reflection/documentation

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? 
  

Should I do a Gap Year, Study Abroad, or Volunteer?

Malia Obama may be the spark I’ve been looking for.

Throughout my life I’ve advocated for traveling, exploring, and immersing yourself in other cultures.

-       In high school I went on sponsored trips around the world to understand other cultures.

-       In college I studied abroad in a tiny city in Italy where I spoke Italian, made friends with international students and locals, and began to see the similarities between humans.

-       After college I backpacked through Eastern Europe, wanting to walk where my great-grandparents walked.

Throughout my adult life I’ve traveled, often staying in small communities with friends or locals to get a feel for life there. I’m not as interested in visiting landmarks as I am with connecting with the people who live somewhere.

From 2014-2015 I lived in a small village in southeastern India as part of an environmental impact organization and sustainable community. I became immersed in local culture and became an expert in reforestation and water conservation in arid lands. 

I’ve recently discovered bicycle touring, a way to really see, in slow-moving fashion, an entire country or island, zigzagging or riding the perimeter, meeting locals, camping on stranger’s front yards, connecting with friends of friends of friends.

The things I always learn are:

-       The world is smaller than you think. It’s not a scary or dangerous place. And we are all connected. It’s easy to make friends and find people you really want to share with and get to know, everywhere.

-       Listening, observing, and reflecting are silent but necessary skills to learn about yourself, check your judgments, and find ways to connect that transcend the often-privileged mindset that ‘you know best’ and others should ‘do it your way.’

-       The different choices we make as humans are what brings us together and helps us learn from one another.  It’s empowering to use these experiences in other times of your life - to remember how someone else solved a problem or overcame an obstacle. These are lessons we can use over and over again.

I wish for young people to get out there and become a part of the larger humanity. There are so many ways!

-       Gap Year Programs- Volunteer, Intern, Apprentice

o   American Gap Association

§  How to Plan a Gap Year

o   Global Citizen Year

o   Go Abroad (Includes several Program Types: Intern, Volunteer, High School, Teach, etc.)

o   International Volunteer HQ

o   Global Volunteer Network

o   United Planet

o   Projects Abroad

o   Volunteer Alliance

o   Cross Cultural Solutions

o   2016 Best Volunteer Abroad Programs from Volunteer Forever

-       Study Abroad Programs

o   Generation Study Abroad

o   Study Abroad

o   Go Overseas

o   Brooklyn College’s Study Abroad Programs

o   Ciee Study Abroad (Council on International Educational Exchange)

-       Hosting an international study abroad student

o   AFS-USA

o   Ayusa (Academic Year in the USA) Global Youth Exchange

o   Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs Exchange Programs

o   Aspect Foundation

o   Rhianna even has a scholarship for students in Central and South America to study abroad in the US!

In case you are wondering about cost, diversity, college acceptance or graduation, here is a great article with resources Busting the Top 10 Study Abroad Myths.

I’m excited to see what Malia does with her Gap Year. It could be the spark of a movement towards global exploration and cultural understanding that we so desperately need. 

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 all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

I am supremely interested in how we present ourselves to the world, how we categorize our experiences, how we value what we’ve learned, how we see ourselves over time.

I grew up being a great test-taker and therefore always being at the top of my class. I had friends, much smarter than me, who froze during tests or did poorly one time and were plagued forever by those numbers that dictated much of their future, not to mention self-worth.

As I developed into a teacher I noticed more and more the value in documenting my students learning experiences. I began making an annual class website that I updated weekly to show off the multitude of learning that was happening in each of my students: photos of their art, writing, and creations, photos of their interactions with each other and nature, videos of creations in action, readings of stories they wrote, poems and songs we collaborated on together as a class, and invitations to events where we could celebrate the students’ learning in person.

Parents thanked me for giving them a glimpse of the variety of learning activities happening throughout their child’s day. They congratulated me for celebrating more of what their children had to offer than purely academic-lensed accomplishments. The students shared with me their reflections upon viewing their experiences - hearing how their reading had changed over time, seeing how their drawing skills developed, celebrating that math problem they solved as a team and remembering the poster they made that explained how they solved the problem differently from everyone else.

I found these students to be more celebratory of each other’s strengths and accomplishments, and less focused on who was better at x or y. There is always something to celebrate about everyone. My class website validated all kinds of learners and learning.

This got me thinking. It’s great to share these learning experiences on a cozy little class website, but what if every student had their own digital portfolio that captured their learning experiences as a way to reflect - to see patterns and sparks, to document other kinds of learning, to celebrate learning both in and out of school?  

Imagine your family moves and your child begins attending a new school: think about the implications for your child’s transition if the teacher could see what kind of kid they are, the kinds of friends they seek out, what kinds of things they are interested in learning.

Imagine you’re a teacher and it’s August and you’ve just received your class list: think about the implications for you as a teacher to see your class as a set, find commonalities among experiences and interests, help you brainstorm activities and lessons that will be interesting and meaningful to this new set of students.

Imagine you are applying for a job or internship: think about looking over your portfolio, choosing a few experiences that highlight who you are and why you’d be a great fit, and then sharing them as your application.

Imagine you are applying for colleges: think about what you would share of yourself, to complement your transcript (that’s filled with one-time-measurements), to give the college a better understanding of who you are and what you bring of yourself.

Imagine you are a parent: think about all you know of what makes your child great and how it would feel to have a record of this that your child could use to validate his/her experiences instead of relying solely on test scores.

Imagine you are an after-school facilitator of music, arts, sports: think about the value of being able to add this to an on-going record of who these children are, another facet of their life that while you find valuable, rarely makes it to “permanent records.”

Imagine you are a student: think about all you’ve added to this record, this digital portfolio, over the last 10 years. Can you see how interests have developed into others? Can you see how you’ve grown as a learner? Can you see certain skills you keep coming back to? Can you spot a single experience that led you to develop a particular skill? Can you see passions that always find a way into your experiences? Does this reflection help you think about your life, your choices, and what’s next?


What if all students had a digital portfolio that recorded their learning experiences?

What if all learning experiences “counted?”

I am sitting in the lush forests on Kauai, Hawaii, after several days of hiking up to mountain ridges and walking along narrow pathways to glorious ocean vistas. On the hikes I am sharpening so many skills - balancing my weight, navigating though a variety of terrains (sometimes quite slippery), and making innumerable snap decisions regarding safety and exploration. I stop often to admire details of the flora and fauna - touching, smelling, and comparing. The moss is tremendous. I am constantly astounded by the variety and texture. The rocks, too, many which have bits of lava from different stages of volcanic eruption within them, are exceptional and though they look strong, easily crumble in my fingers.

I am learning about myself too - endurance, strength, preparedness with food and water, how to protect myself from the elements with minimal gear, and to remind myself to look up from the path and admire my surroundings. 

I knew from an early age that what I learned and sought outside of school was just as valuable, and sometimes more so, than what I was learning in school. In my senior year of high school I created a half-day internship for myself at an educational television show. It was there that I learned about public speaking, speaking professionally, how to develop relationships with co-workers, how to do specific and detailed research for on-air deadlines, how to produce a television show, how to splice tape and create pre-recorded segments, and the list goes on. 

In 1999 I began attending one of only a handful of co-op universities in the US, which offer programs that are half academic, half real-world work experience. When I began as a freshman at Northeastern University, I was most excited about the yearlong schedule: 6 months of classes split up into two, 3-month semesters, and then 6 months of working in the field of my major or one I might be interested in. Within these paid internships I was able to work in a variety of departments to understand each field. At a PR firm I did cold calls for our database, spent a few days with the bookkeeping team, sat in on meetings, shadowed an executive for a day, and learned the culture of the organization. At a pop-rock radio station I worked in several departments each for a week at a time: music, promotions, news, and the office. These experiences gave me the perspective of work-culture, what it means to be proactive, how to show you’ve learned something by applying it appropriately, and, maybe most importantly, how to sell myself. Tailoring a resume, writing a cover letter, and going on an interview were things I began to just know how to do, and they set me apart from other recent graduates. 

Emily Rapport, in her opinion piece for edSurge titled Why Course Credits Don’t Reflect What I Learn, explains as a current undergrad how the learning experiences she pursues outside of her classes are offering her more learning and skills that apply to her interests and passions than the learning and skills she is getting from her classes. More so she is pushing that these out-of-class learning experiences be credited, acknowledged, and appreciated by her university. These experiences are clearly what her future employers will value. 

She offers some solutions: 

1. “Introduce experiential learning frameworks into students’ first-year experiences.” Teach students to reflect on all of their learning experiences and value them as such. 

2. “Create courses that use students’ outside-the-classroom experiences as texts.” Classes that apply theory to required internships and community service projects. 

3. “Structure an undergraduate experience so that it moves from classroom to “real world,” with opportunities for student-driven capstones other than academic theses.” Allow students alternatives to a thesis to apply their skills before graduation and as their requirement for graduation. 

I am a huge fan of, not just talking but, taking action. It is one thing to privately value the variety of your life experiences, knowing you are using them and getting the most you can from them, and it takes those experiences to a whole new level to advocate for their legitimacy in the academic world. 

Maya Angelou said, “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So what if all learning experiences “counted?” 

Reverse culture shock & the power of positive thinking

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.   I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth.   The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.   After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey.   I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.   I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.   I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.   My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.   After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.   And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.   I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on  where  they happen,  who  they happen with, and how you  reflect  on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism.   I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children.   “Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

I had said I didn’t want to return to New York. I had been overwhelmed by the feeling of being unable to escape consumerism at every turn. I wanted to live in the world of Gift Economy - trusting in humanity to provide for me and offering my services freely for the greater good.

I left India, where I had happily lived in a Gift Economy-bubble for more than a year. I had a backpack’s worth of possessions and people to share them with, not needing anything else. My service to the community was met with a hut to live in and three vegan meals a day. The community I was living in had broadened my view of and affirmed my belief that we need very little to survive and can live without doing further damage to the earth. 

The community also humbled me with regard to the juxtaposition of how large the world is and yet how small it can feel. I met like-minded people from all over the world who, on most occasions, felt instantly like family. I am just one of many but I am connected to all. It is a powerful feeling to abandon fear and live as though the world is my backyard.

After doing my first bicycle tour I rediscovered my body, my physical strength, my desire for sweat-inducing adventure. And so I set out to cycle solo through Europe on my second bicycle tour. Cycling, I realized, forced me to be dependent on myself but also to admit that the world around me would support me. In this experiment of sorts I survived on, at most, 10 Euro per day. There were many days when I spent nothing. I slept in the homes of kind strangers who fed me and sent me with extra food for my journey. 

I rode all morning and afternoon, feeling thankful for my connections to humanity and also thankful to feel fearless, knowing that I’d connect with the earth, with my body, and with other kind strangers along the way who would help me fulfill my needs. At farmer’s markets across the lands I was asked about my story, encouraged to keep going, not to lose my sense of trust in humanity or my bravery to travel alone, and I was rewarded for inspiring others with extra stuffed grape leaves, oranges to keep illness away, and an extra shot of espresso to keep moving and not feel the cold.

I lived on the road for almost 10 weeks in a society much older than my own, feeling the weight of age in the physicality of roads, villages, churches, and farms, trying to understand the history that came before me, the people who’ve passed on these same roads for different reasons, and the current economy of Western Europe, a rich entity not unlike the U.S., my home. I found it easy to live peacefully with nature and people and feel like my one-on-one human interactions were my added-value to open up minds and explore feelings of those who felt stuck, or unable to make change, or like they didn’t have choice. I was always supremely aware of my privileges: having saved some money over the years so I could make experiments like this, not being in debt, having people to support me if I fail, not having any dependents… freedom in so many ways.

I said I wouldn’t return to NY. I marveled at how well I felt mentally, physically, and emotionally being outside all day on my bicycle, feeling my body work to cover ground, breathing in fresh air, hours of quiet time, the sound of a rushing river, being among animals, and learning the stories of others as I shared my own. In this time I found a partner, from NY, who encouraged me to spend the holidays with him and to rediscover NY, give it another chance, see how jaded I really was, and find out if it was still my home.

My past life in NY was fast. I rushed from place to place, always needing more time in the day, never feeling finished, my to-do list always growing. I spent little money but nonetheless I paid for things that never occurred to me were optional. I ate on the subway, I crashed hard at night, I never felt like I had time for me, even though my work as an educator was enjoyable and enriching- it was everything but also felt like a sinking hole I’d never get out of.

After my time living in India, enveloped by nature, barefoot more often than not, living outside among trees and creatures, sheltered from consumerism, celebrating on a daily basis the contributions we can make to the earth through our life choices, and then cycling through rich lands where I chose to live simply and share my experiences, I have become calm. I am less reactive, more patient, waiting to take in all that is around me- the environment, the conversation, the big picture. I am not in a hurry. I am not impatient. I am not worried. Friends say I am more grounded.

And so I have rediscovered NY. I am not waiting, impersonally at crosswalks with other people in a rush; I am chatting with cyclists waiting for the light to change, secretly sharing joy in experiencing the city this other way. I am not in a high-rise apartment building, disassociated from people, feeling the city hum below me; I am living on the edges, with friends, in ethnically-diverse communities, artist-rich communities, feeling “neighborhood” more and more. I am not racing to teach my heart out until I collapse at the end of the day; I am reading and writing and meeting with other education reformists who see opportunities for change and are working with me, waiting for the right moment, to pounce.

I am different, but so is my relationship with NY. I remember being told many times by many people that you are who you are no matter where you are, that changing your environment will only change you temporarily; you are already formed. I disagree so much with these sentiments; your experiences form you throughout your life and they are dependent on where they happen, who they happen with, and how you reflect on them, incorporating the changes you like into the habits of who you are. And so, once again in my life, NY is home, even though I’m inside buildings, wearing shoes, and averting my gaze from the barrage of advertising that is capitalism. 

I am grateful for my privilege, my choice, my adventures and experiences, the people I’ve crossed paths with and those I hold close, the times I cycled alone for hours being one with this planet, and feeling bold in the face of a plagued public education system while my brain fills with solutions for our children. 

“Change your thoughts and you change your world.” Norman Vincent Peele said this. He was the godfather, of sorts, of the power of positive thinking. 

Hills, trucks, strangers, and airplane wheels

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I had really wanted to camp on this cycle trip of mine. Unfortunately for me, France is experiencing colder weather than usual for this time of year. My wonderful hosts in Lyon let me stay one more day to set up some more Warm Showers hosts for my trip down the Rhone River.

I headed out yesterday morning from Lyon. I was advised to take the train the first 20 kilometers as it’s industrial and there are no separate or scenic bike routes. I often don’t heed this advice as I enjoy seeing all the parts of a city: the center, the residential, the posh, the up-and-coming, the industrial, the suburban, even the highways and major intersections. You get a real feel for the people when you see the many different environments they create and how those places interact with each other: Are there clear boundaries? Does the friendliness of people change as the neighborhoods change? Do drivers and pedestrians smile back? What’s the sanitation like? The graffiti? The teenagers? The construction workers? The construction signs? These are all aspects of the culture of a people that we often don’t look for, yet they are the majority, the everyday, the this-is-what-we’re-like. If you combine this with the tourism side, the city center, the museums, you can really get a feel for their values, how they live, and how they want the world to see and think of them.  

Finally I met with the river in what looked on the map like a small city. I crossed over the river on a cute little pedestrian bridge into Vienne. I found a small shopping center, locked up the bike, found an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, and the center for tourism where I went first to get wifi locations and some route advice. The center had many young people working there who were all deeply apologetic and maybe even a bit embarrassed that there was almost no wifi in town. Not even there at the tourism center. They were, however, excited to tell me about the sign-posted, newly paved cycle route along the river that I could take for pretty much the next 300 km.

Before leaving Vienne I had to find some internet to contact my next hosts, get there exact address and find my route to them with the assistance of my phone’s GPS and the map app Pocket Earth. I stumbled into the “old city” filled with churches and even a courtyard with a small Pantheon. And there was Bar du Temple, what may have been the only bar/café in town with wifi. They seemed prepared for me: they gave me coffee and didn’t hesitate to charge my phone behind the bar while I took in the lunch crowd and slowly sipped a double-espresso.

Very soon after I found myself on a 2-meter wide bike path, just a bit higher than the river, with the changing autumn leaves, and not a soul in sight. I had the whole river to myself! It was very cold so I layered up and then I got lost in the scenery, void of vehicles, people, or noises other than nature. There was peace and calm and I couldn’t stop smiling; this was the adventure I had dreamed of when I first learned about cycle-touring; riding between water and farmland with the changing smells of nature.

Two hours and 40 km quickly passed. I ventured off the river route, called Via Rhona, into a hamlet to find my hosts. Without realizing it I had begun a steep ascent filled with very fast-moving cars and trucks zigzagging up and away. Quickly the shoulder I was riding on disappeared, and after my previous 70 km of the day I was exhausted. I was about 300 meters high and didn’t know how much further it or I could go. I could see on my map that I was only a few kilometers away from my host’s home. What to do?

Across the road was a truck, on a shoulder-pocket that seemed to be there just for emergencies. I waited for traffic to subside and hurried across. The driver was cleaning his dinner gear and getting ready to get back on the road to drive some Boeing wheels across Europe to get repaired. Most of his truck was empty and he graciously offered to drive me over the rest of the hill. It turned out to be only 1 km more, but 200 more meters high.

Finally I was on my bicycle on a back country road with 2 km to go. But the road was still slowly rising and I was more tired then ever. I cycled-and-paused probably 20 times. Unbeknownst to me, my host began to get worried and came out looking for me in his car. He found me and drove all of my bags to his house, riding slowly in front of me, cheering me on out his window. I was able to ride the last kilometer with all of my might, moving faster (without all of my gear!) up the slow gradient.

The young couple I stayed with live in the middle of nowhere, in a huge house (4 bedrooms!) in a hamlet, with a garden. They just turned 30. They have huge parties where they host all 30 of their friends for a weekend at a time, with friends sleeping everywhere. They moved here for a job opportunity. Plus it’s so inexpensive to live here. She’s an optician and he is a chemist who specialized in centrifuges. They come home for lunch. They are saving up to take off on a year-long journey comprised of cycling, hitchhiking, and a few different continents. We hit it off right away. They made me pumpkin soup and promised to show me a scenic bike path, down the hill, for the next part of my journey.

Once again I am humbled by the kindness in this world. Yes, the Warm Showers network is special in that we’ve had similar experiences and can guess, pretty accurately, the needs of each other. But everyone from the bartender who charged my phone, to the truck driver who gave me and my bike a ride, to these hosts for whom I was their first Warm Showers guest(!) treated me like family. With a quiet understanding, an extra blanket to sleep with, a cup of hot coffee waiting for me in the morning, and the knowledge that we are bound as members of humanity, we are connected. I could see these people at any time in my life and, again, we’d help each other out. And if we don’t see each other again, we know, at least, that we’re all continuing to connect with new people in an effort to make the world feel like one big community.

What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors?


What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors? 

I am so inspired by Candy Chang. She creates community forums in unused public spaces that bring people and ideas closer together. What if students were exposed to the following projects and challenged to engage their communities through unused public spaces? 

Here are my Candy Change favorites: 

Before I Die is probably Candy's most widespread project. It turns the side of an abandoned building into a chalkboard of wishes, dreams, and bucket lists. The project gained so much popularity that Candy designed stencil kits, in different languages, that she sends around the world, upon request, so that "Before I Die" walls can be recreated elsewhere. What a way to share with and inspire your neighbors and motivate yourself to follow your dreams! 

Neighborland is "an online/public installation tool for civic collaboration. Organizations can ask questions to their community about the places they care about. These questions are tied to real world projects so residents’ ideas and feedback will lead to change." Say what? The people have a voice? And someone wants to listen? Hell yeah! This project aims to solve local issues through community feedback. One example asked for ways to make a particular street safer. 

Community Chalkboards "provide residents with a free and accessible platform to publicize events, post jobs, ask questions, and self-organize... Inspired by a community chalkboard in Liberia by Alfred Sirleaf." What a way to repurpose the chalkboard! In small communities, particularly where not everyone has internet access, a community events chalkboard is a brilliant way to gather your neighbors and share. 

This installation consisted of a wall of post-it notes that were pre-stamped with fill-in-the-blank statements about the number of rooms in your apartment and how much you pay in rent. I love that this installation seeks information that neighbors are too shy to ask each other but really want to know. This was inspired by the Illegal Art "To Do" project, which created a mural of post-it notes in the shape of the words "TO DO" so that passersby could share their daily "to do" lists. After all, we all have them, right? 


The Local Community

The Local Community    When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.   I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”   I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.   Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

The Local Community 

When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.

I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”

I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.

Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

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.

Hearts of the World

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Through the New York art scene I was introduced to friends of friends who have a project called Hearts of the World. They travel to the far reaches of the planet inspiring children to follow their dreams, overcome their fears, and discover their ideas and choices about life. I was excited to be able to invite them to Children’s Land, at Sadhana Forest, a project that gives maximum choice to local children in the form of unschooling. Hearts of the World talked with the children, explored their emotions, and gave them free reign to imagine their world. It was very powerful. Next the children were given blank anatomical heart outlines to paint with their dreams for themselves and the world. As I looked around the hut I could see that the children took this workshop very seriously. It was important to them.

Hearts of the World is creating sacred, special moments where children can look at, discover, and explore themselves and their world through creative self-expression. Hearts of the World, I salute you.

Timelapse Video: TetraPaks and Community

In light of our efforts to be sustainable through experimentation, Sadhana Forest is rebuilding some roofs with compressed TetraPak sheets. The truck left Mumbai on Monday at midnight and arrived to us (almost 1,300 km) by 8pm on Wednesday. This video serves as a testament to the TEAMWORK at Sadhana Forest in unloading 13 tons of roofing sheets in 3 hours. 

Unschooling and Child-Led 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.