Monday, March 22nd was our 106th day of the pandacademic year, and the first day of cycle eight. And cycle eight is the first of four straight cycles with a specialty cell. All year long we have been meeting in-person in nature at a variety of places that have allowed us to be together more safely during Covid-19, other than the month and a half that we were shut down because Austin was in the worst risk stage level of the pandemic, and then another week and a half thanks to the terrible Texas freeze that brought everything to a halt. While we have thoroughly enjoyed being outdoors in nature, and we still have cells that will be outdoors in nature for the rest of the year, starting this cycle we will also have one specialty cell that Learners can opt into that is focused around a specific activity or purpose. This cycle that cell is a social justice oriented Flying Squad. The Facilitators for this cell are me and Ariel. So for this cycle I’ll be talking primarily about this Flying Squad.

Going into Spring Break I was concerned that with most of broader society relaxing their approach to preventing the spread of Covid-19, in addition to the substantial portion of the population that was not even trying in the first place, that some of the Learners in our community may let loose over the break and engage in practices that increased their potential exposure. It does not help that their friends in public and private schools have likely embraced the false narratives about kids being safe from the disease, and the more recent viral (pun intended) lie that kids are akin to vaccinated elderly people. So on my weekly update at the beginning of spring break I included:

Please, please, stay vigilant. Please wear your mask when around people who are not in your household (I still have N95 masks and I am happy to give you more of them). Also, please do not dine in at restaurants or go to bars, do not have sleepovers, and do not attend indoor parties. And if you end up taking such risks please let us know and voluntarily self-quarantine.

At the end of spring break I followed up with another request for families to be forthright about any such behavior (text is in bold, just like in the weekly update):

If over spring break your Learner spent time indoors, unmasked with people outside of their household or dedicated pod, please let us know that they will be self-quarantining before coming back together with us. They should not show up tomorrow if that is the case. This includes any sleep overs, parties, or indoor dining.

We have quarantines in place to protect others if someone engages in behavior that may have put them at risk of catching Covid-19. We are not asking for people to never engage in higher risk activities such as eating in at a restaurant or going to a party, we are only asking that if they do that they communicate with us and engage in the necessary quarantine protocols. I was appreciative that the Learners or families who engaged in such practices let us know and began their quarantines.

Our response to the pandemic is based on the best available information we have on Covid-19 (its impact on people, how it spreads, and the state of the pandemic). We admittedly have a bias toward protecting the members of our community and public health. We have been extraordinarily clear that we are going to err on the side of caution, and that this can only work if every member of the community commits to doing so, as well. Every school in Austin has taken a different, less serious approach than Abrome, and they are able to serve all of those who are not willing to support our practices. We have certainly suffered in terms of enrollment and financially from our decision to prioritize community care, but we firmly believe that we should prioritize community over convenience, and people over profits.

Five of us at Philosophers' Rock

Five of us at Philosophers’ Rock

At the Flying Squad specialty cell, we would be at half the size we had hoped to be because of quarantining Learners. But the Learners and Facilitators showed up eager to make the most of the day, anyhow.

Facilitator Ariel opened the morning meeting, and asked who wanted to be the game master. I volunteered and said folks could sit or stand, stay 6 feet apart, and jump in when they want to talk. Facilitator Ariel then started with announcements, and one of the Learners reminded everyone that this was a social justice oriented cell, and that we should spend time actually talking about or acting on social justice issues. Facilitator Ariel also added that we should listen to one another, focus on what we are each saying, and to be mindful of our space while we are out in the city. We each then talked about how we did with our practices over spring break, and what we were most looking forward to this cycle. Then we talked about what we wanted to do and agreed to begin walking. Facilitator Ariel asked everyone if they wanted to stretch before we got going, but they just wanted to start walking.

Learning about our surroundings

Learning about our surroundings

We didn’t get far before I stopped at a sign to learn about the history of the cottage in the park. One of the young Learners stopped by to look at the sign while I was reading it, and I asked him if he wanted me to read it out loud. He said no, so I kept reading and when I finished we continued walking.

Thai ice cream … mind blown!

Thai ice cream … mind blown!

As we meandered we came across our first food truck. One of the Learners was given some money from his parents to spend each day on food or drink, and the first food truck he saw became the place he was going to spend some of his money on this day. I helped him review the menu and he decided that he was ready to buy, but the person working the truck said that they would not be ready for at least another ten minutes. He decided that he would like to wait it out, while some of the other Learners and Facilitator Ariel wanted to walk to get coffee. Because there are two Facilitators in this cell it was easy enough to break into two subgroups. When the thai ice cream truck finally opened, the Learner made his selection, and then we waited. While we waited we talked about everything from what the ice cream might taste like to other things he could eat that day. The people in the food truck let us know that one of the best parts of thai ice cream is watching the way it is made, so the Learner grabbed a stool and dragged it over to the window near where they would roll the ice cream, and watched them make the ice cream. When they gave it to him he admired the aesthetics of the ice cream, then sat down, and took a small bite. I asked him how it tasted and he indicated that it was mind blowingly good.

When he was finished we started walking down the path that the other group said they would return on. We met up with them not far from the food truck, and then we continued on. We did not really have a destination other than seeing what we could find as we approached downtown.

We eventually found our way to the pedestrian bridge over Town Lake, where we stopped to enjoy some people watching, the views of the city, and the weather. I took a quick daily update video to throw on the Instagram account, a practice I started in cycle 7. While we lingered on the bridge two of the Learners began talking about how much they wanted to get candy. They wanted to go to a candy shop that we would sometimes go into on Flying Squad days before the pandemic.

Candy, soda, junk food, and other less than healthy options are a difficult topic in the Self-Directed Education world. While we believe in child autonomy, we also tend to have a bias toward healthier living choices, relative to the general population. Some in the radical unschooling segment of SDE believe that children should be able to eat whatever they want all day long, while most others believe that the adults should at the very least limit the amount of junk food that comes in the house, and the amount of money that can be spent on junk food out of the house. We don’t have limitations on eating such foods at Abrome, but we choose not to provide junk food to Learners. Each Learner must therefore have conversations with their parents or guardians as to what food they bring with them each day, and when we are going to be in places where we can buy food, how much money they get to spend on food and any limits they may have on the types of food available to them. The only way we will choose to interfere in such decisions is if there are particular ingredients that a Learner needs to avoid, such as dyes or gluten.

Balance, he’s got it

Balance, he’s got it

But on this day, we said that the candy store was not an option. It was not a rejection of candy, but it was a rejection of having us all squeeze into a small store during the pandemic. One Learner was pretty fixated on this candy store option, so we asked what other options might be available. Was he willing to go to a store with a window that we would not have to go into? Or could we just go to a larger grocery store with lots of air volume and ventilation? He chose the grocery store Trader Joe’s, and everyone else was pretty excited to go there as well, so we all headed in that direction. On the way we stopped at another coffee shop that had an outdoor facing window, and Facilitator Ariel refueled for the second time. Nearby, we found two benches seated next to each other, and I asked if anyone thought I could make walk along the top of the back of the bench from end to end. Then I did it to prove that just because I was the oldest in the crew did not mean I don’t have balance. All the other Learners then tried the same, as did Facilitator Ariel. Then the youngest Learner went to the bench none of us tried to walk on, and walked along the top of that one, hoped the distance between the two benches, and then walked along the top of the other one.

When we got to Trader Joe’s, we made sure our masks were properly fitted and then we went into the store. Given the many options of candy that was available it took a while to find the best option, but the Learner with the sweet tooth eventually settled on a good sized, very affordable box of gourmet organic jelly beans. We then settled in on a large piece of turf outside the store to eat our lunches and talk. In that talk was more conversation about food. To be honest, I was getting tired of talking about food, but for some Learners it seems to always be top of mind—at least when we are in the city where there are lots of food options. They were not so hyper focused when we were meeting out in nature where there are no grocery stores or food trucks.

It’s all about perspective

It’s all about perspective

Our stay near Trader Joe’s lasted for a good while, as no one was itching to move on. Facilitator Ariel decided that it was a good time to do some headstands, and he encouraged the Learners to join him. One did readily, while needed some reassurance that it was possible and some coaching on how to get in position. When they were finished trying to stand on their heads they decided they wanted to see how fast they were on their feet. They began to challenge each other and the Facilitator to races, and several were had. I almost bowled over one of the Learners when they veered into my path as I was quickly overtaking them from behind. Fortunately no one was hurt and much fun was had. We probably burned off a collective 10 jelly beans in the process.

Learning about bald cypress trees

Learning about bald cypress trees

As the day began winding down we decided to head back to the pickup location but on a slightly different path. We decided to walk toward the public library, where we read some of the signs that identified different trees and shrubs that were planted around the library, and then on a path next to the creek that took us under Cesar Chavez Street, and onto the hike and bike trail around Town Lake. We walked west until we returned back at the pedestrian bridge.

At the pedestrian bridge I pointed out that there were two ways up, via a long circular ramp, or up some stairs. Two Learners and Facilitator Ariel opted for the ramp, and they decided to run up it for some additional benefits. I filmed the run, and then I joined another Learner in walking up the stairs.

IMG_3286 addey fox drawing.jpg

Once on the bridge we admired the many messages that were left by people with street chalk. Most of the messages on this day were left by vegans encouraging folks to eat plants instead of meat. I then remembered I had some chalk in my bag and offered it to whoever was interested in writing their own messages. Some of the messages we left included questions about capitalism, policing, the state, and a request for folks to not buy PS5 until they have more games available. One Learner worked on a dinosaur and another drew a large fox.

While it was fun to hang out on the bridge and play with the street chalk, we realized that that effort left us with little time to get back to the pickup point in time for pickup. So we said we would need to really get moving. While we only had about a mile or so walk ahead of us, we had already walked or ran a total of five miles at that point. On the way, a young Learner was really struggling to move, probably a result of too much sugar and too little water, so an adolescent Learner said she’d carry him 0.8 miles back to the pickup location. He didn’t believe she could make it, but she did. We ran out of time for our afternoon roundup, but we made it back in time for pickup. It was a very fun, tiring day.

At the other cell there was lots of running around, lots of soccer, and a visit from some geese. I’ll report mostly from the Flying Squad cell this cycle, but I will try to include some updates from that cell. Here are two videos.