Who Wants to Go Ad Astra?

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Carl got me obsessed with his object of obsession – Elon Musk’s Ad Astra.  It’s contagious this disease of wanting to create an ideal school for your kids but what if you don’t have the resources of somebody who sends people to outer space, builds solar power roof tiles and the sexiest electric cars?  You refine your dream in your spare time hoping for a synchronicity that will bring people the magnitude of Alibaba’s Jack Ma to your doorsteps.

Yes, I could totally pitch this idea of an alternative school to Jack Ma and jointly study how it could be scaled up in China.  Right now, it doesn’t seem scale-able, expandable because it’s like a micro-school.  This is the conceptual schedule:

9:00 – 10:00 am – study tutorial (one teacher for every 5 students)

10:00 – 11:00 am – free play and personal project time

11:00 – 12:00 nn – study tutorial

12:00 – 1:00 pm  lunch

1:00 – 1:45 pm – optional classes to choose from or study tutorial

1:45 – 2:30 pm – free play and personal project time

2:30 – 3:15 pm – optional classes to choose from or study tutorial

3:15 – 3:30 pm – group meeting (one teacher for every 5 students)

The teacher to student ratio is low – one teacher for every five students so that would make this endeavor costly and probably more expensive than the typical private school. If you have near-unlimited resources like Elon Musk, you can experiment and push the ratio as low as you want but what if you’re dreaming of a system that is accessible to anyone regardless of income or nationality?

The model I’ve come across that has a highly personalized, one-on-one tutorial style mixed with loads of free time is the North Star Self-Directed Learning Center for Teens.  I could ask Ken Danford how the concept could be applied to the elementary level where learning the rudimentary skills of reading, writing and math would still play an important part.  Grade schoolers can study reading, writing and math through topics and books that personally interest each child.  High schoolers could break out of the box more having acquired the basics.  It would be a school with no grade levels, no grades (in terms of A, B, C, 100%), no tests but it could help prepare for tests voluntarily chosen by the students themselves such as those in preparation for college.

The limitations of this model is the cost.  Factor in you’d want resources and facilities such as library, garden, playground, laboratory, workshop, space for arts and sports and it would be wonderful located by both beach and mountain or even right in the city but in an unused lot with lots of trees, then the cost can be astronomical.  Might as well send your child to a good International School or a progressive private school since they’ve got economic viability down pat.  If you want something more affordable, there’s always homeschooling.

But Ad Astra calls.

Maybe we could run it first as a two-week camp for homeschoolers?

Maybe we could study how micro-schools operate?

Maybe homeschooling parents can take turns as volunteer teachers?

The Agile Learning Center which started in New York and adapted in other states and countries might be an interesting model to pitch especially to a visionary techie like Jack Ma.  It would be good to see a version of this in China or the Philippines.  It would also be interesting to study how democratic schools were scaled up in Israel, entering the public sphere and acquiring government funding.

In Cavite, Philippines, there’s the Gopala Learning Haven for homeschoolers and learners of all ages in a farm setting.  Maybe they could try mixing academics and play.

In Dagang Youtian, Tianjin, China, two mothers, Susan and Rita dream of appropriating land for children to grow vegetables and transform it into a children’s playground like what this man in China did for his daughter.  He sold his house in the city, rented 110 acres of wasteland and built a fairy tale home with garden.  Susan and Rita are eyeing a piece of land that can be used by their kids and other people’s children as a way to reconnect with nature during the weekends.

Ad Astra – Elon Musk’s School

Elon Musk builds alternative un-school

Children build their own three-story playground

Dangerous playgrounds of the 1900s

Story about the man who sold his house in the city, rented and transformed wasteland into a fairly tale home and garden

The photos here don’t have anything to do with this blog entry’s topic but I missed posting these pictures.  Anyway, a place like this could be a good site for that kind of imaginary school. This area is near the Great Wall in Tianjin but then most people in that town would be sending their kids to traditional school.  The location would play a key role in that there is a concentrated number of families who share similar ideas or have overlapping visions. Or it could be a pop-up school that is not location-dependent — like the Hero’s Journey Camp but re-conceptualized with more academic bent and content.

Possibilities, always possibilities.

Ad Astra, by the way, is Latin for “To the stars.”

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Football and School Updates

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Joshua is truly the happiest when he’s either on the field playing football or snowboarding on the mountain slopes.  So when we finally found the football club he can join here in Dagang, it was such an exciting celebration for him that he can have his fill of football twice a week.   His foot was hurt on Saturday during the 3 pm session and his coach said it’s because his shoes were new, but Joshua still insisted on playing Sunday.  He already had one class Sunday at 8:30 in the morning but when 10:00 rolled by, he saw his friends come in the converted warehouse and joined their class so he had a total of three hours playing football that day.  I thought it was too much but if he’s fine and joyful about it, then it’s okay.

Jimmy decided not to enroll in football class because he said he liked the Futbol Fanatics in Manila better.  Whenever we’re back in the Philippines, we try to fit in as much football practice as we can.   For the age group of Jimmy that Saturday in Dagang, they only had practice exercises and no game so Jimmy didn’t like it and ever decisive, he made it explicitly known to the coach and me.  The coach thought Jimmy’s body is built for football so maybe when he’s older and more mature, he could try joining again.  I didn’t enroll Jimmy in football and had to find other things for him to do.  This Sunday, Jimmy went to the big playground in the mall with his best friend, Yang Jia Yi where they let ’em rip and roar.

It’s not a surprise both Joshua and Jimmy don’t enjoy Chinese school so I try to compensate by making sure their weekends are packed with fun, with some studying on the side.  They both think school time is too long and play time is too short.  We sneak in some extra playground time after picking up Jimmy in class but that is limited because the kindergarten guard rings the bell exactly fifteen minutes after five, reminding everyone to go home.  We also have playtime at the park after dinner.

I wish Joshua and Jimmy can attend a school which strikes a better balance between academics and play but we’d have to go back to the Philippines for that most probably. Anyway, it’s good to experience challenging and difficult things to spur the growth process.  I just hope we make a transition to a better school system soon.

Anyway, I see the good effects school has on Joshua.  He is more responsible and considerate.  He takes his study time more seriously than when we were homeschooling. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t take studying for granted anymore since he sees his classmates and playmates seriously doing their homework.  Daily classroom dynamics make him more aware of the importance of preparing for school.  Even when I work with Joshua now on his English studies, he has improved his sense of interest, focus and attention.  He packs his bag for school by himself and overall, the training is quite good for him.   It’s like an extended camp only there’s too much time sitting on the chair.   I wish it could be more interactive and physically more engaging for them but what could I do?  We’re in China.

I still wish I could be Elon Musk who built the Ad Astra School for his kids.  I have this picture in my mind of what would fit Joshua and Jimmy.   The school would be structured this way:  one hour academic tutorials sandwiched between free play time.  It will be one hour of study time with only three to five other students, followed by an hour of free play and the whole day alternates between study and free time.  The free time is the Sudbury – Democratic School part while the study time is more of a tailored-fit tutorial.   The teachers only handle three to five students at a time and they can switch among the groups of students.  There will be an abundance of resources – board games, chess, computers, 3-D printer, Lego sets, robotics, wooden blocks, and complete facilities – laboratory, swimming pool, football field, swings, slides, a giant trampoline . . . . . Oh and it’s near the mountain and the sea so they can trek up the mountain and play on the beach. . . . . Okay, okay, I’m shooting for the moon but you get the point.  There is a Filipino saying that goes, “Libre namang mangarap” (Dreaming is for free).   Who knows what the universe can conspire?

My school concept sounds far-fetched but there is a Standford study that shows, “School recess offers benefits to student well-being.”   The study shows “that recess is a profoundly important part of the school day. Well-organized recess programs engage students in meaningful play and prepare them to learn once back in the classroom.”

And that’s what I kept telling Joshua — I loved going to school when I was young because of recess during which time I got to play with my friends.  However, in China, they don’t have recess because people don’t take snacks between meals so their break time is really too short.  Filipinos need their merienda.  How I wish I had the power to turn my Elon Musk-Ad Astra dream come true. Imagine recess period not just fifteen minutes long but a full hour!

Here’s to longer recess in the future!

(And no, please do not take the photos above to mean that my son is a supporter of the madman currently sitting in Malacanang.  Jimmy just happened to pose that way without any prompting or deliberate reference.) 

 

 

 

 

 

Our Community Library is Open!

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Yesterday, Sunday, September 17, 2017, our community library opened it’s doors.   Dreamed up by Susan and me over a year ago while waiting for our sons in the kindergarten yard, we can’t believe it has become a reality merely a month after we had just come back from living and traveling elsewhere — a case of the universe conspiring.

It started with a nearly empty room of tables.  We met twice in the room to conceptualize and plan the launch.  The first batch of books came from four contributing families.  The stools came from a neighboring room and furniture was added from our storage space. Signs were made by the art teacher and her students.

I thought that we needed to raise funds and amass book donations first but it rolled-out faster that I expected because my partners were more proactive about the whole thing. Why wait for books to fill up the shelves?  Open the library even at its bare state, and let the people come with their books.  To be a member, all you need to do is bring at least five books and then you can borrow three books at a time.

“If you build it, they will come,” the quote from the movie Field of Dreams goes and the people came bringing their bags of books.  Never underestimate the power of four determined mothers who love books and who don’t want their children to lose out on the opportunity of having their own library.  Chinese schools and towns don’t automatically come with a library.  There is a public one in Dagang Oilfield but as one local said, the books are too old and the place is not at all inviting.  There are a couple of commercial libraries but you need to pay a monthly or yearly fee to use those.  In this case, all you need is to contribute your own books and you’re welcome to borrow from the library.

A community library could be a shot in the arm and it doesn’t have to operate every day. We are starting out with Sundays, 3:00 to 5:00 pm, hoping that the more volunteers step up, the more opening periods we can have.  It’s a regular community activity that brings people together, an impetus for sharing resources and in the future, the space can be for anything the users and volunteers imagine it could be.

The pioneer mothers envisioned the library to be managed by children – a library for children, by children.  It’s called Four Leaf Clover after the four founding families. The kids themselves thought of the name, explaining that in the future, the four can grow into five, six, seven, onward.  On the launch day, the children delivered the explanation about how the library is used, while two moms manned the laptops, recording the book titles.

Outside the library, there’s room for noisier activities co-opted by kids who dart in and out.  It’s a good thing the Yunke Club has the facilities where their unlimited energy can be expended.  Jimmy and Yang Jia Yi spread out pages of Plants vs. Zombies on the play mat while Joshua turns the Spiderman bag into a football hurtling through the corridor. They find an unused ping pong room downstairs and balls fire away.

Next week, when things have settled down, we’ll have a quieter, calmer library and it’s okay even if it’s not.  It’s what people want it to be.

And to Susan who’s beaming with giddy happiness and who couldn’t believe all this was real that morning she woke up, we got to work on the vegetable garden-farm-playground next.

 

Receptivity

Around four years ago, a friend of mine was leaving China and she gave me a book that helped her go through a relationship crisis in her life — Mindful Loving by Henry Grayson.  I read some parts and saw her fuchsia pen marks and underscored passages but somehow the book didn’t resonate with me a few years back.  Yesterday, I went rummaging through stuff in storage and the book popped out of nowhere back into my hands and I read a passage and was hooked.  This time, I understood things more.  I don’t know what happened between then and now but our receptivity somehow opens up and what was incomprehensible before makes more sense in our current life.

But Albert Einstein had a profound awareness of our gross misunderstanding of who and what we are, and suggested a possible solution:

A human being is part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness.  This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us.  Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living things and all of nature.

Indeed, the reason we blame others – particularly our partners – for our unhappiness is that we do not recognize the two central aspects of our True Self: (1) that we are not separate, but interconnected to each other and the universe; and (2) that we are powerful beyond measure.

When we begin to realize our interconnectedness, that everything we think, feel, say, and do affects those around us in some way, then we begin to own our magnificent power to influence all our relationships.  We awaken as if from a bad dream, no longer able to view oursleves as victims to others’ feelings, behaviors or actions.  Now awakening to our True Self, we are able to move from ego-based relationships to more peaceful and happy relationships.

I was going to continue typing the passages but it’s easier to post them as photos:

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It is important to recognize, however, that we can never really separate, since all separation is an illusion anyway.

 

Finally Football; At Last Art

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Finally found the place where Joshua and Jimmy can play football with other kids and with coaches who ensure they improve their ball-kicking and defending skills.  What a pleasant surprise, too that it’s an indoor place perfect for summer and winter days.  I thought that it would be difficult to find something like the Futbol Fanatics that Joshua and Jimmy attend in Manila but they had it here, too and the program is just as fun and training just as serious.  Goes to show that you only have to keep trying and looking.

When we arrived in Dagang Youtian more than three years ago, I looked for an art class for the kids but was disappointed that it was the coloring-in type and wasn’t at all creative.  I thought maybe that’s how limited and restrictive they are in small towns in China because the bigger cities like Tianjin had the “real” type of art class where freedom reigns.  My friend introduced me to an art teacher recently and I was happy to find what I was looking for all along but her class schedule didn’t jive with Joshua and Jimmy’s. Then our neighbor showed us her son’s works on the wall and it was amazing.  Yang Jia Yi is Jimmy’s favorite playmate and yesterday, Jimmy joined his art class and enjoyed making donut-inter-galactic inspired art with clay.

Why is this article filed under the category, Projects?  Because I didn’t want to create a separate category for parenting or kids related projects.  Anyway, it’s a Mom Inc. Project – my feeling soccer-mom, feeling drive-kids-to-extra-curricular-activities, seek-and-you-shall-find, problem-solving project.

 

 

Library Hopes

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When I was single and I could spend as much as I wanted on books and way before I had my own kids, I collected children’s books because I love the illustrations and the words were a big bonus.  I collected books in general and dreamed of having my own library cafe like almost every book lover I know.

I read English books to Joshua and Jimmy every night but I always wished that somebody could read to them in Chinese consistently, regularly every night.  Literacy expert, Timothy Shanahan wrote:

Reading to kids exposes them to richer vocabulary than they usually hear from the adults who speak to them, and can have positive impacts on their language, intelligence, and later literacy achievement.

My friend, Susan, introduced me to a membership kids library here in Dagang and I immediately registered Joshua and Jimmy there where a teacher can read to them in Chinese books to their hearts desire.   A number of books are translations from original English, French and German books.  Because I’m so stoked about the illustrations, I’m just sharing them here:

My friend, Susan and I hope we can organize a library or book exchange events for children that won’t cost money for kids to join.  The membership library comes with a monthly fee but we envision a place where kids can go and pay only 1 RMB per use that will go to supporting the child who manages the facility for the day.  It’s a library for kids managed by kids.  The other alternative to host events such as book exchanges, film showing, theater play and other ideas most welcome.

Susan met with a group of children who have been joining the weekend activities she has been organizing this past summer.  She asked them how they would design a library for and run by children.  Because there were four children (one of whom was not able to attend the meeting), they named the library Four Leaf Clover thinking that there would be more leaves in the future.  They discussed how to get books for the library by bringing their own books and asking friends and strangers to bring their own books as well. They also discussed what penalty should be given to those who destroy or ruin the books. The launch of the “library” will be this coming Sunday.  There are no books and no shelves — only a bare room with tables and a projector.  It will start off as an activity where kids can bring their books and then take it from there.  Who knows where it will lead us all.

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This germ of an idea started last year in June – July when Susan and I would be meeting outside the kindergarten after picking up our kids from class and they’d be playing for a while before heading home.  The moms would congregate and chat while the children ran around like whirling dervishes.  But the seeds of the library idea have been lurking inside Susan and I way before last year.  We both harbored the same dream waiting for another passing ship to meet up and see what could be done to realize it.

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This is not connected to the library idea and I was thinking of developing a blog entry about it but just putting it here to be shared:

Why I’m a Public School Teacher but a Private School Parent

 

 

 

Routine Plus Plus

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So we have fallen into a routine – waking the kids up before seven so that we could be out of the door by 7:20 so we get to school before eight.   I head home to do chores, write, correspond, rest, work on projects and then it’s time to pick Jimmy up at 5:00 in the afternoon.  Joshua leaves his school at 4:10 and goes to this place across the street where he plays board games with kids from different grade levels after doing his homework.  Jimmy stops for a few minutes at their kindergarten playground before we pick up Joshua at 5:15 and then we have dinner and go skateboarding and scootering in the park across our home.  They are home to have a bath by 8 and off to bed at 9 but it’s baffling how time is never enough and they end up sleeping later than our target.

There are variations around these basic dance steps that break the routine such as a visit to a friend’s house or like yesterday’s powwow meeting with Donna, Rita and Susan to discuss the library and garden-playground ideas — four moms who want to organize alternatives for their children to counterbalance the rigid structure of the Chinese education system and give them more opportunities to play with other children of various ages.

Joshua insists that the time to play with other kids in school is too short but he has a three-hour break in between the morning and afternoon classes and one hour after school to play with other students from different grade levels in the house where they have lunch.  I got them board games as my “sneaky Sudbury strategy,” so that Joshua could maximize the free, fun time with other kids.  Still it’s not enough.  Even P.E., he says, is too short and sometimes he doesn’t get to run as many times as he wants because they have to take turns.

When I asked Joshua which he would like to do after school or in the weekends – taekwando, taichi, calligraphy, guitar, drums — Joshua paused and said definitively, football.  It was not even in my mind as a choice because I hardly see other children playing football around so I took it as a serious mission to find a regular football activity for him.   I asked the guard at Joshua’s school who said that grade 1 and 2 kids are too small to play football.  Only older kids play football.  I couldn’t argue with him if that’s how they are in China but in the Philippines, football classes are offered to kids as small as 4 years old.  Anyway, I pursued the trail and kept asking various people until Joshua’s playmate’s mother introduced me to a football coach.  The good news about the football club is that they have a group for small kids and big kids so both Joshua and Jimmy can join.  Jason has to get the proper football shoes and they’re good to go.

Jimmy’s kindergarten teacher requested me to get him an abacus because they are learning to use it but I bought the wrong one so the teacher gave Jimmy her son’s old abacus.  I love the initiative and sincere concern.  When we got home to do the abacus homework, I was shocked because they were adding and subtracting two digit-numbers.  I don’t know how to use an abacus so it fell again on my sister-in-law to teach them.

Actually, Jiang Ping, my sister-in-law has been the perfect tutor for Joshua and Jimmy.  I can’t help them because it’s all in Chinese but my sister-in-law has a very effective style with the two of them.  She walks Jimmy through the abacus which he gets right away.  She guides Jimmy to practice writing his letters in preparation for learning pinyin.  She trains Joshua to open the app on the cellphone that lets parents and children view what the homework is for the day and to practice what he needs to memorize for school.  I admire Jiang Ping’s patience mixed with firm discipline.

My husband still prefers homeschooling to traditional school.  I personally prefer a progressive school and would only consider homeschooling when Joshua and Jimmy know how to read and write in both English and Chinese.  I would also only agree to homeschooling if I can get tutors for them and if learning can be done within a community of other homeschoolers.

Yesterday, I visited my friend at the International School in TEDA and I marveled at their corridors bursting with creative artworks done by the students.  For a moment, I envied the Chinese parents who walked in with their small child, touring the school, exploring the possibility of sending their child there.  “Wow, they must be so rich,” I thought,  “I wonder what business it is that they do.”  Then I thought, at the end of the day, it’s not how much money you spend on the education of your child.  At the end of the day, it’s the values they imbibe and their character that matters.  Academics don’t count as much as character.

Plus, there are always ways to compensate for deficiencies of an education system.  For instance, International Schools and private schools in the Philippines have libraries.  Public Chinese schools don’t.  But there is a membership children’s library where we live and I registered Joshua and Jimmy so they can choose what to read.  If there is not enough time for physical activities in school there is always the football club in the weekends and on the weekdays, there’s the park across our home where Joshua and Jimmy happily skateboard and scooter and where it’s easy to find instant playmates.

Every night, there’s a group of adults who walk briskly around the park accompanied by marching music.  Jimmy walks two or three speedy steps for each of the adult’s one big step and he manages to keep up with them, his legs whirring like a machine in a blur.  I could barely keep up.