Saturday, May 30, 2009

Interview with Pat Montgomery, founder of Clonlara

Clonlara School is an alternative private school located in Ann Arbor, Michigan founded by Jim and Pat Montgomery in 1967. The philosophy of the school is that learners participate willingly in their own education out of a sense of curiosity that is nurtured by the school or by parents. Students are self-directed and have educational goals to achieve throughout the year. I recently caught Pat Montgomery during the busy end of the school year and she graciously agreed to be interviewed.

My husband and his brother attended Clonlara, in their middle school years in the early 80s. My husband did so well there and still thinks that was the most impactful learning experience in his life. His brother didn’t do as well and seemed to need more structure. What kind of kid does well at an alternative school like Clonlara, and what kind of kid does not do so well?

Over the years I have found that there are many reasons for a youngster’s positive and negative reactions to attending Clonlara. For one thing, when it is the youngster’s choice to be there and not just the parents’ choice, it makes a big difference. We have kids of many age levels mixed together in the so-called class groupings, and they share many, many activities during each day. Being there with his older brother, sharing the same friends as his brother did, I believe, made a difference in Jason’s ability to be his own person without any need to compare himself to John and without having to compete with John. Perhaps these matters had an impact.

How did Clonlara get started? And what is the goal of education at the school?

Jim Montgomery, my husband, and I started a school for our two children in 1967 to assure that they would have a place to develop as respected, cherished human beings who could grow according to their own interests and sharpen their own abilities in the process of growing up relatively free from what our society heaps upon its youngsters in the name of “what’s good for them.” The overall goal was to allow kids and adults to learn, grow, and develop on their own timetable without being pressured and made to fit someone else’s.

What is the role of the teacher at Clonlara?

Teachers are role models for the kids. Now that may sound like an obvious, customary role for an adult, but when closely examined, it packs an enormous wallop. Kids (and adults, too, to a lesser extent) learn by imitating, so a major requirement for a person who presents him/herself as a teacher is to be a person worth imitating.

How does Clonlara ensure academic/emotional/social/physical balance in its students?

To ensure means to guarantee. Clonlara cannot do that. There are many, many variables present in any child’s life that all feed into ensuring a holistic effect in kids’ lives. School plays a minor role in this, even a school like Clonlara that takes pride in how it pays attention to these very elements of a child’s growth.

How do you encourage students to be active, interested learners? How do you help students find what their element?

Kids learn naturally from birth onward. At Clonlara, adults honor this and let it happen without inserting lessons and classes on what a child “ought to be doing” at any given time. Play is the work of the child (as Maria Montessori proclaimed at the start of the 19th century). Children whose work has not been interrupted unnecessarily and regularly become accustomed to learning all the time. Once that child reaches an age when hands-on manipulation is less needed for understanding abstract things (somewhere around the age of 12), what s/he is learning presents a discipline of its own that makes consummate sense to the learner. External force and motivation is not called for in this scenario. Kids find out what they are passionate about at an earlier age than do those whose growth has been sidetracked by what they “ought to learn”. Letting teachers present what they themselves are passionate about provides, again, the best model for the student. Perhaps the simple answer to this question is to get out of their way.

Is there time for movement every day and access to the outdoors/nature?

Use of the community as the classroom assures that kids go, for example, to Saginaw Forest and the County Park (locales near Clonlara), and to National Parks and numerous other venues of interest all over the country and abroad. Clonlara groups have traveled to Canada, Mexico, Japan, Ireland, and to at least 46 of the 50 States. Travel is an integral part of the program.

How is the subject of ADD/ADHD handled in your community? Or do you find these attention problems are not such an issue in your schools because of the independence and autonomy?

We do not categorize students by what they cannot do; we use given names, not initials, to describe our youngsters. Many students exhibit behaviors that are different from that of the rest of their peers, of course. Learning to adapt to this and to embrace the strengths in each individual is mandatory for every kid and adult in that group. That’s the most basic way that I can describe the situation where all kids have a chance to blossom and grow. It’s a treasure to behold, truth be told.

How do you use technology? How do you balance that with non-technology (nature, art, books)?

There are almost as many computers in the middle and older kids’ areas as there are kids. The middles and olders range in age from 11 to 18 years of age, incidentally. They make good use of these, and they carry their own cell phones and that array of ‘berries and gadgets. Balancing the use of these things would be a problem if the program were not centered on kids and their natural activities, that’s certain.

Do you use textbooks, homework, standardized testing, grades?

These items are the trappings of institutional, conventional schools. These would only ever be used at Clonlara if specifically requested/needed by a student, teacher, or parent. Clonlara uses verbal and written evaluations to mark progress, rather than paper report cards. Students submit portfolios to demonstrate their work.

Do you many of your students go on to college?

The number of Clonlara students who go on to college is high. Many of the olders, for example, opt to attend community college as part of their Clonlara schedule, so they get a head start.

For more information on the school, go to:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Expeditionary Learning - an Interview with Marcia Fulton of the Odyssey School

The Odyssey School is a K-8 Expeditionary Learning charter school in Denver, which always has a waiting list and plenty of happy families that were lucky enough to get in. I recently talked to the Principal, Marcia Fulton about what makes this school different.

What is Expeditionary Learning?

The Odyssey School draws its direction and strength from Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound Design Principles. The curriculum is designed around rigorous, purposeful, project-based learning expeditions tied to Colorado State Standards. We describe school success in three groups of synergistic indicators that collectively provide a rich and real-world vision of student achievement and readiness for college and 21st Century work. Our measures include: Academics (content, standards), Character (habits of a learner, motivation and civic- engagement), and High Quality Product (portfolios, projects). We feel that anyone can access content in this day and age and it is not critical or possible to know everything. We value depth over breadth and strive for students to become experts in a topic that is compelling and rigorous. For example, 6th grade students work to answer the question: Is Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion a story of progress? They are asked to research using the Ute tribe as a case study. In science they dig into the study of geology becoming experts in geological timelines, the composition and structure of the earth and rock and mineral composition. They go into the field like true scientists and historians do to explore their topic, gain critical thinking skills, and to see the big picture or big ideas. At the end of their 6th grade year, students take a 12 day fieldwork/adventure trip. As scientists, they do geological site interpretations on their way to the ultimate site, the Grand Canyon. As historians, they are asked to share their historical monologues with the members of the Ute tribe on the reservation as they make their way back home.

There are also the six “Habits of a Learner” that are an integral part of our culture. We want students to be both academically brilliant as well as thoughtful people and life-long learners. In 3rd, 5th and 8th grades students go through a passage process whereby each student must prove in a portfolio and through a panel presentation that they are proficient in our stated “Habits of a Learner”. The six Habits are: Revision, Inquiry, Perspective Taking, Responsibility, Collaboration/Leadership, and Stewardship/Service. These six Habits will serve them well in any setting in life.

I am looking at the huge banner above your desk that reads, “We are crew, not passengers.” Tell me about that.

Everyone at this school has a destination and we are all pulling our weight. We are active in getting to that destination, not passive passengers expecting others to do the work to get us there. No one gets left behind and we all get there through collaboration and hard work. It fits exactly with the Expeditionary Learning model.

What kind of student does well in this environment and what kind does not?

In my opinion, whether or not a child is a fit for Odyssey is more about having parents buy into the entire educational model. Kids are a natural fit; however, as a portfolio school, you have to be willing to do the work. We‘ve had only a couple of kids here that were brilliant kids but not interested in working that hard. They wanted to just take some test to prove they knew a subject and be done with it. The academic standards, the “Habits of a Learner”, the portfolios, the field trips…those all require a lot of effort and perseverance.

How is the role of the teacher different in this school?

We trust and empower our teachers to create compelling content, based on the state standards, each year. Nothing is handed to them. They set up experts in the content areas, field work opportunities, support the adventure program and work to ensure that all students meet the named learning targets. They facilitate learning, rather than lecture. They highlight students’ strengths and are diagnosticians who respond to students’ needs. Because of the nature of this kind of learning, it is never stagnant. They are always developing and refining their craft. They are encouraged to find pathways to grown and learn as professionals and are supported in doing such.

Odyssey is quite successful and the wait list is always full. How do you get enrolled in this school?

We’ve been open for 11 years, though we just now feel like we are hitting our stride because we’ve moved four times in the first five years of our existence. There is a lottery to get in and it is weighted for those who qualify for the free/reduces lunch program. Siblings also receive a priority in the lottery. This year we have 300 on the wait list and there were 20 slots open (including Kindergarten) at the time of the lottery. Real choice for a parent means that they can choose between high performing schools that are in alignment with their values and philosophies. It should not be only about test scores. We do not take three months out of the school year to teach to the CSAP test. We believe that a strong standards-based education means teaching to the test every day. The Expeditionary Learning schools are growing and there are more choices now. There are 15 schools in Colorado, most of them in the Front Range.

After the interview, Marcia took me on a tour of the school, where she greeted each student she encountered by name. Our last stop was the Eighth Grade classroom, where students were working on revising their passage portfolios for the presentations of their “Habits of a Learner”. She asked one student to show me his work. He described the projects he had done and the proficiency he had achieved in each of the six Habits along the way. He was articulate, confident, friendly, and open. I left very much impressed with the students and staff at the Odyssey School.

For more information on the Odyssey school go to:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Bruce Smith on the Sudbury Model of Education

Recently I interviewed Bruce Smith and toured the Alpine Valley School in Wheat Ridge, CO. The school is based on the Sudbury model, which rests on the premise that human beings are naturally curious, and that therefore the most effective learning is self-directed. Belief in freedom, respect and responsibility means that Sudbury schools are run democratically, with everything from the rules to the budget to hiring decided by voting among students and staff. The Sudbury Valley School pioneered this model in 1968 in Framingham, Massachusetts; currently over two dozen independent schools around the world pattern themselves after Sudbury Valley.

How did you come to be involved in the Sudbury model of education?

I was the public school dream student: I was good at verbal and math skills and I did not question authority. I became a high school teacher in a traditional public setting. I was idealistic and found a lot of resistance from students to the model that had worked fine for me. I took the effort to get to know the students and started to understand their feelings about education. I couldn’t deal with the cognitive dissonance of teaching in that way and enforcing policy I didn’t believe in, so I left teaching. A former student told me about Sudbury so I got some reading material on it and I couldn’t put it down. It really fired me up. I heard about a group in Chicago, where I was living at the time that was planning to start a school so I joined them to start it. I eventually ended up at Alpine Valley School in Wheat Ridge, Colorado in its second year.

What kind of kid does well in the Sudbury environment, and what kind of kid does not do so well?

Kids who are addicted to external evaluation and imposed structure, or who have difficulty with impulse control, self-control, self-regulation, self-discipline – those kids don’t do as well. It is a burden to decide what to do all day long and some don’t do as well as others with that freedom or responsibility. However, everyone has his own timetable to work through issues, gain proficiency and study what is of interest to him. Everyone has passions, and they don’t all have to involve linear, logical thought sitting at a desk. I think we disempower kids under the auspices of nurturing in a traditional setting.

What subjects are available to a Sudbury student and how much time is spent devoted to them?

Students here study whatever they are interested in studying – art, dance, history, math, reading, etc. But there is a paradigm shift in talking about this kind of school as opposed to traditional schools, and here a lot of the learning happens outside of classes. If students want to play outside all day, they can do that. The main “subjects,” I’d say, are self- and social-awareness: figuring out who you are, what you want, and how to make that happen in a community. Everyone goes at their own pace in whatever direction they are interested in going. If a student requests to study something that is not something we currently offer, we find a way to get that for him. Occasionally in classes we suggest a certain amount of outside study to maintain or acquire proficiency, but it is the student’s responsibility to do it or not, and then natural consequences arise from their decisions—like putting off further classes because it doesn’t make sense to go on until a certain level is mastered.

How are disciplinary issues handled in your school?

If someone is doing something another person doesn’t like or think is appropriate, that person can report him to the Judicial Committee. That is like jury duty, in that everyone has to serve at some point. Problems of behavior are addressed by everyone on that committee and each person (staff and student) gets a vote to determine consequence for the offense, or if there should be one at all. It emphasizes responsibility and empowerment. In this way there is nothing to rebel against here. That can be confusing to some students coming from the traditional model, but they eventually see that they have the power to change things.

What kind of technology is available to the students?

We have computers with Internet access. The kids can play video games and watch movies. Technology is available to us and it should be available to everyone - it is a democratizing force in that regard. It also gives them a certain degree of proficiency and practice and is simply another resource to learn.

What does a typical day look like to a student at Alpine Valley?

Students can arrive any time between 8:00 and 11:00 and the day is over at 5:00. As long as they complete 5 hours of school a day it doesn’t matter when they come and go. Usually the day starts in the common room; we have meetings, sometimes the judicial committee meets, people cook lunch in the kitchen or go off-campus to get some food. Classes happen just like meetings, and are at the discretion of the students. There will be a group in the game room, some playing outside. Everything happens organically in a multi-age setting without an agenda.

To learn more on Alpine Valley School, go to:

Friday, May 22, 2009

Did you know the average class size in American schools is 8 pupils per teacher? Yeah, me neither…

This is reprinted with permission from Teacher, Revised at by ALISTAIR BOMPHRAY

In his editorial, “What Is Good for General Motors…Is Good for Education,” (Education Next, Spring 2009) Paul E. Peterson optimistically suggests that the economic crisis could spur much-needed fiscal reform within the education sector.

While I absolutely agree that too much of our taxpayers’ money is spent on stuff that isn’t making our schools better (outsized administrative salaries, bad professional development, flawed assessment models, sucky textbooks), I couldn’t disagree more with what Mr. Peterson identifies as fat. Here’s one particularly baffling passage:

For years, our public schools have paid as little attention to personnel costs as General Motors has. Instead, school districts have attempted to enhance student learning (and address many other problems along the way) by hiring more people—more teachers (for smaller classes) and more teacher aides, guidance counselors, bus drivers, lawyers, accountants, special educators, bilingual specialists, and others.

Back in 1950, school districts hired one teacher (or other instructional employee such as administrator or guidance counselor) for every 19 pupils. The number of pupils per teacher dropped to 14 by 1970, and to just 8 pupils by 2005. If class-size reduction were the solution to America’s education crisis, that crisis would have passed long ago.

Hmm. I’m starting to wonder just when was the last time Mr. Peterson actually stepped into a public school classroom.

My own state of California limits class size to 32 at the secondary level and 20 at the primary level. In other words, as a high school teacher in California, I can be pretty sure that I will have 32 names on my class rosters each semester. And in some cases, I’ll have more (legalities be damned).

Yes, I know, Mr. Peterson is lumping all instructional employees into the teacher category. But isn’t that a little misleading? Not once has an administrator directly helped teach my class. And guidance counselors? Their caseload is impossibly large as it is—they certainly don’t have time to help me grade essays. Or lesson plan. Or do after school tutoring. Or do anything that might fairly be classified as “teaching.”

For all practical purposes, I have 32 students in each class. And just so there’s no room to get it twisted—that calculates to 32 pupils per teacher.

Mr. Peterson misrepresents class size data in order to draw the flawed conclusion that class-size reduction is not working, thus rationalizing the cutting of jobs. Not only does this seem a disservice to the hardworking teachers of this nation who struggle every day to leave no child behind in shamefully overcrowded classrooms, it also seems dishonest.

Class-size reduction isn’t working because it doesn’t exist.

If Mr. Peterson were just some angry kook with a blog (hey, I’m not talking about me!), his fact doctoring wouldn’t bother me so much. But Mr. Peterson is the editor-in-chief of Education Next, an education journal published by Stanford and sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard.

So when he writes things like, “Will the emerging fiscal crisis…shift [attention] from satisfying the employee to educating the student?” I begin to get a little worried. Is it old-fashioned to suggest that a satisfied teacher is a better teacher? Certainly we shouldn’t satisfy teachers at the expense of students, but I tend to view the fate of teachers and students as more aligned than what Mr. Peterson’s equation suggests.

Mr. Peterson is right to propose that the fiscal crisis affords us the opportunity to reassess where our money is going. I just hope—if and when that conversation occurs—that teachers are a part of it. Too much of what passes as reform these days is anti-teacher, or at the very least, out of sync with what teachers are facing on the ground. In the “Correspondence” section of the same issue of Education Next, none of the letters are from teachers. Seems kind of telling, don’t you think?

We, as teachers, must find ways to interject our voice into the conversation. Otherwise, we give permission to academics and bureaucrats to dictate next year’s policies (and budgets). Meanwhile, all that will be left for us is to ask, “How high?”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Interview with Sally Goddard Blythe on Balance and Neuro-Development

Sally Goddard Blythe is the author of several books on child development, including “The Well Balanced Child”, “What Babies and Children REALLY Need” and “Attention, Balance and Co-ordination – the A,B,C of Learning Success.” She is also a consultant in neuro-developmental education and Director of the pioneering Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester, England (INPP). Her work and the work of the INPP has shown a connection between the retained primitive reflexes we are born with and neuro-developmental delays that affect reading, writing, hearing, and attention issues among others.

What I loved about the title of your book, “The Well Balanced Child” is that it had more than one meaning: not only balance in a literal, physical way, but balance in the sense of harmony of the whole child. In all senses of the word, this is lacking more and more in the lives of today’s children. How does balance help a child?

Balance is about much more than the ability to stand on leg or walk across a tight rope. It is the first of the sensory systems to mature and in an essential player in how the brain interprets information from the other senses. How a child sees, hears and feels the world around him is all intimately connected to the functioning of balance. This is because balance is the only one of the sensory systems that does not have a special sensation of its own. We only become consciously aware of balance when faced with a particular challenge or when something goes wrong; motion sickness, dizziness, disorientation, visual disturbances and ringing in the ears are all examples of symptoms of disturbed balance. In other words, feelings associated with balance are hidden from view and “speak” through the other senses.

Balance provides the platform for the development of coordination, stable eye movements and visual perception – or how a child “sees” the world. These abilities are crucial to all aspects of learning, from being able to control the body at sports to being able to sit still, track a moving object at speed such as catching a ball, or more slowly to control the eye movements needed to follow along a line of print when reading. “Without balance we could not stand, walk nor run. We couldn’t see images in sharp detail as we move, or navigate without visual landmarks, or perhaps even think clearly” 1

Both physical security and emotional security begin with a child knowing his position in space. Ray Barsch wrote about this in the 1960’s when he described the young child as being a “terranaut” or, explorer of space on terra firma. He said that one of the first skills a young child must master is control of upright balance and posture, establishing a sense of “internal stability”. When the internal milieu is secure the external senses of vision, hearing and touch are free to process information from the external environment. If balance is insecure “thinking” parts of the brain remain over-involved in simply trying to control balance.

Balance is also important for emotional stability in order to feel secure, perceive the outside world as it is and to be in control of oneself. Disturbances of balance result in physical and psychological feelings of anxiety with no obvious external cause. Just as the balance mechanism itself is hidden from view, so the origins of anxiety, avoidance and depression can also have a hidden cause.

It seems that we focus almost exclusively on the cognitive and academic parts of our children, but in doing so we cause problems in that very arena and others as well. How can balance improve cognitive and academic achievement?

Children learn with their bodies before they learn with their minds. In my view, a healthy mind is the product of the brain and the body working together in perfect harmony. Brain and body learn to work together through physical experience. Movement is the primary medium through which this process takes place.

Movement is a child’s first language. Children express themselves through a combination of movement, gesture and alteration of posture long before they learn to speak. Everyone knows that children spontaneously jump for joy, crouch back in fear or stretch forward in expectancy. These simple gestures, which become more eloquent with time and practice, form the basis of non-verbal communication, which is estimated to contribute up to 90% of effective communication later on. They also help to train the pathways involved in control of the visual system (for reading), eye-hand coordination (writing) and postural control needed for sitting still and maintaining attention. This physical A,B,C – Attention, Balance and Coordination – is but the beginning of physical readiness for formal education.2

What kinds of programs or features can parents look for when choosing a school (from pre-school to high school) that shows evidence of balance?

Willingness to look at children’s physical development in terms of balance, eye movements, listening skills and coordination and if necessary provide relevant support if required. These tend to be schools that provide a wide range of activities to develop the “whole” child.

Children who are poorly coordinated will not necessarily embrace or respond well to physical education that is directly aimed at improving performance on the sports field because this is the very area in which the child feels inadequate. However, balance and coordination can be improved in a variety of different ways, through guided physical play with the very young child, developmental movement programmes in schools such as the INPP programme or through music and dance. One of the problems with the current education system (in the UK) is there tends to be an assumption that “one size fits all”, instead of looking at the developmental needs and abilities of the child and starting intervention from the point in development where the child is now.

Kids seem to like doing many of the exercises that promote balance. It not only gives them time to move, but it involves stories and pretending, like Bertie the Beetle swimming on his back or the Standing Statue. They don’t seem to realize the cognitive and physical benefits they are getting from doing it. How is balance therapy presented to students?

One imaginative teacher at a school in the north of England described the programme as “learning to move and moving to learn” explaining that movement helps to train the brain. In a short DVD produced by the Youth Sports Trust in Britain, children describe how “movement has helped me with my music by enabling me to spread my fingers out further on the saxophone”, “movement has helped me with writing as my fingers don’t get so tired and I can write for longer without stopping”. With older students (teenagers) they are told that it will make them look taller, improve their sporting prowess and help them in examinations.

All schools have commented that children’s concentration is improved in the lessons following the exercises, children’s behaviour towards one another is more considerate – they don’t bump into each other all the time, or get into fights in the playground as often - and “there is a dignity to these children that was not there before.”3

What kind of children benefit the most from this type of therapy?

Research to date4 indicates that the children who benefit most are those who show evidence of more than one primitive reflex still being active and who are also under-achieving at school.

Can you explain what you mean by primitive reflexes that are still active?

As the infant brain develops during the first year of life connections to higher centres in the brain become stronger and increasingly take over the functions of primitive reflexes. As this occurs, early survival patterns are inhibited or controlled to allow more mature patterns of response to develop in their place. Some children fail to gain this control fully in the first year of life and continue to grow up with traces of the primitive reflexes, which interfere with their development. These children continue to experience difficulty with control of movement affecting coordination, balance, fine motor skills, motor development and associated aspects of learning such as reading, writing and physical education. Retained primitive reflexes can also affect a child’s sensory perceptions, causing hypersensitivity in some areas and hyposensitivity in others.

How can schools or organizations provide training for their staff to implement such programs for movement and balance?

Teachers attend a one day training course led by an approved INPP trainer. Details of approved trainers in different countries can be obtained by contacting

How can parents help their children? How can they identify the reflex abnormalities and remedy them?

Parents can observe signs and symptoms of immature reflexes in their child by reading any of the relevant literature. If they suspect that aberrant reflexes are a problem for their child I would recommend contacting a qualified practitioner for advice and not attempting to “treat” reflexes by themselves.

With younger children, simply providing an environment with plenty of opportunity for free physical play, “tummy time” while awake in the first 9 months of life, opportunity to crawl and creep, rough and tumble, song and games, can help to minimise the risk of reflex related problems developing. Additionally, engaging in conversation with your baby and reading to your child every day, do more to set the scene for reading than any amount of stimulation provided by expensive toys or electronic media. The good news is that some of the most important ingredients for a healthy childhood are free and a baby delights in the fact that engaged parents are its first teachers.

In general, are pediatricians aware of your work and do they specifically address these issues with therapies?

Yes and No:

Medically it is accepted that if primitive reflexes persist beyond the first 6 months of life they are sign of immaturity in the functioning of the central nervous system and indicative of underlying pathology. If primitive reflexes are fully retained, the child will usually be referred on for further investigations, diagnosis and if relevant to other medically trained therapists such as Physiotherapists, Occupational Therapists etc.

However, if only traces of primitive reflexes remain, the child’s symptoms may not be severe enough to warrant medical investigation. This is what we describe as being a “grey area” where medicine has neither investigated nor identified pathology, and there seems to be a degree of “plasticity” in terms of helping the system to mature. These are the children we see at INPP – children who would otherwise “slip through the net” of professional services which should have identified any underlying problems. These are children who “good enough” to by-pass medical investigations but whose difficulties often go undetected.

What brought you to this kind of work?

A combination of factors: My original area of undergraduate study was History and Fine Arts. Part of the Fine Arts course concentrated on how the artist sees the world and how individual visual-perceptions can be different. I found this fascinating. My father was a classical musician and I had grown up with music being an essential part of life and learning but only started to understand how these things came together when I had my own children.

When I met Peter Blythe, the pieces of the jigsaw started to come together – two Psychology degrees later and I haven’t stopped since!

For more on the work of Sally Goddard Blythe and the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology, go to

1 McCredie, S, 2007. Balance. In Search of the Lost Sense. Little, Brown and Company. New York.

2 Goddard Blythe SA. 2009. Attention, Balance and Coordination – the A,B,C of Learning Success. Wiley-Blackwell. Chichester.

3 Silvester E, 2004. Personal communication based on the use of the INPP Programme for Schools at St Margaret Mary RC School in Carlisle.

4 Goddard Blythe SA, 2005. Releasing educational potential through movement. Child Care in Practice. 11/4:415-432.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Guest Blogger - The Grass Stain Guru on Self-Directed Play

This is reprinted with permission from Bethe Almeras, The Grass Stain Guru, who promotes joyful, messy childhood based on play

“If I get to pick what I want to do, then it’s play…if someone else tells me that I have to do it, then it’s work.”

- Patricia Nourot

Monday: Soccer practice, piano lesson & homework

Tuesday: After-school science program & homework

Wednesday: Soccer practice & homework

Thursday: Band practice, gymnastics & homework

Stop me, before I go on…and on. Which, by the way, is exactly how many kids’ schedules look today — like they go on an on. Substitute whatever organized activities you like — baseball, dance, computer club, etc. Add in time spent shuffling in the car back and forth across town, and you are left with a very adult schedule and pace that is doing more harm than good and squandering away the brief childhood that kids are afforded.

Personally, I find it odd that so many of the people that lament the fact that children grow up too fast today are the very ones putting their kids onto the fast-track in the first place. Over-scheduled. Over-stimulated. Exhausted. Stressed. These are not words that should characterize childhood. But in today’s world, these words ring out loud and clear.

According to play theorists, “Play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated (Wilson, 2009).”

Sounds reasonable, right? Now read the definition again, and then apply this definition of play to any given structured activity — even one that you currently view as a child’s play or recreation time, such as an organized sport.

Is it child-centered and led?
Does it have a set of directions, desired outcomes, rules, etc.?
How much input does the child have in the activity?
Why are they doing it? Does it involve pleasing adults or earning rewards/points/rankings?
Is it (still) fun for them?
If the adults were not there, what would happen? What type of learning and how much fun? Would the kids carry-on as scheduled, or morph the activity into something of their own creation?
Dozens more questions come to mind, but you get the point. All of this adult input and direction has taken the play out of play. In our quest to keep kids busy and promote well-rounded development, we have taken what kids need most out of childhood: time to be kids.

I encourage you to take an honest look at the schedule of the kids in your world. I’m not saying no sports or organized activities – just a lot less. One per season is fine — yes, even if other people look at you like you are crazy when you say little Johnny is not signed up for karate, guitar lessons, and art classes in addition to soccer. Remember, it’s little Johnny’s job to play — to learn through making up his own rules, making decisions, playing make-believe, assessing risks for himself, trial and error, and the wonders of the intrinsic value of doing something for the pure joy of it.

Remember too, that little Johnny has homework to do, the library to visit, sleepovers to go to, chores to do, and the lots of time to spend hanging out with friends and family. He is busy, so it’s time to free up his schedule and clear that calendar a bit. Let today’s kids retire their day planners until the time comes when they really need one. It will be here soon enough, of this you can be sure.

See ya outside! - The Grass Satin Guru

Friday, May 15, 2009

Finding or Starting Alternative Schools

There are so many choices for alternative schools and it can be difficult to understand the goals and philosophies of each one. The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) is a tool for finding alternative schools in your area, learning more about each of the alternative schools under its umbrella, or starting your own alternative school. I recently spoke with Jerry Mintz, who heads up this organization.

What is the mission of Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)?

I had been starting or running alternative schools for 25 years and then 20 years ago I founded Alternative Education Resource Organization. The mission is to help people find learner-centered education and to empower learners to control their education. We work with alternative schools, homeschools, etc.

What change would you like to see as the result of your work?

It is important for students and parents to know that they have choices, sometimes that is not always apparent to them. There are lots of alternatives around, including 12,000 schools in our database. If you don’t have any in your community, we help you start one. We help people start homeschool resource centers.

You have several kinds of schools that belong to AERO that share some common ideals, like Waldorf, Montessori, Democratic/Free Schools, Reggio Emilia, etc. What do these schools have in common?

They are all learner-centered in their approach. It includes some magnet and charter schools too. We set up a directory called “Handbook of Alternative Education” as well as an “Almanac of Education Choices” to help people navigate all of the options out there.

What is the ideal learning environment?

It has to be learner-centered wherever you are. It is not the physical environment that is so important; it is the psychological environment that matters most. Giving kids real freedom is the most important thing. Freedom does not mean do anything you want. It is taking responsibility for your own life and being aware of other people’s freedom and their limits. It is an interactive process to find out what freedom is.

How does AERO answer the question of balance in the lives of students?

In two ways: the emotional/physical/academic balance is built right in to alternative education by its very nature. The student takes time to nurture each of those needs as he or she sees fit. The other aspect of balance is that alternative schools are not elitist. Unlike many private schools there are sliding scales at the schools. We have kids with a wide variety of backgrounds.

How does AERO help students find their element or passion and their own sense of motivation?

If you grew up in schools where you had to make decisions all the time you have an idea of what you want and how to do it and you are already doing it. It’s quite different when you go to other schools where other people are telling you what to do all the time. Those people are far less prepared to handle independence and far less likely to know what they want, what they are interested in, and how to pursue it.

Standardized education comes from the industrial era where each widget had to be exactly the same. Is it necessary that we are all educated in exactly the same way, at the same time?

There are two paradigms. The basis of one was (and is) that kids are naturally lazy and need to be forced to learn. On that basis they are given homework, competition for grades and all sorts of pressure because we don’t trust them. Modern brain research shows that that is wrong. Kids are natural learners – that is the second, more accurate paradigm. If you really believe that (not just say it) everything has to be entirely different. Other things flow from it. You wouldn’t want to have kids required follow someone else’s rule and lead. The teacher is there to help kids find the things they are interested in pursuing.

What if Johnny doesn’t WANT to read or can’t do math?

That question comes from the first paradigm. The hardest thing for people to do is to trust that kids will learn. They need to remain open and confident in themselves as learners. No one should have to learn certain things at certain times. One example I can share is about this kid who was homeschooled and working as intern at AERO starting at 14. He was a very accomplished learner, including speaking fluent Russian and becoming a very talented guitar player. At 16 he was taking college courses and he discovered that in order to go community college, he needed to pass an algebra test. He had never studied it before, but he decided to study it to pass the test and he spent a week on that effort, even teaching others. He aced the test. This gives us a time ratio of something like 52:1 comparing the time spent at traditional public schools compulsorily studying algebra to the time it takes to learn it if you are motivated to know it.

How can teachers take on more of a role of facilitator in the educating of students?

They can do this first by being part of an alternative school. It looks nothing like the standard teacher lecturing. In a lot of schools the staff wander around as their help is needed. It varies. Lots of it is spontaneous.

How has your work progressed so far? What is in the works for this group?

Our mission is the education revolution, but we are far from it. We would like to see these ideas spread far and wide. AERO is a small non-profit, so it is hard to get the resources to do this effectively, though we are getting better and better at it. We’ve started 35 schools that we know of, have on-line school starters, and a list serve for school starters. You will find a list of our schools and these tools on We have our 20th Anniversary conference coming up June 25-28 in Albany, New York. It is a very unique conference that includes students, teachers and parents with roles for all of them, including some students as keynote speakers. Patch Adams will be there, Debbie Meier, who started alternative schools in Boston, a man named Four Arrows will talk about indigenous education, homeschooling, and Pat Montgomery who started alternative education.

For more information on the conference and alternative schools visit the AERO website at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Interview with Sara Bennett on Homework

I recently interviewed education activist and advocate, Sara Bennett. Sara co-authored “The Case Against Homework” and has a blog on the subject at The book shows how homework not only does not boost academic achievement, it also causes a whole host of problems for children and families. It is peppered with both homework horror stories and success stories of parents who have successfully handled the homework issue. Specific examples are given of how to advocate on your child’s behalf and significantly lighten (or eliminate) the load, including how to talk to teachers or administrators with diplomacy and how to form committees to change school policy. The results are surprisingly positive and even when the outcome is not as what was hoped for, she suggests a homework triage system and guides the reader on recognizing homework assignments that add value and those that do not. It proposes a much more careful approach to homework to make it meaningful rather than burdensome busy work.

Sara, as a lawyer for battered women, you are no stranger to advocating for those who don’t have much of a voice. How did you get into doing this work?

I was shocked when my oldest child went to first grade and brought home homework. I thought it was a bad idea from the very beginning, and back then it was only a reading log. We would fill it out without telling him, but at the Parent Teacher Conferences, his teacher said that he needed to write it. But he couldn’t write yet and that didn’t seem to be the way to practice writing, by entering in book titles. We also didn’t want to artificially limit his reading time to 10 minutes, making him think it odd to want to read more. We wanted him to continue to love being read to and eventually to love to read to himself.

At the time I was already forty and very self confident, so I wasn't at all intimidated by his teacher who was young enough to be my daughter. After that, every year my husband would have a yearly chat with the head of the school about the philosophy of homework. Even when the head, whoever it happened to be, admitted that we had some valid points, we were told that we were the only family who considered homework to be a problem. As the years progressed, I got a reputation for being vocal about homework and parents started to come up to me and ask me whether I could raise the issue with the teacher or at a school meeting. By 2004, when my oldest child was in 8th grade, I went to a meeting where people were talking about all the practices that were in place so that kids could get their homework done, even when they had stayed at home because they were sick. It just seemed ridiculous, and I stood up and said that I wanted to form a committee to look at homework and was anyone else interested in joining me. Several parents did and I discovered that I wasn't the only voice in the school complaining about the homework load. By the end of that year, we changed several things in the homework policy.

My son always had a really easy time in school and he could do his homework quickly and efficiently. That made us very good advocates, because no teacher or principal could ever even hint that homework was a problem because he might have a learning issue. He could do it; we just didn't want him spending his time that way, especially since the homework seemed to be busy work.

What kind of homework is more meaningful and what kind of homework is not useful?

Most homework is not meaningful. Elementary school homework is waste of time. There is no correlation between homework and academic achievement. Projects tend to be the worst because kids most often can’t do it alone and there is not much learning that happens, it’s just compulsory. Reading is always important, but it's not important what a child reads, so I would encourage pleasure reading. Math homework is especially problematic in that it is difficult to find homework exercises that add value. Typical homework in history or English is to read and answer questions at the end, which is completely useless. It trains the kids not to read for interest or comprehension, but to look for the answers embedded in the text. I know my point of view is radical, but there are plenty of teachers who don’t assign homework. They utilize their class time, making homework unnecessary. In college you take 3-4 classes and for every class you expect about 3-4 hours of homework. This makes sense because your classroom hours are minimal and you need to have independent study time in preparation for the classes. In grade school the students are in school the majority of the day, so this model doesn’t make sense.

What do you say in answer to the defense that homework is a great way to understand what your child is working on in class and how well he or she understands it?

A student should not need to spend a lot of time on homework every day so that parents know what they are doing. Ask them what they are doing! Communicate with the teacher! If there is something that is really interesting at school, you will hear about it.

There is such a climate of fear about our economic competitiveness that is leads to more academic rigor. Yet, the very zealous focus on academic achievement is causing problems for students academically, socially, physically and emotionally. Why is balance so important?

Because we are more than just academic learners, we are whole people with other needs and interests. Not everyone is going to use everything that is learned in school. Most of us use very little of what we learned outside of basic reading and math. It is important to find what we are each passionate about and time outside of academics is necessary to learn this. We cannot predict what the future will bring so we need to be well rounded and know our interests. I just read an article in the New York Times that talked about recent graduates from the Wharton School being unable to find jobs using their degrees. It had the positive affect of freeing them up to do what they are passionate about and they actually felt relieved. Their parents had pushed them to go to school, but now they were doing what they really wanted to do. One talked about going to rabbinical school, another talked about founding a shoe company that designs collapsible shoes.

Do you think homework is a function of the standardized testing machine, in that a teacher must “get through the year” having to cover a certain amount of topics that will be tested?

Yes, that is part of it. Teachers are teaching to the test, trying to make sure kids have the material to do well on the test.

When looking for schools for their children, what can parents look for that will help them make choices that lead to balance and sanity when it comes to work load?

It depends where you live, as the smaller communities don’t always have a choice. If there is a choice, parents should pay attention to what interests their children have and what learning styles work for them. Go on a school tour and see how big the school is (the bigger the school the harder it is to make a difference and make a change, but, then again, it might be easier to find what you're looking for). See whether the teachers are excited about what they're teaching, whether they're using innovative methods, ask what they do to excite kids. Do they encourage exploration and alternative options?

Parents frequently mention their preference for a school with a high degree of academic “rigor”. When you look up the word rigor in a dictionary it mentions severity, harshness, austerity, inflexibility. Do you think parents really want that kind of school life for their children?

No, I don’t think we want that kind of school life for our children, but that is what we have.
I think they want a place where their children will love learning and be introduced to new and exciting ideas.

Students are not the only ones subjected to homework. How do parents and families suffer when homework is such a presence in the lives of their children?

Family’s lives revolve around homework. We hear all of the time about kids and families having to give up events for homework. There is no time for whatever the kid loves, whether it's music or art or reading or doing nothing, let alone a visit to a grandparent or an out of town wedding. We hear about kids having to do homework on vacation, in the car, even at play dates before the play can begin. Often parents have to put a significant amount of time helping or doing the homework. There can be a lot of negative interactions, especially between teenagers and parents. For the younger kids there are temper tantrums. A lot of parents are expected to teach the homework concepts but are not good at teaching and don’t want to have that kind of dynamic with their kids. It causes a lot of family friction.

You give many good, specific examples in your book of how to diplomatically address the issue of homework overload with teachers and principals. Can you give some examples of your advice?

When kids are little, stop the homework the moment it creates anxiety and write the teacher a note. Teachers are almost always fine with it. Once you know that there is no correlation between homework and academic success, it’s easier to make decisions on homework. My main advice is for parents to speak up to teachers and administrators. Teachers don’t know if you don’t tell them. If no one speaks up they don’t know. Advocate on a larger scale, form committees of parents against homework. Speak up to school board or superintendent, legislators. At every different level there is impact.

In your experience do these meetings or requests typically end well?

Not always but mostly. 1st through 7th grade went well. When we talked to the teacher we got the homework reduced by half or three-quarters. A teacher in my son’s 8th grade and my daughter’s 5th grade were more difficult. No matter what I said did not make a difference, so we wrote a respectful note acknowledging our differences and informing the teacher that they would no longer be doing homework. Even that wasn’t so bad. Initially my daughter was a little a little embarrassed to be the child who wasn't handing in homework, but she quickly got over that and was happy to have free time after school. It is also great for the kids to see you standing up to authority in a respectful and reasonable way and getting your needs met. It’s a good lesson.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Interview with Bill Hubert on Bal-A-Vis-X

Recently I had the pleasure to interview Bill Hubert, founder of Bal-A-Vis-X (BAVX), which is a system of exercises that improve balance, hearing, vision, and brain/body integration.

Bal-A-Vis-X seems deceivingly simple. It involves a coordinated, rhythmic tossing of a beanbag or a ball. How does it all work?

In my book, RESONANCE: Elise and Other Bal-A-Vis-X Stories, I put it this way: Bal-A-Vis-X consists of multiple thousands of physical/auditory/visual midline crossings in three dimensions, crossings that are steadily rhythmic and auditorily-based, their pace the natural outcome of proper physical technique. In distilled essence, Bal-A-Vis-X enables the entire mind-body system to experience the natural symmetrical flow of a pendulum.

How did BAVX all start?

It began 30 years ago in my trial-and-error search for some way to "reach" those 1st graders who, year after year, for whatever reason or syndrome of reasons, were not receptive to instruction.

I am impressed with how many different kinds of problems BAVX can help, from visual problems, to ADD/ADHD, to psychiatric disorders. Any audience from young children to senior citizens in a group home can see meaningful improvements. What are the benefits of these exercises?

I can't prove it in a medical or scientific context, but I believe a single fundamental condition contributes similarly to the prevailing dysfunction among these, and other, groups: lack of rhythm. This arhythmicality manifests both cognitively and physically. BAVX addresses this issue each moment of every session.

What kinds of schools are adopting this type of therapeutic work?

Public schools, pre-schools, parochial schools, charter schools, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, alternative schools. Beyond school settings are OT / PT / rehab facilities and assisted living/nursing homes.

Kids seem to like doing it and it offers a well-deserved break after sitting in a desk. They don’t seem to realize the cognitive and physical benefits they are getting from doing it. How is BAVX presented to students?

Initially I present BAVX to students the same way I present martial arts (which I taught for 16 years): this is interesting, it's not a game, and in all ways it's good for you, especially for your brain. As a rule, by the third session no enticement is necessary--they're eager to begin and not pleased about stopping.

How do motor skill improvements translate to academic improvements?

Over the past decade the core principle that cognitive activity is rooted in / dependent on / springs from physical activity--that the cognitive and physical are one thoroughly interrelated system, that physical movement is key to cognitive excellence--is making its way into mainstream consciousness. Read the books of Dr. John Ratey, Dr. John Medina, Dr. Norman Doidge. See the work of Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita and Dr. Edward Taub, of Dr. Paul Dennison and Dr. Carla Hannaford. All have contributed significantly to our understanding that to compartmentalize the physical and the cognitive is to imperil the brain's ability to function at its best. BAVX's contribution is our 100% focus on rhythm--not from an outside source, such as matching a beat, but from within oneself, occurring naturally as a result of proper physical technique. Our BAVX training consists of teaching these techniques to others, who can then use them in their own work with people of all ages.

How can schools or organizations provide training for their staff to implement BAVX programs?

For general information read through our website [ ]. For a schedule of our trainings, ask for one via email []. Note that in BAVX's nine years of existence we've never once advertised. Our website exists only for informational purposes. We don't set trainings ourselves--we simply respond to invitations. Ask us. We'll come to you.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Is This Gonna Be on the Test?

When I was a student in the 70s and 80s, inevitably someone would interrupt the teacher, who was telling a story or discussing a current event with "Is This Gonna be on the Test?". This always annoyed the teacher who usually shamed the student for asking such a question. I bet this is not a question students need to ask their teachers these days.

In my day there were standardized tests but it had not gotten to the level that it was driving the curriculum (or wagging the dog) yet. These days, there is no time spent on anything that will not be on the standardized test. The teachers follow a tightly scripted lesson plan that encompasses a year's worth of cramming for the standardized test at a sprint pace. There is no time in the school day for learning anything else. Any other learning is considered unworthy or wasted time.

"Is This Gonna Be on the Test" may have been an annoying question, but can we blame the students who asked it? Didn't schools create the kind of learning environment that values memorizing facts and getting high test scores over any other kind of learning? Perhaps that kid was wise to ask the question, for he was looking to optimize what was prized so highly by schools and what would eventually be a number that followed him for years to come: test scores and grade point averages. If a student had to focus on learning for curiosity's sake or learning to garner the highest score and grade point possible, isn't that kid planning and strategizing effectively within the paradigm he is given? I think so.

What is the goal of education anyway? To prepare for the work world? To be competitive with other nations in the world? To realize the potential each of us has as human beings? To read, write and do math equations? To think - critically, empathetically, independently? To get high test scores and good grades? It is a difficult question to answer, but if you looked at our public schools today you might have surmised that the goal is the last one: to get high test scores and good grades. This would be based on a number of clues:

- The importance placed by schools, parents and community on good scores and grades
- The fact that curriculum is driven by what students will be tested on
- The fact that a school can be closed or a teacher can get fired for low test scores regardless of other circumstances
- That parents look at test scores when deciding on a school for their child because there is very little other data given for this decision
- The amount of money that goes to testing and test prep corporations compared to the arts programs or teacher salaries
- The amount of time spent on studying what will be on the test, in class and as homework
- That a student can be held back to repeat a grade level if his grades and scores are not high enough
- That many colleges look almost exclusively at test scores (ACT, SAT) and grades as a basis to allow students access to more education
- That we use such statistics to compare ourselves to others around the world

It is fairly forgivable then to assume that high test scores and grades is the actual purpose of education. We should also forgive the kids who ask that annoying question as well.

If test scores and grades are not the purpose of education then we need to make it look otherwise to an outside observer in our every action and word. If the other goals were the real goals, then we need to stop relying on testing and grades as the basis for comparison, admission, retention, curriculum, studying, and spending. Schools would look very different indeed if our goals were in alignment with our deeds. How different the day in the life of a student would be!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Nature as an Educational Tool

Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., is co-chair of the Education for Sustainable Development Working Group of the Commission on Education and Communication, World Conservation Union (IUCN-CEC). She and Richard Louv (“Last Child in the Woods”) created the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) to encourage and support the effort to reconnect children with nature. C&NN provides news, research, and a network of people and groups dedicated to children's health and well-being through nature. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Charles on her views of the No Child Left Inside initiative as it relates to education.

How can schools foster a reverence for nature in their students?

The first way is to open the door and go outside! Bring classrooms outside and get into nature. Bring natural materials in the classroom. Providing lessons in nature gives students a context and frame of reference that makes learning possible because it stops being abstract. Young children are not yet abstract thinkers. It is a way to fascinate and engage them and it fosters a sense of love, respect, and empathy.

How can teachers (even in a city setting) use nature as a tool to teach?

Grow a garden together. Provide plenty of natural spaces and places for exploration, like logs, boulders, places to dig and water to play in. Let the kids get grubby! Allow time outside for recess and natural exploration. Learning takes place outside too.

How do Waldorf Schools fit with your mission for No Child Left Inside?

Waldorf Schools have a philosophical commitment to the cognitive, spiritual and physical well-being of their students. They bring natural materials into the classrooms and have not only daily recess time to play, but daily walks to parks or in natural settings.

Waldorf Schools choose not to label children with behavioral acronyms like ADD or ADHD and instead help the students learn in the way that is natural to them. They also are famous for not having a lot of problems with attention and behavioral issues. Can you comment on that?

Labels are destructive and schools should learn to greet the students where they are, at their current capability level. Evidence shows again and again that outdoor time has the affect of calming people and increasing their ability to focus and concentrate. Even bullying instances are reduced when children have access to a variety of natural spaces and places to explore.

What kinds of schools incorporate a physical and spiritual relationship with nature within their curriculum?

There are some private schools and charter schools that are doing a better job of providing natural settings and time for natural exploration, play and study. Typically public schools limit exposure to nature on the whole. There is no vegetation, no school gardens, no habitats, even no recess. Teachers are under pressure to get better test scores. The teachers could use the mental health benefits that nature provides too.

When exploring school options for their children, parents can look for evidence of natural spaces that promote play and exploration. There should be more than cement to play on.

Why has today's culture rejected children's exposure to nature and has instead encouraged more reliance on technology, like the internet, ipods, TV, video games, etc?

Nowadays there is so much more access to the electronic umbilica, as I like to call it. Parents are concerned about safety so time outside has been limited and children have come inside to play. Sometimes life style changes have made being outside difficult, like lack of sidewalks to ride bikes or fewer parks to play in. There are a variety of factors that have combined to create these accumulated unintended consequences, like obesity, diabetes, depression, attention and behavioral problems.

How can parents incorporate "nature therapy" as a means for providing balance in their children’s lives?

Birth to age 12 is a critical time for children to develop a passion for nature and the environment. Typically it is accomplished when someone frequently shares what they consider a special place: a fishing pond, a campsite, etc. The child feels valued that they get to share this with the adult and it creates similar feelings of reverence for nature.

Giving kids direct experience in the natural world provides balance and positive effects on physical and mental health. Take turns with a partner or a neighbor to walk kids to and from school, rather than drive. Create a new neighborhood watch that is all about providing kids sunshine and fresh air to play safely in. Start or join a Nature Club (there are ways to do this through C&NN). Let kids see you having fun too. Make outside time family time.

Younger children seem to "play" outside more than teenagers. How can we engage and instill in older children a love for nature and activities?

Teens need to do things with their peer group and they like to take risks. Programs like Outward Bound see this and meet those needs in an outdoor setting with great effect. Just get them outside! Kids like the community service aspect, not just menial jobs but allow them to do projects like habitat restoration. It gives them confidence and leadership and pride. Let them go on over-night camping trips. Allow free-range play and don’t structure everything.