~summer shorts~ star ecology

A disease outbreak erased sea stars almost completely from the tidepools of our coasts in 2013. I see them in greater numbers than I have in years, but still with telltale symptoms of the devastation they’ve suffered.

Sea star wasting disease is still poorly understood, and having worked in disease ecology professionally, I know this is not for lack of attempts made to understand. It is a very tricky branch of biology to study. Sea star larvae go through a dispersed pelagic phase where maybe their socially distant selves manage to stay disease free.

sea star larvae illustration by on of my faves, Ernst Haeckel, public domain

As the new recruits settle back into the intertidal, some of them have managed to grow to maturity at least long enough to spawn for themselves, but most are still showing telltale signs of infection with this disease some scientists believe may be caused by a virus. The disease persists, and for now sea stars, too, persist. It will remain to be seen how the population will respond longer term, and what effects their prolonged absence will have on the other organisms in the intertidal community. The invisible, inextricable linkages connecting members of an ecosystem sometimes reveal themselves when the system is under strain.

I have spent a few early morning tidepool rambles on a few different beaches I love, my own very small emergence into the world in a low-covid-risk manner. I make a point to watch for and photo-document sea stars now whenever I am out for one of my beach walks during low tides. For several years I saw almost none, but slowly an increase is becoming perceptible.

I lingered a last few minutes on one beach, and a hermit crab captured my attention, tucked into a former snail’s abode frosted with pink icing bryozoans. I watched and watched, and it slowly, slowly, emerged. Our return to the world feels comparably slow. I think we will be hermits for longer than is comfortable, and face choices about how we minimize our in-person interactions with the general public so we can reimagine the in-person interactions we don’t want to continue to have to live without. Not the triumphant takeover of the world as we knew it, but a halting, complicated return, much like the quiet, incremental return of the sea stars.

~a month in the life of a lifelong learner~ black holes and parabolas

~4-23 to 5-23~

Quadratic and executive functions

Executing school tasks took some additional remote mama support this month. He found the format of electives for school to be uninspiring. However, I talked him into doing one of the robotics options. Once he was convinced, he lit up while telling me the steps a robot would need to take to reach the Hogwarts kitchen from the front doors.

For language arts, Quinn was assigned to read The Outsiders but was putting it off. Once I found that out, I told him I thought he’d really like it (he was of course surprised I was familiar with the book), and encouraged him to read me the first paragraph. He grumpily obliged and discovered the teen male protagonist with green eyes and long hair. He came around quickly after that, read to me through chapter two, and read the entire rest of the book in just a few sittings.

Then there were quadratic functions. Quinn started caring deeply about parabolas as a freshly minted eleven-year-old, and has read an entire math curriculum through calculus in his spare time. He is not often thwarted by new math concepts, and had been quite self-sufficient learning quadratic functions, the math magic of the parabola, with only online lessons. However, two weeks before school ended, his teacher contacted me to let me know he was on his way to earning an incomplete in algebra. As usual, I only understood more about what happened in hindsight (2020) and it amounted to being stuck on one sub-concept, not seeing the obvious available ways to solve that (ask his teacher, ask me, consult textbook/video, google it) and just not doing it, or any of the following lessons. He stayed stuck and started blowing off everything, but then ended up caught up in a lie and that only added to his anxiety about the whole thing. Once I found out, we got him sorted out on completing the square, (we used khan academy and life of fred and fred is who ultimately got him there; by which I mean he was right back to doing it all in his head the instant he grasped it). I asked him afterwards if he felt relieved to not have to continue the lie, and I could see the relief written all over his face when he said “yes.”

He was overwhelmed and said he thinks about the pandemic even when he’s not thinking about it.

I wanted him to know I heard him: that he felt like no one was taking him seriously (because he has said “I can’t work under pandemic conditions.”  He did try to let me know he was struggling.

I am trying to coach him through handing in enough to earn a Pass when he feels like this, but it is hard when he is just seeing the pile and is stuck in overwhelm.

He did a programing in scratch assignment and a video tour of Iceland for his elective; in Iceland he enjoyed how they drill into magma to harvest energy. The morning after the teacher clued me in, I sent him the mp3 of his favorite song seven nation army and a ten minute meditation and he listened to both. We spent more time together on google hangouts just so I was “in the room” if he needed support. He watched a Smithsonian zoom about octopuses, something he had planned on attending prior to the math debacle. I liked watching him watch it and seeing his face light up at certain parts. I wanted him to do these other things that feed him, because we were also talking about the importance of self care in keeping up our ability to handle tasks. He is now also signed up for both dinosaur discoveries and ancient seas online camps. He had been hesitant on the dino camp because a) he already knows a lot about dinosaurs and b) he wasn’t sure the end of June would feel like enough time out of school, but in the end I told him there were 2 spots left and he wanted in. Then we did talk about the math concept, but it was sandwiched in between those lighter topics and our quality time (reading aloud). Maybe life is a little like a parabola, you have to get to the bottom of it at some point, but you can look forward to it going back up on the other side!

His paleontology camp community continued their zoom lecture series for camp alumni through May, and Quinn participated enthusiastically. He was proud because, “I asked a question!” He asked, if I understood correctly, about how they tell things about a prehistoric animal based on eggs; and got answers about how environment determines a lot about egg shape, whether an animal is aquatic or terrestrial, and where they place their eggs in order to keep them moist or from being submerged or dry. He is so quull!

He had a paleontology text flurry with his camp friends and they apparently have a conspiracy theory that, “all of the birds died in 1986 when Reagan killed them all and replaced them with spies. They are in league with the bourgeoisie.” A couple of the other camp friends consistently show up for the lectures. It is such a nice balance of getting to be nerdy and getting to be weird teens together.

The flavor of video calls this month – physics and fantasy

A friend mentioned she and her husband have been doing madlibs so I printed a dinosaur one for Quinn. It is logistically tricky to play games over hangouts so I take all good suggestions very seriously! Quinn then picked some out to do for me. Some of our favorites were, “What happens when a unicorn poops”, one about pizza, and another about how to hatch a dragon egg. We ended up with 3 new species of dragons; chartreuse dragons, butterbeer dragons, and flibberty-gibbet dragons.

During recent video calls we have continued to read Zero, do a daily logic puzzle, sometimes a vi hart video, and usually some talking and cat gazing.

Zero has been good fodder for discussion and vocabulary (new word: carom): Quantum leaps, general relativity, etc. It sends us on other tangents. One day we looked up Dr. Katie Bouman who photographed a black hole successfully in 2019, based on spinoff conversations from the book. Quinn’s imagination was quite stimulated, and I managed to convince him to speak one of his ramblings into a document using the speech-to-text function:

“First get two black holes, a star, a spaceship capable of moving at 90% of the speed of light and with a fuel cartridge big enough to hold a star in, and a very heavy object. Then get the star into the fuel cartridge of the spaceship (the spaceship must run on helium). Once you have a spaceship running on a star, connect your two black holes via 4D space-time Continuum breaking and attach one end of the wormhole that results to your spaceship and the other end to the very heavy object. now take your nearly light-speed wormhole with a very heavy object on the other end and wait 46 years because you will have messed up the space time continuum, you will have effectively ruined mathematics to the point where one year on one end of the wormhole is 2.3 years on the other end of the wormhole so after 46 years you go through the wormhole and bam you’ve gone back In time by almost 46 years. some problems are: 1. it is currently impossible apparently to define “very heavy object” in my sources. 2. it is currently impossible to go at 90% of the speed of light in one spaceship. 3. it is currently impossible to obtain a star let alone to stick it in the fuel cartridge of a spaceship. 4. it is currently impossible to collect two black holes and connect them via four dimensional space-time Continuum breaking. 5. it is currently impossible apparently for you to actually go back in time to the point where you are before your own birth and keep living on to infinity by traveling back in time infinitely and going forward in time infinitely after that so that you have infinite life-span at the time of your birth and live forever because your star even though it will last for like 8 million years is still finite so you can only become 8 millionish years old but hey, even then you are older than Yoda so…”

Tom Gauld

I also convinced him to share the document with me and he did, with the  note, “I’ve invited you to comment.” Well, thank you for inviting me!

My comment:

“I don’t know if you understand why I ask you to do things like this… and that is okay! I am thankful that you humor me, and do it when I ask. It may not seem like a big deal to you to be able to speak this kind of complicated thought in such an organized manner, but this is a skill not everyone has. It’s a skill I’d love for you to continue to nurture, and it’s a skill that I think will really help you build up your writing ability as well. Being able to speak a story or an essay is the same as being able to write it – if you use the right tools. I think the speech-to-text tool is potentially very useful for you and I hope it helps empower you to do more writing, more recording of the amazing ideas and stories and lines of thought that you have inside you, waiting to get out into the world. One day you may look back at these and really treasure them! I know I will.”

Upon finishing Zero, we discussed quintessence theory. As you do.

Then we got started on re-reading Fellowship of the Ring! The day before mother’s day, we read about when the nine leave Rivendell, and their fight with Caradhras, when they turn back and the men have to carry the hobbits through the snow, but Legolas can walk on top of the snow to bring hope back to all that the journey is one they can endure.

I end up reading most of the time, but since we both have copies of the trilogy, he has been reading to me as well.

When the fellowship were departing from Lothlorien and Galadriel gives them each a gift, Quinn became quite absorbed with the gardening box that Sam is presented. He brought it up several times thereafter, and it gave me an idea. I ordered a plain wooden box and some gray wood tint so I could make him one like the description in the book. I planned to mix some flower seeds into it for him so he could spread it out somewhere at his dad’s house to grow.

still trending: quokkas (mama attempts her first memes)

On mother’s day, I had a lovely extra visit with Quinn. He showed up at noon after sending me Sierpenski’s triangle mother’s day card, freshly showered, and wearing a button-down shirt. He dressed up for me.

We also started an email story where we each write one line and send it back and forth. It began, “Once there was a boy who lived in a land where the only things were a chain of islands and the ocean.” I’m excited to see where it takes us!

In other vocabulary news, I learned of Quinn’s pronunciation of onerous “one rus” and we both chuckled when he was reading aloud about a “biplane” in our logic puzzle which he mispronounced with a short i.

We like it when the logic puzzle is about particle accelerators and one of the researchers is named Dr. Quinn.

Subatomic particles

I listened to a nature news podcast and learned all about pions, and then Quinn and I discussed various subatomic particles, learned that we should call them elementary particles instead, and he is pretty into particle physics after our last book, but he wasn’t even aware of all the particles that have been named and identified… he particularly liked the ones named after pi and tau, of course. I think I fairly blew his mind when I told him that Ender’s Game had been written well before many of these had been discovered to exist. In 1985, electrons were still the smallest known particle, and I remember a big deal being made about quarks back in the mid 1990s.


The podcast also talked about Galileo, so it was easy to convince him to listen.

Life skills

Quinn said he used the lawn mower to mow the yard so they could move their kayaks. It is a battery mower. Certified lawn mowing technician!


Aragorn sent Quinn two guitar tracks he had recorded, and Quinn has added a drum track to them. So rad!


~black and white wednesday~ cycles

Hope is a renewable option; if you run out of it at the end of the day, you get to start over in the morning.

~ Barbara Kingsolver

~summer shorts~ a list of emptied spaces

One – sea urchin grottos

There is a cavity left behind when a sea urchin dies, and sometimes other things come in to attempt to fill it. They don’t fill the spaces in the same way; maybe they glue themselves to the ceiling of the empty grotto and extend fleshy tentacles when the tide is in; maybe they snail along the walls grazing any newly settled algae; but they aren’t the purple spiky echinoderm that is made to fill such a hole.

Two – cardboard box boats

I’m not sure what got Quinn thinking of Baby Kitty one night, but he was sad he couldn’t remember her very much, only where we buried her. I offered to send him some photos, and he liked that idea. The following night we talked about how kitty was in the background of so many photos of him, like one where he is in the foreground inside a box boat. I remembered him taking A Lot of Otters into his box boats with him to read. The child in the book is also in a box boat.

I pulled A Lot of Otters off the bookshelf and read it to him over our video call. The basic plot premise is that Mother Moon and her child become separated, her tears fall into the ocean and become stars, the otters play with the stars and draw her attention to the child by concentrating their light, and she and the child are reunited.

“Mother moon was looking for her child…”

Three – my arms

That night I had a dream about hugging Quinn again, finally, when this is all over, and when I hugged him in the dream he was so much bigger than me.

Four – mothers’ hearts

A local mother delivered her baby still born. I imagine a fresh space prepared for this babe, like an empty sea urchin grotto painted pink, and now a closed door tries to hold back the tidal wave of love reserved for this little one it cannot be showered upon. Suspended in an impossible position, this mother whose face I know, this friend of friends, carrying this staggering weight of this love she cannot bestow, carrying breasts heavy with milk with whom she can nurture no one. Full where she should be empty, empty where she should be full. If my grief cries tears into the ocean to turn into stars to light my way to reunite with my child, her grief must be the kind that fills the ocean basin from bottom to top.

Five – guinea pig kennels

Quinn’s talk of pet grief seems prophetic and he is now missing one of his beloved guinea pigs. Ms. B and Squeaky came to him when he was seven. I couldn’t sit with him through the night as he held Ms. B in his lap and worried, or hold him the next day after she passed away. On our video call that night I read him a long meditation I had written in which a guinea pig stood on a bridge crossing over a stream, not knowing how else to bring him comfort from far away and defaulting to using my words as usual.

“You cannot see what is on the other side of the stream, you can only see that this side is very lush and beautiful, surrounded by forest, but a thick fog hides the opposite bank from your view. You can see little rainbows appear here and there as the sunbeams sneak through the trees and touch the fog. It’s a beautiful mystery on that other side.”

He turned off his web cam while he listened to the visualization of Ms B crossing the bridge to the other side.

Six – forests and homes

Oregon is on fire. The winds on Monday night took out trees and power lines and brought fire and smoke and landslides to even our coastal community where we can no longer take our position beside the sea in a rain forest for granted. Breathing carcinogenic air for days intersects with the health concerns we already face and I find that this situation is helping neither my breath holding tendencies nor my anxiety. I checked the folder with the important documents, though I will probably continue pacing my house, looking out at the orange sky, looking at items and wondering which ones I would grab if we were to be evacuated, too.

I know people who had to grab their house cats in the middle of the night and get out with their lives. There are so many more who I do not know. I try not to feel sorry for myself that my overnight backpacking plans with Quinn have been postponed.

Hundreds of geese huddled along the edge of the bay as we drove through foggy smoke after picking up pizza for date night at home. Robins had sat in the grass all day looking stunned. So much dryness. So much stillness after such a turbulent wind. The lawn crunched under my feet as I pick pears up off the ground, embarrassed by the plenty falling into my hands while others are losing everything, or still waiting to hear the outcomes of their everything.

The next morning I couldn’t take the pacing anymore and flipped a hundred pancakes for evacuees sheltering in a church.

Seven – farmer’s markets

Even when farmer’s markets have been canceled in the past, my farm would still show up, in full marine foul weather gear, and sell tomatoes and cauliflower and bundles of fresh parsley out of the truck as cold rain fell in sheets and we sipped hot drinks from thermoses. This week, we did not sell any tomatoes, the markets and even the harvest were paused while we all held our breath and prayed for that manner of rain to fall.

Eight – aquarium exhibits

Max lived thirty years – a long sea lion life – but it still makes me cry that he is dead now, too. My toddler would point him out to tourists back when we had an annual membership to the aquarium and went there regularly, and they’d remark on my son’s lengthy attention span and articulate commentary about Max’s activities during the daily feeding routine. Other children would peel off after thirty seconds and Quinn would stay, narrate, re-enact, commune with Max, beyond even the attention span of the adults. I wonder if Max is finally allowed to be released back into the sea, but I have doubts.

I can’t bring myself to tell Quinn about this fresh heartbreak.

Nine – my arms

I still wouldn’t get to hug him.

Ten – enough

I think I’ll leave this one empty.

~rainbow mondays~ smolder

“How many fears came between us?

Earthquakes, diseases, wars where hell

rained smoldering pus

from skies made of winged death.

Horror tore this world asunder.

While inside the bleeding smoke

and beyond the shredded weeping flesh

we memorized tales of infinite good.”



~rainbow mondays~

a splash of color on monday morning

a photo study documenting the colors of the spectrum: the balance points between light reflected and light absorbed


Remembering Max the sea lion (1990 – 2020) today, with a stroll down blog memory lane.


This year of heartbreak continues to take much.

We will cherish our memories with Max from our many aquarium visits…

from this post


and this one


and one more…


We’ll miss you, Max!

(art by Quinn at age 5; the name Selkie is from the book Nim’s island, Max was our one and only first-name-basis sea lion friend)

~summer shorts~ dragonfly rainbow

A small winged friend spent many mid-summer afternoons visiting my rainbow garden.

This is the variegated meadowhawk, the same species that blew my mind ten years ago when I was brooding on a beach one day, wondering if I’d ever find love, and couldn’t help but become distracted by dragonflies whizzing by me, heading south, one by one by one…

Which reminds me… I’ve been blogging for over ten years!

This dragonfly has been my garden guardian for about a month this summer, helping me through another brooding time.

(P.S. I found love.)

~summer shorts~ mystical

With no great vacation prospects on the horizon, I used some of my paid time off in anticipation of changing contracts by consulting my tide chart. I picked a Monday with a negative tide at 7am, and my husband decided to take that day off, too. Suddenly it was almost like a real vacation!

Though the remainder of our day filled itself with comfortable, uneventful puttering, we headed out the door at 6 AM for the beach. We rounded the first headland shrouded in mist and a bald eagle appeared to emerge from it, perched on a large rock surveying the tidal flats.

We wandered along, closing the distance. The eagle was in no rush, but eventually decided to move north and took flight. We headed north more slowly, picking our way over the slick seaweed rainbow covering the rocky shore.

We climbed up the next headland, hoping to glimpse the eagle once more, and sure enough, it had landed in the lone tree on the next headland farther north, where its mate was also perched. A double date with eagles.

Rich turned out to be a lot more into tidepooling than I had expected, and we covered a lot of area that I don’t always manage to visit during my solo excursions. I think I’ll hang onto this adventure buddy of mine. Later that evening, reflecting on our morning in the revelatory fog, he decided the best word for it was mystical.

The dictionary definition of mystical talks of the contemplation of divine truths that are beyond the intellect, of surrendering to the absolute, which feels right for wandering off into the fog on the edge of everything and communing with eagles. It’s common knowledge to everyone who knows us that Rich and I go to church by walking around in nature. We go to nature to know the unknowable, we breathe in the electric salt air to better connect to the source, we peer into the briny crevices to saturate ourselves in wonder.

Jessie Van Eerden wrote, “The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw. She’ll use image-language, not discourse. Giving an image is the giving of gold, the biggest thing she’s got. Mysticism suggests direct union, divine revelation, taking a stab at the Unknown with images, cryptic or plain, sensible or sensory. A mystic casts out for an image in whatever is at her disposal and within reach like a practiced cook who can concoct a stew from the remaining carrots and a bruised potato, or like a musician improvising with buckets and wooden spoons. She does not circumvent; she hammers a line drive. A mystic is a kid finding kingdom in an ash heap.”

I hung on every word of this definition as I read the essay I am quoting from, then burst out laughing when I got to the kid finding kingdom in an ash heap. It recalls to mind the oft-told tale of my older brother and I spreading the contents of the ash buckets lined up in the cellar way from the wood furnace that heated our home, then padding up to our nine-months-pregnant mother with our sooty 2T clothes in our hands asking for our swimsuits, because, “we made a beach!”

nudibranch sighting 2020; i’ll leave this here beside the naked nudie story…

I may have always had a streak of mysticism, as well as a tendency to seek out the divine on a beach.

~rainbow mondays~ nourish

~rainbow mondays~

a splash of color on monday morning

a photo study documenting the colors of the spectrum: the balance points between light reflected and light absorbed

educational priorities ~ a mamafesto ~ 2020 remix

Quinn recently attended a six-day online Dinosaur Discoveries camp and at the end earned the “Most Likely to Become Everyone’s Favorite College Professor” award. It launched a great conversation between Quinn and I about how online learning does not necessarily have to mean pushing a bunch of “submit” buttons to enable the instructors to assess his learning accomplishments. The instructors provided materials for him to immerse himself in, trusted that he was absorbing them, and then detected his absorption of said materials through conversations, group discussions, and other contributions (voluntarily written and presented). No grading or testing occurred. And yet, both Quinn and I felt the instructors had somehow managed to glean a lot about who he is as a learner and an individual simply through six days of connecting with him over meaningful curriculum, meaningful because it was chosen intentionally by Quinn.  As for the assessment of Quinn’s likelihood of becoming everyone’s favorite college professor, Quinn said, “I think it’s extremely accurate.”

In 2012, I sat down and wrote out my priorities for Quinn’s education, a valuable and worthwhile exercise that received a lot of positive feedback at that time, and that I have returned to at times when I’ve felt a need to check the calibration of my compass concerning Quinn’s education. Each time I’ve returned, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well that list concerning my going-into-kindergarten five-year-old still fit, say, when he was transitioning from second grade at our living school to third grade in the public school, or when he was moving from there up into the middle school. These transition points pushed me to revisit my priorities for Quinn’s education more than the years in between, but when I did so, I found that what I valued for him at the beginning of his school years are the things I still value, and each time, it has helped me orient my efforts in advocating for his learning needs in each context in ways that aligned with those values.

2020 is a different year in every way, and it is exceptionally different in terms of how education is being and will be carried out. Quinn finished seventh grade pushing buttons on a computer screen, disconnected from his teachers and peers, isolating himself at his dad’s house in the woods. However, for the month it took for the school to transition into distance learning mode, he had a fresh chance to direct his own learning, and it was an oasis between the overscheduled school year to that point, and the button-pushing specter of school on a laptop that limped across the finish line. As we envision what his eighth grade year will be like, his last year before high school, it has been on my mind to revisit the priority list yet again. (Click here to read the original post.) With years of additional insights into how Quinn learns, I decided it would be a good time to do a fresh rewrite, although once again my revisit reconfirmed that everything on the list still resonates for me. The first priority, however, is the one that stopped me in my tracks this time: “Safety- A learning environment where physical safety is a no-brainer.” This cannot possibly be assured this coming school year with any physical presence in the school building. Though the language of that priority once centered around booster seats and sunscreen, the language of school safety has grotesquely mutated into how we can carry out active-shooter drills during a pandemic. Safety will always remain priority number one, and hence, this year will look very different from other recent years while Quinn has attended public school.

Still, I wanted to write this 2020 version from a place of naming what we want to move towards, vs. what we want to move away from. This is how I approached it in 2012 when I was feeling a visceral aversion to Quinn attending public school while he still needed quite a lot of social emotional support a good portion of the time. At that time, I tried to hone in on articulating the goals I have for his learning environment rather than just describing the outcomes I wanted to avoid; instead of focusing on how likely a differently-wired kindergartener is to be misunderstood in public school, I focused on working towards an organic learning environment where choice is central, the whole child is nourished. In 2020 I want to focus less on COVID-19 risk and more on crafting the best learning options for him given the circumstances. Still striving for an organic learning environment where choice is central, the whole person is nourished. The long-term goal is still and always a thriving lifelong learner.

Many things have changed in eight years, but so much has stayed the same. Most of what changed in this list is an organization of the original 12 separate items into 3 categories they seemed to gather into naturally: safety, connection, and self-direction. A disclaimer I would attach to this and all posts of mine: this is a description of my own values and is intended only as a means of articulating them for myself; if they resonate for you, that is a pleasant outcome we can enjoy, and if they do not, feel free not to let them slow you down as you scroll on by.

~Educational Priorities~

As Quinn’s mama my priorities for his educational experience are to surround him with nurturing environments and people and to protect and feed his love of learning. While I do not distinguish between learning and the rest of life, as I believe the two are inextricably linked, I will do my best to list my priorities for how I believe Quinn can best be supported so that he may thrive as a lifelong learner. I believe this will be achieved by prioritizing:

1. Safety

A learning environment where physical safety is a no-brainer. As drastically different as the content of this paragraph may be in 2020 than it was in 2012, the first sentence is the same first sentence. Physical needs must be met before learning needs can be fully realized. At Our Living School, we repeated a mantra concerning safety, “Our bodies are safe, our thoughts are safe, our feelings are safe, our work is safe,” and this is still a useful list.

Physical safety: Quinn’s physical safety is secured in his learning environment to enable him to focus on learning. The physical safety of educators must also be paramount. The presence of my learner in a school is possible only when teacher health and safety, and the health and safety of the families of those teachers, and the health and safety of other students and their families, can be ensured.

Mental safety: Quinn is in an environment where he can express his thoughts freely and knows his learning needs will be respected and supported.

Emotional safety: Quinn is able to feel, express, and care for his feelings.

Work safety: Whether it is what he was building out of blocks at five, or a research project he is getting ready to present at thirteen, the integrity of Quinn’s work will be honored.


I believe that a positive learning environment for Quinn will flourish when it grows from strong roots of connection and belonging. Several of the 2012 priorities focused on specific connections; between student and teacher, parent and teacher, student and peers, student and others of all ages. In 2020 I can see that these one-to-one connections are impossible to extricate from the web of community surrounding a learner, and while these individual bonds may stand out from the web when highlighting learning priorities, they all perform their roles in the best ways when the whole web is strong and stable. Strong connections will help Quinn develop empathy and compassion, and a realistic understanding of others’ realities. They will also help him self-reflect through relationship with others, and to continue to build healthy relationship skills.

Student-teacher connection: A bond between student and teacher ensures priority #1 through open communication and positive regard of one another. From connection flows the sense of nurturing, unconditional positive regard, and feeling of equal dignity that all humans deserve and require in order to do their best learning. I believe safety and equity for all other students is necessary for Quinn to experience the benefits of a connection to any teacher. If he can see that his peers of all identities and abilities are all being treated with that positive regard, then he will be able to trust that lighthouse when its beam is directed towards him.

Student-teacher-parent connection: Open channels of communication among those involved in Quinn’s learning endeavors allow for his strengths and areas needing extra support to be known so that all involved are attuned to his unique learning style. Parental involvement in learning is ongoing and meaningful.

Student-peer connection: The stronger the connections between Quinn and his learning community, the greater sense of belonging he will experience. Quinn feels ownership of his school as a place that is Home to him, with a positive sense of caring for his fellow students, who in turn care for him as part of their community. Values are instilled by the teachers towards this end, and extend outward to include his greater community, in which his school is an active participant. These values of community care are best realized by distance learning in 2020, protecting all learners and teachers, and finding creative ways to still foster belonging. Peer connections may take the form of online paleontology discussions and online D&D gaming sessions this year.

Connection to others of all ages: Quinn is connected with older teens and young adults who have skills he has yet to acquire to look up to, admire, and imitate, and kids who are younger, to keep things infused with imagination and wonder. He has involvement with people of all ages from the surrounding community, because the real world is a place where people of all ages interact, to everyone’s great good fortune. In 2020 we’ll have less in person interaction to be sure, but this will be good to keep in mind as a guiding principle, that while peer interactions are very important to developing teens, interactions with others of all ages matter as well, even if they have to be emails and video calls for a time. Grammy and Grampy, Mario and Luigi, I’m looking at you!

3. Self-Direction (trust)

The rest of the 2012 priorities group themselves comfortably under this heading. In 2012 I wrote about a whole-child approach, an emergent curriculum, a Yes environment with emphasis on play, developing an internal moral compass, and nurturing an intrinsic motivation to learn. In conversation with my teen about what works and does not work about schooling for him, we keep circling back to the need for choice. I want to strive towards a learning situation that prioritizes self-direction for the learner. (The heading contains parenthetical trust, because this path requires a large amount of it on the part of a parent supporting the self-directed learning journey of their youth.)

Whole-child or whole-teen approach: In my worldview, children come into the world as fully intact beings, destined to grow into their innate competence, as well as prosocial beings whose default desire is to cooperate, belong, and get along. Other worldviews exist in which children are born deficient or damaged, needing to be filled with knowledge and morals through a hierarchical top-down approach. My worldview encourages deep trust in the child’s inevitable trajectory towards competence, while the opposing one often requires proof through standardized testing or other means that they have reached competence.

I like a phrase coined by Marji Zintz that says, “attribute to children the best possible motive consistent with the facts.” Giving kids the benefit of the doubt in their intentions and abilities empowers them to grow into their competence.

Whole-child or whole-teen approaches to learning must acknowledge the following: Academics, while held at high priority, do not eclipse other important lessons. Some of the lessons/skills I value most, in no particular order, are:

  • social/emotional skills
  • healthy bodies
  • mindfulness practices
  • self-confidence
  • compassion
  • writing
  • relationship skills
  • empathy
  • communication
  • movement
  • sustainability
  • fine art
  • creative writing
  • world culture
  • cooking
  • sports
  • drama
  • reading
  • conflict resolution
  • scientific reasoning
  • practical life skills (everything from gardening to making things to voting)
  • being a citizen in a democracy
  • critical thinking
  • math
  • social justice
  • music
  • community-mindedness

Many of Quinn’s skills will be honed at home, e.g. woodworking with dada or sewing with mama, and at private (dance/music/art/sports/karate) lessons or through outside-of-school classes, so I apply this concept to Life in General as well as educational goals.)

binary hand-counting in the wilderness

Self-directed learning: I referred to this as emergent curriculum in 2012, while in 2020 the term self-direction feels more resonant for the same set of ideals around choice, maybe because it emphasizes his agency in bringing about what emerges. Quinn is able to learn what he is drawn to, and the purpose of teacher guidance is to help him create meaning for himself about what he learns. He is able to approach each component of academics as he is ready for it, in a way that he can absorb it efficiently because it’s meaningful to him. He has the freedom to opt in or out of lessons he feels compelled or uncompelled by, and there is plenty of enriching material for him to engage with and be challenged. Further, the lessons offered are set at a level that is most likely to compel him, given that they are based on his/the student body’s emerging interests/intrigues/questions/thoughts/votes. He sets his own balance of autonomous learning time to cooperative group learning. Quinn’s preparations for his life/career goals (college, trades, conservatory, world travel or whatever they may be) are in his own hands and he is confident in his ability to craft his own educational curriculum, one that will land him squarely where he desires to be, wearing a set of wings to take him far beyond.

Consent: As mama of a young man, I see it as one of my most important roles in his learning to make sure he is aware and competent around the concept of consent. By honoring Quinn’s integrity, boundaries, and self-direction in his learning, I am modeling consent. If Quinn’s stance on a given subject or learning objective is no, it means no. Often choice is seen as something a teacher “allows” a learner, but that still creates a top-down dynamic which, instead of preserving choices, in fact limits them; if one of the available options is not “no”, the choice is not freely chosen. There is an illusion of choice that is created when someone says, “I will let you choose” but then the power rests with the person “letting,” not with the person doing the choosing. Forcing someone to learn, to press the “submit” button, is one way that consent is overridden in young people routinely, and I strongly suspect it contributes to a culture where consent is undervalued. Where students experience teaching as something to be done to them, they learn not to honor their own signals, but instead become resigned to others’ demands on them. Instead, by being clear on his boundaries, Quinn is learning where he ends and other people begin, and not just knowing about it in theory, but practicing and embodying consent.

Yes Environment: Yes means yes! A Yes Environment means that opportunities, space and materials are available to him whenever he takes initiative to express and explore. When he reveals an interest, the tools and materials he needs to follow that line of inquiry appear in a timely manner so he can continue and take it as far as he wants, until he is satiated. If he is engrossed in dinosaurs today (/this week/this decade), books and activities (games, videos, camps, virtual museum tours, ecology simulations…) show up in following days based on that theme and are strewn in his path for him to gobble up. His teacher’s role is to observe what is sparking his interest and tend the flame, requiring an individualized approach and attentive observation. This is best achieved in small class sizes where curriculum can flex and adapt. Instead of “no” stance on deviations, a “how can we…?” approach is the default. A Yes environment also provides structured and unstructured time and space to play. Play is of extreme importance to learning, and not separate from learning. Play is learning. Beyond K-12, Quinn is encouraged and supported in his life goals and help is always available to guide him in the right direction to meet them.

Internal Moral Compass: Quinn gets to grapple with right and wrong based on his own inner knowing, as he practices and calibrates his internal compass. He receives lots of guidance, information, and suggestions to help him navigate territory that is new for him, but never force, coercion or bribery, rewards or punishments. In areas including but not limited to consent, it is increasingly important for him to make morally right choices when nobody is around to police him or direct him in the right decision. He will do that if he has been exercising this muscle all along and his moral compass is well-calibrated and strong.

Intrinsic Motivation to Learn: His desire to learn comes from within, and that is honored in a way that maintains its integrity within rather than pulling it outside of him and replacing it with an external stimulus. Rewards and punishments are avoided in order to protect this intrinsic motivation to learn. Self-reflection around daily experiences, triumphs and disappointments will hold more meaning than grades, test scores, diagnoses, labels.

It is my belief that by prioritizing these values in Quinn’s education, Quinn will be set up to lead a fulfilling life. He will know himself well, always having been aligned with his own internal motivators, conscience, and self-knowledge. He will have confidence that he can achieve whatever he sets out to do, and will have obtained skills and knowledge that are required for that journey. He will know what it is like to be surrounded by supportive, encouraging people, and will recognize them in society. He will be attracted to workplaces with inclusive atmospheres and friendships featuring positive regard and nurturing. He will be unwilling to tolerate injustice because of his intimate experience of participating in a compassionate, justice-promoting community. He will know how to be respectful as well as to live in a way that inspires respect. He will know how to be flexible, how to think critically and creatively, and how to navigate real world situations because the real world is the place he will always have dwelled. He will be fully competent in making choices, as self-direction has been a key component of his entire educational experience- he will know that life is made up of choices, and he will be empowered to make them. These approaches to Quinn’s education will produce a strong, capable, caring, well-rounded, enthusiastic, empowered, joyful human being.