Be a squirrel–grab an acorn!

Acorns Are Not Only for Squirrels 

by Lauren Ockene

As part of our study of seeds, we gathered acorns! When students started to crack them, they discovered that larvae enjoy acorns and many were not edible. Of those that were, we kept them in the refrigerator for a week, only to discover that now many more had larvae; we inferred that they were there all along and ate more while living in the refrigerator. Next time we’d have to use the freezer to store them!

Students learned to see larvae holes in acorns, and Haniyah told us a great trick for discovering other rotting acorns – put them in water, and the rotting ones float.

The next steps were cracking them open and then breaking them into smaller pieces with a mortar and pestle. We then ground them in a wonderful old-fashioned grinder, until they looked like a coarse flour. The last step is to soak the meal in water and to rinse it many, many times to take away the bitter tannic acid. This is called leaching and Lauren did most of it at home in between JP Green School sessions.

Finally, we made acorn/oat porridge with maple syrup in the JP Green School kitchen. All of the students who tried it liked it!


Winnowing, Threshing, and Tasting Amaranth

Lauren had grown lots of amaranth, an ancient Incan grain, at home. We did not have quite a big enough amount to thresh in the traditional way so we scrunched it up in our hands, over bowls, to separate the seeds from their big red seed heads. Then each student brought a bowl of seeds outside and we winnowed them with a gentle breath, separating the fluffy chaff from the slightly heavier seeds. It was magical! Students tasted the seeds and some enjoyed eating them raw.


Bulbs, Tubers and Seeds

Our big theme this fall was seeds. We asked questions about  how they are dispersed, and simulated the ways in which they get around, like being blown by wind or carried along by animals on fur, or eaten and “pooped out” by birds. We learned about squirrels hiding acorns away, and then we gathered many ourselves. We processed them and made delicious porridge out of them. We also looked at some other ways plants reproduce when we dissected and planted bulbs like garlic and tulips, and harvested and ate the rhizomes of Jerusalem artichokes. One seed investigation highlight was when we separated tiny amaranth seeds from their big beautiful seed heads and then winnowed them to remove the chaff.

Three Things I Learned

My work as a teacher, and the founder of JP Green School, has been informed by a wealth of stories. Endless stories: Because everyone has a story they are longing to tell about their education, or their children’s education. And I want to hear all the stories. I especially want to hear the success stories: What have you learned well in your life, and how did you learn it?

The stories of failure all come to sound the same. We wanted to learn something, but we were taught in a way that made us feel stupid, humiliated us, or bored us. In other words, the fun went out of it, and we doubted ourselves. Too often this is the story of school: Drudgery, failure.

“But learning can’t always be fun!” “It takes effort to learn hard things!” “Kids today are spoiled–they want everything to be easy.” These are the words of protest we both hear and say. And I agree–it’s not always fun. Work and learning both involve some drudgery. Learning hard things is hard. Failure, repetition, discouragement, boredom–all part of life as well as education.


I looked at my own educational history and found three examples of how I learned hard things. Two are success stories and one is a “failure”. Here they are:

1. Guitar: My parents were working class people with no education in music, and they wanted to give us a serious musical education. So I took classical guitar lessons for 10 years as a child. I loved my teacher–an elderly Austrian immigrant–and I loved my guitar, but most of my early musical career was spent feeling frustrated at my mistakes (classical guitar requires an absolute precision that isn’t compatible with the way I do things), and hating daily practice. When I was 15 I asked to switch to a blues-rock oriented teacher, but I was discouraged (my parents thought, wrongly, that learning to play classical music would enable me to do anything I wanted with the instrument later.)

Maybe you can guess the outcome. I became a reasonably good guitarist, but I don’t enjoy playing and I don’t play. This is because feelings of anger and frustration at myself became attached to the guitar, and I can’t play without calling them up. I didn’t really want to play classical guitar–I did it to please my parents. I managed to rescue my abandoned musical self by taking up singing and strumming in my thirties, but I still struggle with irritability when I’m playing and I make a mistake.

2. Philosophy: In high school I had a great platonic love-affair with my philosophy teacher. Jeff was a big, wild man with a passion for politics, debate, and reckoning with the really big questions. (If you know me today, you’ll recognize these qualities–that’s how profound his influence on me was.)

I doubt that I would have volunteered to read Homer, Socrates, Shakespeare, Locke, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, Hobbes, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Simone de Beauvoire (this is just a partial list–it was a four-year course in the great books of western civilization). I don’t think I would have done all that underlining on my own. I don’t think I would have learned to make and defend a point, tease out a complex argument, and parse the difficult language of philosophy without a great mentor. But I did these things because I was inspired by a subject and a passionate teacher. He encouraged me to do hard things, and I learned to enjoy using those intellectual skills. To this day I feel real joy when confronted with big philosophical questions, and a chance to debate and discuss them.

3. Gardening: Most of us who garden talk about it as a great joy and passion. I can easily spend three hours outside working without a break. I have to make sure I drink enough water or I’ll find myself suddenly dizzy. It’s a classic “flow state”: the work is so engrossing and inherently motivating that I don’t notice that I’m tired and thirsty — that it is “hard”. I hear the plants telling me what they need, and I follow my instincts to serve them. This does not feel like work. (There’s more I could say here, about how we feel passion for the elemental work of being human — parenting, cooking, growing things, hunting — because we are designed by evolution for these tasks, but that’s another blog post.)

When I consider these and other examples from my own life, I realize that I only ever learn under conditions of joy and passion. Those qualities come from a place within me that really longs for a certain knowledge or skill. And they are enhanced by loving mentors. When passion and loving mentors are present together, learning hard things is possible.

What hard things have you learned in your life? When does work feel like play?

This is what is meant by “play-based learning”, or “self-directed learning”. Joy and inspiration for a subject or a skill have to be present in the student. When those qualities are apparent then the teacher can teach. If you try to force learning you end up with me as your guitarist.

Fall at JP Green School Exploring and Learning, with a Focus on Seeds

By Lauren Ockene, Lead Teacher

This fall at JP Green School,  seeds took a front row seat, and related topics were woven into our learning in every session. We asked questions about how they are dispersed, and simulated the ways in which they get around, like being blown by wind or carried along by animals on their fur, or eaten and “pooped out” by birds. We thought about form and function, and used science notebooks as tools to help explore and reason about the relationship between the two.

We learned about squirrels hiding acorns away, and then gathered many of these oak tree seeds ourselves. We went through a long, fun process to make them into flour, and finally created a delicious porridge out of them.

We learned about dormancy in winter, including seeds and other parts of plants as well as animals. We studied the buds on trees, as well as ways other than seeds that plants reproduce. While working with this topic, students dissected garlic and tulip bulbs, and then planted some that were whole.

One seed investigation highlight was when we separated tiny amaranth seeds from their big, beautiful seed heads, and then winnowed them to remove the chaff. It was a poetic moment when all of the children were standing and silently, gently, intently blowing just enough and at just the right angle into their bowls of seeds to make the light, red chaff blow off of the slightly, barely heavier seeds. Their pride was tangible when the red chaff was (nearly!) all gone and there were just pure light brown seeds left. Lovely.

Another bonus is that both the amaranth seeds and chaff are AWESOME when seen through the microscope!

We built hoop houses to see if we could get lettuce, spinach and kale plants, with leaves,  to stay alive in our cold winter by giving it an environment in which it could live in dormancy, just like seeds do. It looks like we were a little too late with the transplanting, so many already look too weak to survive winter. However, the process was full of enjoyment and learning, and it will be exciting if we have even a few lettuce and kale plants that make it alive through the winter in our hoop houses.


Behind all this deliberate work lies our philosophy of inspiring curiosity and scientific inquiry through activity–both playful and focused. We know we’ve done our job when the children take their free time to take apart a sunflower and bake its seeds. Or when they methodically glue flowers and seeds onto paper into a collage. Or when they create a “fairy meal” out of the tiniest garden vegetables. They’ve made work into play, and that’s  the relationship to learning that we seek to inspire.


Education is Just a Hot Mess

It’s September 14 and I just survived Week One. For me, director and main teacher in the second year of our program, the “success” of any given day/class/program/experiment is personal. I need to take responsibility for it, make corrections, answer to kids and parents, and forge ahead.

This is all fine. I’m The Headmistress. I picture myself as Professor MacGonnagall in Harry Potter: Severe, yet magical. Here — this is me. Picture me riding my high-end kick scooter with a bunch of 8yo boys behind me.


I’m sure sure Professor MacG was well aware of what I’m reckoning with right now: Education is naturally messy, constantly evolving, and never exactly right. Like parenting. Like everything, really.

We had a great week. Our new teacher introduced us to the concepts of biotic and abiotic, led a fabulous scavenger hunt for items in both categories. She added read-aloud to snack time, and got kids started on journaling.

Some of them loved this. Others resist even an hour of structured learning. Teacher Lauren and I are left to reckon with the balance between “free schooling” — the philosophy which believes that children naturally learn without external structure — and a more traditional pedagogy which teaches that focusing and listening need to be taught explicitly.

I guarantee you we’ll never get this “right”. There is no right.

Another example: The highlight of Monday was a visit from the beekeepers, who talked us through the process of harvesting honey. We got to keep two combs and spend the rest of the day scooping out the honey made by our own bees, from our own flowers. A couple kids did this for hours. The downside: Three people got stung, including me, and the bees were clearly angry with us for the rest of the day. There was a lot of running and screaming.

We have a kid who frequently has angry tantrums, swears loudly, and won’t sit still for anything. He is also the best worker in the group–give him a tool and he’ll do anything for you. We have kids who never stop moving, and others who really wish there was a little more peace and quiet around here. We have kids who don’t eat vegetables, and kids are a strict vegetarians. We have kids recovering from traumatic experiences in school and never want to go back, and others who have never been to school, but think they might want to try it sometime.

Thank goodness we also have teen assistants who make everything fun, an endlessly fascinating worm bin, a loft to climb to and a pole to slide down on, the “scooter shack”, bugs and magnifying glasses, binoculars and our own flock of pigeons to observe, and a nearby cemetery featuring real ghosts! Et cetera.

Education is endless. It’s happening all the time. And it’s just a mess. Probably, nothing needs to really be “fixed” at all. It’s still my job to fix it.



We boiled a skunk


18882077_1916014805278728_5648220412267580420_n.jpgAn incident in the garden this week fell under “things we never thought we’d have to teach.”

On Monday, during class, Canyon the dog was furiously digging under the shed and Antonio and Immanuel decided to investigate. They came back to us shouting gleefully that there was a dead skunk. I went to look into this and pulled at the black and white tail, revealing a skunk not only dead, but mummified—completely dried, with its skin, fur, and skeleton intact.

Mass hysteria ensured, along with much poking, prodding and running in circles screaming. Some of the kids were scared, others disgusted, and they were all riveted. To avoid destroying the specimen, we insisted they only look at it, while we talked about what to do. After some conversation, we decided to obtain gloves and proper dissecting tools, and cut it open next week.

That plan did not work. Dissecting a mummy is like cutting leather. With great effort we opened the carcass, and found only dust inside. What remained was to obtain the skeleton, somehow.

I could only think of one way: Boil it. I pulled out the camp stove, the propane and matches. The kids all wanted to light it, so we lit it several times. We dumped the skunk into a large pot used mostly for canning, and set it on to boil.

After an hour the smell was so hideous that I was worried neighbors would call the health board. After lunch inside, two hours later, I took the pot off and removed it to the back of the garden. The smell of boiling skunk was ruining my day. It all seemed like a huge mistake at that point.

When we dumped the carcass on the ground by the compost pile, I was ready to walk away from the whole project. Fortunately, Kannan has a stomach strong enough for the work of fishing the skeleton out of the mushy remains of our “project.” He retrieved the skull, and intact claw, and several bones. The rest of the mess was thrown onto the compost pile.

To this day the skunk skull, and the story of the Skunk Boil, are features of great pride and the subject of storytelling by veteran students. It felt like a heroic undertaking.

The Skunk Boil was an unexpected bonus in our ongoing studies of growth and decomposition, the processes that make soil, and the vibrant microbial worlds within and without us. And it has become part of the philosophical and spiritual reckonings around death that children naturally confront, in widening spirals, throughout childhood–and beyond.

Andrée’s Freeschooling Blog

This is an informal blog with ideas and tips for homeschooling parents, based on my own experience and research into the homeschooling community around Boston, as well as some more philosophical musings on education today.

For today, a bit of my own family’s story:

I have two teen sons who have now been through every type of local schooling found in this area. Thanks to our complex system of school choice, we don’t all end up going to the local elementary school. This, while it helps to equalize our education and integrate the Boston schools, is hard on communities and families. Relationships are fractured and families an grow distant when friends end up in different schools.

We had this experience when my kids were accepted into an excellent charter school for kindergarten. We lived in Jamaica Plain, and the school was in Dorchester. The long commute was daunting, and none of our local friends went to school there. After four years we had a sense of the pros and cons. The schools was passionate about education for the urban poor, but we didn’t belong to that demographic. There were kids with serious discipline problems in every class, and they would eat up much of the teacher’s energy.

But more significantly, I found myself at odds with the  teaching philosophy that set fixed goals for such young kids. One of my sons “fell behind” the benchmark for reading at his grade-level. He was tested for every known learning disability, and nothing came up. In the end, he was just a little slow in that area, and didn’t really like to read. The stress of the testing and the labelling was the final straw for that school. And it’s been a problem I’ve reckoned with at every pubic school my sons have attended.

My biggest motivation for creating JP Green School is my sense that we are rushing our kids, submitting them to constant judgement (in the form of tests), and thereby teaching them to dislike learning itself. This isn’t education–this is the opposite of education.

We left that school for a great Montessori school just outside of Boston, and spent 8 happy years there. Montessori taught me much of what I know about child-directed learning, creating an environment of joy, and a community of love and support. I use those principles every day when I teach at JP Green School.

Over time, however, I came to see that much of that environment could be created at much lower cost, within a community of homeschoolers. Our beloved school cost about 20k/year. This is very cheap for a private school, many of which cost twice that! But it’s still an outrageous sum and could easily be almost 1/2 the income of a middle-class family.

I’ll continue the story of my own family later. Right now I’ll just end with my current working budget for a happy homeschooling experience. By my calculations, a family can homeschool a child easily for  8k/year. Of course it can also be done for less, depending on how self-directed the child is, and how much the parents are available. But I’m working from my “optimal scenario”, which is what I devised for my own homeschooler. (More later on that story.)

In this figure I’m assuming 2-3 days/week in a program like JP Green School, Parts and Crafts, or Macomber Center. These free schools are not cheap, but they’re well worth a few thousand a year to give the child and the family a home-base for their experience. Those few days can then be supplemented with a variety of wonderful courses, workshops, and programs all over the city, and also self-guided or community-led study.

In upcoming blogs I’ll feature a few of the local  free schools and what they offer.