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.

Recommended Reading:

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

Caring and community: Bringing nature to the center in Austin preschools

Our environment is our teacher, play is our work, and our learning happens naturally.
—Wendy Calderón, The Dragonfly Forest

I want the children to feel powerful through kindness to others and connection to nature.
—Nicole Haladyna, Woodland Schoolhouse

So much of learning in schools is inside, sedentary, and screen-based. . . . I worry that preparedness has taken precedence over play. Our school and other great ones like it have reorganized these priorities.
—Britt Luttrell, Nature’s Way Preschool

Environmental education and nature-based preschools—sometimes called “forest schools”—are expanding across the globe. The movement is so strong in North America now that this summer hundreds of educators will gather at a conference to share their knowledge and present their research and experiences. I wanted to know more about the varieties of nature-based preschools in Austin, so I interviewed a few educators with different perspectives and many shared goals.

Wendy Calderón is the founder of The Dragonfly Forest in Cedar Park, which is just one year old and enrolls ages 3 to 5 in a program that includes Spanish and English language learning.





Nicole Haladyna started Woodland Schoolhouse in Travis Heights in 2014. The Schoolhouse enrolls children 3-1/2 to 5 years old in a program inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach.





Britt Luttrell teaches at the City of Austin’s Nature’s Way Preschool, which was founded way back in 1992 at the Austin Nature & Science Center. It’s part of the city’s initiative to educate young people and families about environmental stewardship, and it enrolls kids 3 to 5 years old.




Tell us a little about what inspired you to become a nature-based educator.

Wendy: My biggest inspiration is my daughter, who is two years old. I was teaching at the KIPP Comunidad school and loved it, but after my daughter was born, I decided I wanted to create an environment where she could grow and explore nature—and that idea transformed into Dragonfly Forest school, with a lot of support from family and friends. I started with summer camps, then a few months later I was fully enrolled. I never saw myself as a business owner, but isn’t it beautiful how our children impact us everyday?!

Nicole: I was teaching at a more traditional school, but I sometimes looked longingly into a forest area where the kids were not allowed to go. One day we did a special project searching for a particular tree, and it was the best day ever. Then I stumbled across a video about one of the forest schools in Sweden. It was so moving that it actually brought me to tears—and that told me that nature education was what I needed to be doing. After that, I worked at the Discovery School and learned a lot about a nature-based curriculum, and all the right procedures, and how to transport kids, and was able to transition to my own school from there.

Britt: I grew up in Austin and have seen it change, so I value green spaces in a bustling, urban environment. I want to show children of all interests and comfort levels that there’s something outside for them to enjoy. Our school is unique in its location because it isn’t in a forest or state park. There are highways, traffic, and towering city buildings.  I want kids and their families to know the benefits of nature play and that even the tiniest green space can accelerate physical, emotional, and social development.


Could you describe a typical day at your school?

Wendy: We start each day with morning circle, singing songs and reading. We do our math by counting chicken eggs and then the kids often play in the “mud kitchen.” They have tea parties and make cakes and they just love to jump in the puddles and make mud angels. They’re dirty and happy. We might then go into the garden and sing into watering cans to explore changes in our voices, then water plants, and turn the compost. Then we go to our meadow and forest to play pretend games and climb trees—and look for deer. After lunch, we have art, music, and a yoga game that’s like Simon Says, where I call out a pose and students imitate it.

Nicole: Each day is so different, but for example: We might start out inside with an hour of free play with play-dough or rocks and minerals or dress-up clothes. Recently some kids wanted to play ninjas, so we pulled materials out of the closet, and after about 30 minutes they had created costumes with gloves and shoes made of masking tape and ribbon. They got so involved in the creation of the costumes, they forgot about the game! We always go for a hike to a few usual spots by a creek to look at turtles and birds. The kids climb on rocks and jump in the water, balancing and learning to use their whole bodies. They make pretend salads with leaves and berries. Afterward, we’ll have a resting time when they can draw, write, or read—but a lot of them sleep after all that activity.

Britt: We start our day with an hour of social conflict time in our play yard. We purposefully design our environment with too few items: trucks, bamboo shafts, trees to climb. This facilitates cooperation and the right kind of social conflict—in a large school group representing multiple ages and experience levels. All the kids have a short, 15-minute community time inside with their teacher. We meet live animal visitors, including snakes, lizards, and rabbits that the kids get to touch and hold. This is also our sensory exploration time, with multiple bins set up with things like bird seed, sand, and bones. Every group hikes every single day, even in tricky weather. Our three-year-olds might just take a walk around the school at first, but by the end of the year they go as far as the limestone caves on our preserve.


What would you like each child to take away from your school and nature-based education when they leave?

Wendy: I would love for the children to leave the school with a knowledge, love, and understanding of nature and their environment. And I would like them to be able to impart that knowledge to their friends and families. But I also want them to leave with the tools they need to be successful in their next school: the ability to participate and know that their ideas are valued, to share and be good friends with others, and to always be interested in learning and growing outdoors.

Nicole: I really want the children to leave with keen observation skills. We’re constantly asking: “I wonder why . . .” I want them to continue to ask increasingly complex questions and remain curious throughout their lives. But I also want them to consider themselves helpers and agents of change—to realize that the outdoor spaces belong to everyone—and to know that even as young people they can make a positive change. That’s pretty powerful.

Britt: We are not trying to create the next park rangers, animal rehabbers, or nature educators at Nature’s Way. While these outcomes are wonderful, we know that many of our students will go on to incredible futures in science, math, politics, parenting, entrepreneurship, art, athletics, and more. I would like each child to leave our program with confidence in his or her own abilities, and with the feeling of community. I hope their minds are prepped for endless curiosity, not just the ability to hold information. 


Many thanks to all the educators for sharing their ideas. All three schools offer summer camp programs as well as school-year enrollment. And you can follow them on Facebook for updates and more information:

The Dragonfly Forest on Facebook

Woodland Schoolhouse on Facebook

Austin Nature & Science Center on Facebook


Shelley Sperry

Exercise, sleep, and unplugging can help lower stress and anxieties in teens

Photo by Pabak Sarkar

Photo by Pabak Sarkar

For part 2 of our series for Mental Health Awareness Month, Shelley Sperry interviewed local psychologist Dr. Mike Brooks, who shared his insights and practical advice for reducing or preventing the stresses and anxieties so many teens are experiencing today.

Dr. Mike Brooks, a licensed psychologist and director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center (ApaCenter), says that there is some alarmism around the issue of rising anxiety disorders among teens. “We haven’t dropped off a cliff,” he says, but in many schools in Austin and across the nation the academic and social pressure is intense. “A lot of pressures come to a head in high school, and kids feel the weight and react in a variety of ways.”

Teachers, school administrators, coaches, parents, and peers all have high expectations in terms of grades and extracurricular activities. “I work a lot with stressed teens who think if you have one bad semester you won’t be able to get into your top school, or if you don’t take at least 5 AP classes, you’re falling behind,” explains Dr. Brooks. “These stresses can lead to anxiety and depression.”

But, Brooks says, most kids can find new ways to deal with stress and significant relief through some common-sense behavioral changes. Others will need counseling, often in the form of more formal cognitive behavorial therapy, and a few will need the assistance of drugs along with therapy to balance brain chemistry.

Dr. Brooks believes that the most basic solutions often work well, if kids are really motivated to make some changes. Exercise, sleep, and putting some limits on technology can work wonders to destress teens’ everyday lives.

Exercise. “We are meant to be active,” Brooks explains, “so if we don’t move enough, stress sets in.” Exercise breaks are essential for teens who study long hours, because exercise improves alertness and focus. “We get all that exercise time back later in higher productivity.”

Sleep. The same thing goes for sleep. Here, the science is clear: According to the UCLA Sleep Center, teens need more sleep than adults—an average of nine hours per night. But as a result of busy schedules at home and school, social expectations, or difficulty falling and staying asleep as their bodies adjust to puberty, most teenagers don’t get enough. Lack of sleep can be both a contributor to and a symptom of mental health problems. According to Harvard Medical School’s Mental Health Letter:

The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.

Unplugging and single-tasking. Dr. Brooks specializes in helping parents and kids navigate technology, which often increases stress levels in teens. He has one word for those who spend their study time multitasking: Don’t. Most high school students today are instant-messaging, snapchatting, texting, checking Instagram, and watching YouTube—or some combination of these distractions—while doing homework or reading. The science is still in early stages, but multiple studies show that multitasking decreases the quality of work, can actually inhibit one’s ability to filter out irrelevant information, and can diminish working memory.

As a result of the time and attention lost to multitasking, stress levels and anxiety can increase. So encourage unplugging for part of every day—taking technology breaks—so students can focus on one important task at a time.

When asked what role schools have in lowering students’ anxiety, Dr. Brooks said, “I’d like to see schools be more aware of students’ emotional state. Allow them to step back and observe, and practice mindfulness. Encourage them to check in with themselves to figure out what they want and need.”

Many schools in the Austin area are developing programs that focus on mindfulness and allow students to monitor their own anxieties and feelings of stress. We’ll take a look at some of those solutions in the next installment.

Many thanks to Dr. Mike Brooks for taking the time to discuss his work for this post. Dr. Brooks is a licensed psychologist and the director of the Austin Psychology & Assessment Center. The ApaCenter is a group of psychologists and other practitioners who provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments, therapy, consultation, and coaching to individuals, couples, and families of all ages. Dr. Brooks works with a variety of patients but specializes in helping parents raise balanced kids in a technological world. He is writing a book on this topic and can be found online at DrMikeBrooks.com.


Shelley Sperry

Joy is the bottom line: Entrepreneurial education in Austin

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Young entrepreneurs at the annual Acton Children’s Business Fair

Shelley Sperry is a staff writer at Alt Ed Austin. An entrepreneur in her own right, she also works as a writer, researcher, and editor at Sperry Editorial.

When you hear the term “entrepreneurial education,” you may first think about old-school extracurricular clubs that teach kids through hands-on projects—programs such as Junior Achievement and 4-H, or even the annual ritual of Girl Scout cookie sales. What I’ve learned by investigating schools in Austin is that entrepreneurial education is a big-tent concept that includes a diverse mix of well-established and brand-new ventures. Some find the label limiting, but it’s useful for identifying schools that share a few core similarities:

  • An emphasis on projects in which kids make, market, and sell products that link them to customers and the community outside the school
  • A holistic approach that integrates mind, body, and spirit in the learning process
  • Elimination of separate, “siloed” subjects (math, science, language arts, social studies) in favor of integrated learning of all content via entrepreneurial projects
  • Use of approaches from the start-up business world to structure groups, projects, and timelines
  • De-emphasis on teachers and direct instruction in favor of mentors and guides who help students make their own decisions
  • An interest in building kids’ sense of themselves and their work as tools for making the world a better place

Austin programs that fall into this big tent include Acton Academy, Kọ School + Incubator, Sansori High School @ Whole Life Learning Center, and WonderLab.

When I interviewed Jeff Sandefer of the well-established Acton Academy and Kristin Kim of Sansori High School, which will be opening to its first class in August this year, I was struck by the fact that both approaches emphasize the importance of each student’s personal journey toward self-confidence and self-knowledge. This is something I normally would associate with twenty-somethings rather than kids in elementary, middle, and high school, but it demonstrates an essential part of the entrepreneurial education philosophy. Kids are respected as capable, contributing members of the community, even as six- or seven-year-olds.

Acton Academy’s approach is built around the notion of the “hero’s journey” usually associated with classic literature. Sandefer argues that each Acton student should understand himself or herself as on a life quest, rather than merely acquiring a set of skills or facts.

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

A student-led discussion at Acton Academy

“It’s more about learning to persevere, to fail and get back up, to treat people with kindness, and to listen before talking,” he explains. “We start with kids as early as six and go all the way through high school, cultivating these traits. They earn more and more freedom as they get older. They learn that the better you treat people, the harder you work, the more freedom you have.”

Acton’s Children’s Business Fair is the biggest such gathering in the country and has become a major community event in Austin each fall. The fair hosts more than 100 booths and brings together students not only from Acton’s elementary, middle, and high schools, but also from across a spectrum of Austin schools and homeschooling environments who want to create products or services and market them to customers while learning business, academic, and life skills.

With Sandefer’s blessing, other educators are creating schools based on the Acton model in other parts of Central Texas, throughout the United States, and beyond. The first graduate of Acton Academy Guatemala was recently accepted into the University of California at Berkeley with a triple major in math, biology, and biosciences.

Along with local and national business leaders who support the Kọ School, founders Michael Strong and Khotso Khabele believe that all people in the world should be able to live their lives creatively and productively. In other words, everyone should have the opportunity to behave like entrepreneurs: innovating and adding value to society. They believe that happiness comes from challenging work in which individuals create something meaningful, and they argue that the best path to this kind of life is through a Socratic method of questioning and learning how to teach oneself. The Kọ School + Incubator is designed to “blur the boundary between school and the outside world.”

WonderLab describes itself as a true incubator and is less a full-time school than a gathering place that puts like-minded, entrepreneurial kids together to help each other.  Students identify their own goals and the resources and skills they need to reach those goals, and then they form teams that are assisted by an adult guide. Team members support each other and work together for a few hours each week. But even in this very practical world of achieving specific project goals, the overarching philosophy is that kids will end up exploring and defining themselves. They will be “on the path to figuring out the intersection of their gifts, their passions, and what the world needs.”

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

An image from the Sansori High School website that expresses one of the central principles of the program

Kristin Kim, who is bringing her Sansori educational philosophy to Austin this year in partnership with the Whole Life Learning Center, puts holistic learning at the center. “I give talks at colleges in the U.S. and U.K., and I hear that the students in their twenties don’t know what to do with their lives and are searching. We can offer children a different way of learning so that one benefit is getting a clear sense of what they love and how they can apply it in the world. They leave high school with skills and with self-knowledge.”

Kim says that confidence and joy are the hallmarks of her approach. A sense of integration of the individual and the world outside the classroom seems to be crucial too. By way of example, Kim describes students who made beeswax candles for sale, which seems like a simple learning-about-business project, but became something much grander in its implications. Students learned important lessons in science, math, and language arts as they made and marketed the candles. “We also connected their activities with how the universe works through the structure of polymers and the ecology of bees, and connected it with their own physical bodies in terms of other cultures’ understanding of the medicinal value of honey.”

I still think the word “entrepreneurial” works to describe these diverse Austin schools, because each does develop in students a taste for creating and innovating, whether in business, science, the arts, or other pursuits. But I would also say that a “whole child” focus that brings a spiritual element to the table is just as important, and something I hadn’t expected.

As Kim says,  “What we’re doing is allowing students of all ages to experience learning not just through their brains or minds, but through their bodies and hearts. They then see themselves differently and understand the co-creative role of each human being. When you get a deep understanding of the unity between inner and outer worlds, joy is a natural consequence.”

Shelley Sperry

One good question with Mike DeGraff

An iconic scene from the award-winning film  Most Likely to Succeed

An iconic scene from the award-winning film Most Likely to Succeed

We’re pleased to reproduce here an interview with Mike DeGraff from Rhonda Broussard’s excellent blog One Good Question. Reading Mike’s thoughts on maker education will help prepare you for the mind- blowing, award-winning film Most Likely to Succeed, which you can view and discuss with Mike and others Tuesday, March 8, at 6pm at the North Door. Read more about the film and event at the end of the interview.

Mike DeGraff, educator’s educator and thought leader

Michael DeGraff is the Instructional Program Coordinator at the UTeach Institute. His work includes coordinating the Instruction Program Review process for all UTeach Partner Sites as well as supporting instructors to implement the nine UTeach courses. Michael has been a part of UTeach since 2001, first as an undergraduate student at UT Austin (BA Mathematics with Secondary Teaching Option, 2005), then as a graduate student (MA Mathematics Education, 2007), and finally as a Master Teacher with UKanTeach at the University of Kansas. He was also instrumental in launching Austin Maker Education.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

There was a call for 100,000 STEM teachers in the US, and since then there have been tons of initiatives, and related funding, to respond to the need (some say too much). UTEACH is a very constructivist- oriented teacher education program for STEM teachers that began at UT Austin and has spread across the country. Then we saw the launch of Maker Faire™ to showcase STEAM design in informal learning space. When I went to my first faire 3-4 years ago, I was amazed at how well it fit into what I understood about constructivist education.  I was also amazed that there wasn’t tighter articulation between schools, teacher education programs, and what’s going on in this sector.

In schools, "making" is mostly robotics, especially at the secondary level. School libraries may have makerspaces that are more diverse, but there’s very little happening in teacher preparation for how we prepare teachers for these spaces that are proliferating. No two people have the same vision for what you mean when you say makerspace. Whenever you talk about this, it’s so easy to get excited about the 3D printer, laser cutter and other specific tools. At UTeach, we’re more interested in how it transforms what kids are able to do and how teachers are empowered to teach differently. Not to dismiss the tools, but ultimately, what’s so exciting about all of this stuff is how it connects to this lineage of progressive education dating back to Dewey and meaningful, authentic, relevant work. That’s what’s so powerful to me about this whole maker movement. It really champions student voice in a way that I don’t see in any other movement/innovation/fad. How can we replicate that for every kid? One of the biggest hurdles in education and industry is to get kids curious. Makerspaces can get them to a point where they can start wondering.

The maker world and project-based formal education don’t seem to respect each other enough. The maker world is super auto-didactic, self-sufficient, DIY, vibrant, and very curious. The maker world sentiment is that schools are going to destroy the maker movement by embracing it and standardizing it. It’s not an unfounded fear. Look at the computer labs in the 90s. The way that education works is in compartmentalizing. My biggest fear is that it becomes a space where you go and do « making » for an hour completely separated from (or only superficially connected to) science, math, language arts, literature, art, etc.

The formal education world is coming from a perspective that we’ve been doing « making » well before Maker Faire started in 2006, but have called it other things like project-based instruction. Colleges of Education see the value in makerspaces, but in public education we have to focus on serving every kid.

While the Maker Education Initiative motto is « every kid a maker » colleges of education and educators in general are asking what do we do with kids who aren’t motivated by blinking a light or don’t identify with the notion of making? How does PD play out in these different areas, and what does it look like as these spaces develop?

Do you think that schools/universities would be adopting makerspaces if they weren’t tied to funding?

These spaces have always existed in universities, but they used to be highly articulated with coursework.

« Making » in a university is usually housed in the college of engineering, which makes sense for digital fabrication and electronics. You were typically a junior before you got to that level of coursework and only accessed the equipment for specific, course related projects. If you talk to industry, a big complaint is that universities are producing engineering graduates who can calculate, but can’t use a screwdriver and a hammer or connect that academic experience to the real world.

A makerspace is more similar to a library type model so it’s open and you can go in and make when/what you want. UT opened a Longhorn Maker Studio and when I went there in November it was full of kids making Christmas presents (like ornaments, a picture frame, and other highly personal artifacts). There are a lot of class projects, but it’s more about figuring out what they can do with it.  That’s what’s exciting.

Something that I see as very similar to the makerspace idea in the College of Science is open inquiry where students choose what they want to learn more about, design an experiment, and analyze results. In UTeach, one of the nine courses is totally dedicated to this process. Instructors have noticed that the hardest part of the process is to get students to become curious. Get students to develop their own questions that can be addressed by experiments. In education, we have identified content, but the gap is how we inspire students to be curious and engaged and motivated and passionate. It’s so well connected in general to how we get students to think and be self-motivated and have internal drive.

One could argue that makerspaces are going the way of MOOCs—only reinforcing the privilege and access of middle-class paradigms and still largely unused in lower-income/marginalized communities. If we really believe that makerspaces improve creativity, critical thinking, and STEM, what will it take for the movement to reach a more diverse audience?

Why I see maker movement as being fundamentally different, is that I see it as hitting on different things, namely on student motivation and constructivist education, with what we know about how students learn best, project-based instruction, and the evolution of progressive education. At the UTeach conference last May, we had several sessions about making in the classroom. It’s important for us is to embed this into regular coursework. Right now, a lot of the robotics and electives are afterschool activities, but in order for this to be truly democratized, we have to make it part of our classes—science and math that every kid takes.  NGSS and CCSS math standards demonstrate value for persistent problem solvers, design cycle, and implementing inquiry. Makerspaces can support these standards for all students.

As part of the maker strand at our UTeach conference Leah Buechley gave the plenary talk contrasting mainstream maker approaches with tools and techniques designed to support diversity and equality.” This is exactly why we, in education, need to systematically develop opportunities around « making » for a more diverse population, which early indications show is working. We’re already seeing that the demographics of youth serving maker spaces are much more diverse than that of Maker Faire.

Mike’s One Good Question: How can we use this space to address community needs? What we’re doing is making things, but why are we making them?

Here’s a special invitation from Mike to join him and other education thinkers and doers for a special screening of Most Likely to Succeed:

Please join us on Tuesday, March 8th, to discuss our schools, what we want them to look like, and how we can work together to meet the changing needs of our global society. Doors open at 5:30pm, special guest ¡Oh Antonio + His Imaginary Friends! will play from 6:00 to 6:30pm, and the movie starts at 6:45pm followed by a discussion and Q&A. Since the movie is about innovation in education, we are excited to be able to help Travis High School in developing its own makerspace and innovation. All proceeds from the screening will go directly to support providing resources for the space and teacher training related to those tools. Reserve your ticket here.

About the movie: For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful, and college was an affordable path to a fulfilling career. That world no longer exists. The feature-length documentary Most Likely to Succeed examines the history of education, revealing the growing shortcomings of our school model in todayʼs innovative world. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Greg Whiteley, the film has been named “among the best edu-documentaries ever produced” by Education Week.
See more at http://mltsfilm.org.

Wilderness Awareness School: Professional development for alternative educators

This interview is adapted from one that recently appeared on Dandelion, Breana Sylvester’s blog about her family’s adventures in exploring educational alternatives. Thanks for sharing it with us, Breana! You can meet all three of the fiercely committed educators involved in the interview at this Saturday’s Alternative School Fair.

Ever wonder what your teachers did over the summer? Chances are, whether you went to public or private school, large or small, your teachers did some sort of professional development to become better at what they do. That might mean they took classes at a local university or attended a conference, or worked with other teachers to learn from experts in their field. I know teacher learning is very important, but I wondered, just as each alternative school tends to have its own style, does teacher learning take on its own flair in an alternative setting?

Laura and Michelle, two Austin alt educators, went to Wilderness Awareness School to learn the Art of Mentoring from experts. Instead of sitting in a classroom all day, though, they made the great outdoors their classroom, learned through experience, and brought home lessons in becoming better teachers and happier individuals. They shared experiences neither is likely to forget! 

Michelle Carbone, youth programs coordinator and instructor, Earth Native Wilderness School, an outdoor education program. Job description: Facilitating the building of connections with nature through games and songs, as well as teaching survival skills (e.g., friction fires, learning about edible plants). Background: Studied Environmental Affairs, worked at Keep Milwaukee Beautiful and Outdoor Education programs in Texas and Ohio.

Laura Ruiz Brennand, teacher, Radicle Roots Community School-house, an experiential democratic school. Job description: Mentoring child learning based on play, place, projects, and inspiration; balancing class lessons and self-directed time, with a focus on sustainability and connecting to nature. Background: B.A. and Masters from Texas State; taught 4th grade in Kyle, Texas, before learning about alternative schooling opportunities through Caitlin Macklin.

An interesting side note: Michelle and Laura did not know each other prior to this experience. Even though Radicle Roots was planning on working with Earth Native in the fall, these two educators hadn’t yet met. They were on the same plane and saw each other with their gear and wondered, but when they got to Wilderness Awareness School, they ended up together in the Chipmunk Clan. So it was quite a way to meet!

I had some questions for Michelle and Laura about their experience, and I had so much fun learning about their learning that I wanted to share it. So here’s my interview with these two amazing teachers!

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What appealed to you about Coyote Mentoring before you went?

Laura: Wilderness awareness school is a model school for Radicle Roots, along with the Albany Free School. Caitlin [the school’s founder] had attended the Art of Mentoring program two summers before, and so she knew a lot about it. She talked to me about the 8 shields and the different philosophies. She gave me this big textbook, and it was really dense. She’s like, “Yeah, you’ve just got to go. You can’t read about it, you’ve just got to experience it.” This past summer we were able to afford to go. She wanted me to experience what she experienced, so that way our visions could be more connected. When I got there I was like, “YES! This is what she was talking about.”

Michelle: Dave Scott, the founder of Earth Native, he got his start at Wilderness Awareness School, so it is the model we look to for Earth Native. He went there and learned and he was very involved and then he stayed and taught there. It was his inspiration for starting Earth Native. [My experience with] outdoor education is definitely less structured than classroom education, but it’s somewhere in between a Wilderness Awareness model and public school. I’m still trying to figure out where I can use my experience as an outdoor educator. Going to Earth Native was very important for me to experience. I was teaching summer camp this past summer, and I threw myself into that, and part of me didn’t feel ready to go and have another experience, but it was the most rejuvenating experience I have ever had. Everyone should go, it’s magical. 

From your perspective, based on your experience, what is the philosophy of the Art of Mentoring program?

Laura: Finding your role as a mentor, getting to know your students really well as a mentor, and figuring out where your students are using the 8 shields, and then you get to help them grow. For example, if a student is highly motivated to a project but they’re not very organized, you can help them in that way. Or if they’re struggling with motivation, you can come in as the coyote trickster and get them super motivated by being goofy and silly and bringing joy to the process, and also remembering they’re kids and they have child passions in them like playing and singing and storytelling, and remembering that adults need to play as well. When you’re mentoring a student, when an opportunity arises, you find those opportunities and you figure out what kind of teaching style you want to use. If they’re ready for lots of information, you can use a more didactic style; if they’re curious, you can be more inquiry-based.

Out of everything you learned from the program, is there something that you either immediately wanted to share, or while you were learning you made a connection to how you could have used it in the past?

Michelle: My biggest struggle has been setting boundaries guidelines, because the idea of outdoor education is letting a lot of that go—so knowing when to intervene and when you just need to let the kid figure out their own boundaries through natural consequences. For me that’s really hard. When I see a kid struggling, my instinct is to help them and do whatever I can to keep them from harm. Trying to find that balance is really hard, so going into it that’s what I wanted to figure out. Students are often asking for something, like, “Hey, I’m really thirsty, and I have been running around and I’m dehydrated and now I don’t want to drink water, so I really need you to make me drink water.” Being able to go outside your comfort zone a little is important. I spend so much time doing trickster, and being goofy and crazy. I realize I need to be a little more didactic or use the art of questioning. It was humbling, and made me realize I had a lot to learn. Maybe children respond in another way, and not always the way I tend to do things. Learning that I need to get to know my kids on another level, it was really helpful.

Laura: I think the most beautiful thing about the whole process was that there were all kinds of people coming together. We all are naturalists, and all work with kids, no program was alike, and just knowing that all these people are coming together for the same things and then dispersing back to our homes to spread the warmth and nurturing we learned there was really amazing. I am really looking forward to storytelling. There was this amazing storyteller. He was a performer, and the way he told stories was really artful and inspiring. He brought in these characters that were really interesting, and so real. He brought lots of movements; his body was so dynamic. I want to do that, I want to be a better storyteller. He was so great that you realize the possibilities of storytelling are endless. I felt like I didn’t have stories to tell, but he mentioned that everyone has their own stories to tell. Use your own life experience, and stories will come to you; everyone has something to teach. I am really excited about using the different teaching methods as they arise, especially the trickster, because I think that is my discomfort zone. Thinking about putting on a costume or a mask and then coming into a character, it sounds so fun. I think I’m going to be a raccoon. I’m going to put on a mask and become a raccoon. 


What was something about the experience that surprised you, that you didn’t expect going in?

Laura: I was surprised by how much everyone let themselves be themselves, even in the mornings at 8:00 a.m., when we were all pretending to be penguins or salmon. Everyone got into it and was so open to the program. There were some pretty emotional experiences for some people, because it was such a safe environment. Everyone was really supportive. It was amazing to hear 30 adults singing these songs. We learned a lot of songs. I sing them in the shower, on my bike, on my walk. We wrote them all down. It was so beautiful out there, incredibly beautiful, and the connection with the land that everyone within the community had was also really beautiful.

Michelle: I met someone there, and he was a quieter individual. I could feel him watching me sometimes, and after a while he approached me. He said, “I don’t want to infringe upon who you are and what you’re doing, but I noticed you’re constantly apologizing for who you are and what you’re doing.” I do that. He challenged me that every time I apologized I had to say something nice about myself out loud. To me that felt gross, it was scary and uncomfortable, but I did. Since I’ve gotten back I still do it, in my head, and I’ve been really watching that when I do say I’m sorry, I truly am apologetic for my behavior, because I want to work toward being a strong woman. I was going to learn about mentoring, and I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to grow so much in such a small time. Everyone there was so awesome. You could just feel the love, and it was awesome. It was hands-on, experiential education, and I learned so much!

On leaving:

Michelle: At the end we were asked to say goodbye, to leave the space empty and not leave ourselves, and to leave our clan. It was really difficult! So we lay down on the ground with heads touching and made noises. The noises started working together and harmonizing and it ended up feeling sing-song, and then it was beautiful—we all stopped at the same time.

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What a great way to say goodbye to the people, and the place, and the experience. Thank you, Laura and Michelle. I am really excited to have gotten to share some of your experiences with my readers!

A final note: Earth Native will be holding an Art of Mentoring program here in Austin this March! Please click here for more information.

Breana Sylvester