A New Kind of Public School

After reading countless articles, studies, and whitepapers on why homework is counterproductive, creativity is being squashed by the soldier-like regimen of public school, and why people forget more than half of what they learned in school, I’m prepared to offer a new kind of public school. 

I recently attended the Brooklyn School Alternatives Conference and heard from a panel of micro-school directors about what learning is like in their (private) schools. Here is what some of them had to say: 

“Experience ourselves as capable of changing culture” – Tomis Parker, Agile Learning Center

“Structure with flexibility” – Noleca Radway, Brooklyn Free School

“City as classroom” – Noah Mayers, Brooklyn Apple Academy

"Student-led open school and opt-in adult-led classes" - Monique Scott, Freebrook Academy

“Our curriculum is to everyday challenge the insular nature of the classroom” – Sara Casey Taleff, ALC Cottonwood 

These micro-schools in Brooklyn are doing it right. The schools are structured around community and communication, not content. In many of these schools the teachers are called facilitators and are trained in helping students develop strong communication skills, independence, and self-regulation skills. Instead of corporations and non-educators deciding what students should learn and when they should learn, and master it, students choose topics of interest to dive into. 

Students are taught to set intentions, reflect on their actions, and hold themselves accountable, while also learning to be flexible. 

The current public school system could be transformed into this by using the same infrastructure and materials, changing the curriculum from an absolute to a supplemental tool, and making professional development for teachers center around communication skills, problem solving, and nurturing students instead of mastering benchmarks. A new kind of public education can be fostered, without much additional costs. 

The focus is on students discovering their own learning style and then running with it. 

The public school I envision has only 4 parts: 
-    Creative play- passion projects, maker-spaces
-    Outdoor exploration- neighborhoods, parks, fresh air, sun, rain, and snow!
-    Self-guided learning- solo and group, built in facilitator support, opt-in classes
-    Reflection- what and how you are learning, your actions and choices

There would be opportunities for internship, apprenticeship, field trips and travel, and guest speakers, experts, presentations, and workshops- decided by the students and always optional to attend. 

What kind of adult would you be if this was your school experience? 

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning?

My friend called to say she’s going to start teaching her 4 year-old ‘pre-K stuff’ because he’s not ‘getting it’ at school. His school day and his teachers are focused on playing and being outdoors and they aren’t as academically centered as her daughter’s pre-K experience. Her daughter knew ‘everything’ before entering kindergarten. She is fearful for her son. School is not such fun for him and he still lacks the ability to count a set of objects or recognize all numbers and letters. She is seriously thinking about doing fun activities and playing games with him at home to get him ready for kindergarten. She called to ask my advice.

From my observations of pre-K through 2nd grade classrooms around the US and world, there is significantly too much focus on the academics and not nearly enough time to value children’s learning through play and exploration of their environment. It sounds like his pre-K teachers are ballsy and I admire them.

This is my counsel to my friend:

2.     What’s being taught in pre-K to 2nd grade is not developmentally appropriate. Until you turn 8, those things we call “academics” don’t mean much to you; you aren’t feeling a need for them in your daily life. Plus the same things are taught year to year, so IF YOUR KID ISN’T READY FOR IT NOW, IT’S COOL, THEY’LL BE EXPOSED TO IT AGAIN NEXT YEAR. 
3.     TELL YOUR KID IT’S OK IF HE DOESN’T GET EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. Explain that people learn things at different ages and it’s OK if he’s not great at it now.
4.     TELL HIM IF THERE IS SOMETHING HE WANTS TO LEARN, OR GET BETTER AT, HE CAN ASK YOU FOR HELP. This is not obvious to your child. This will plant a seed to help him become a learner, know what he can do if he’s passionate and wants more of something, and create his own process for seeking information.
5.     No matter how much fun you try to make formal learning at home, it will probably feel like ‘school’ to your kid and make him not enjoy learning as much. Since it isn’t really appropriate that he master all of these things this year, then it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that he GROW TO LOVE LEARNING. That should be your goal, not hitting school benchmarks.
6.     What we should be looking at, then, is: What are his friendships like? What activities is he drawn to? What does he talk about more in school? At home? NURTURE THOSE THINGS. 
Yes, there are options of other kinds of schools you could send your kid to. And yes, a revolution in schooling is on the way, but in the meantime, HELP YOUR KIDS NAVIGATE THIS WONKY SYSTEM!
Show your children how you are a learner. Do you do an internet search first when you want to know something? Do you read a book dedicated to it from the NYT best seller list? Do you call an expert friend and ask their opinion?
Ask your children questions, serious questions, in discussion of things they bring up, like:
TOYS/GAMES/ACTIVITIES: What makes you happy about playing like this? What are you imagining when you’re playing? Is there anything you don’t like about it? How would you change it?
IDEAS/ABSTRACT/PHILOSOPHICAL: Speak like you would to a friend or peer. Ask the same kinds of questions. If your kid doesn’t have answer just keep going. Talk. Listen.

What if schools and parents helped children navigate school and learning? 

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

At a family celebration this past weekend a friend shared that her daughter had just been accepted into a Gifted and Talented kindergarten class at their local school and she wanted to know my thoughts about putting her child there vs. letting her child experience, what she perceived would be, a less anxiety-producing mixed-ability classroom environment. Here are my thoughts (and research):

What is tracking? 

Tracking is the practice, traditionally in high schools, of grouping students with similar ability and then teaching to that ability. This often looks like the "higher ability" students being given more complex work and asked to think more critically than the "lower ability" students who are treated with lower expectations.

What are the perceived benefits of tracking students? 

Some people say that students in all tracked groups (high, middle, and low-ability class groupings) will learn more and be pushed out of their comfort zone into a more challenging zone of learning if they are with like-peers.

Some people also say that it is easier for a teacher to teach one thing to a group of students rather then have to differentiate instruction for students with differing abilities.

Some parents say that their Gifted child was used as a teacher for lower-performing peers and didn't get the chance to shine with like-minded peers.

What are the proven-through-research detriments of tracking students? 

There are just so many so I will highlight what I think are the most important:

- Students learn from each other!

- Students develop communication and life skills by learning to explain, listen, and ask questions of their peers.

- Students develop relationships with more of their peers.

- Students begin to see themselves and each other as teachers!

- Teacher expectation changes student performance. This means that when students are grouped by ability teachers teach them differently and students who are perceived as "lower ability" will not be as stimulated or engaged by the teacher, or be treated as capable learners.

- Tracking only highlights tested academic skills. Many students have other skills that lend themselves to a school setting where they might have a deeper understanding of a concept that doesn't show in tests. For example, a student who understands music may be very good at math, and be not so great at taking math tests.

- Listening to students teach each other adds more strategies and ways of thinking to a teacher's toolbox. This makes them better teachers.

Something to note when you hear from parents and students who disagree (based on experience) is that they probably didn't have teachers who were excited about the differences among their students. GREAT TEACHERS will capitalize on all of the skills and abilities of their students and seamlessly create a feeling of community in the classroom. It is extremely unfortunate that there are teachers who are not willing to embrace all of their students and who complain that mixed-ability classes create more work for them. We have to always remember the goal: to teach students to want to learn, create, and make a better world, which includes all kinds of equity (and not complaining because something seems difficult).

What if instead of tracking students there were only mixed-ability classrooms?

For more info read: Why Ability Grouping Doesn't Work, What Tracking Is and How to Start Dismantling It, Tracking (in Wikipedia), Can Tracking Improve Learning? (study done in Kenya)

What if every “comment” box on the Internet was changed to “reflect?”

What if every “comment” box on the Internet was changed to “reflect?”

I think a lot about setting intentions. The language we use should reflect our intentions. Often language is chosen for it’s simplicity, or ability to be broad, but isn’t it more important to use words that elicit the kinds of interactions we seek to have?

Along these lines I’m interested in the changes, if any, that would occur if every “comment” box was changed to “reflect.” Would you be more willing or less willing to share your ideas? Would you frame your opinions more gently, as a reflection is personal and makes one vulnerable? Would there be less arguing because the venue doesn’t allow for it, and more discussion and validation of ideas? Would people share more or less subjectively? More or less objectively? Would we see more productive conservations and less ranting? Would we, over time, engage with the Internet differently? Would we see these dialogue boxes as a place for constructive conversation? Would we use these forums to help us understand ourselves better in the context of humanity, of the world?

What if we talked to children the same way we talk to adults?

Parents often ask me for advice around their kids not wanting to do something the parents deem necessary. Examples include: getting dressed in the morning, eating healthy food, all routines. Parents often end up frustrated and come to me for ways to smooth out their communication. 

My advice is this: In these situations, don’t think of your child as a child. Imagine you are having this same conversation with an adult. 

With an adult you would talk to them at a calm time (not in a moment of conflict) and: 

1. Gently state the problem. (“I noticed that whenever we talk about Bobby we fight.”)


2. Validate their feelings (“I can see you’re having a really hard time.”)

3. Ask, “Why do you think that is?”

4. Ask, “What can I do to help?” 


Example Scenario- Morning Routines

Every morning is a hassle. Your child doesn’t want to get out bed, brush her teeth, get dressed, etc. You find yourself yelling and rushing and doing things for your child in order to get the whole family out of the house to school and work. 

Problem-Solving Communication: 

Parent: "I noticed that the mornings are hard for us. Why do you think that is?" (Then listen! Then validate your child’s emotions. “That feels tough.”

Parent: What can I do to help with your morning routine? (Then listen! Maybe try a suggestion the next day! Some ideas include: choosing clothes the night before, child having their own alarm clock, a list/pictures of the morning tasks that the child can refer to/check off to feel independent). 


The benefits of this kind of communication are endless, but here are a few of the most important ones: 

- You are teaching your child how to effectively solve problems

- You are showing your child how to communicate in a way where both parties share and value each other’s thoughts 

- You are validating your child’s emotions

- You are setting the stage for your child to gain independence and not feel dependent on you 

- You are building your child’s self-regulation skills so they can monitor themselves and reflect on their decisions


Communication is something that we as a society have forgotten how to do. We spend so much time writing emails, thinking of how to say something in as few characters as possible, that the art of listening and valuing another’s ideas has become almost irrelevant to our day-to-day lives. 

We need to compartmentalize different kinds of communication for different arenas of our lives. With people we are close to and any kind of face-to-face communication we need to remind ourselves to listen and value what others say and practice this until it becomes automatic again. 

The most effective teachers and parents I know are effective because the children feel valued, which causes them to trust the adult and know that when they are not given a choice or asked for their opinion/suggestion, that it’s OK, and they will trust and do what the adult says. Isn’t that how successful adult relationships work too?

What if instead of just talking about Social Emotional Learning, we restructured all of the ways children learn to include adults who are trained in developing these skills?

Donna Housman, EdD, clinical psychologist and founder, CEO, and president of Beginnings School, the ONLY PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY that has developed a comprehensive curriculum around self-regulation, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, discusses the reasons children need to learn these skills before they turn 4 years old as well as how their learning and social development are compromised without these skills.

It seems obvious; when you feel good about yourself and your relationships and can listen, process, and communicate your ideas, then you are open to more challenging tasks and learning. In other words, when children are not preoccupied or worried about their most basic emotional needs, they can flourish.

This is not new information. There is just more and more research pouring out of school-laboratories, graduate programs, psychological case studies, and comparisons of educational models worldwide. So why aren’t we changing what pre-school looks like in light of this information? Why aren’t we offering classes, workshops, and training to new parents around developing these skills in the first three years of a child’s life? Why aren’t nanny agencies picking up on this and offering trained SEL professionals to spend time with your young children? Why aren’t graduate schools offering Masters in Early Childhood Education focusing on Social Emotional Learning? With all of this research why is there only ONE PRE-SCHOOL IN THE COUNTRY implementing this curriculum?

What if youth had toolboxes full of strategies to combat bullying and build respect among peers?

Chance to Choose is a project aimed at doing just this. Dave McGrail, parent of a middle-school girl, noticed that there are all kinds of bullying his daughter was engaging in, unaware of and often adamant that it was not bullying. So he wrote a book: a “choose your own adventure” book for middle-school girls where they would be confronted with situations involving bullying, cyber-bulling, gender, body image, and peer pressure and have to make choices and face the consequences.

The book inspired a teacher to read it in an after-school setting to her female students to address these topical issues. This, in turn, inspired Dave to create Chance to Choose, a formal after-school program that plays through these scenarios with small groups of girls and works out solutions, outcomes, consequences, and all along the way throws in variables that adjust situations, making one rethink her actions. It’s interactive, it’s role play, it’s social learning, it’s building emotional intelligence, and it’s filling a significantly under-attended to need. It’s great to be talking about why bullying is bad but it’s a whole different thing to do something about it.

On this day, when we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., I celebrate Dave and Chance to Choose for working to help young girls stand up for themselves and to treat each other with respect. What if youth had toolboxes full of strategies to combat bullying and build respect among peers?

What if we raised 'global children'?

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan, author of Raising Global Children, says:

"According to the National Research Council, one of the numerous research reports on this growing topic of discussion, Americans' 'pervasive lack of knowledge about foreign cultures and foreign languages threatens the security of the United States as well as its ability to compete in the global marketplace and produce an informed citizenry.' As Americans, we must see to it that our children develop the flexible qualities of character and mind necessary to handle the challenges that globalization poses. To become global citizens, they must learn how to communicate and interact with people around the world. We must raise global children.

Traits such as curiosity, empathy, compassion and flexibility cannot be bought, they must be taught. To be sure, travel, ethnic restaurants and cross-cultural museum exhibits can enhance a child's global mindedness. But so, too, can the treasure trove of books, music, movies, magazines and maps available at the local public library."

Her book suggests:

  • Encouraging curiosity, empathy, flexibility and independence
  • Supporting learning a second language as early as possible
  • Exploring culture through books, food, music and friends
  • Expanding a child’s world through travel at home and abroad
  • Helping teens to spread their own global wings
  • Advocating for teaching global education in schools 

Trusting in humanity


My dream on this journey was to trust in humanity. I imagined pedaling into villages and being offered places to stay, meals to share, stories to discover.

On my last cycle-touring afternoon as I cycled in Montelimar, home of nougat, I spotted a creperie and wondered if they used my gluten-free-friendly sarassin (buckwheat) or regular old ble (wheat). I parked and strolled in to find an older gentleman behind the bar and a not-so-old gentleman drinking at the bar. I asked in my broken French about the gluten. I was shown the menu with the best deal yet: $12 for a salad, savory crepe, and sweet crepe. And he would make them both with just sarassin. Woohoo!

I sat down and the man at the bar began to talk with me. Realizing that my English is far superior to my French he shared with me, in English, that earlier this morning he had seen me, a fellow traveler, and called out to me in French, asking where I was headed. I hadn’t responded. I didn’t even remember this encounter. But now, seeing as we were in the same place he could ask me again. Fascinated about my journey he asked many routine questions: How many kilometers do I ride per day? (60-80) How heavy is my bike? (Not sure, but it’s heavy) Where do I stay? (Friends, other cyclists, camping when it’s warm) Where and when did I start this journey? (Amsterdam, 20 Sept) When and where will it end? (Barcelona, late November).

We got to talking and I shared that I didn’t have a place to stay yet, as I was going to email some people and check hotel rates after this delicious lunch. He said he had a place down the block with a spare room and I could crash with him. I had a good vibe from this guy. I came to learn that he had been to India 7 times. Seven times!!!! And had stayed several months each time, with gurus, sadus, and babas. We chatted for a long time and then I agreed to stay with him.

I’m happy to report that after a homemade gluten-free, vegetarian dinner we became fast friends. I shared my mandala art and we traded travel stories. It was a lovely evening.

And my dream came true. I met a nice stranger, found trust, and a comfy bed.

What if instead of telling student's they are wrong, we help them get it right?

I remember having the wrong answer in class. It was devastating. And I didn't learn what the correct answer was because I was too upset. Brooke McCaffrey read "The Skillful Teacher" by Jonathan Saphier, Mary Ann Haley-Speca, and Robert Gower, in which the authors discuss the concept of 'sticking with a student.' With this method, instead of the typical response of moving on, the teacher keeps his or her attention and focus with the student who provided the incorrect answer and uses a variety of strategies to help that student reach the right answer. For instance, the teacher might validate what is right or good about an incorrect answer and then offer the student a cue."

So instead of teaching the world in black and white, right and wrong, let's show children how to figure things out. It's not about the answer, it's about the learning. 

What if drawing was recognized as the important skill that it is and was taught in schools?

As an artist and avid draw-er I couldn't have said this better myself. The following is from this article.

Drawing remains a central and pivotal activity to the work of many artists and designers – a touchstone and tool of creative exploration that informs visual discovery. It fundamentally enables the visualisation and development of perceptions and ideas. With a history as long and intensive as the history of our culture, the act of drawing remains a fundamental means to translate, document, record and analyse the worlds we inhabit. The role of drawing in education remains critical, and not just to the creative disciplines in art and design for which it is foundational.

As a primary visual language, essential for communication and expression, drawing is as important as the development of written and verbal skills. The need to understand the world through visual means would seem more acute than ever; images transcend the barriers of language, and enhance communications in an increasingly globalised world.

Alongside a need for drawing skills for those entering employment identified by a range of industries in the creative sectors – animation, architecture, design, fashion, film, theatre, performance and the communication industries – drawing is also widely used within a range of other professions as a means to develop, document, explore, explain, interrogate and plan. This includes the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine and sport.

What if, instead of disciplining children, we helped them find the root of the problem?

I've been a big fan of Dr. Ross Greene for years. He teaches parents and teachers to talk with children about their feelings and experiences to solve problems collaboratively, eventually leading to self-regulation. This is instead of punishment and consequence that we see in many schools and homes, which address behavior but don't get to the root of the problem, and often make children feel bad about not being in control of their behavior. Instead, as Dr. Greene says, let's teach children to recognize their emotions and control their behavior. Habit begets habit, you know? What if adults could also do this? Wouldn't that be something? I know too many adults who have difficulty controlling their emotions and consequently act poorly.

What if we all had emotional self-intelligence? 

This article explains the effectiveness of Dr. Greene's approach with regard to teacher training, prison recidivism rates, and behaviorally-struggling children. The following are the highlights:

University of Rochester psychologist Ed Deci, for example, found that teachers who aim to control students' behavior—rather than helping them control it themselves—undermine the very elements that are essential for motivation: autonomy, a sense of competence, and a capacity to relate to others. This, in turn, means they have a harder time learning self-control, an essential skill for long-term success. 

Stanford University's Carol Dweck, a developmental and social psychologist, has demonstrated that even rewards—gold stars and the like—can erode children's motivation and performance by shifting the focus to what the teacher thinks, rather than the intrinsic rewards of learning.

You'd talk with the kid to figure out the reasons for the outburst (was he worried he would forget what he wanted to say?), then brainstorm alternative strategies for the next time he felt that way. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.

If Greene's approach is correct, then the educators who continue to argue over the appropriate balance of incentives and consequences may be debating the wrong thing entirely. After all, what good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn't yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?

The CPS (Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) method hinges on training school (or prison or psych clinic) staff to nurture strong relationships—especially with the most disruptive kids—and to give kids a central role in solving their own problems. For instance, a teacher might see a challenging child dawdling on a worksheet and assume he's being defiant, when in fact the kid is just hungry. A snack solves the problem.

The teachers and the student would come up with a plan to slowly get him more involved.

From Greene's perspective, that's the big win—not just to fix kids' behavior problems, but to set them up for success on their own. Too many educators, he believes, fixate on a child's problems outside of school walls—a turbulent home, a violent neighborhood—rather than focus on the difference the school can make. "Whatever he's going home to, you can do the kid a heck of a lot of good six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year," Greene says. "We tie our hands behind our backs when we focus primarily on things about which we can do nothing."

Dr. Ross Greene's website:
Great books by Dr. Greene: The Explosive Child, Lost at School 

What if we could explain 'racism and what to do about it' to children in a way that won't scare them but will create informed leaders?

Aya de Leon is a mom who wants to teach her daughter about racism, about our history, about our present. She created a story, with pictures, that explains what happened to African Americans through slavery and the Civil War in a way that is developmentally appropriate to a child's mind. Her story states the facts in simple language and shows how to overcome, how to join together, how to speak up when people are mistreated, and how to be a leader.

Gratitude for strangers, trains, and the Alternatiba Festival


I am in awe of the kindness I’ve received along this journey. The kinship I feel with every other human I meet is life affirming. We really are all one.

And now for some excerpts:

Shortly after leaving Amsterdam I found myself cold and soaked from heavy rain that I was too late in gearing up for. Halfway to my next destination was Rotterdam. I cycled aimlessly through the city wondering what to do: find a place to stay for the night, keep going in the rain, buy better rainproof gear… And then I turned a corner and found the Bever store, a well-regarded sports apparel chain in the Netherlands. Knowing the staff there are outdoor sports enthusiasts I was looking for some sympathy and maybe even some ideas. I entered the store and the front-of-store clerk immediately offered to watch my bike and gear. (In any other store you wouldn’t even be able to bring your bike inside!) I parked by the register and began to walk around, looking for better waterproof gloves. Another Bever-guy came over and, taking one look at my dripping self, offered to take my sneakers and socks to put on the heater for a while. He also got me a cup of coffee while yet another Bever-guy looked up weather forecasts. “The rain should be stopping in exactly 30 minutes,” he said matter-of-factly. Yeah right, I thought. These three guys kept me caffeinated and dry for about an hour until the rain did actually stop. When customers came in they apologized for not being able to stay and chat. I warmed up, put my feet in plastic bags, and geared up to keep moving. The Bever-guys said that if at any point it started to rain or the roads were slippery I should come back and I could stay with one of them in Rotterdam that night. One of them even gave me his email to keep in touch and share blogs.

While sharing this story recently, my audience seemed to think the Bever-guys were helping me because I was a single woman in need of assistance. My feeling from that day in the Bever store was more of camaraderie. They knew I wanted to keep going because they, too, would want to keep cycling and not be held up by weather. It did not feel like a gender-reaction; it felt like a cyclist-understanding.

A week or so later I stayed with a friend’s family in northern France and woke up to find that my friend’s mom had done my laundry and hung it to dry in the sun in her garden. When I thanked her she said, “I’m a mom! That’s what I do!” in French.

Just this past week on my way from Paris to Lyon I booked a train online, and checked the box for bringing my bicycle aboard. Arriving at the station, the conductor took one look at me, blew a drag of cigarette smoke in my face, and started yelling at me that no-way-was-my-bike-getting-on-this-train. I explained my special ticket. He said I was wrong. And then all of a sudden three lovely French people came to my rescue; they talked with the conductor, reasoned with him, explained my situation, asked him to make an exception, and then they made a plan, in French, that I later became aware of. One distracted the conductor, while the other two told me to dismantle my bike and then they all took parts of my bike and luggage and said to meet back up in my train car 10 minutes before arrival. It was such a whirlwind. I sat in my seat realizing that I had my bike frame and some clothing but not my wheels or camping gear and these strangers in different train cars with names I didn’t know could fall asleep and miss the stop and then what would I do? Sure enough we all met back up, I reassembled the bike, loaded it up and then began to say thank yous and goodbyes. The French people were not a unified group- there was a man and woman who knew each other, and another man who was on his own. The couple invited me to AlternatiBa, an alternative lifestyle festival happening that day. The other man said he was also going to it but first there was a Velorution event, a bicycle revolution. He didn’t speak much English, but motioned for me to follow him. I explained that I had to meet my lovely Warm Showers hosts and drop off my bags. He looked at my map and again motioned me to follow him. First we went to his home, met his wife, had some coffee, and washed the bike grease off our hands. Then he led me to my hosts. Then we went, with his wife, on a bicycle/alternative lifestyle extravaganza. We even met up with the man and woman from the train who were running a booth about vandalizing violent public advertisements. Just my kind of people.

I had met the most wonderful people who saved the day, just because helping out fellow humans is what we do.

What if children were trusted to make decisions about their own learning?

Unschooling is a type of parenting more than a type of education. It involves a family or community all supporting a child’s interests and respecting and trusting the child to make decisions about his or her own learning. My dream is that this could one day be the model for typical western schooling.

In typical western schooling we expect to drop our children off and have someone else help them learn and grow. in this setting often one teacher has 25 students and cannot possibly know the children well enough to let them all delve their own passions. In addition, in our measurement-obsessed culture of one-size fits all, pre-set, often scripted curriculums and standardized testing, we think we are able to teach all children the same, and easily measure children’s success. But we are excluding most of the ways that children thrive: the arts. 

In unschooling there’s no easy way to measure a child’s “success”. However, through photo documentation, drawings and writings by children, videos make of and by children about their experiences and learnings, we can construct a portfolio that shows a child’s journey, which in reality cannot be measured. Each human’s journey is their own. If learning is the goal (as opposed to set adult-decided content) it is not difficult to ascertain. 

When we take away these individual, institution-based measurements and look at children over years who’ve been exposed to unschooling we find children who are motivated, dedicated, and driven to study topics that excite them. They’ve developed research and leadership skills, and have, through this process learned how to learn- how to dive into a subject, explore it from all angles, share it with others, and sometimes use it to make social change.

Of course, this only works in a family and/or community who is conscious of exposing it’s children to all different kinds of culture, geography, literature, science, and more. In this way, children’s interests are sparked and the adults can observe patterns in the children’s interests and continue to suggest and expose them to other activities and organizations that the child might be interested in.

Unschooling is so beneficial for children. First of all it shows them that their ideas matter- it gives their ideas validation. Second it show them that the adults in their life support and trust them. Third it give children the freedom to become the kind of learner that they are. In typical western schools, material is presented as listening or reading, but not everyone learns best these ways. Some children need to do. Some need to watch others do on a youtube video before feeling ready to try it themselves. By allowing children the freedom to become their own learner, we imply that there are many right ways to learn. Fourth, and as a teacher in the US for 10 years, I think one of the most important aspects of unschooling is that it doesn’t rank subjects or attach ages to them. If a child wants to learn to read at 12, that’s ok. If they want to study dance from ages 6-10 that’s ok. If they want to work at a skateboard shop and learn about skateboard design from 10-12, that’s ok. And so all of these ways of interacting with the world and being a productive member of society are valued. In typical western schools it’s feels like it’s only the reading, writing, math, science and social studies that count. We forget about integrated disciplines and the arts. We try to boil it all down and give children, what we think, is a well-rounded education but it misses so much, often including the arts.

But how can we, adults, decide, what is a well-rounded education for a child? Children come from different backgrounds and have different interests, so it only makes sense that they have a say in what they learn. There is no “right” set of skills a human needs. Humans seek and develop skills based on their interests. Unschooling creates an environment where education is not just child-led, but child-created. And what we choose to learn is what’s right for each of us. There are tons of things I learned in my typical western education that served me no good. However, there are also things I learned that excited me but were just a beginning. So outside of school I dove deeper. It was the choices I made, outside of school, that were my real education. And there were only a handful of things from school that sparked me outside of school. But imagine how much would spark you if you got to choose and if the adults around you made suggestions based on your choices! It’s so powerful.

Imagine what it would be like to have the world as your classroom? To have experiences and topics of study suggested to you by adults who are learning your interests and want to encourage them. It reminds me of adult networks: people in different circles of your life who know you and know your interests and keep that on their radar. It feels special when someone suggests just the thing that sparks you. Unschooling is a way to create this from birth.

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement?

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement? 

This is one of the most powerful TED talks I've ever seen regarding our current state of education and teacher-training. For years I've been advocating for teachers to have training in how to understand, respond to, and react to their audience- their students. I think it a huge disservice to students when teachers aren't excited, engaged, and animated about content. This guy says teachers should watch rappers and preachers and take notes on how they engage their audiences. Amen.

The Sadhana Forest Tour (with me as your guide)



My favorite part of volunteering at Sadhana Forest: giving a 2-hour tour of the community and our reforestation work, at least once per week, but often 2-3 times per week to school groups, tourists, and locals. I tell the stories that make up our history, the multitude of ways in which Sadhana Forest manages resources and conserves water, about our other projects inside India and around the world, the principles and values we live by, and our innovative, time-tested tree-planting methods. It’s exhilarating. I expend all of my energy and enthusiasm sharing with anywhere from 1-150 strangers at a time, what is so special about this place I call my home. I enjoy “reading” my audience and assuaging their potential boredom with humorous anecdotes. It’s such a great feeling to affect a huge group of people with laughter, and subtly encourage them to think about their effect on the environment and each other.

Side story: This also means that I’ve created a sort of celebrity for myself and can’t go anywhere within a 10-kilometer radius without being recognized. It’s lovely, it really is. But I know a bit what celebrities feel like now; sometimes I just want to be anonymous and drink a cup of coffee in a café while reading or drawing. Quiet time, you know? My best Kate-sighting experience occurred when I was looking for an art store in Pondicherry and I stopped into a random clothing shop to ask for directions. The man behind the counter smiled a huge smile and whipped out his phone to show me a video of ME doing the tour at Sadhana Forest! He then proceeded to walk me to the art store I was looking for. Super kind and wonderful. (And a bit scary that strangers have videos of me speaking about reforestation. Things I never dreamed of.)

What if parents spent more time, not money, on their children?

What if there was a way for parents to spend more time with their children? What if more parents worked from home? What if more parents got time off from work to volunteer in their child's school or chaperone field trips? What if being a parent was socially viewed as a priority over your job? What if your job recognized, appreciated, and allowed for this too? 

Snippets from One Week at Sadhana Forest

Sunday we heard moo-ing in the community. We found several cows chilling in the grass, munching away, meandering over to our dish wash stations to have a drink. We chased four out. Six came back. It took two hours but we got them all out. The 8 dogs who live with us only helped once the cows were in the parking lot, barking out something like, “And don’t you come back!”

Monday some workers came to build us a roof out of TetraPak sheets. These are TetraPak (soy milk, juice) boxes that get compressed and then heated with resin to make construction boards. They are a great packaging tool because they are made of recycled materials, pack efficiently, and weigh considerable less than glass. But because they are a combination of materials they can’t be recycled. However, they can be made into construction boards over and over again. Most of the roof will be corrugated sheets but the peak of the roof will be a flat sheet that is bent with heat. The workers proudly showed me their very inexpensive blowtorch. I asked them to wait while I got a fire extinguisher. As I came back they were lighting the blowtorch, setting the surrounding grass and dead leaves on fire, and in the nick of time I blew out their flame.

Tuesday I heard a weird beeping sound. I tried to follow it and got tangled in thorny weeds that sliced my ankles. I went back for the police. We followed the sound. The police laughed. It was just a bird. (I swear it sounds mechanical).

Wednesday I gave a tour to a group of visiting businessmen. Halfway through I explain about our community values, one of which is to be substance-free both in and out of the community while you are volunteering. This includes cigratettes, alcohol and drugs. At this point the businessmen begin to pull packs of cigarettes out of their pockets. They are surprised that I haven’t telepathically figured out that they all work for big tobacco. They begin telling me that big tobacco is good for everything; it’s responsible for the clothes I’m wearing, the shampoo I use, and the food I eat. Yeah right.

Thursday, despite the community being fenced in and policed 24/7, someone broke in and raided my hut. I climbed my ladder and saw it: a condom and wrapper strung out on my floor. I glanced beyond to my bed, which was tousled. Oh no, I thought, volunteers are having sex in my bed. Then I noticed my NorthFace backpack was gone. My sleeping bag was gone. Some silver rings and necklaces, nothing fancy or expensive but sentimental nonetheless, were gone. My sex toys and condoms were gone. Ok, pause for some backstory. The volunteers here get frisky sometimes. Rather than sleep with each other, which could cause tension, not to mention the spread of STDs, I encourage them to have some fun alone. This idea came from a volunteer, much younger than me, from Norway where there is a much more liberal sexual culture. She thought the toys would come in handy and offered me a healthy supply. I’d given several away throughout the year. I guess she was right! As I sat deciding whether to file a police report I began to laugh. What if this robbery causes a sexual revolution in a nearby village in this country of repressed sexuality? I could be an anonymous local hero!

Friday night is our Eco Film Club. We are showing a movie about animal communication that has drawn a larger-than-usual crowd. There also happens to be a crazy windy storm that is whipping the screen around and our volume is up to drown out the rain and wind. The movie ends and we serve dinner. One of my fellow volunteers calls me outside to our dish wash station.  A tree has split and fallen on our dish wash station, which just happens to have electricity for lights. I get 2 more volunteers, a machete, and some large clippers. I shut off the power and we cut large branches, climb trees to chop the split all the way, and rebuild a light station out of solar lanterns. The teamwork is golden. We finish up by clearing away the large branches. As we walk in slow motion, like superheroes returning from a victory, our guests come to wash their plates and it’s like we were never there and nothing was ever wrong. We sit down and each eat 2 plates of dinner.