Thursday, January 31, 2013

Small But Mighty

It has been nearly a calendar week since my last blog. So much has been going on that it has been hard to find a moment of silence where I didn't want to just stare at a spot on the wall. Right now the kids are playing a rousing game of Twister, and lunch is over in about ten minutes. Phew.

Tiny House workshop in Orlando this past weekend, with mixed results. Although I think it would have been a good place to start for someone considering a tiny house and without much research behind them, for us it didn't offer too much. This is good news in one aspect: the way we are studying at HoneyFern really works. La Petite has done such a good job researching, designing and building her model (and asking questions and making mistakes, all a part of good learning) that she has a clear understanding of what she needs to do, and so did not need much of the lecture from this past weekend.  Even in the discussion of the seven principles of good design she was clearly ahead of the curve. The other good news is that we did discover how not to run a workshop; there was no hands-on aspect, and that is a very difficult way to learn for any age. La Petite turned to me at one point and said, "I guess this is my first taste of what college will be like." Hopefully not.

In other news, we are welcoming a new student next year to HoneyFern, Max. There is no telling what he will study yet, but we are so excited to have him join us. We are still looking for another three or four students for a maximum of ten for next year. HoneyFern is putting expansion plans on hold, as it simply does not make sense to pull my time away from the students to recruit a board. I started HF to teach, and expanding the school is taking up too much of my mental energy, energy that is best directed towards the kids. So the decision is made for me: we stay small but mighty. And that's alrighty.

Finally, as Twister is about to collapse, tomorrow begins the watch for Ella's chicks to hatch. She has candled all of them and six have something in there. We are so excited for these additions, and any news of a "pip" will result in a spontaneous field trip to Ella's house.

Have a great day!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Go-Kart Updates

It has been awhile since we posted a go-kart update; Will was struggling through his schematic drawings at the end of the calendar year, so I made him a deal. If he could persist and do some seriously awesome drawings, I would give him a huge surprise. The rules were as follows:

1. Standards for the drawings were very high. They had to be to scale and easy to understand for someone who had no idea what they were doing.

2. No guessing the surprise. Should the surprise be accidentally guessed, the surprise would immediately be taken away. Sounds harsh, but them's the rules.

3. If the schematics were not up to snuff, no surprise. Full stop. I did warn Will that if he didn't have them, or they weren't up to standard, then I would still tell him what the surprise was, and this would make him very, very sad.

This seemed to light a bit of a fire under him. In addition to finishing his schematics (it came down to the wire, and he had to re-do two of them that were shoddy and not clear), Will has been on a reading tear, finishing ten books in the last six weeks. All on his own. He has also decided to write a persuasive letter for a paint job on his go-kart.

So what was the surprise?

A go-kart kit!! Same basic design and all the parts.

All he needs is an engine, which he has started looking around for and for which may design a fundraiser. The other students at HoneyFern are trying to convince him to paint it himself, but he wants a professional job. If his persuasive letter doesn't work, I will be posting painting pictures soon!

Go, Will, GO!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Meet HoneyFern

The weeks are flying by. I keep telling the kids that before they know it the end of the year will be here, but they remained unconvinced.

In the meantime, Ella's eggs are hatching next Friday (fingers crossed!), Will is writing a persuasive letter to get a two-toned paint job completed for his go-kart before he assembles it, Sicily is attending a tiny house building workshop in Orlando, Sarah is constructing a scale model of her greenhouse and refining her hydroponic system, and Alec is full steam ahead with his 3D game creation. They have no idea how soon they will be finished with their projects.

Thought I would take an opportunity to let the school introduce themselves. Short little video. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tiny House Construction, and a Nod to the Siegel Patriarch

This may be turning into a Siegel family project.

My late father, Marty Siegel, was famous for his contruction projects, many of which started and ended with demo and consisted of countless trips to the local Ace Hardware and 64 Lumber yard in Middletown, Maryland. The tiny house will be completed, but thus far our construction days have been held up by lack of materials or wrong materials. We have still managed to keep moving forward, and our plan is in place to have framing done by the ed of February, with help from La Petite's Indiegogo fundraiser. Eek!

Construction began in earnest on the tiny house this week, ending with the Eco-Foil on and floor joists in place and the quest for a table saw. Hopefully we will get the subfloor on by the end of the week, as we are going to the Tumbleweed Tiny House Workshop in Orlando this weekend (hello, 76 degrees and sunny!).

In film:

(Yes, Nana, La Petite knows the difference between plywood and a 2x4. She was nervous. La Petite is actually pretty shy. This whole video thing is a big deal for her.)

In pictures:

Taping together sheets of Eco-Foil like we were a little tipsy. There is a learning curve. And a tape curve.

Stapling it to the sill plate.
That moment when you realize your 5 1/2" lag screws should be 5" lag screws. Off to Home Depot. Hey, we needed insulation anyway. 

Laying out lag screws to attach the first 2x4.

Teamwork. Stapling the Eco-Foil to the frame.
Nailing in floor joists.  The nailgun was an experience. Daddy-O was not keen on her using it, but I pointed out that it will be very difficult for her to build her own house if she is not, in fact, allowed to use the nail gun. Safety first. Only with supervision. Technically there should be some eye protection also. #NextTime.

Nearly finished.


And all of it summarized by the video above. We did this work in about three and a half hours, including the trip to Home Depot. It is great to look out in the driveway and see it taking shape.
Today featured a fruitless search for a table saw, so if anyone has one they would lend out, and you're local, give us a shout!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What Makes Finland So Successful?

How does Finland do it? What is so structurally different in their education system that puts their success rate head and shoulders above all other countries?

It is far too simplistic to write it off as demographics; using similar demographics in the United States, Finland still wins (especially when you consider one in three kids receives some kind of special services but are not sequestered in "special ed" classes).

SO how do they do it? Take a look:

Finnish Education Infographic

Infographic courtesy of!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why I Hate School But I Love Education

Every year for my entire life, except for about five years, I have returned to school in the fall, as a student all the way through my Master's degree and as a teacher for the last 14 years. As a student, August was filled with excitement and anticipation; I love to learn. I love buying new school supplies and back to school clothes. I love selecting classes and the newness of a college campus at the start of the fall semester, even after having been there for years.

"Education is about inspiring one's mind, not filling one's head."

And then the ball drops. For most of my 18 years as student, the month of August gave quickly way to the month of September when reality sank in. With the exception of four teachers in my entire academic career (Mrs. Lutz in 2nd grade, Mr. Zinc in 8th grade, Mr. Bunitsky in 12th grade, and Dr._____ in my senior year of undergraduate), I don't remember feeling inspired, appreciated or respected in school. I don't remember any teachers who had the time to get to know me or plumb the depths (or shallows) of what I knew. I don't remember putting myself into my work to any effect in any classes other than the ones mentioned (well, an 8th grade history teacher appreciated my Egyptian history essay on "The Amon Lady: a Study in Makeup.").

Suli Breaks addresses this clash of expectation and reality in the following spoken word video. Every year students return to school, not really knowing why they are going, not really getting what they need, under the mistaken expectation that school holds the key to an education.

"If you don't build your dream, someone else will hire you to build theirs."

Get to building. Time

Sunday, January 20, 2013

There's More to Life Than Being Happy

This is an excellent article from The Atlantic.

"Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."

'Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,' [psychological scientists] write."

So what does this mean? It is not enough to be happy in your life - you must also strive to bring happiness into the lives of others. Giving makes you happy. Making other people happy...makes you happy. The more of this happiness-making you induce, the happier you are, but the goal of giving or happiness-making is not happiness. The goal is the happiness of others, and the by-product is your own happiness.

That's a lot of happiness in that previous paragraph. Take a look at the article and see what you think. What is the meaning of your own life?

Saturday, January 19, 2013


I sit here feeling profoundly grateful today.

La Petite has launched an Indiegogo fundraiser to build her tiny house, and people have responded in big ways. I was expecting a smattering of donations here and there, but people have given generously: strangers, anonymous people, friends, family. In four days she has raised $920 and is approaching her goal of $1,500.

This is a beautiful thing that I don't think people understand. When you take a moment to give what you can, be it $5 or $500, you are not just handing over cash in support of a project; you are supporting the entire institution of progressive education and declaring your belief in a 12-year-old girl and her desire to build a house with her own two hands.

I am grateful for your support of this project and your support of HoneyFern. It is literally changing lives for students when you believe enough in them to give of yourself, your time and your money. In this tough economic time, it says something when you are willing to give what you can, no matter the amount.

Thank you.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Blogroll: Kids Write

It has been a long short week - same length, flew by, but felt long. Perception of time is wierd!

No real blogging this week, except for the kids. We have five student blogs in various states, and I thought it would good to post them all in one place. Please take a moment to read and follow them; leave comments and ask questions.

Ella: A Girl And Her Chickens - Follow Ella as she incubates a dozen eggs and designs and builds a chicken coop!

Sarah: Greenhouse Girl - Sarah is designing and building a hydroponic greenhouse with salvaged windows and advice and help from Atlantis Hydroponics.

Alec: Random Pixel Person - Our newest student is designing and programming a 3D game; he is using Unity 3D and also learning how to draw IRL.

Will: Go, Kart, GO! - Will is perhaps farthest along on his project; he is currently writing a persuasive letter to get a paint job on his go-kart frame and looking ahead to fundraising for an engine.

Sicily: La Petite Maison - Sicily is in the materials gathering stage of her tiny house; follow her to see a house go up!

Some of the students do not yet have a "follow this blog" link, but please be patient. They are all a work in progress!

Thank you for your support of these students!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Engagement Cliff

Without getting all political, let's talk about The Cliff. Not the fiscal cliff, but the "student engagement" cliff.

From a recent Gallup poll:

The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. We found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged.

This is tragic and worth noting. I remember taking polls like this in high school, mostly as they related to drugs and alcohol. Some of the students would purposely give extreme answers (at one end or the other), so sometimes I take these with a grain of salt, but the sample size in this poll is large enough to weed out most of those. I am also currently working with students in all grades from 5-12, either at HoneyFern or in tutoring, and, anecdotally, I find this to be accurate. Kids say that school is nothing more than a trudge through requirements, that nothing is really interesting, that their teachers don't know their names. They guess they'll go to college because they don't know what else to do (even if they don't really want to go), and nothing strikes them as worth pursuing. The trend is troubling: every year a student is in school they become less and less engaged in their education.

This has been getting worse as the years pass. I taught in public school for nine years, and across those nine years I saw kids who were less able to tell me what they liked, what their pursuits were outside of school (they had none other than TV, social media and videogames). When I asked them what they would do if they could do anything, it was usually something along the lines of, "Sleep in, eat lots of junk and play videogames all day."

I see this at HoneyFern with some students who come from public school, too (not all, certainly); when I give them the student survey with questions about their life, their values and their interests, many of them give one word answers or leave things blank. Talking to them about their answers doesn't yield much more information; they are so used to having someone else tell them what to do, think and be that they have no sense of themselves.

So this then becomes the real crisis: students who are automatons, walking around with no real knowledge of themselves, no real connection to their core beliefs, and no idea how to figure out what it is that gets them up in the morning.These students wait for the next direction, unsure of what to do after they finish the initial task; there is no initiative, persistence or efficacy in their work.

The first step is recognizing there is a problem, and I am not sure schools recognize the problem. The recent Quality Counts 2013 report shows many states with great written standards and teacher retention but with a student chance of success in the low 70s (or lower).  We are missing a crucial piece in all of the hue and cry over unions, standards and teacher evaluations: STUDENTS. How can you not have them front and center? And yet many states (indeed, the vast majority of the country's public schools, in my opinion) are not "reforming" with students in mind but rather with school report cards and teacher ratings and test scores and politics.

The drop in student engagement for each year students are in school is our monumental, collective national failure.

Indeed. Time to do something about it

Friday, January 11, 2013

Site of the Week - Getting Organized

Posting one day early; we are getting ready to move the house (but not the school - it's complicated), and things have gone crazy a little. The students don't know how crazy because we keep the bedroom doors closed, and that's where all the mess is, but if I had this little tool I may have been a bit more organized.

So here it is for you - 31 Days of Home Management Binder Printables.

As my students would say, it's very CDO (OCD but with the letters in their proper order), and sometimes this is a good thing to channel.

Happy organizing!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Goal Setting

If nothing else, the one thing that sets HoneyFern apart is our individual learning plan for students.

Before a student's first day at HoneyFern, I sit down with them in their home, generally for several hours, and I talk with them about what they love. Sometimes they know right away, sometimes we need to walk all the way around the neighborhood before we find the right house. After we do that, we try to find a way to incorporate what they love or what interests them into a real-life project from which all of their academics will stem. Then we break the project into manageable chunks, and then we break it into even smaller chunks. Once they actually walk through Honeyfern's door, we can break it down even futher into a daily schedule, if necessary.

All of this boils down to goal setting: what do you want to accomplish? What is your goal?

La Petite is building a house.

Will is building a go-kart.

Ella is hatching her own eggs and building a chicken coop.

Sarah is building a hydroponic greenhouse (blog coming soon).

Quinn is learning how to cook, studying economics and putting together a business plan for his the restaurant he will open after he finishes his career in the NFL.

Alec is _________ (don't know as of this writing; he starts Wednesday, and we work on this process today!)

We can see in our everyday work the transformative power of setting goals, and we have experience in doing so, but this blog outlines clearly the value of goal setting and gives five tips to help you set your own goals with students. Keeping in mind that goal setting takes time; practice and support will help ensure success!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


So interesting. Two blogs on boredom popped up on my Twitter feed at nearly the same time.

The first has my favorite quote ("It's harder to change a school than it is to move a graveyard.") and goes on to discuss the fact that schools in their structure and appearance have remained largely unchanged from their beginnings in the early 1900s; this also includes the content being taught (the canon, the major sciences, the lockstep progression through levels of math) and the role of the teacher (repository of all knowledge and the only authority in the classroom). Even as standards change, as technology and society evolve, the classroom remains in large part unchanged, a "penitentiary of boredom."

The second takes another tack, beginning with a story of problem-solving the task of teeth brushing (how no kid likes to do it and generally does it less often than they should and/or poorly). The distinction between learning by lecture and learning by doing is made thus:

"Think about the driver and the passenger in a car, " says Adele Diamond, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia nad one of the founders of the field of developmental cognitive neuroscienec. "The driver is hands-on and the passenger does what students normally do, which is sit passively in class. The driver will learn the route better because [s/he] has to actively use the information."

Pretty much how it works.

Change the structure to suit the times and involve kids in their own education. Simple, right?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Can Kids Be Taught Persistence?

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know my answer: yes, and it is imperative that we do so.

This article agrees with me.

“What I think is important on the road to success is learning to deal with failure, to manage adversity. That’s a skill that parents can certainly help their children develop—but so can teachers and coaches and mentors and neighbors and lots of other people.”

So how do we do it?

There is a report that accompanies the above-referenced article, and you can read a four-page brief here.

At the core of the brief is the concept of deeper learning. Everything stems from this one idea, that students should be allowed/encouraged to go deeper into a subject rather than simply skating across the top (the antithesis of mile-wide-inch-deep curricula). Students should collaborate, question and explain their thinking and the thinking of experts, classmates and teachers.

To this I would add the most important part of all: create an atmosphere where kids feel safe to fail. We don't do this in traditional school.

Fail the test and you're out.

Screw up the experiment and you fail.

Fail and you're a failure.

Silly. Imagine if Steve Jobs thought that. Or Edison. Or any number of other magical thinkers, many of whom were terrible students in school but brilliant when removed from the confines of that model. Failure is an opportunity.

Let's be honest, though: failing isn't fun. Every time I write about allowing kids to fail I think about this TedTalk on being wrong. It is one of my favorite talks, mostly because it talks about what it feels like to be wrong (bad) not being wrong, in and of itself (totally okay).

If we can create conditions for kids where it doesn't feel quite so bad to be wrong, maybe we can encourage more risk-taking. And if we encourage more risk-taking, maybe we can help kids develop persistence in the face of "failure."

And isn't this what we want? Kids with grit and determination?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Class Schedules, or What Happens At HoneyFern Every Day?

This blog on eliminating class schedules makes me chuckle.

The author talks about the discombobulated nature of an hour of PE, and hour of biology, an hour of math and so on. S/he goes on to talk about grade anxiety and the lack of depth that springs from disjointed lessons delivered in hour-long snippets.

My favorite questions:

"What if we removed the passive course-to-course drudgery of the school day? What if there was no schedule? What if students were left with a list of coyly worded benchmarks targeted at creating quality humans, and we just waited to see what they could do? What if teachers were seen as mentors for projects designed to help students meet those benchmarks?"

HoneyFern has already done this (minus the "coyly worded benchmarks." We are pretty upfront about what quality humans are.). When prospective parents ask for a daily schedule, the best I can do is this:

9 a.m: Morning meeting. May last 15 minutes but have been known to go for an hour when kids have stuff to share or we start talking about the Stock Market Game or they just need more time to ooze into the day.

Next: Whatever everyone is working on. This is guided by each student's individual learning plan, a formal document that the student and I create before they start at HoneyFern. Sometimes I need uninterrupted time with each student, in which case I will request that they all start on math at the same time or that they pick something that I do not need to help them with.

Next: Lunch when they are hungry. Play outside. Hangout. Watch news. This takes about an hour.

Next: Whatever everyone is working on.

End of the Day: Clean up. Play outside until parents come, or play chess or whatever until it is time to go.

All day long I float around and answer questions, watch demonstrations, offer resources, coordinate kids working together, ask questions. If I need to supervise something dangerous (powertools, for example) I do that. Some days the kids need absolutely nothing from me, so I sit in the same room with them and just appear available if that should change.

Every day is different. This whole "schedule" is thrown out the window if we have a fieldtrip (planned or spontaneous), and when Quinn cooks for us lunch takes a little longer.

Each day follows the rhythms of the kids and what they need, not a bell or a lesson plan. And this is exactly how it should be.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Creativity - Show Up and Do the Work

Lots of research swirls around this topic, along with many opinions.

What is creativity?

Natural, or nutured?

Is everyone creative?

What does it mean to be inspired?

As with many things, the simplest answer is the best, and it comes from Chuck Close, one of my favorite artists.

"Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Close goes on:

"I was never one of those people who had to have a perfect situation to paint in. I can make art anywhere, anytime — it doesn’t matter. I mean, I know so many artists for whom having the perfect space is somehow essential. They spend years designing, building, outfitting the perfect space, and then when it is just about time to get to work they’ll sell that place and build another one. It seems more often than not a way to keep from having to work. But I could paint anywhere. I made big paintings in the tiniest bedrooms, garages, you name it. you know, once I have my back to the room, I could be anywhere."

Could it be that simple? That just by working at it every day you can become inspired and more creative?

Yes, in my opinion. When I write more, my writing is better (ditto when I read more). When I paint more, my painting is better (as is my thought process). Spontaneous creativity requires (oxymoronically) discipline and persistence. Grit. Mental toughness.

Creativity is not for the weak and flowery. Please visit this link to read more from Close on his schedule and his thoughts on what simply showing up daily does (and links to other great artists, writers and muscians and their thoughts on creativity).

Then get out there and go to work.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Clark Aldrich, My New Best Friend

How have I missed this guy for so long?

Seems like he and I have been talking the same way, and I know I have seen his book, but up until now I have not really focused in on what he has to say. That is all over with, starting with his response to that ludicrous essay by Leon Wieseltier and continuing with this lovely blog about new ideas in education (most of which are already in practice at HoneyFern).

Do yourself a huge favor and check him out. I am going to be going through his work more closely in the next few days.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Right Now Syndrome

Today's topic comes from an unlikely source:

I was listening to the radio yesterday and a piece came on from the BBC news, discussing what he calls "Right Now Syndrome," specifically as it related to education. The conversation swirled around deficencies in education for Latino and black students, and stressed the importance of using technology to hook students in, making it cool to be something other than a stereotype, making it okay to not get everything you want Right Now.

Our society does have Right Now Syndrome; we seem to shy away from hardwork and persistence, and yet those are the very things that we need to be successful. This is not the same thing as the "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality that has been shot full of holes with regard to underlying struggles with race, class and economics; this is simply about making a decision to be something other than what people tell you you can be, and making it happen. Making it happen is not easy, but the decision to rise above whatever holds you back is.

So how about we make some resolutions here, right now (ironic): let's resolve to be more than a stereotype, more than what other people think we can be (whatever that means to you), and work really, really hard to prove it to ourselves. And then, when we have finished, however long it takes, let's reach our hand back and help the people who are trying to do the same thing. Let's not turn into someone who forgets what it was like to struggle against prejudice or mindset; let's not forget that every day people struggle with things that are ten times harder to overcome than what we have had to deal with. Someone always has it worse.

Resolve to change the Right Now Syndrome into The Joy is in the Journey Syndrome. The results will last longer!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tiny Houses, DC, and a Red Jay in West Virginia

What a wonderful last week of 2012 we had!

We were able to get someone to watch the farm for a week, and we piled into the Camry to head north - first to PA to visit Nana, then to Baltimore to visit an old friend, then to VA for my brother and his family, and finally to WV on our way home.

One of the best parts of the trip (other than just seeing our family) was our trip to Boneyard Studios in DC. I found out about them through a Washington Post article and contacted Lee Pera to see if they would be able to meet La Petite and I to tour their site (which shall remain unidentified for their privacy, except to say that if you wanted to build something convenient to pretty much everything in DC, this is where you'd build it!). We ended up bringing along a few more people than that: La Petite's dad, Uncle Sock and his three kids (Uncle Sock is an Executive Vice President at Orr Partners, a company that builds much larger structures but shares some similar green philosophies, and is on the board of HoneyFern).

The site was incredible, and Lee, Brian and Jay were generous with their time and space. I should have taken a zillion more pictures, but I was so interested in their stories and how they were doing what they were doing that time slipped past and I didn't end up with as many as I would have liked. Each house is different in style which was great to see all in one spot; we saw different roof options and interior configurations and two different sizes and door locations (and three diffferent porches!). Here are a few to illustrate the visit, including one where La Petite wields a flamethrower (Jay took that one!).

(tiny house view on one side)
(Lee's on the left, Brian's on the right. Lee's is a modified Tumbleweed Tiny House, and
Brian has opted to go wider with no loft).

(The inside of Brian's house.)
(Jay's house outside - love the tree!)
(and inside with a loft. Jay's roof design is a shed-style, slightly slanted)
(Lee and Brian; Lee's house has a dormer-style roof in the back, which I believe
La Petite is going to adopt)
(The still-productive raised-bed garden)
(La Petite enjoyed this...maybe too much...)
(A completed tiny house, unrelated to Boneyard Studios, parked in a nearby church driveway)
Our trip ended too soon in West Virginia, where we woke up to snow, 17 degrees, and nine fat cardinals sitting in the trees outside. Here is one of them.
Totally appropriate for a place named "Redwing Farm." We also managed to wrangle some construction books and a framing assistance commitment from Luke, the same person who donated La Petite's trailer. He has a million years of construction experience and was looking for an to escape West Virginia in February. We are happy he can make it!
Much love and gratitude to Boneyard for coming to show us around, and thanks to everyone who continues to inspire and motivate La Petite!