In praise of (educational) selfishness

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

Ted Graf leads Headwaters School and, among other worthy pursuits, plays ping-pong.

In his first guest contribution to the Alt Ed Austin blog, Ted Graf, Head of School at Headwaters School, provides an excellent list of questions to ask when looking for the right school for any individual learner. If you’ve ever spent time in a private consultation or group workshop with me, you’ve likely grappled with many of these same questions. You’re invited to discuss them with Ted and other Headwaters community members at their January 26 middle and high school open house.

For most schools and those of us who work in them, this time of year is both highly stimulating and thought-provoking. On the stimulating side, we’re doing a lot of thinking, imagining, and planning for next year—how can we deepen our programs and make them more meaningful for students? Are there ways we can strengthen our culture, especially in the context of so much disequilibrium in the larger society? On the thought-provoking side, we’re finding that children and families have more and more insightful questions about how our education (or anyone’s) is really meeting a child’s needs, and I view this as a hopeful development.

So, I find myself having conversations with students and families about the “best” environment for that learner. Though it may sound counterintuitive, I urge students, in partnership with their parents, to think as much about themselves (as learners) as they do about a school setting.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

This scene from the Headwaters River Campus shows an example of a relatively informal learning environment that can be a better fit for many kids than more traditional classrooms.

Below, you’ll find the questions I encourage students to ask themselves as they consider different schools; they can be adapted for younger learners and work nicely in dialogue with parents.

  • In your most rewarding year of school, what was that environment like? Describe its characteristics for yourself. Are those characteristics still true for you as a learner?

  • What kind of learning environment are you looking for now? Informal? Formal? Bustling and busy? Quieter and more reflective? Structured? Individualized? What do you want that environment to look and feel like?

  • What role do your health and sense of balance play in your decision-making about school?

  • What kinds of relationships do you want to have with your teachers? Do you want to be known and understood, or do you prefer some anonymity? How do you feel about calling your teachers by their first names?

  • What kinds of students do you want to be around? After all, you’ll share hours of discussions, projects, rehearsals, practices, games, and performances together. Who motivates you? Who stimulates you? Who lights you up?

  • What kinds of curriculum are you seeking? Answer-based? Question-based? Socratic and discussion-based? How much research? How many projects? How do you feel about exams and the like?

  • Particularly pertinent to grades 4 through 12, how willing are you to use your voice to shape the learning environment around you? [At its essence, this question is asking you (and your parents) about whether you see education as something happening WITH the student or FOR the student.]

Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

Headwaters students deep in exploration at the Blanton Museum of Art last December. How active—and interactive, and proactive—should your learning be?

To be clear (and based on my own experience as a teacher and school leader), I am biased toward making a meaningful and vigorous education WITH the student. If you have other questions you find useful at this moment in a child’s educational journey, please share them in the comments.

Ted Graf

Alt Ed “on the air”


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


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

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

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

Puppetry with objects unlocks the imagination and opens the mind


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

Caroline Reck

If only I had learned to code!

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D., is a mom, a professor at St. Edward’s University, the founder of Loving Life is Easy, and the Homeschool/Alt Ed Marketing Coordinator at Code Wizards HQ. In this guest post she explains why learning the language of coding is just as important as learning a foreign language.

As a Spanish educator for the last seventeen years, I have the value of language acquisition memorized. I have convinced hundreds of students (and parents!) that second language and immersion experiences are investments that keep giving for the long term. None of this is new. The Eaton Institute outlines the Top 10 Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language, and among the weightiest of these are that it enhances brain power and that it improves career opportunities.

Considering that our kids are going into a world in which the college investment is, for many, of questionable value, the ability to stand out is a rarity, so learning a foreign language—or many—is a must. I specifically encourage Spanish. Spanish will be the most-spoken language on Earth in 2050. Although Spanish is a romance language (unlike English), it is, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, one of the top 10 easiest languages to learn for English speakers. This is another plus.

That being said, I now find myself encouraging fluency in a “newer language,” one that is equally accessible to all second language learners and can’t be misunderstood because of an accent or grammar: coding.

If you had ever told me that in 2019 I, as a humanist, would promote computer languages, I would have cried, bloody lie! Can it transform your personality? Can it bring cohesiveness to our society? Can it encourage new ways of seeing the world? To my surprise, I have discovered that the answer to all of these questions is YES.

This is why I am not only encouraging students to take coding but also reaching out to parents to humanize what can seem to be a very “inhuman” subject. Not long ago, if I had seen a screenshot of children’s computer coding work like the one below, I would not have gotten a sense of community or of creating something that could carry out such an intricate, complex task. But I was wrong. The way I view it now, the world is adapting to a new language that isn’t at all familiar to me but will be a game changer for my son.

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from  Code Wizards HQ . Photo credit:  Homeschool Review Crew .

Comic created using HTML code taught during live class instruction from Code Wizards HQ. Photo credit: Homeschool Review Crew.

Experts have hailed coding education as a huge benefit to a child’s future success in the job market. It enhances the ability to process problems logically (vs. emotionally) and adds nuance to the understanding of how our world works. Most importantly, however, may be that it is the newest way to actively engage in changing the future. How is this possible? Think about how Facebook, Netflix, Google, Apps, etc. have enabled activists to organize and reach out to others on critical issues and raise awareness of everything around us. Coding, some believe, has already changed the world for the better.

States are now proposing bills that would grant coding equal standing with other “traditional” second languages in school curricula. A fiery debate has ensued about equating one with the other. It isn’t a choice between one or the other, though. Our children need both. As an educator, my teaching philosophy isn’t “My goal is to teach students words”; rather, it is that “Through my classroom, students see and experience the Hispanic World.” Not only do I teach them the language; I also help them understand Spanish-speaking cultures and everything they entail, to the best of my ability in the time given. They say that hindsight is 20/20, and in this case it is true. I now see clearly that I could have provided my students even more opportunities in new and inspiring ways by collaborating with native speakers, reaching across the globe in seconds . . . if only I had learned to code.

Ana-María Medina, Ph.D.

Math for Computer Science: Breaking down barriers to early computer science education


Eric Bennett, M.Ed., directs
Future Set Tech Camp, where creativity meets technology in project-based STEM summer camps, Saturday workshops, and after-school programs. He joins us on the blog to explain why he created a free online Math for Computer Science course for kids.

The idea that elementary-aged children will benefit from a course on a buzzy programming language is certainly appealing to well-intentioned parents: understanding the world around us increasingly means understanding technology; jobs in software engineering and information technology are both high-paying and in-demand; many children are naturally curious about technology. The problem with this idea is that writing even the most basic computer program requires an understanding of math concepts beyond the scope of a typical elementary curriculum. If students lack this math knowledge, computer science instruction will not have the intended benefit: students might be able to copy an instructor’s code but will not understand how it works or be able to produce code of their own.

Since math is used so extensively in computer science, is it possible that students will learn it through the process of writing a computer program or developing a video game? While the notion of learning math through games or in the context of a fun project is seductive, the reality is that mathematics is best learned through structured practice. Procedural fluency, as it is termed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), is a critical component to teaching mathematics, and fluency is only developed through repetition. Creative applications such as coding or game development will certainly enhance a child’s understanding but cannot replace more rigorous instruction.


For these reasons, mathematics has often been used as a prerequisite for computer science courses: students are allowed to enroll in a computer science course only after completing a particular mathematics course. While this approach ensures that students are prepared to reap the benefits of a computer science course, it also creates a barrier to entry. Thus, whether students simply lack math knowledge or it is enforced as a prerequisite, the benefits of courses in computer programming and video game development are limited for many interested students. Two solutions to this problem are clear: the first would involve selecting computer science curriculum that does not require this math knowledge; the second would be to deliver targeted mathematics instruction to interested students.

Front-end web design involves HTML and CSS, both of which are markup languages rather than programming languages. Just as a word processor can be instructed to adjust font sizes, spacing, and alignment, markup languages can be used to add structure to the words on a web page. While numbers can be used to specify sizes, dimensions, and positions within these markup languages, they cannot be expressed as variables, expressions, or equations. Thus, HTML and CSS are an excellent introduction to computer science for elementary-aged students. However, because most of these students are more interested in creating a fun game than an informative website, this solution may not be ideal.

The math concepts involved in computer programming and video game development are typically taught to older students, so this content should be presented to elementary students in a different way. Visual models and manipulatives are often used to assist struggling students and are promoted by the NCTM for their effectiveness in teaching conceptual understanding. These techniques, then, should serve elementary students well in tackling more advanced math concepts. Additionally, in computer programming, calculations are made by the computer program rather than the computer programmer. For the purposes of computer science readiness, then, tedious fraction and decimal arithmetic can be pushed aside in favor of integer operations and more abstract concepts like variables and variable expressions. For an example of a curriculum constructed according to these principles, check out Future Set Tech Camp’s Math for Computer Science, a free online course.

Rather than using mathematics as a barrier to entry, closing the door to many interested students, we can use computer science to motivate these students to learn specific, carefully presented math concepts. With so many children naturally drawn to technology and our job market’s demand for computer science skills stronger than ever, there are clear benefits in delivering computer science education to elementary-aged students. With the right mathematics and computer science curriculum, these benefits can be fully realized.

Eric Bennett

Teen Sister Circles: Where girls discover their power


Guest contributor Heather Hoover is the director of GS Teen Sister Circles Division for Global Sisterhood. Based in Austin, Texas, and serving 85 countries worldwide, Global Sisterhood provides a community platform for the feminine rising through in-person Sister Circles and online transformational resources. Heather has a background in education and social services as a teacher and director.  She has facilitated women’s circles for almost 15 years and is currently a mother to three children, ages 12, 9, and 7.

I can remember some specific moments in my life, as a young girl growing up, that made a mark on me as a person. These moments defined who I would become and shaped some deep-seated beliefs about myself. They were not all moments of joy and triumph but often darker times when I doubted myself, felt insecure, isolated, and concerned about what others thought about me. These moments deeply affected how I would relate to others as an adult.

Most adults remember our middle school and high school days as times of awkwardness due to our changing bodies and hormones that made us feel different and out of place. We can chalk it up to “just the teenage years” —we all go or “grow” through it.

But imagine if we had had a safe and intentional space to explore those feelings, or to process our problems, our insecurities, fears, and doubts. Imagine if we had had a place where we felt truly seen, heard, and accepted without judgment, and a place that could have given us the tools to build a foundation for self-confidence, communication skills, relating to others, trusting, and knowing our own inner guidance.

I imagine things would have been very different if I’d had those opportunities. It might not have been as much work to get to the place of trust in myself and others where I am today. Unfortunately, many adult women I know have never been able to shed the negative beliefs about themselves that were created early on, and they still deal with self-doubt around their own value.

I especially see this, now, as a mother of my 12-year-old daughter and two other children. I’m also seeing how very different the world is from when I grew up. In some ways, the pressures on young girls are the same, and in other ways, they are accentuated and more intense with social media.  It is imperative that girls and young people be provided the tools to navigate all of the social and emotional stresses of living in the world today.

Offering young women safe and authentic in-person connections and support is essential so that they can understand their truth, tap into what their heart truly desires, and believe they can achieve it.

This is what leads me to my current work.

Sister Circles

I work with Global Sisterhood, a consciously minded business that enables women all over the world to gather in safe and authentic spaces to remove our masks, be heard, be seen, and be supported with community and transformational themes essential to women’s empowerment. These circles have literally changed my life and the lives of many women I have witnessed over the years.

Through my own growth, my passion was born. Today, I create safe and fun spaces for teen girls to discover how to have a healthy body image, navigate social media, trust and know their inner voice, communicate their boundaries clearly, be able to resolve conflict, and grow in their abilities to be resilient leaders who know their innate worth and value.

Often, women in our adult circles have voiced, “If only I’d had a space like this when I was younger.” This is why Global Sisterhood is now creating Teen Sister Circles to support girls all over the world to feel supported, safe, seen, and heard, so they can trust themselves and fully step into their gifts and power.

I began this work when I was a teacher at the Whole Life Learning Center, where my colleague and I facilitated Teen Sister Circles. It was amazing to see the girls open up, be vulnerable, share, and recognize they were not alone in their process. It was a nourishing space filled with art, music, movement, activities, deep sharing, games, a time to make friends, a sweet and safe space just to be.

In another teen sister circle I was part of, I also witnessed tremendous self-esteem grow within the girls, and it was an honor to help guide this process. I remember one girl was very shy and afraid to express herself, but at the end of our circles, at the graduation, she read a letter to her mother on forgiveness, and by choice read it in front of all the girls and their parents. It was powerful and moved all of us to tears. It was a privilege to watch the change in this beautiful young woman and the confidence that was blossoming in her.

Research shows that by supporting women and girls we change the world, and through my work with teen girls, I believe this to be true. I believe that through Teen Sister Circles, we can greatly enhance our daughters’ lives and prevent young girls from developing negative beliefs about themselves through social pressures and our fast-paced modern culture. Our girls need a safe and sacred space to share what’s really going on inside their hearts and minds, so they can feel empowered and confident in who they are and who they are becoming. The result of participating in one of our circles will be your daughter feeling confident to be herself and stand up for her values and truths.

If you are interested in learning more about Teen Sister Circles and the topics we cover, for your daughter or gender-neutral youth, please contact me: It is my hope that these Teen Sister Circles can offer your daughter the space, time, and opportunities for reflection that will help her know herself as the unique, special young woman that you truly know her to be.

Heather Hoover