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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 Are Kanbans outdated as a Spawn Point tool now that we have Trello…or are they actually a tool to meet more advanced needs than we have at the moment?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.









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.




It’s a behavior that various magazines I read as a kid attributed to pregnant women and children in the early stages of speech development. You’ve likely encountered it…”I want macaroni” or “I’m going to the bathroom” or “I’m drawing now.” These are all examples of broadcasting.

Now, I’m not pregnant or celebrating a new ability to express myself verbally. And between us, I’m most comfortable keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself. Or at least keeping them close. So…why am I broadcasting? And writing about it?

A few years ago, a younger ALC kid who I was fairly close with off-handedly mentioned that he never sees me struggle. By “mentioned” I mean that he declared, based on his experience, that I don’t ever struggle. And I struggled with this.

On the one hand, I’ve put many years into learning how to manage rough seas gracefully. On the other hand, if I think it’s important for kids to learn that struggling is perfectly normal–is something they should expect and make peace with if they aspire to try any new thing ever–then I have to figure out how to model that grace while pointing to the forces behind it.

In some situations, it’s easy to make my struggles visible. When I participated regularly in acro-balance, for example, or when I practice piano in the library, my challenges are pretty apparent. But usually my struggles look more like remembering to eat, overcoming shyness around new people, managing assumptions in relationships…that is, even if a young person were looking, they would be hard to see. And so, intentionally, as a facilitation upgrade, I started broadcasting.

To clarify, it doesn’t look like walking around school narrating my every action or turning small happenings into epic productions. Either would be counterproductive and annoying. I’m also always aware that what I contribute to the conversation influences school culture, so I choose language that acknowledges an obstacle and declares how I intend to engage with it, knowing I have to be careful to not accidentally end up communicating insecurity or glamorizing self-deprecation instead. My broadcasting usually consists of thinking-out-loud (“I’m a little nervous about this event, but I know I’ll have fun once I’m there, especially if I try to meet at least two new people right away”).

Sometimes my broadcasts get really radical…I ask the kids for help. At least two definitions of love that I’ve encountered include asking the other for help as an expression of love. Maybe this is because doing so requires becoming vulnerable, acknowledging the other’s power, and providing an opportunity for the other person to act in a way that affirms your relationship. Regardless, asking for help is something I would like to become better at. So when I address a struggle by asking for help–“I’m not feeling very hungry today, but I know I should eat. Do you mind if I join you when you get lunch? I’ll remember if we have plans to spend that time together?”–and kids agree, I usually thank them for both helping with my immediate struggle and for helping me practice asking for help.

It felt a little strange at first, but I’ve worked broadcasting so thoroughly into my facilitation practice that I sometimes catch myself composing broadcasts in non-school settings…like the facebook status I wanted to write tonight about talking to people on the subway. I may still publish that status. The point is, I thought to write it mostly as a reflex, and then I stopped to check what I was doing and why. Since I like the idea of adults facilitating each other’s growth, and since I’ve been told by non-students that my tendency to undershare can make me feel distant, I’ll probably keep broadcasting outside of school, in moderation, and see what happens.

Figuring out how to balance my quieter, listener self with my more expressive facilitator self is an ongoing struggle. It’s especially challenging when my quiet self gets nervous about sounding narcissistic, even while my facilitator self insists that it’s important to share my experiences if others might learn from them. I keep trying, though, because I really want to be both my authentic self and an excellent facilitator. It’s definitely possible…I just have to stay aware and patient.

Thank you for supporting shared reflections by engaging with the ALC website and my blog! I appreciate your help 😉

On expectations…

This was a week in which I reflected on the difference between intentions and expectations.

Twice, I set the intention with kids to go ice skating. I intended to reconnect with a friend who’s been off-grid. Intended to get new body art. To stretch. To blog. To clean.

I called these my intentions, but they were more like expectations. And it took watching everything happen in unexpected ways for me to see the expectations in my pseudo-intentions.

The ice skating rink was closed the two days I could go, so we played in the park instead. My friend showed up, but just long enough to announce that he’s leaving again. My art won’t be finished until February, my stretching was toddler chasing, I spent blogging time de-bugging a computer and reminding kids that blogging is part of the student agreement, and my cleaning was the vacuum-all-the-nooks kind that I feel but no one sees.

Nothing this week seemed to go as intended…

Except that it all did.

I got to play with kids outside, which is what I really wanted from ice skating. Got to tell a friend I care and wish him well, show an artist I value his work highly enough to wait for it, to use my body, to reflect, to reset.

By going with the flow when things didn’t go my way, I got exactly what I’d actually been looking for. And more, because I also am grateful to have been reminded to look for the intentions behind my expectation-intentions.

On Consequences

The word “consequence” seems to trigger strong reactions from people, particularly in the context of adult-child relationships and school power dynamics.

Over and over, I have found myself clarifying that “consequence” is not the same as “punishment.” A consequence is simply the effect brought about by a decision or pattern of decisions. We tend to discuss undesirable consequences most frequently: if I don’t dress for the weather, I’ll be uncomfortable; if I break my word, others won’t trust me; if I don’t learn another language, I won’t be able to travel as independently or make as many friends as I otherwise would. However, there can be desirable consequences, too! If I exercise regularly, I’ll get stronger; if I call my mom, she’ll be happy and she won’t worry about me; if I play with a team, we can do more and stress less than we would solo. Consequences aren’t good or bad inherently. They just are.

Natural consequences, anyway. So what about contrived consequences? Constructed ones? Those artificially implemented…like the classic “if you don’t eat all your dinner, then you cannot have dessert?” These are trickier, mostly because this is where there is potential for punishments to masquerade as consequences. When the “consequence” created isn’t related to the decision made, it’s a punishment. When its intention is solely to demonstrate who has power over whom in a situation, it’s a punishment (and bullying). Unfortunately, these are the two kinds of punishments that most people seem to think of when they hear discussion of “consequences.”

As a facilitator, I deal in consequences quite a bit. It’s my job to reflect students’ decisions to them, framing those decisions as catalysts for their consequences. Some facilitators do this mostly during intention-setting and reflection conversations (“You didn’t eat lunch and now you feel angry? Maybe your hunger is causing your anger. What different choice can you make tomorrow so you don’t get hangry?”). I do this, but I also mention consequences as a type or redirection or invitation to thoughtfulness. Those moments usually sound like “You can break your student agreement, but then you’ll have to go to school somewhere else, where you will probably have much less freedom” or “If you yell at your friend, he may not want to play with you anymore” or “You can eat whatever you want for lunch. If you eat only sugary things, you will run out of energy more quickly than if you eat savory things.” I often find it really amusing to play the game of of course you can do X so long as you are ready for consequence Y, but I play because I want kids to know the power of their decisions and the importance of thinking about what effects their actions may have.

Sometimes, though, the natural consequence of an action is really undesirable. Like the school getting shut down (if we leave lots of crumbs around and invite the mice to overrun the school) or someone getting hurt. In those cases, it is the responsibility of the community to protect itself and its members by creating artificial consequences that motivate a change in decision-making before the big, scary natural consequence kicks in.

People sometimes get awkward about creating consequences. They worry about ‘being mean’ or misusing their authority. These worries are unfounded if those creating the consequences focus on their intent (to protect themselves and the community by supporting positive change) and keep the consequence relevant to the situation. For example, if I’m saying inappropriate things to strangers during park trips, the natural consequences include my peers feeling unsafe with me and my inviting a stranger to get angry and retaliate. For their and my safety, my community needs to create a consequence that will motivate me to change my behavior. Banning me from the computer for a week would be a punishment, and I may check my language to avoid the discomfort of the punishment. But…it doesn’t address my behavior. Revoking my permission to go on trips until I demonstrate that I can be trusted to regulate my language would make much more sense; it’s directly related to the problematic situation, addresses the problem behavior, and protects me/others from the natural consequences that are imminent if my behavior continues.

So, to recap: understanding that our decisions invite natural consequence can be really empowering, learning the connection between their decisions and the consequences that arise is important for young humans, and constructing preventative consequences is the responsibility of those in relationship with each other…and is often the most compassionate, supportive thing to do when problems arise.

I hope you’ve gained some clarity as a consequence of taking time to read this 😉

Slog Blog

I haven’t been blogging. I’ve been going through the past few weeks totally present during the school day, diligently responding to Slack/texts/emails/calls after school, showing up for lots of meetings, and simultaneously juggling some large happenings in my personal life. Frequently, I’ll stop and think about wanting to include something in my weekly blog post–a video Eli shared, my accidental adventure with Hannah, what Inter-ALC Psychology kids thought of Piaget–but then I spend Friday facilitating, blogging time helping younger kids blog, and weekends catching up on the work/personal things that didn’t happen during the week.

My Trello has a whole column for blog posts I want to write.

I want to write, selfishly, because I know the weakness of my memory. And because I know how fun it’ll be to send blog posts about now-young kids to them for their 30th birthdays 😉

This week already, I saw a play with Lyla and James, started my November daily doodles, helped visitors use tools in the woodshop, made use of my first aid training, written lots of emails and a short story, participated in Inter-ALC Psychology, went to the park, did some light coaching, played piano, and did lots of admin/community-tending tasks. I still have two letters to write tonight, and today’s doodle to finish.

And since I’m not a student, I’m not writing to build a transcript or share what I’m doing with my curious parents. But…that’s never been why I blogged. I get to witness so much magic through all of every day. I write, so that I can forget these moments without losing them.


I’ve had plans for some time to start a crowdfunding campaign. The idea showed up last year, when I wished we had funds to cover more pricey field trips so that all students who wanted to go could do so easily. Since we’re a private school, we don’t receive state funding and so are dependent on tuition from families to keep the school open. Keeping things thriving on such a lean budget isn’t too difficult with all the free resources in NYC and online…but it does mean our facilitators don’t have extra time to add “grant writing” to their kanbans. It also means we don’t have much of a budget to, for example, cover train fare upstate or help a student visit another ALC or buy multiple students’ tickets into the Frick Museum.

When this conversation first made it into an Assembly meeting last year, @geva suggested that we focus on raising “scholarship” funds. If we think in terms of all families not paying the full tuition possible on our sliding scale as receiving financial aid, the aid has so far been in negative terms…as a discount. One possible approach to fundraising would be to raise enough that the donations would cover the difference between what each family actually pays and the possible full tuition. This would be pretty great, since it would give the school more financial stability and access to more resources while also shifting our approach to financial aid from subtractive (a discount) to additive (a scholarship).

I’m present to the goal of raising enough to bump us from the-budget-we-have to the-budget-we’d-have-if-we-cared-less-about-accessibility-and-only-accepted-full-paying-families is a huge goal. I’m also painfully aware that we have a couple of families who are struggling to afford the base tuition amount and would appreciate a scholarship that translated into lower payments for them. These knowings have been on my mind for a while…but I’ve decided to put off worrying about how to most effectively disseminate a scholarship fund until we have established one. Which means…until I’ve build a fundraising page that people can and are using.

@tomis shared a fundraising plugin with the Fundraising Working Group from ALC-NYC a few weeks ago, but it seems like everyone in the community has been too busy to make moves since then. After a brief check-in with @drew and with @tomis about his test run of the plugin, I sat down today to play with it myself.

I decided to test the plugin by making a page from my personal account–attached to my blog instead of attached to the main nyc.agilelearningcenters.org website–and it took me about two hours of poking around. It was pretty easy…I think it’ll go much faster when I make the scholarship fund page, because I won’t have to spend so much time looking up programming definitions and color codes.

This is the page I made! It’s active, if you’d like to donate 😉

Please comment here if you have feedback (if it doesn’t require sophisticated coding skills, I’ll revise the page accordingly). And keep an eye out for the Scholarship Fund-Raising page…Coming soon!



There was a lot of talk at ALF Weekend about visioning. What is the ALC project? What kind of growth do we want? Where? How fast? Why? Who wants to be doing what? What would our mission statement for the network sound like (if it’s different from those of schools…but what are those)?

The questions came from an underlying wondering: with so many ALFs in so many places, do we share a vision?

@sarataleff started a group document to track various people’s responses to these questions and try to tease out the common thread. @abram asked me, after a conversation with Sara, about visioning ALC as in the business of offering alternative schooling, which leads to questions about what our relationships to other kinds of schools. Valid, since ALC-NYC is a school and we often talk about our philosophy in terms of comparison to other approaches to schooling. But I cringed, because a schooling-focused vision of ALC potential isn’t what I’m ultimately working to achieve.

Shortly after, a parent emailed the ALC-NYC finances group, unknowingly laying out points of a conversation staff had been playing with to varying degrees since ALF Summer. He was pointing to the need to develop a plan to grow and grow sustainably. What, he wondered, was our vision for ALC-NYC?

Both conversations–the network level one and ALC-NYC level one–will definitely be fascinating, ongoing, and significant in determining the future of both entities. Where I have time and energy, I plan to weigh in on both. That said, after talking with Abe and Bear last week, I realized that it may be worthwhile to write out my present ideas, if only to practice articulating them so I can do so more concisely in the [increasingly frequent] discussions.

Network Vision, aka: What is it and what is it for?

In ALC-NYC, the philosophy behind Agile Learning Centers is expressed through an entity that is, as Abe said, an alternative school. We run a school. We take attendance, serve young people of an age where the law requires that they be enrolled in some program of “schooling,” track immunization data, talk about graduation around the age of 17-18, and file lots of paperwork with the DOE.

But the ideas we make our decisions from–trusting each other and the power of relationships, that learning is natural and constant, that self-directed and experiential learning is most powerful, etc.–the “roots and branches” we publish on our website, don’t only apply to humans between the ages of six and eighteen. And building communities based on these principles doesn’t only serve school-aged humans or lead to the establishment of schools.

Right now, people are making ALC schools because…that’s where the need is. I, as a legal adult, can choose to pursue education at home, through work, at school, in meet-ups, or in any of a huge number of possible settings. Or not. A fourteen-year-old, on the other hand, can only choose between kinds of schools. And they can only choose in as much as their parents are supportive of their choosing anything other than the public school or private school that they want.

And I’m glad we’re convening schools. I’m so glad that ALC is an option so that kids have a place to self-direct their days in community. I don’t need to go into detail about why playing with kids is one of the most assured ways to change the future. It’s cool, what we do. I love it. It’s just not where my network vision begins or ends.

In looking for the source of my vision, I poked at definitions. School, for example. What is it and what is it for? It’s that place the government requires adults send family members between ages five and eighteen (approximately). It’s purpose has changed over the years, but it includes providing a non-work, non-street (ie trouble-making) place for young people to be supervised while their parents work, acculturating cohorts of young people so they identify with a particular mythology (nationalistic, STEM, here’s-how-you-relate-to-authority, religious, etc.), exposing students to each topic on the common core checklist, and administering tests/labels to help sort society. I won’t get into class replication or Ilych’s theory about disempowering dissidents; suffice it to say that people have other theories about what school is and what it’s for, beyond what is useful to us here.

ALC isn’t about schooling. We think more about mentoring and guiding than supervising, and we reject the mandatory teaching of isolated subjects or the call to reduce children to piles of statistics. However alternative our schools may be, they don’t set out to be schools so they can perform schooling. They are schools, almost as a disguise, to give kids a place to escape schooling into a richer, more supportive setting, in spite of legalities restricting what kinds of places they can spend their days in.

We get away with it, because Schooling-y schools have for a long time tended to a myth which is now nearly unquestioned in our culture: schools are for learning. A place of learning and education (for kids between ages x and y, where there are intentionally selected adults in loco parentis) is a school. Thanks to this fantastic definition, ALCs can have nothing to do with schooling and yet be schools. Which is really convenient, but also means that the vision for ALCs can’t be elicited solely from our definition of “school.”

So let’s play with other definitions, like “learning” and “education.” We use those words a lot. “Learning” is a dynamic word pointing to the process by which we modify our knowledge and skills. We learn new things. Learn things we knew better. Learn that everything we read in that last article was fictitious, so we should negate it and practice discrimination in choosing our sources. But I’m getting ahead of myself…”Learning” is one of the ways we modify our brain structures, which is happening in response to everything and everyone we experience, according to that sweet CrashCourse video InterALC Psychology watched last week. And our brains are plastic for much of our lifespan (depending on how we care for them). So “learning,” to quote an Agile Root, is natural and happening all the time. The process of learning is tied to education. Education is very similar to learning: it’s what we focus our attention on, what experiences we expose ourselves to, what we pick up from the models around us. Sometimes “education” is the sum of our learning (to this point). Other times, it’s the pursuit of learning. We use the word a few different ways. You can google the etymology, but more interesting to me is that “education” started out as a midwife’s term meaning “to be present at the birth of.” So while the words are mostly similar, “learning” focuses on the personal process, while “education” focuses on the engagement with an other that leads to learning, intentionally or not. And I…I get to be the educator…the one who is present at the birth of the learner to their possibility. I get to be the witness (and sometimes the dula…?).

Connecting the potential of Agile Learning Centers to “learning” and “education” feels much more authentic to me than connecting it to “school.” The idea that we are about creating places of learning, where the education structures support self-direction and autonomy in community, sounds really right, and like an idea that has enormous potential–whether or not mandatory school-attendance gets abolished any time soon.

I see Agile Learning Centers as just that: community centers, designed to support human learning, and based on an approach to learning/community-organizing that emphasizes trust and support and…agility. Which means we should keep making schools. And preschools. And coworking spaces. And cafes. And libraries/research centers. And book clubs. And senior centers. And art centers. And collective houses. And eco-villages containing all the other kinds of ALCs. The possibilities seem limited only by our imaginations, and the potential of such places to change the world for the better simply by existing in it seems enormous. I envision organisms of communities networked to form an ecosystem that empowers people and shifts cultures. Much bigger than a handful of schools.

ALC-NYC Vision: Growing anything in NYC is like gardening in a terrarium.

When I showed up as a curious not-yet-volunteer at “The Agile Learning Center at Manhattan Free School,” I saw four white men in a room and I almost wrote the project off. I was already uncertain about any project mixing technology industry and education pop-phrases (high reactivity to STEM obsession) and was a little wary of Free Schools based on the lack of community and staff burnout I had noticed while interning at one.

In spite of my hesitation and skepticism, by the end of the information session I was signing up to volunteer at the school three mornings a week. Within months, it was clear that I had a shared vision with Ryan and Tomis: to grow the six-student, two-staff, financially desperate school into a thriving community with double the students, the ability to hire me, and financial stability.

A lot has happened since then, but here’s the present situation: We’re 15 students and growing. Ryan and I are full-time facilitators and full-time co-administrators/conductors (rather than “directors”) with Tomis, who still does bunches for ALC-NYC but is around less and less as he settles into married life in Charlotte. And now there are other ALFs in the city: @sarataleff has a littles program in far away Greenpoint, Drew is in and out with network/web stuff, Abe is running extended day, and Bear is testing the viability of being an ALC admissions ninja. Things are happening.

Space-wise, we’re present to our lack of gym/outdoor space, the distance between East Harlem and Greenpoint being a deterrent to increased age-mixing and a challenge for parents wanting to enroll kids at each ALC, and our inability to provide an adult co-working space for parents to hang in and students to find more role models in. If I’m being picky, I’d love that space to have room for a cafe and be open to neighborhood people.

And I want to upgrade our makerspace so it’s more accessible and versatile.

And I want to upgrade our library so it’s full of books kids want to read.

And I want to make sure certain Occupational Therapy toys are available, because sometimes you just need a weighted blanket to feel better.

Staff-wise, we need to do some reorganizing. Tomis wants to fully hand his role and duties over to someone New York based. Sara wants to be an administrator but needs gifted and trusted facilitators to take over her Cottonwood program first. With Ryan and I facili-admin-conducting, we’re feeling the need for another facilitator soon. ASAP if we keep wearing all the hats we’re wearing. Less urgently if we get to offload non-facilitation work to a new director or administrator first. Either way, we’re already aware that we can’t take on starting crowdfunding campaigns, running monthly potlucks, or upgrading our collaborative documentation of kids’ learning without support. And these are things we’d really like to do. We have some potential plans and some promising prospects, but finding the money to pay everyone a livable salary and lining up the people we have so all the shifts in work go smoothly…that’s more challenging. And some of our prospects aren’t quite ready. And some, we’re not sure where’s the best place for them. It’s a really fun, really challenging game, and the stakes aren’t too high yet…but it feels like they will be soon.

So my vision for ALC-NYC is for it to move into one building or a few neighboring spaces, so that the age-mixing can be expanded to include early learners and adults while making logistics easier for parents. I’d like the space to be well equipped and integrated into the neighborhood. I want a facilitator for Cottonwood so Sara can focus on running things there (or at both programs). And I want another facilitator for ALC-NYC, either so Ryan and I can be more supported in wearing our many hats, so the school can continue to grow, or so I can support facilitation while holding coherence for admin-ing/conducting/relationship-tending to take that off Ryan and x’s plates and let them focus on being kick-ass facilitators (until we can get people in directing/administrating, when I’d like to go back to facilitating…though with more support I could facilitate and community-build).

That’s a messy vision, blurred by wonderings about money and logistics (will anyone else be crazy enough to accept a job that’s constant–though wonderful–work, ok pay, and no healthcare?).

The clearer vision is simpler: I want a space big enough to integrate programs for different age groups. I want a supportive, diverse, thriving community (and tending it to be part of my workload). I want all staff in the positions they are reaching for now, and for new, talented ALFs to join us as we grow, so that everyone’s workload is reasonable. I want the school to be financially solvent, with the ability to add new staff as needed, pay existing staff fairly, and offer healthcare so we can attract more diverse adults (since it’s really only us young, childless, healthy, or covered-by-someone-else’s-plan people who will consider the jobs otherwise). I don’t really worry about the school growing; I trust that will happen…I’m more interested in how to make sure our growth is managed so that kids, families, and staff have the resources and support they need to keep building incredible, interconnected lives.





It’s like I’m a self-directed learner or something. Some of my ALF friends write amazingly, and I really wanted to be like “Hey, just write and get all that fascinating, useful, beautiful storytelling out of your head and onto this page so I can read it. Then let me fix the punctuation and grammar so other readers don’t get distracted by technicalities. You flow, I’ll frame. Good?” And it was good! Except that editing people’s websites and blogs requires both permissions and know-how. Fortunately, enough of my friends like my copyediting (and are way too busy writing to worry themselves about it) that they quickly offered to become teachers and allies.

So I’ve been practicing for three weeks now…and I’ve gotten comfortable enough to have found some composition flow of my own.



I’ve been writing questions on forms and answering them for the FAQ & Challenging Questions sections of both the website and Starter Kit. I’ve been writing descriptions of tools and practices, re-wording the explications of our principles, creating a narrative walk-through of an ALC-NYC day, describing what facilitators do, drafting comparisons of ALC to other alternative education philosophies, expanding that to a history of education contextualizing ALC and those philosophies, and in between editing everybody’s everything (that I have their consent to edit, of course).

One of the questions I wrote on one of the forms was How did you get here?

It’s a good question. I’d love to hear your answer.

Threaded through mine are various subplots, including the one which explains why I have enough books to even think about writing a history of education (mostly schooling…mostly European and American industrialism-and-beyond schooling…). It’s a pretty interesting subplot, if I do say so myself, filled with existential crisis and paradigm shifts and lots of subversion. It’s really barely a subplot, if I’m honest. I never forget it’s there. Tonight, though, I rediscovered a subplot I had forgotten about: the one where I almost survive getting educated without it beating the beauty out of my writing. Without it beating the love of writing out of me. Without it beating the idea that I could write things worth reading (even without statistics!) into particles of dust that blew out of my dreams on the wake of a beetle wing. Which is to say, nearly without me noticing.

I don’t really want to answer How did you get here tonight. And I don’t want to get into the kinds of unschooling adults involved with ALCs go through…it’s nearly midnight and my eyes hurt from hours of Google Docs and website gazing.

What I do want to do (and I’m almost done) is to acknowledge–we talk about “unschoolers” and we mean kids doing not-school. They’re building. They’re creating. They’re moving forward. But mostly they’re not having to un-anything, because they haven’t been schooled. It’s us who have the work of unschooling ourselves, the task of deconstructing while we’re inventing and building on the same patches of ground. I see lots of us doing it–parents, ALFs, college kids who come in to intern, slightly-older-than-college kids who come into volunteer–I see you. And you’re amazing. And it’s so hard sometimes. And it’s so scary sometimes. And it’s so magical so often.

I want to acknowledge you. And us. Because I tend to keep my messier processings tucked behind my right ear or slipped between my shoulder blades…but…sometimes one falls out and I want to shine a light on it. I want to cry out “Hey! Look at this dull, useless, ugly story! I’ve been trying to edit it into something worthwhile, but it might be beyond saving. Only problem is, once I scrap it, I have to write a new one…not just edit, but write.”

We’ll laugh. You’ll reassure me I get to use lots of semi-colons, parentheses, and lists. And I’ll happily go back to finishing that Starter Kit chapter, as if I weren’t just remembering what it feels like to write with conviction(.)


Graduation Process Proposal

Back at the last assembly meeting, I committed to hold a series of discussions with kids–and open to parents–to elucidate a graduation process. The goal was to have a proposal ready for the the next assembly meeting (tomorrow), where it could be amended and [hopefully] approved so it can be presented officially in September.

The first meeting was reasonably well attended. It got so much done that only a handful of people showed up for a second meeting…which was predictably short.

The process we came up with draws from the suggestions of the kids, the Colloquium process at NYU Gallatin (which I went through as an undergrad.), and the mission of this ALC (supporting independent learners in intentionally creating their lives).



A student wishing to graduate from ALC-NYC needs to notify the school of this intention at least 6 months in advance. The intended graduate communicates that they have identified their Next Step, are beginning preparations to take it, and request community support in beginning the graduation process.

At this time, the school community chooses 2 of its members to support the student in preparing to graduate and to sit on the student’s Colloquium panel. The student chooses 2 additional community members to request the same support and panel membership from. Finally, the school community and student collaborate to find an individual whose experience or position is related the the student’s intended Next Step. The student invites this person to also join their Colloquium panel.

In the months leading up to graduation, the student works to prepare for their Next Step. They compile documentation of their preparation process into a portfolio, and this portfolio becomes what they present to the panel at their graduation. The panel members will review the portfolio and engage the student in a conversation, with the aim of determining whether the student is ready to graduate. After an hour of portfolio review and discussion, the student will step out and the panel will get clear on whether or not the student is ready to move on. When they have decided, they will relay their decision to the student.

Graduating students are also encouraged to throw themselves a party. They plan the kind of party that they want, and the school community gathers after their Colloquium to celebrate with them.



I expect the numbers of the members of the panel to change as the school grows in upcoming years. Personally, I like that the proposal addresses what I felt to be the two weak points of the Gallatin Colloquium process–the focus on ground covered rather than steps forward, as well as the lack of a reintegration phase of the ritual.

Thoughts? I’m presenting this to the assembly tomorrow…