging your own path and that become invaluable in a professional setting.

5. Passion
Passion is discovered with time and by allowing yourself to get lost in solving a problem or pursuing a vision. When you follow your own curiosity, your passion for certain activities or subjects starts to shine through. The perks? The pace at which you learn is accelerated immensely, and you are actively engaged with what you’re doing. Isn’t that every parent’s dream for their children’s education?

How creating your own courses resembles shaping your own life

When students take part in creating their own curriculum, learning becomes a lifelong experience that doesn’t end when the school day is over. In my own experience, taking a project on from the beginning, being responsible for it, keeping myself accountable, and having fun along the way have proven to be replicable habits not only for school, but for life. And when students are empowered and supported in doing this on their own, school becomes an extension of a body of life-learning experiences, rather than an obstacle that leaves curiosity and creativity at the margin.

Today, thanks to technology, creating your own learning paths has become easier because of the unlimited number of courses, mentors, and information out there. And if you choose to jump aboard, you’ll never have to take another boring course ever again!

If you have questions about project-based learning or how to create your own courses, email me at or visit our blog, Disruptived: Reimagining Education.

Stefany Bolaños

Making mayhem: The perils of project-based learning

Wes Terrell directs the science department at Skybridge Academy. You can see and play with some of the cool projects his students have made—despite all of the obstacles Wes discusses below—at the Austin Mini Maker Faire on May 3, 2014.

Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating.

Flynn and Jacquelyn, who will be our first two Skybridge graduates, building a 3D printer. We could have simply bought a printer, but they wanted to build one. And I love the idea that our students are leaving a maker legacy for future Skybridge kids to use for creating.

Making stuff is central to who I am as a person. I’m happiest when I’m in the midst of a project. So when I became a public school teacher, I set out to bring making to the masses of bored kids in the hopes that they would all be transformed and realize their inner maker.

In my mind, the opportunity for making was the only thing they were missing. We held a schoolwide junk drive and collected tons of awesome junk. I brought in every tool I owned, since the science department at my school had a $15,000 ventilator hood but didn’t have any $30 cordless drills. Then I told the kids to make something amazing. I showed them a bunch of pictures and videos of cool stuff that other people had made.

What followed was not the maker fantasyland that I had envisioned. Kids destroyed lots of things. They broke my tools. They even stole stuff. And worst of all, no one made anything spectacular. It dawned on me that I had grossly underestimated the energy that was required to maker-ize the public school system.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.

Cainan working on a solar-powered phone charger from a hacked phone charger that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a solar panel from a garage sale.

As time went on, I got better at developing systems that were more conducive to the outcomes I wanted. In some cases, I simply stopped expecting certain results. Eventually I took a job at Skybridge Academy, where many of the barriers to this kind of work were removed and the administration was in full support of this approach to learning. I thought that I could finally have the maker space of my dreams, but it turned out that there were still some pretty big obstacles to overcome.

I’ve read a lot lately about the value of getting kids to make things. If you’re someone who has been thinking about embarking on such a mission and you’ve read up on the subject, you might have the impression that these maker spaces are whimsical wonderlands of innovation. You hear less about the messy part. What follows is a brief survey of some of the hardest parts of doing this kind of work with kids. I wish I could follow this with a list of solutions. I can’t. But I do think these points are useful to keep in mind for anyone considering how to implement project-based learning activities with kids:

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.   

James converting a broken-down gasoline-powered go-kart into a three-wheeled electric vehicle.


Kids don’t know how to use tools. This sounds obvious, but I didn’t fully realize it when I started working with kids. Of course not many kids have used a chop saw before, but surely they know how to use a hammer. It turns out most of them don’t. I’ve seen kids use a drill as a hammer, a saw as a drill, and vice versa. If you’re going to use real tools—and most experienced project-based educators agree that you should—then you have to teach these things explicitly. It takes time, and tools will be destroyed in the process.

Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock.   

Beth and Sami getting some Arduino practice. They will build a gumball machine that releases candy only when you give the machine the correct secret knock.


Kids suck at putting things back where they belong. So you built shelves and got separate bins and even labeled each one. Kids will not put anything back where it belongs. I covered our hammers in plastic wrap, hung them from nails, and painted them with bright red paint to make bright red silhouettes of hammers that would compel a hammer user to put it back where it belongs. If you want to find one of these hammers, you’d be better off looking in the “Screwdrivers” bin. No matter how good your system is, kids will ignore it.

Teenagers are never going to act as excited as you want them to. You’ll think you’ve come up with the most exciting project these kids have ever been exposed to, when, without fail, someone will say, “This is lame.” It can be demoralizing, but you just have to remember that the most vocal opinions usually don’t represent the most popular.

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.   

Wyeth and art teacher Johnny Villarreal working on a drawing machine.


Lots of parents aren’t convinced that making is for their kids. Some people think that “hands-on” learning is synonymous with vocational learning, which is synonymous with my-kid-isn’t-going-to-college. Lots of parents think that their kids will be better prepared for university by memorizing electron configurations and that making stuff is for the less ambitious.

Kids hate failure. Celebrating failure has become a popular mantra lately. At least a dozen presenters at SXSWedu last month mentioned it [and multiple guest contributors to this blog have discussed it.]. The idea is that kids learn to embrace the struggle and find little nuggets of wisdom in each failed attempt at creating something. The truth is that this is way easier said than done. Kids want to celebrate their failure about as much as they want to celebrate their acne. I’ve done prototyping activities with my daughter’s kindergarten class where literally half of the kids are crying. This is not a reason to stop trying to teach this valuable lesson; in fact, it’s exactly why you must teach them that failing is okay. But it’s not pretty. I think it’s easier if you point out your own failed attempts at something, but it takes a lot of training before kids start to get this.

My messy maker classroom.

My messy maker classroom.

Some kids won’t ever be makers. A common belief among the maker crowd is that everyone is a maker. I want to believe this is true, and it’s my goal as an educator to try to prove it to all kids. I want every kid to experience that feeling you get when you create something. Some kids just don’t see the value in toiling away to create something that they can buy at the store for $10, especially when their version doesn’t look as nice and or work as well.

Kids aren’t as creative as everyone makes them out to be. I know this sounds like a terrible thing for a parent or educator to say, but it’s true. We’re told that kids are these magical little creatures that are just brimming with fantastic ideas, and that if we just give them the chance they will shine. The fact is that creativity is a skill that has to be taught, just like any other. Most kids have had their creativity stifled along the way, and so they must relearn this skill. Creativity can be taught and nurtured and refined, and we have to create environments in which this can happen. Just don’t be surprised when a group of kids fails to amaze you with their creativity. This is not to say that I am not often blown away by the ideas that kids come up with; I am. But I’m also frequently not blown away. I don’t find this discouraging; it just reinforces the idea that for me, teaching creativity is as important as teaching literacy.

I am a full-fledged supporter of the maker movement, but I know it’s not all fun and games. It’s messy, frustrating, and even depressing when it’s not going well. We can learn from each other and find out what works and what doesn’t, but there will always be challenges that lead us to question our approach.

Of course, if it were easy, then everyone would be doing it. And if we want kids to be motivated by their failed attempts, then we’d better be sure that they see us doing the same. Hats off to all those who fight the good fight.

Wes Terrell

Get out of the way!

Our latest guest post, which describes an “aha moment” that took place at Terra Luz Co-op, is a collaborative effort by Michelle Foreman, the parent-assistant on rotation during that time, and Andrea Gaudin Triche, the program’s cofounder and teaching guide. An earlier version of this article first appeared on the Terra Luz blog.

Michelle begins:

My time at the schoolhouse has always been inspiring. Who wouldn’t be inspired in that creative environment, immersed in love? However, today things happened on a whole new level, and I caught a glimpse of how wonderfully amazing learning can be.

After spending too much time last night researching uninspired, tired old Thanksgiving crafts, I narrowed it down to a couple of options. I presented my “exciting” idea to the first group, who were apathetic at best but compliant nonetheless. And I am pretty certain that a few “important” things were learned as we talked about the cornucopia and made collages of the different foods served at Thanksgiving meals past and present. The next go-around, I offered this project and was met with the same unenthusiastic response from the second group of kids. I said “OK, then what do you want to do?” Almost immediately, the kids started throwing out ideas. Here is my perspective on what transpired.

Alaira invented a new crocheting technique using toothpicks and yarn, which she taught to Sophia and Lola, who then used it to make clothes like the pilgrims wore. I took that opportunity to introduce the book A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl, showing and reading to them a few pages about the work the pilgrims had to do, clothes they wore, etc. We chatted about how many clothes were in our girls’ closets at home today and the quantity of clothes they thought the Pilgrim girls had. We talked about having to make each piece of clothing by hand with limited materials vs. going to the store to choose from among hundreds of options.

Lola, who had discovered the sewing boxes the day before, quickly chose to work with those materials again. She threaded the needles, and I showed her how to double the thread and tie a knot. Then we pulled out the buttons and she began to sew them on. She kept building on her idea with more excitement as each new thought popped up in her head: making a gingerbread girl out of felt, then sewing it onto another felt piece that she decorated with buttons. She could not find the brown felt she wanted, so she decided to color the gray piece brown (very resourceful).

Sophia was soon engaged in the minute details of making a ballerina doll with felt and markers, feathers and pipe cleaners. Liam, pretty much uninterested in the clothes and doll making, was watching Alaira with the toothpicks and started tinkering with them. I offered a few suggestions of items he could make that related to the Thanksgiving story, and his eyes showed a glint of interest when I suggested a boat. So a boat it was; the Mayflower was what I called it, after the one on which the first pilgrims came over from England. He then got out the corks and I watched him become completely engaged in building, using toothpicks, corks, and tape—and more tape.

Then everyone thought tape was a good tool for all of the various projects. So I bit my tongue and let the roll dwindle down, though I did try to suggest glue a couple of times. Gavin saw Liam’s design and decided to begin building his own creation with corks and toothpicks.

Damon came over and watched for a couple of minutes; then he turned around and pulled out the popsicle sticks and started toying with them. “Hey!” I said, “That reminds me of the houses the Pilgrims had to build.” “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking!” he said excitedly, with a big smile and bright eyes— nothing at all like the glazed-over look in the eyes of the kids (my own included) who were following my chosen project of the Thanksgiving collage a little while earlier. So I got out a few other books, including A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy, and turned to pages that showed the houses that were built out of planks they brought from England and rough wood from chopped trees and topped with thatched roofs.

All of this took place in the Atelier, around the light table. While I sat on a stool casually mentioning things about the first Thanksgiving and how it related to what they were each working on, five girls and three boys stood around the table—completely, effortlessly, and passionately engaged in their chosen work. The table was stocked full of felt, pipe cleaners, markers, feathers, corks, toothpicks, construction paper, sewing kits, glue, scissors, yarn, popsicle sticks, and tape. The Zen of learning unfolded before my eyes.

Creative thinking, problem solving, geometry, measurement, math, art, cooperation, sharing, turn taking, community, support, fine motor coordination, history, listening, pride, and accomplishment were all at that table. There was no fighting or resistance, even with only one roll of tape! They were working individually and simultaneously—yet together on a higher level of creative energy flowing easily around the room. One idea would pop up and inspire another, then another. The children took short breaks to look up from their work, just long enough to see a friend’s project, make a contribution to the Thanksgiving conversation, or show me or their friends how awesome what they were doing was.

And it was.

Andrea adds:

Yes. Give them what they need to thrive, and then get out of their way. Our role as parents and educators is to be there to offer support, but not to do it for them.

Whether your children are learning in a traditional school setting, at home, or in a co-op or hybrid program, I strongly encourage you to get your hands on the book Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert, read it, and try implementing some of these things at home. Project-based learning doesnt have to be all or nothing. It doesn’t have to be your entire curriculum (although it could be), so if you’re a structured Latin-loving Classicist or a relaxed unschooler, project-based learning can still be brought in. It should be. Carve out time for your children to do self-chosen project time. Your children will thank you!

Michelle Foreman and Andrea Gaudin Triche