Three Cheers for Chinese Camp!

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Chinese summer camp is over.  On the seventh day, parents picked up their kids in Jixian and were treated to a performance we were so proud and happy to witness.

Every day this past week, seventeen children studied Chinese calligraphy, two types of Chinese flute called taodi (for the boys) and xun (for the girls), two types of Chinese checkers called weiqi and wuzeqi and a type of martial arts called taichi.  They also had sessions on robotics, training in first-aid as well as a life coach.  They wrote a diary everyday and discussed about their dreams and what they want in the future.  They had five full-time and three part-time teachers.

The camp is surrounded by mountains so they trekked up and did their taichi against breathtaking backdrops.  They fixed their beds, did their laundry and ate meals prepared by a really good cook.  The parents had lunch on the day we brought them and picked them up so we know and trust they had good food plus a lot of watermelon.  The parents were updated daily with loads of pictures coming in through our WeChat Group so we felt “fangxin” knowing the kids were relishing the experience.

At night, teachers came in to check that the kids were asleep but one of the monitors recounted the time when a group of kids woke up at 4 in the morning to play weiqi.  The TV remote controls were collected at night to make sure they don’t watch but Joshua told me one of the kids had a cellphone that could control the TV so they were able to sneak in time to do the forbidden which is classic summer camp fare.

Aside from the growth and maturity I notice in Joshua, the other wonderful take-aways from this camp are these beautiful souvenirs that he can enjoy for always.

This is the calligraphy work Joshua produced during the camp:

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Jimmy wasn’t able to join the camp because he’s still too young, but when he’s 8 years old, we’d let him attend.  The day before we picked up Joshua, Jimmy drew this:

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Read more about the camp in Chinese: Shan Shui You Dao

You can watch the video here: Shan Shui You Dao Video

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Synthesis: Alternative Schools Visited on Our Road Trip

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Having lived in China for more than eight years, I was introduced to the problems and deficiencies of the educational system from horror stories told by students in the university where I taught for two years.  After seeing the worrying effects on students’ lives and attitudes, I feared my own children languishing in the system and didn’t want the light in their eyes to go out.  My anxiety about the rigidity of schooling transformed into an eager and passionate curiosity to research non-traditional forms of education such as Waldorf, democratic schools, homeschooling, unschooling and Finland’s much-admired model.  As a mother of two, I wanted to understand best practices for my children hoping to expose them to broader and liberating opportunities.

My husband and I decided to embark on our dream to drive around the world which, in its earliest planning stage was a continuous loop that soon evolved into segmented portions.  Last year, we drove from the north to south of China as well as visited the Green School in Bali, Indonesia.  To launch my research, my Chinese friend, Donna and I attended the first Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC) held in Taiwan.

This year, for a little over three months and over 10,000 miles, my husband, two sons and I drove from San Francisco to New York, using and eventually selling the pick-up truck we purchased at the starting line.  Aside from staying with friends, fellow worldschoolers and camping at National Parks, we visited various alternative schools along the way.

To get a handle on the range of schools visited, some of which are not technically schools, the diagram below locates each one within the spectrum from traditional to progressive to self-directed.  This spectrum is also echoed in homeschooling which runs the gamut from following a strict and formal curriculum to having none at all, the curriculum being the child himself or herself.

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My interest in the examples between traditional and progressive and between progressive and self-directed lie in the possibilities of bridging traditional and self-directed paths.  For parents who may not be comfortable in going all the way to the extreme end of unschooling or fully self-directed education, the progressive alternatives do offer a degree of self-direction, albeit limited and provide innovations that could be applied in traditional and public schools.  For instance, laboratory schools like the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute in Toronto, deliver a platform to test, implement and disseminate education tools and methods that could lessen the negative impacts of traditional schools.  The Metropolitan School may look like a regular public school on the outside but it has more features shared with the Northstar model for SDE than with regular high schools.  The students can take community college courses and work more days a week than they actually “attend” school.

As a parent, I personally fall into this group needing a bridge between two polar opposites.  A product of Catholic education from gradeschool to high school to university, I carry old habits and attitudes that may take some time to change even though I admire those who practice SDE.

Choosing the schools to visit came from hours of googling, watching TED Talks and networking at the APDEC.  I was so excited to visit the Tinkering School after watching Gever Tully’s TED Talk.  Even if I didn’t get to visit the original in San Francisco, I was grateful that the Brooklyn Apple Academy had one that Tully himself was involved with.

Self-Directed Schools and Centers

For this article, I shall focus on the self-directed schools and centers which we visited in the United States and which I shall group in these five main categories:

  1. Free School – Albany Free School
  2. Center for Homeschoolers – Macomber Center, Brooklyn Apple Academy
  3. Agile Learning Center – ALC New York
  4. Self-Directed Center for High Schoolers – North Star for Self Directed Learning for Teens, Princeton Learning Cooperative
  5. Sudbury School

What unites these schools is that the teachers, founders and staff experienced disillusionment with the status quo and have made the transition from a traditional school to their present work where they feel more joy and fulfillment as educator-mentor-facilitator.  Ken Danford’s bold and courageous move from public school to establishing an SDE model for teens that has existed for more than two decades is to a certain extent, mirrored by the teachers at the Albany Free School who are happier in an environment where students don’t feel coerced.

The teachers or staff could have also made the switch from one alternative (e.g. Sudbury or Free School) to another (e.g. center for homeschoolers or ALC) where they followed their hearts which sought something more attuned to their personal philosophies.

ALC is gaining traction deserving its own category as it opens up more branches within and outside America.  It may be a kind of “Sudbury” growing its own brand, inspired by the high tech IT industry.

Although I wasn’t able to visit a Sudbury school, I was still able to get to the office of the original one in Framingham.  Some people who worked at a Sudbury school shared some points they did not agree with such as discouraging parental involvement and how “democratic” meetings can be abused.

ALC in tune with being agile, keeps meetings to a minimum and they don’t vote on issues but instead go with the spirit of the discussion.  Although, some students still think of it as a way of voting, in terms of length and content, there’s still a big difference between the meetings that take place in a Sudbury and an ALC school.

Just as the teachers found an oasis for their practice of SDE, the students are also grateful for the alternative with some feeling “rescued” from the prison of four-walled classrooms.  There are also students who have never been exposed to anything but SDE, with their parents believing firmly in this form of learning from the get-go.  The parents who talked to me were excited about the empowering quality of SDE.  One father wanted to start his own homeschooling center for their area.

There are two big categories of SDE’s that I found on this trip:

  1. A school that is a kind of “unschool” – Democratic, Free, Sudbury, ALC
  2. A center or resource center for homeschoolers and unschoolers – Macomber, North Star, Princeton Learning Cooperative

In the “school” type, the kids go to school five times a week and there are still the requisite documentation for the education board.  For instance, ALC still has to fit the things that they do within state regulations.  The second type emphasizes that they are not a school but they provide resources and opportunities for socialization and self-development, but for the kids, these are simply places where they can be themselves without pressure and expectation.

What do they do the whole day?

Most people including me could not imagine what goes on in this type of school or center.  “How can you possibly let loose young children?” somebody asked me adding “Maybe high school age kids but not six-year olds.”  The best way to understand would be to visit one yourself.  If you are contemplating to send your child to one, they usually have a one week trial period to let the child decide if it is a good fit.

What do they do the whole day?  They could be playing minecraft, practicing on an instrument, building with Lego, attending a class being offered that day or offered weekly, hanging out, lounging around, reading a book, talking with other kids, teaching others how to code, playing football, baking cookies or bread, planting in the garden, going on a field trip, going to the park, asking questions, meeting with a mentor, organizing a class they want, and before you know it, the day is done and it’s time to go home and they don’t know where the time went.  What they are NOT doing is getting stuck in a classroom staring at the clock on the wall waiting for the school bell to ring dismissal time.

How do they learn to read and write?  At their own pace using their own way, by themselves or with the help of others.  What about math?  They pick it up naturally or they can opt to attend basic math classes offered like in the Albany Free School.

The Brooklyn Apple Academy and the Macomber Center both serve homeschooled kids but one is in tight quarters at the second floor of a building in the midst of Brooklyn while the other is on a sprawling piece of rolling land where kids have so much green space to run around and play ball.

The centers for high school age students like North Star and Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) both have a one-on-one, very personalized quality to the education.  Each student has a counselor with whom he or she meets once a week.  You know how some schools claim they tailor fit education to the student but actually, they still use the cookie-cutter, factory method with a euphemistic label?  In North Star and PLC, you can really see how it is personalized.  One-on-one tutorials are arranged as requested or agreed upon.  I was fortunate to attend a forum at the PLC where a panel of four teenagers shared their stories of creating their own paths without formal schooling.

 The Affordability of Alternatives

Sometimes, the alternatives are not within the reach of people with ordinary incomes.  Think of Elon Musk’s Ad Astra, the AltSchools in Silicon Valley and international schools like the United World College and Green School.  It is truly admirable how progressive schools like the High Tech High and Metropolitan schools are able to provide radical options within the public school system.

Expanding on this, is it possible to stretch public financing to democratic schools and homeschooling centers?  The democratic schools in Israel have achieved this, but democratic schools in America tend to think that freedom would be compromised if they accept government funding.  A worldschooler in Canada informed me that they could deduct homeschooling expenses from their taxes.

Private democratic schools are usually smaller and tuition fees vary.  They are usually less expensive than the typical private school.  ALC has a scaled tuition fee according to income.  Depending on their personal preference and economic means, homeschooling families can choose how many times a week they send their children to centers like Macomber or Brooklyn Apple Academy.  North Star prides itself as never having turned down anyone who has knocked on their doors.  To enable them to continue this type of service to the community, they do a lot of creative fundraising.  North Star and ALC also help others set up their own SDE center while Sudbury Valley School sells a start-up kit.

Visiting all these alternative schools and centers in the U.S.A. has made me more curioius about alternatives in third world countries especially those that are within easy reach of common people.  Except for Raya School, the progressive schools in Manila tend to be more expensive than regular private schools and there are no democratic or SDE schools at all.  However, there is the Gopala Learning Haven which is a center for homeschoolers located in a farm setting.

In China and the Philippines, there are people who believe in progressive education with Waldorf and Montessori as viable options but SDE still falls under the radar or seems too revolutionary.  People can’t believe there are schools where students don’t have to go to class unless they want to.  The structure and curriculum offered by progressive schools still serve as the security blanket that an SDE would not have and the bigger, unknown variables may scare people off.  No grades?  No tests?  What is your measure of a good education?

When asked about testing and assessment at the APDEC 2016 round table discussion, Peter Gray said that he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society?  None of these can be measured by tests but can only be seen in the long run.

In the future, I’d like to research about the affordability and accessibility of SDE centers in other countries.  I’d like to fill up a world-wide map with pins of more schools and centers visited.  The road trip through America showed me the abundant variety of options available that sadly are not as accessible in countries like China or the Philippines.  Through the growing networks of self-directed learning advocates, that reality will hopefully change soon.

Web Links:

Albany Free School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/05/the-free-school-in-albany/
Macomber Center https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/dream-of-macomber/
North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/08/helping-teens-thrive-without-school/
Brooklyn Apple Academy https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/19/tinkering-at-last/
Agile Learning Center https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/infinite-agility/
Princeton Learning Cooperative https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/09/tigers-humans-and-sde/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/thanks-carl/

Green School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/12/12/we-made-it-to-the-green-school/
United World College South East Asia https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/rave-rave-about-the-light/
High Tech High School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/03/23/baby-stepping-forward/
Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/whats-possible-in-education/
Metropolitan School https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/13/power-unicorns-and-keegan-creatures/
Classical Conversation Homeschoolers https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/three-bonuses-plus/
Alternative Education Resource Organization https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/05/26/aeros-hero/
Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/more-apdec-photos/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/21/magic-groove/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/please-mom-can-i-go-to-summerhill-please-please-pretty-please-with-sugar-sprinkles-on-top/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/opening-up/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/07/28/at-the-roundtable/

Democratic Schools around the world https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2016/12/27/democratic-education-around-the-world/
Gopala Learning Haven https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/tag/gopala-learning-haven/

https://entirelyofpossibility.wordpress.com/2017/02/17/go-gopala-go-go-gopala/

Following is the list of schools and centers that I have toured including those in my home country, the Philippines.

Between Traditional and Progressive
Chinese Immersion Program, Madison Elementary School St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA
Classical Conversation Homeschooler St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA
Incubator School Los Angeles, USA
Urban Homeschoolers Los Angeles, USA
Manila Waldorf School San Mateo, Rizal, Philippines
Acacia Waldorf School Sta. Rosa, Cavite, Philippines
Green School Bali, Indonesia
United World College South East Asia Singapore
Temple Hill International School (Montessori) Quezon City, Philippines
Progressive
High Tech High School San Diego, USA
Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study Laboratory School Toronto, Canada
Between Progressive and Self-Directed
Metropolitan School Providence, Rhode Island, USA
Self-Directed
Albany Free School Albany, New York, USA
Macomber Center Framingham, Massachusetts, USA
North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA
Brooklyn Apple Academy Brooklyn, New York, USA
Agile Learning Center New York, New York, USA
Princeton Learning Cooperative Princeton, New Jersey
Holistic Education School Miaoli, Taiwan
Gopala Learning Haven (Interest-Led Learning) Silang, Cavite, Philippines
Other Resources
826 Valencia (a resource center for young writers) San Francisco, USA
Alternative Education Resource Organization Rocklin, New York, USA
Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (2016) Miaoli, Taiwan
Got Only till the Front Door
Sudbury Valley School (Self-Directed) Framingham, Massachusetts, USA
Tinkering School at Brightworks School San Francisco, USA
Keys School (Progressive) Mandaluyong, Philippines
Raya School (Progressive) Quezon City, Philippines
Beacon School (Progressive) Taguig, Philippines

 

Rave, Rave about the Light

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If money was not a factor, what kind of education would parents choose for their children?  A private, progressive or international school with world-class facilities, a low teacher to student ratio and teachers with sterling qualification, progressive-minded leadership that recognizes and celebrates the uniqueness of each individual and strikes a balance between disciplined and student-directed learning?  While undertaking this research, I came across a few students from International Schools in Singapore, New York and Manila who make me wonder about the students who do thrive, excel and are happy in school with a tuition fee that’s prohibitive to most people.  I wonder about the school’s methods which combine a structured approach with a degree of interest-led learning through the wider-than-normal-range of choices and opportunities they offer.

My friend, Mew Yee’s daughter, Ning goes to the United Nations International School in Manhattan and at age sixteen, she spearheaded a project to teach children how to make props and sets for theater productions. Ning wrote, “. . . . I am a total theater geek.  But, I have never stepped on a stage to perform in my life.  Ever since I was 11, I loved to create, sculpt, paint, polish and design props and sets for shows.  When I thought about doing WIT for a business, I immediately thought about investing in my personal passion for theater.  My business, Set the Scene, aims to do just that – set the scene for 4th and 7th grade elementary school kids to learn backstage theater skills.”

These are the notes Ning makes for her class:

Crazy, huh?   Crazy, fun, free-to-be-me creative.  Every parent wishes that sort of self-discovery and enjoyment when their kids go to school – not dragging their feet through the mud but finding and stretching their wings to fly on their own, deriving pleasure in the exercise.

Ning’s sister, fifteen-year old Hue is very talented as well.  She did this and is into music and sports.

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When I met up with my friend, Sofie in Singapore, she introduced me to a family whose three sons attended the United World College.  I had seen the UWC website before and thought maybe, it’s just their online presence that’s impressive.  After hearing two boys rave about their education (the third one was in football practice) and after visiting the UWC premises itself, I was convinced that it was more than a blurb and that they lived it — “We inspire our students to create a more peaceful and sustainable future through education.”  The students visit third world countries and work on actual projects there to help improve people’s lives.  There are no grades in the early years and there is much individual attention and value placed on the uniqueness of each student.  Of course, the complete sports facilities and well-equipped workshops are quite enviable, too.  The boys showed me lamps they made using laser.

I also personally know two young girls who attend the British School of Manila (BSM) who have never praised their school before they started going to BSM.  They previously attended an ultra-strict Chinese school that burdened them with too much homework.  BSM for them, freed them to have a more balanced academic and non-academic life plus learning has become fun rather than a chore and a bore. They were raving about the activities, projects, field trips, teachers and how learning was exciting.

My visits to schools and talks with parents and students are too brief, perhaps too superficial to even make conclusions but they do lead to even more questions like what is the function of economic prosperity in providing good options in education?   To what extent does incorporating a degree of self-directed learning into traditional modes make it a more responsive and effective system?  Are the students happier in these schools that combine the “best of both worlds” — traditional (with a curriculum) and progressive (more freedom and interest-led)?   What can we gather from schools that incorporate varying degrees of self-directed learning that could possibly bridge gaps?   (my notes for future study)

I initiated this independent research on education as a way of grappling with my own fears and apprehensions of being a mother of two boys.  My husband and I tried homeschooling but I am not as convinced as him that this is the way to go because I personally see our sons as thriving more within a consistent and supportive community larger than the immediate family.  I am also more inclined towards a structured way of learning during the earlier years to establish a firm foundation.  This goes against the tenets of SDE (self-directed education) purists so I raised a question during the PLC (Princeton Learning Cooperative) forum of teens who have been shaping their own education path.  What’s their opinion about having a more structured approach during the elementary years?  The young panelists said that it depends on the individual. Some kids might work well within a structure and some might not.  For them, it was important to be a part of a community and it helps to be motivated around friends.

 

 

 

Tigers, Humans and SDE

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Throughout this three-month, ten-thousand-mile journey, aside from enjoying the adventure, we’ve also managed to insert time for my research work (an adventure in itself!) and visited fourteen schools and centers which offer or promote an alternative form of education.  I’d usually observe or talk to the teachers, students and parents, but number fifteen on the list-of-places-to-visit is quite unique because a forum happened to be scheduled on May 31st, coincidentally three days before our departure.  How in the earth was I going to miss that?  The Princeton Learning Cooperative (PLC) in New Jersey held a panel discussion with teenagers and young adults sharing their non-traditional high school education and how it’s possible to go to college and have a career despite the unusual path.

While waiting for the forum to start, I sat chatting with the person beside me who happened to be a teacher at PLC.  Katy quit teaching in a public school after fifteen years because she refused to be a proctor during state tests.  She is not against all standardized test but she protests the way data is used and how the process is data-driven rather than people-oriented.  For her, education is not a business and tests can’t evaluate what’s most important.  Test results are not a true reflection of students’ capabilities.  She is much happier now at PLC seeing students directing their own education rather than being dictated from above.

When the forum started, Alison introduced the four young people who unfurled their stories: Jacob, Kennedy, Nathaniel and Cameron.

When Jacob’s mom told him about PLC, a school that gave no grades and had Wednesdays off, Jacob was eager to sign up.  He discovered that those perks were not the true advantage of being at PLC.  It was being able to spend time the way he wanted which was immersing himself in music, writing songs, being in two bands and even taking classes at the community college.

Kennedy is also into music and her dad is in the field of education.  Sometimes, it’s odd to be in a radical place like PLC when your own dad is involved in traditional school but the bottomline is that it’s a great fit for Kennedy being at PLC. She plans to get a degree in music and expand her clientele base in music teaching.

When Nathaniel entered PLC, he thought he wanted to be an architect so PLC looked for a volunteer local architect to teach him.  Nathaniel gradually realized, it was not the field for him and discovered something else.  He eventually got a personal training, CPR, first aid and wilderness certificates and plans to study Health and Exercise Science at the Colorado State University.

Cameron had health issues that made her dread going out.  She missed so many classes in school so her parents found PLC but even then, she was reluctant to go.  Only after a while did she start warming up to the PLC community thanks to a persevering mentor.  She took classes in photography, philosophy, emotional intelligence and art and is now training to be a yoga teacher.

Somebody in the forum asked about how they position themselves in college applications.  It is no longer a handicap to be homeschooled nowadays.  Since PLC does not give out grades, the student has to come up with a narrative transcript and write a self-evaluation.  They categorize the classes that they’ve taken in and out of PLC and put them into an acceptable format with the guidance of their mentor.  Students at PLC have taken placement tests and SATs to get into college.

Each PLC member meets weekly with mentors to discuss individual goals, issues, track progress and troubleshoot problems.  It can be more or less an hour depending on the need.

The participation of parents is important in PLC where family meetings are held three times a year for each member.  Among many other things so unlike regular school, the students appreciate that there’s no detention.  Whenever a problem comes up, they have to discuss and resolve it together.  In real life, there is no detention.  The members of PLC respect that every teen wants to be in PLC so abuse of freedom is not common as long as they keep in their hearts the key words painted on the colorful table at the center of their space: encourage, include, contribute, respect and empathize.  It’s simply an inspiring, nurturing and beautiful place to be that allows you to be you. That sounds pie-in-the-sky, too-good-to-be-true.  Is there a downside?

Having free, unstructured time could be a challenge in the beginning and each one grapples with time management and owning choices.  One panelist said that it’s a challenge having to transition from a fully supportive community to having none in the outside world but since they are equipped with tools to handle situations as they come, it’s not a major problem.  There is a feeling of isolation also as they see their other friends in regular schools prepare for graduation so they have to tell themselves that their path is different and unique.

How is graduation done at PLC?  Everyone says something about the graduate, speaking about how they made a difference in their life and you can imagine how that could end up in tears.

Nathaniel used the caterpillar in a cocoon metaphor.  If one cuts the cocoon too early, the butterfly doesn’t develop.  The caterpillar must be allowed to stay in the cocoon and the butterfly will emerge naturally through it’s own bidding.  For me, the cartoon that hits a home run for self-directed education is a Calvin and Hobbes strip stuck to a post in the central common space at PLC.

Calvin:  When a kid grows up, he has to be something.  He can’t just stay the way he is. But a tiger grows up and stays a tiger.  Why is that? 

Hobbes: No room for improvement.

They both pause and contemplate.

Calvin:  Of all the luck, my parents had to be humans.

Hobbes:  Don’t take it too hard.  Humans provide some very important protein.   

Some people have a difficult time grasping this aberrant-looking form of so-called education like the PLC.   We are all expected by society to perform and get good grades in school and “be someone” when we grow up.  There’s not much economic gain to merely “being.”   However, places like PLC show that if you nurture somebody to grow naturally towards the direction that he or she seeks, things fall into place in its own time.

Know more about self-directed education and PLC:

What is self-directed education?

Alliance for Self-Directed Education

Alternatives to School

Stories of How Teens Create Paths for Themselves

Who are the PLC mentors

I was very fortunate that on my visit to PLC that my husband came and shot the video of the forum.  I’ve tried uploading it onto Youtube but the file is too big so I have yet to figure how to cut it up.  But do check out this video on how PLC works.

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Infinite Agility

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In computer games, spawn is the appearance of a player in the game.  At the Agile Learning Center (ALC), mornings start with spawn when students share what they intend to do that day and during the afternoon spawn, they report whether they were able to fulfill those intentions.  That day I visited their Manhattan school, there was an offering in writing, philosophy and a field trip to the South Street Seaport to check out the ship which Chuck, one of the ALC facilitators, helped restore.  The rest of the day, kids played on the computer, watched a movie, hung around and walked to two neighboring deli stores.

The offerings are quirky as the facilitators and students who provide classes to whomever are interested: fermentation, bomb disposal, coding, printmaking, cooking plus the class that’s been offered for the longest span of time – Japanese, courtesy of a parent whose child wanted to study the language.  If anybody is interested in pursuing a subject or developing a skill, all one had to do was ask.  If any of the facilitators or students feel that people could benefit following a topic or if they have a personal passion for something, it can be offered up to the group. A friend from Brooklyn is tapped to give classes in circus acrobatics.  All over whiteboards placed in every room, there are constantly evolving marks, signs, calendars and colored post-it pads which announce ideas and communal decisions.

The ALC takes off or branches off from other alternative forms of education — unschooling, democratic, free school, Sudbury.  ALC is more like unschooling but within a community.  It’s more intentional than free school and Sudbury in that facilitators can make suggestions to guide kids to advance their interests.  How do you know when to actively step in and when to stand back?  It differs from person to person but knowing the person within a close-knit community for some time allows you to gauge each case individually.

ALC also takes its cue and inspiration from agile software practices since its founder, Art Brock is immersed in the IT industry.  There is a sense of modern fluidity and systems flexibility, an aversion to wasteful long meetings and if I don’t seem to be making any sense describing it, you can check out their website and examine the lingo.  They also derive insight from the Quakers who, without resorting to voting, capture the spirit of the meeting to arrive at resolutions.  The emphasis is on agility in creatively solving problems and meetings are not platforms for the perpetuation of power dynamics.

To the students who go to ALC, it simply feels like a home – a school and a home at the same time.  Everyone who comes through its doors tries it out for a week to see if it suits them.  One of the students once struggled and fought over completing homework with his parents when he was going to regular school.  When he joined ALC which his dad discovered, there are a lot less conflict with his parents. Another father is happy to see his daughter thrive in a setting that allows an inordinate amount of freedom.  He is pleasantly surprised when his daughter spews species of trees and types of rocks after playing Minecraft and how she was able to make a skateboard at six years old.  Another student hated school because he was academically ahead of his class and couldn’t go on his own pace which he was then able to do at ALC.

Mel shows a TED Talk video about making sense of string theory and though there are only three other people in the room, there is a thought-provoking discussion afterwards. Every Friday, everyone blogs and reflects on what they did that week.  Towards the end of each day, everyone helps clean up and there is an optional Gratitude Circle where you share what you are thankful for that day.

The facilitators in ALC are able to pursue their own personal interests like baking bread in Mel’s case or the nature of dictatorships in Abby’s case.  Abby lived and studied dictatorships in Eastern Europe so she once offered a class about that in ALC.  She was particularly fascinated by how the educational system differed before, during and after dictatorships which cemented her advocacy to have schools in total service of the children.  Abby also worked on a farm so she once offered classes in bird and plant identification.  Each facilitator has a “superpower” and Ryan’s is being with the kids without having an agenda.  Chuck is into photography and after getting his art degree, went sailing for four years.  At ALC, he is happy that he doesn’t have to put his interest on hold.  Neither do the students.

Check out the ALC website and one of the coolest thing about it, I think, is the sliding scale tuition fee.  One of the parents devised this neat computer trick.  The ALC network is also growing.  If you want to find out more about ALC, check out their FAQ page.  If you want to get into the mind of the ALC founder, check out Art Brock’s blog.   What’s in store for the future of ALC is quite exciting as Art explains:

The next step we’d like our older kids program to be in the same building as a social enterprise incubator (EmergingLeaderLabs.org), and a co-working space (WeWork.com). This provides an easy, practical, natural transition into the kind of entrepreneurial activities that most kids will be moving toward in our evolving economy.  Also the entrepreneurs, freelancers, and innovators could share their passions with our students in workshops, classes, talks, boot camps. Students can apprentice with startups, artists/designers, and nonprofits working in the same building.

I would definitely want to see that happen and would like to visit the space once it’s realized.  Read Art’s whole article co-written with Tomis Parker here.

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AERO’s Hero

Jerry Mintz is one of the icons of the non-traditional education world having founded the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) in 1989 and having held AERO Conferences for the past twelve years, thus nurturing an international network of passionate change agents.   After visiting fourteen schools and learning centers of varying degrees of progressiveness and radicalism, I felt the pilgrimage to Jerry’s home/AERO office in Roslyn Heights was a fitting culmination, a mini-graduation of sorts even if I still had one last co-op in Princeton to check out.

More than being a fountain of wisdom and experience from being a school principal for seventeen years and running his own catalytic organization, Jerry is simply a guy who loves people.  His home office is abuzz with folks, young and old, and he is more than willing to share his love for table tennis with anyone who cares to try like my son, Joshua.   Two people from mainland China coincidentally came that day we visited and they ended up chatting with Jason and showing off their ping pong prowess.  Jerry has a knack for teaching ping pong and if I could place my kids in his homeschool twice a week together with Auroja, I would knowing what an encouraging and generous guy he is.

Jerry brings out a foldable ping pong table and turns on the robot and Joshua practices with complete glee.   Jerry unfurls a roll of cardboard to cleverly contain the orange balls so they’d be easier to pick up.  Weaving in and out of the rooms, Jimmy plays with five-year old Auroja, a fellow Paw Patrol devotee and monkey bar strongman like him.

 

AERO is a treasure trove for alt-ed pilgrims like me itching to find books.   I thought I’d be able to get some books from the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham but they told me to just purchase online.  Seeing Jerry’s bookshelves was a dream come true for me.  I wish Donna, my partner in “ed crime,” was there to choose books and listen to Jerry share stories about his involvement in various efforts around America and the world.

The serendipity as we connect dots in this trip amazes me.  Donna and I met Adler Yang and watched his film, “If There is a Reason to Study” about the condition of Taiwanese education during the APDEC (Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference) last year. Jerry tells me that Adler is expected to arrive in New York end of the month and we could probably meet up again in AERO.

A woman from Ukraine calls Jerry up asking about some alternative schools they plan to visit.  They are also doing a cross-country trip like us while researching about education. When I visit the Agile Learning Center (ALC) a few days after, folks at the ALC tell me the Ukrainians were there a few days before.  The visitors wanted to learn about new methodologies to apply to their school.

Jerry talks about his observations about Sudbury Schools and new models like ALC.   I tell him about the opportunity in the Philippines waiting for me to be part of the Gopala Learning Haven, a center for homeschoolers with an idyllic setting amidst nature.  It’s a difficult decision for me to make because although I want to participate in this process I’ve been researching about and dreaming of, life in China still holds its attraction because things are way, way simpler and less problematic there.   Jerry suggests, maybe we can have a trial period in the Philippines and make no long-term commitments first.

Being a part of this movement, this web is quite exciting and to think it all started over a year ago out of discontent with the education system in China.  Many people’s starting point may be that — a bubbling discontent that pushes issues to the surface to be addressed.  The challenge is what do we do about it in concrete terms that deliver, as Ghandi said, “the change we want to see.”

 

Tinkering at Last

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After watching Gever Tully’s TED Talk about the Tinkering School, I wanted Joshua to try it out but we weren’t able to get into the one in San Francisco because enrollment is for a series of sessions and no drop-ins.  So I have been looking forward to the one in New York offered by the Brooklyn Apple Academy because it’s open to homeschoolers and it’s okay to take one class at a time.

Noah Mayer, founder of the Brooklyn Apple did a podcast about wanting to start a microschool and Gever Tully himself got in touch with him and helped him do just that. Now, the Brooklyn Apple is on its fifth year of operation and third year as a homeschool resource center. It started as a one-room schoolhouse with six students.  Noah found that he was not as adept at administrative and bookkeeping matters so he partnered with Cottage Class which is a network for microschools that help them with that side of the equation.

All over the world, teachers are reinventing education by starting independent schools, camps, classes and study groups to meet the needs of the children in their communities.  CottageClass is a community marketplace that connects families with these teacher-founders who are transforming our world.

The goal of CottageClass is to help all children reach their greatest potential through individualized instruction.

An average of eight children drop in the Brooklyn Apple every day.  Aside from four days of Tinkering, they have field trips on Wednesday, Minecraft meet-ups on Fridays and other activities from arts and crafts and stop motion animation and a whole lot of play determined and directed by the kids themselves with teachers there for support and guidance.

The workshop room is a dream come true for tinkerers who can pick up odds and ends and initiate a project, use the drill and other equipment but as Lyman Rhodes reminds, safety is always paramount.  Joshua doesn’t gravitate towards the workroom but ends up making buttons in the crafts room and chocolate chip cookies in the kitchen.  That’s the beauty of self-directed learning.  As his parent, I thought he’d tinker with the machines but instead, he excitedly shows me step by step how he made pins by cut-stamping out a comic book page and producing a button.   Lyman tells me that these cool buttons are sometimes sold by the kids in the bustling, commercial 5th Avenue right outside their building where pedestrians end up supporting the kids’ enterprise.

On the walls of the bathroom, one poster said “Livelyhood without slavery to the money economy.”  The deliberate misspelling points to the sad state of some forms of livelihood that suck the life out of a person, making it all about work for the sake of money rather than for the joy and love of doing the work.  In this age, it puzzles many people when some opt out of the system or refuse to join the rat race but the ones who do that see the world from a different perspective.  The teachers who start and run the microschools also view from an uncommon vantage point so they’d like to offer an alternative to the current education system.  They want to be able to listen better to each child, one child at a time.  They don’t want education to be about grades, test scores and outperforming each other.   They want to give back to childhood what childhood is losing.

Other posts about the Brooklyn Apple:

The Q’s School Tool: Part 4: The Brooklyn Apple Academy

Noah Apple@picbear

A Look at the Brooklyn Apple Academy

And if you just want to know more about microschools:

What’s the Next Big Idea? Microschool Networks

The Return of the One-Room Schoolhouse

The Rise of AltSchool and Other Microschools

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