Rocket Stoves

It’s always entertaining to leave Dave and the kids for half a day; I never know what I might return home to. Just recently I came back to find that Dave had invested in a pallet of fire bricks and was busy testing out designs for a rocket stove.

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If you are not familiar with rocket stoves, the basic idea is to create a stove that uses small amounts of fuel, burns it very efficiently, and produces surprising amounts of usable heat. A handful of twigs in a suitably designed rocket stove can be used to fry an egg. (At least, in theory. So far we have not tested this on actual eggs.)

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Why does Dave want to build one? I could say that it’s to replace our rock-shard-spitting fire pit, which it would, or to have on hand in case of Zombie Apocalypse. But I think it would be closer to the truth to say: Because it’s cool. Or, equally: Why wouldn’t someone want to build a rocket stove?!

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Dave has experimented with a couple of variations so far. The coolest part to me is that Nathan has been interested enough in the process to build his own — first a small stove of his own design, and later he built his own version of Dave’s latest. He did an excellent job on it, and we even fired it up one night to roast marshmallows. I can’t vouch for an egg, but it fried marshmallows like a champ.

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Just A Picture

Our smallest helper…

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Cream Revisited

I decided recently to revisit the whipped cream activity I’d done with the kids a year and a half ago. Messy, edible, and fun, right? Best of all, it’s summer, so this time I could do it outside where cleanup is as simple as a hose!

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I only ran into one difficulty. It wasn’t that the boys were uninterested; I sort of expected that. They’re old enough that I was surprised they got into it the first time. No, the problem was that Mica is apparently now old enough that she doesn’t like to get her hands dirty.

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She was interested in the cream when I dumped it on the little baby-sized table we have outside. But only about 60 seconds after dipping her fingers into it she turned to me, held up her creamy fingers, and said “Wash hands?” I brought out a couple of spatulas for her, which she used briefly. She was more interested in the food coloring we dropped into it, and in fact liked doing that bit. But then, as though to give the lie to fact that she spends roughly 90% of her waking hours spreading some form of chaos, she ignored the cream entirely and spent long happy minutes packing the food coloring back into the box.

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Which is fine. Let them do their own thing, right? Next time I’ll skip the cream and just let her pack tubes into a box.

Vacation

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We had a wonderfully rich and relaxing week at the lake, courtesy of Tom and Marybeth. It’s so much fun to get the kids into a new space and watch them explore. Even on the cooler days we had (one with a thunderstorm!) there was plenty to do: we painted, played Little Wizards, and made some beaded jewelry as gifts for Marybeth.

But of course the best part of being at the lake is being outside. There are rocks, for one thing. The boys hunted for precious (i.e., unusual or glittery) rocks both by boat and on foot. Mica threw rocks of the dock (including those the boys had collected; we had to find another solution for that). Nathan “helped” with a small rock wall Tom is building to hopefully encourage some sand to collect on the beach.

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And there are boats. Nathan continued his kayaking skills, and Ryan, although I didn’t get a picture of it, took a few turns in it himself. (The next day he went out again in rougher water and decided he didn’t like kayaking after all.) Mica had multiple rides and complained when I insisted on giving someone else a turn. I got to try both Marybeth’s paddleboard and Tom’s new rowboat, both of which were really fun.

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There are fish, too. The boys spent most of our last day fishing with Tom. Nathan, despite being patient and persistent, at first caught nothing; Ryan caught a fish the first time he dropped a hook in the water, and another not much later. But Nathan didn’t complain and eventually his persistence was rewarded. Both of them ended up catching multiple fish and we had several mouthfuls of freshly-caught bass for dinner that evening, which they decided they didn’t like. That’s ok; only a few hours before, Ryan had been insisting that we take the fish home and keep it in a tank as a pet. I was just glad he’d been persuaded over to the cook-it-and-eat-it camp.

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Quiet

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I’ve lived long enough with city noise that I’ve become accustomed to it. Just as there is never true darkness in the city (nor, sadly, in increasing amounts of the world — thanks, light pollution!), so there is never really quiet. Even in the middle of the night, some neighbor is awake, and anyway there is always the sound of traffic.

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But I grew up with quiet. Not silence, which on Earth is only a relative term, but a lack of that ever-present, ambient human noise. It was an everyday thing when I was growing up to hear the trees move in the wind, or water lapping against the shore; those sounds weren’t buried.

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Now when I visit my dad’s house I always notice it. Even walking on the beach with my family, I notice it — sure, there are children’s voices and footsteps, but there are also pauses in between, and there it is: Tiny waves spilling over stones. Leaves drifting against each other. Endless, and unaffected by me.

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When I was young, home — more specifically, the beach and woods around our house — was sanctuary, and my sense of it remains to this day. This sense of quiet is tied up in my sense of safety. When I spend a little time there I feel myself relaxing instinctively. There is nothing to prove, nothing to fear; it is entirely permissible simply to be.

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My children almost certainly lack that association. Or do they? I know I’m not the only person to respond this way to being away from the ever-present sense of people. Someday, when they’ve gotten old enough to express their self-reflection, I’ll ask them. For now I think it’s enough to be there with them.

Renaissance School Of Arts And Sciences

I walked into RenSchool (as Adam, the dean and our guide, referred to it) and was blown away. My first impression was that I was in a spacious, lovely home which was clearly owned by someone with an exuberant passion for Jim Henson, and who had no sense of restraint. From the entrance I could see into multiple rooms (there were very few actual doors in the building; most rooms simply had open entrances) furnished with durable-looking oriental rugs, comfortable couches, and nice wooden furniture. Overlaid on these were projects — literally hundreds of pieces even within view of my first stunned perspective — marionettes, illustrated poems, working (and beautiful) gears, and so much more. Pervading the entire scene was Irish fiddle music and the scent of the cookies Adam had baked that morning to greet us.

And the building went on. Accustomed to the size of Village Free School, I assumed that I was seeing most of the building right at the entrance, but that wasn’t at all true. It stretched off to my right, down a long hallway of semi-open rooms filled with children’s projects, finally ending in a large, open room with hardwood floors that Adam referred to as the ballroom. I saw two grand pianos, views of the river, a small outdoor courtyard, and none at all of the typical school-type desks. That, by the way, was only the lower floor; the upper floor was somewhat similar but the hallway sometimes turned into a bridge over the rooms below, so that there was a direct visual connection between the floors.

The Renaissance School is nearing 150 students, which is where they expect to cap their population, and can have, Adam estimated, anywhere between twelve and twenty staff in the building at any given time. They have both a longer school year and a longer school day than public education. In the morning, after a morning meeting, students are grouped by their level of ability to do Literacy and Numeracy; in the early afternoon they’re grouped by age to do content studies (which might encompass such things as social studies, art, or PE); and in the late afternoon they group by interest to take the equivalent of electives, classes that specifically interest them. This isn’t child-led education, but they try to encourage inquiry and self-awareness; they want the kids to know themselves as learners, and they give students a lot of flexibility about how and where they work.

There are no worksheets, no dumbing things down, and no grades. Kids will often be given a specification and asked to go from that to a finished product, and there’s an emphasis on producing quality work — all work should be of the quality that it can be put on display. Risk-taking and cooperation are encouraged, and competition is not. The staff draw from a “curriculum map” rather than holding to a set curriculum, and can pull together multiple concepts into a single project or lesson.

My overall impression from my short visit was that the Renaissance School offers a wonderfully rich environment, with really creative teaching and learning opportunities. While my personal bent is more toward self-directed learning, I think it would provide a great environment for someone looking for instructor-directed education.

Summa Academy

One of the things I was most excited about in the AERO conference was the school visits. There were three visits scheduled, and the first school on the list, Summa Academy, was one I’d been hoping to visit anyway this coming year.

They were in the midst of a end-of-year deep clean when we arrived, so we had a tour of the physical layout but couldn’t get a sense of the actual texture of the space. At the time I didn’t think much of that; but the next school I visited was the Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences (more on that in another post), and I realized the difference. In any case, the space was two stories and open, with a central room (the Heart) upstairs surrounded by four classrooms, and more space downstairs: the entrance, a cafeteria, a huge art room, and a couple more good-sized rooms. They also had a couple of fenced-in outdoor areas. They have about the same amount of students as Village Free School (about 60), but quite a bit more space for them.

As for the logistics: students are divided up into age/development-based groups, but each encompasses at least a couple of years and it sounded as though the boundaries between groups are more fluid than those in mainstream school. Their student:teacher ratio is 11:1. Some of the work done is within those groups, but the school also does large-scale group projects which encompass all ages, from 6 to 14. There are no grades and no tests, and the curriculum is considered emergent — in other words, what happens one week will influence what happens the next, within the framework of a larger long-term goal.

The core of Summa seems to be working within a framework of child development, and meeting the developmental needs of children. This emphasis is so important, in fact, that Summa families are given child development training, and are asked to participate in ongoing engagement with the school to ensure that the parents and educators are consistent in how they interact with the child. Every staff person knows every child, and they spend time reviewing where each child is regularly. They also emphasize self-reflection and social-emotional work.

Ba Luvmor, one of the founders, described their academic offerings as providing fields of engagement: there are boundaries around the field, but lots of freedom within those boundaries. They also try hard not to teach about things, but instead to put kids into the middle of things. So for example, a discussion about freedom and what freedoms the kids feel they have can lead to the question of what you’d do to protect those freedoms, which can lead to discussions of revolution, protests, non-violent vs. violent strategies, etc.

There was clearly a great deal to talk about, and the conversation was still going strong when some of us headed to the next school visit. I took away this quote from Ba, in the context of dispelling the notion that childhood was merely a lead-in to adulthood: “When you’re six you have what you need for six-year-old greatness.”

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