A Day-Trip: Franklin Institute and Bresslergroup Debate

Last Thursday morning, most of the ALC-NYC crew headed towards East Harlem for a day of philosophy, visitors, Japanese, wrestling, music, and more.

Meanwhile, I texted with my co-conspiritors and packed a notebook into my field trip bag.

Learning is natural and happening all the time.

I’m generally a fan of our foundational principles at ALC, but the first one (above) is my favorite. As soon as we stop pretending that learning only happens through schooling, we get to start thinking about the kinds of experiences we want contributing to our education. Which means field trips. In this case, it meant a day trip to Philadelphia with Douglas, Javair, and Geva.

All three were still a bit tired after a long weekend in Boston for MIT Media Lab’s Virtual Reality Hack-a-thon (where they were finalists!), but Javair’s imminent departure made them all determined to pack as much as they could into their last few days collaborating in person. They’d met my friend Nick McGill over Maker Faire weekend, when he was trend-spotting and they (well…Douglas…) were talking game-design. They enjoyed picking his brain, and when I mentioned that the company he works for, Bresslergroup, was holding a debate on the nature of innovation, they made clear that both the content and the company interested them. So off we went.

Having two wonderful co-facilitators this year means I can do things like spend whole school days off-site with two kids and a parent. We got a decently early start, and managed to arrive in Philly just in time to have lunch with Nick. When he went back to work, we walked over to the Franklin Institute to check out their Robot Revolution exhibit. We compared robotic “hands,” played Tic-Tac-Toe, and scrambled a Rubix Cube. I particularly liked the wall-climbing robot that was designed to mimic a lizard. Douglas was more interested in the robotic baby seal, while Geva and Javair competed to catch the eye of a face-tracking Robotis. Then I listened while they discussed the wheels and programming of the soccer bots. I…couldn’t really follow. But I did get to share the pendulum and walk-through heart with them after we left the robots!


 The doors for the Bresslergroup event opened around 6. We headed over a little early, hoping to get a glimpse of Nick’s workspace. Can’t really write about what we saw, but our tour inspired lots of excitement and questions. Curious to see how long it takes before I’m handed a wishlist for our Makerspace 😉

After our tour, we headed to the lobby for the great debate. Douglas picked front-row seats for us, and I ended up sitting across the aisle from my crew. Watching their faces was as much fun as listening to the debate, but I was eager to hear their thoughts on our journey home…especially since they voted for different sides at the end.

 Innovation: driven by research or technology? Do you invest in seeking to understand your customer base’s wants and needs? Or do you presume they can’t know to ask for a tool they can’t imagine, so you invest in developing new technologies? The question got us talking about the nature of both creativity and of markets. Like a good debate question, it gave us lots to consider as we reflected on the evening.

Douglas voted for Team Research at the end of the evening. He made clear that his vote was not necessarily aligned with his personal opinion; rather, he explained that he heard Team Research make multiple sound arguments to support their side, where he heard Team Tech stick mostly to one argument. He really enjoyed the “quips” and pleasantly competitive banter from both teams, though he mentioned that he’d have preferred moderation that prioritized point-counterpoint discussion over polling of participants for each question.

Javair voted for Team Technology, in large part because he agreed that you have to create a product for people to interact with before you can research [using technology] how they receive it. He really appreciated the dynamic between the teams and the distinct contributions of each individual.

In the end, we agreed with the debaters that Research and Technology are interdependent. Since we play in alternative education, we touched on the evening’s assumption that we value innovation and have the courage to pursue it, one way or another. It’s an assumption that holds true for all of us, but we agreed it’d be interesting to discuss what it takes to get someone to that starting point. And what did we decide is necessary for those interested in innovation? Douglas said that a willingness to compromise and incorporate others’ ideas, without losing your vision, is invaluable in general and particularly helpful when collaborating on new projects. Javair advised that aspiring innovators choose questions and causes they feel passionately about so that they can stay motivated to persevere through challenges. He also cited the creation story of the video-game Prison Architect to support Douglas’ idea that willingness to adapt plans and change direction opens space for surprise successes.

Our verdict on the evening all in all? We arrived back in NYC happily exhausted and plotting our next Philly trip. Hopefully there’ll be more engineering adventures for us soon!


*I intentionally tried not to mention people’s ages, to avoid inviting assumptions about their knowledge and capabilities. I also left out much of what Geva and I had to say about the debate…mostly because it’s much more fun and interesting focusing on young people’s voices.


This one is for @thewitchqueen908 @yapyapwizard @pigcraft8 and everyone who went “HUH?” when I used the word earlier…

We have our own ever-evolving language at ALC-NYC, and much of it is comprised of earworms.






It’s a real word. Wikipedia has my back: An earworm, sometimes known as a brainworm, sticky music, or stuck song syndrome, is a catchy piece of music that continually repeats through a person’s mind after it is no longer playing.

Now you have the language to thank me for all the songs I just got stuck in your head…and to ask a friend for a replacement tune to push them out. Here’s some more serious, official info.

Happy humming!






The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again) of the Kanban

“Individuals and interactions over processes and tools…Responding to change over following a plan…”

When I was first looking for information on Agile Software Development, I found these lines and smiled. It makes so much sense: meet people where they are, pay attention to relationships and dynamics, have tools but don’t get attached to them, plan but stay agile.


This year has been a year of reflecting and reframing. Are there too many loud, little kids…or have we failed to adjust our space to meet the needs of a different group of humans? Did we struggle this fall because of the unbalanced ratio of new kids to culture keepers…or because we failed to see that we were starting with a mostly new group and needed a strong tone-setting to support them? Are Kanbans outdated as a Spawn Point tool now that we have Trello…or are they actually a tool to meet more advanced needs than we have at the moment?

Oh the Kanban. It’s definitely pretty and impressive to have a wall of individual Kanbans in each Spawn Point. In the office Spawn Point, we were serious about using our Kanbans until after winter break. There had been talk for a while about the relevance of the tool: kids said it was redundant when there was Trello, messy when Post-Its fell, and time-wasting when people updated their boards during meeting. But we also talked about tracking our intentions, creating visualizations of our intentions, and the potential for inspiring each other by sharing what we’re each up to. So the boards stayed…until we came back from break with several new students. Then the obstacle course of chairs and bodies in the office meant getting to our boards took more work than they saved as a tool. We let them fall out of use, and I spent meetings typing students’ intentions/reflections into their Trello boards.

It felt a little odd…Not all kids have their own devices or access to their Trellos, so they would have to seek Ryan or I out to ask if they wanted a reminder of their intentions during the day. Recording only on Trello allowed for light and efficient documentation, but it also created a barrier between the kids and the lists of their intentions…limiting access rather than empowering kids with it.

*Side note about the office spawn: I don’t run meetings…I scribe while the kids take turns facilitating. I also don’t pick facilitators. They do it themselves.*

At some point in the early spring, Trello started lagging. @timotree and @ryanshollenberger solved the problem in the other Spawn Point by pre-loading everyone’s Trello boards; my computer would still lag when I tried to update the boards, so I took to documenting people’s intentions and reflections by hand. Doing so made more work for me, updating their Trellos after, but it allowed me to document without slowing meeting with my perpetually loading computer. @abram had mentioned that I could solve the Trello lag problem by exporting all the old cards on kids’ boards to spreadsheets and then deleting them from the active boards, but after doing one I decided it was too time-consuming to do for everyone while school is in session. It still felt like there was a lighter, more effective solution, but I was resigned to hand-writing, post-meeting Trello updating, and setting aside time over the summer to export/delete/fight-the-lag.

Then two weeks ago, most of the kids left on a trip and I sat alone with my thoughts. I thought about what I wanted to see (kids interacting with their intentions and reflections, with the interaction prioritized over the documentation value) and what the blocks to that seemed to be (flow of the room, lack of interest in the present tool, lack of clarity from a group of mostly new kids about the intentions behind Spawn structure).

Naming that last block sparked a revelation: I’d been operating from a place of wanting to build on what we started last year, but only three of the twelve kids in the room had that foundation. I needed to think of ways to support the three in continuing to grow, but the room and meeting structure needed to be adjusted based on the people in the room. So I back-tracked.

After asking permission in Spawn one morning, I rearranged the room to open space and move the Kanban wall-of-whiteboards to a more accessible place. Then I erased all the Kanbans and just wrote each student’s name up.

When it was meeting time, I stood at the board to take notes instead of sitting with a pen and notepad. The kids were rapt. They coached me on spelling game titles. They looked at each others’ boards for memory triggers. They asked me to cross things out and check things off…It felt really good.

I wondered if I’d be able to convince them to update their own lists by the end of this year. I glanced a the giant office Kanban I had made for school administration tasks and wondered how long it would take before a kid asked to change from having a list to having a Kanban…how long before they would be looking for workflow management rather than just a holding place for their ideas.

Things went very smoothly for a week and a half.

But I had a Philly trip planned. I’d be missing school on Friday, and I’d have most of the office’s practiced culture keepers / facilitators with me. I know the kids can run meeting without me when they’re all together, but for a handful of them to do it together right after a new structure has been introduced? It was going to be a test.

Thursday, I told them that I wanted those of us who would be on the Philly trip to let others practice running the day’s Spawn Point meetings. I suggested people update their own boards before meeting; they instead passed a marker around and tried to each speak while writing when it was their turn. The meeting went ok, but it was longer and messier than it needed to be. When they left, I photographed the boards then wiped them clean for the next day. I hoped they’d manage ok.

Monday, I walk into Spawn in the morning to see the boards all neatly updated. When the alarm goes off to signal that it’s time for morning meeting, I walk into the office to see two kids holding markers. They announce that they’ll be running meeting. I smile, sit, then watch as they take turns scribing and co-facilitating. At the afternoon meeting, @pigcraft8 jumps up to update his own board. @fashionwithpassion helps him with spelling.

By Tuesday, @pigcraft8 and @pigsfly have asked for access to their Trello boards so they can update those themselves, too.

Now it’s Wednesday, that last day of a short week. The kids now totally run the office Spawn Point. They’ve gotten practiced at picking roles, facilitating, and now note-taking. New kids are supported stepping into leadership roles during meetings. And I…am delightfully surprised once again.









Guest Post: Jason

I play Mine craft then I went to the deli store then Play some more Mine craft then i was going to cooking after i have some pizza then cake then I was playing Simon and I drew on wood then I clean up.

This week!

It’s very exciting to set up new students with blogs 🙂 Especially when they jump into writing independently, leaving me 10 minutes to write alongside them!

We had three students visiting this week. They jumped right into offerings and games with other kids, which was great to see. I spent a lot of time working on gathering records, preparing and following up after the assembly meeting, spreading the word about the summer training program Ryan and I are running, and trying to be outside.

I had a really great time in the park on Wednesday with @ryanshollenberger @pigcraft8 @agilesaylor @creeperclaws and one of the visitors. I got to climb trees with kids, which has to be one of my all-time favorite activities. I also got to take two nice walks with @serenagermany and @thewitchqueen908, who discovered a new crepe place.

The assembly meeting on Tuesday went really well. I used to be really uncomfortable about running meetings, but it’s gotten easier as I’ve practiced. It’s been really helpful to have Ryan and Tomis to work/play with.

Also this week, I watched part of Cooked, the Michael Pollen documentary that’s on Netflix right now. I also went to Julius’ parents’ art show. I hadn’t looked carefully at their art before, but I really enjoyed it. The diversity of the works at the show was really exciting; this was the first show in the gallery’s new space, and I’m excited to keep going back to see how the shows change.


Guest Post by Max

On  Monday   the  first    day      in    ALC  I  feelt     excited .  I   went  crazzzzzzzzzzzzzzy.            I had fun tackling Luca and pulling him down. Again and again. I had fun playing on the computer. I played Minecraft, of course. I usually went to creative mode, but on Wednesday James made me in spectator mode and wouldn’t let me go back to creative. And then on Thursday I told Ryan and he helped me go back on creative mode. I read a Pokemon book for the whole week, almost…except today. But I’ll read it after the blog post. I watched Garden Warfare videos on my sister’s phone because I couldn’t here on the computer. I played Animals. I took Japanese class…that was very very fun. And very messy. I wrote Douglas’ name. Six times! Or five. I played Werewolves. I died two times. I insulted Donald Trump big time, by saying…I forgot. I played Animals with Saylor. I protected the beanbag while Saylor and Aiden tried to invade it. I ate my lunch all the time. I got revenge on Luca. I did not make a lightsaber or work on the comic with Sophie, sadly. I’m going to say good-bye.

I had a very good week. I hope you make me join the ALC.

Making it official.

Growing up, I was often told that I should go to school to become a professor.

Meanwhile, I read stories about and observed the lives of master teachers. And I started asking how they got to where they were.

A pattern soon emerged, and it made a lot of sense to me: the master teachers–the ones who were most interesting, impactful, and expert in their fields–had pursued experience rather than certifications. They had made decisions in their lives that gave them chances to practice and deepen their expertise. Sometimes this meant studying or getting titles, but it often meant doing the work with an intention to continue learning. When they became masters–at knitting or acting or writing or horseback riding or astronomy or geology–members of their communities saw this and spread the word. Students sought them out. Sometimes certifications or titles followed, but that wasn’t really the point.

They cared about doing the work and doing it well. Each had an underlying goal of personal growth towards expertise and confidence…a goal which frees the learner from dependence on external progress markers and acknowledgements (though some of us create our own progress markers and acknowledgement often feels nice). It was often a longer and harder journey to become a teacher than it was to acquire the certification and position of one. But it also sounded like a more interesting, honest, and fulfilling one. Guess which I chose 😉

These are my thoughts today, because I just requested a certification–an entitlement–and I feel really good about it. We have a peer-review process for those engaged at ALCs to become officially acknowledged as ALFs, and the PRs are usually convened at ALF Summer. I missed the first year of peer-reviews, held space for others the second year, and am pretty sure there will be more urgent conversations on our agenda this year. But it’s time. I’ve been doing the work and growing in expertise, so the title feels like a description of what I’m already doing…which is how I prefer my titles 😉 And while I’m content with personal rituals to mark transitions in my life, I no longer live in a small town where word-of-mouth is enough to orient community members to each other. When we live and work in a spread-out community, it becomes important to enact rituals that externalize our internal level-ups. There are the relationship-nurturing opportunities in such rituals, shrinking distance and grounding us together; that said, what are really exciting for me as part of a growing network are the relationship-starting opportunities that arise from such rituals. Asking for a community conversation to make clear what I do and am skilled at opens space for new ALFs to approach me seeking support on their own journeys or offering support for mine. This is super exciting.

I’m very fortunate (a reflection that comes from the awareness that my friends @mandyjayh and @jacobcb are thinking about initiating their own transition-marking rituals): since I am looking to the ritual to communicate what is–rather than hoping it will validate an identity or community relationship that I’m not already secure in–I can choose a virtual peer-review (more scheduling flexibility! yay!) and trust that I’ll get what I need. It’s interesting and fun for me to play with translating a group ritual into a remote one, but if my situation were different I’d probably opt to wait until I could convene an in-person PR.

Curious and excited to see how things play out.