Change has certainly been something constant while on our new adventure in Costa Rica. Now that we are back, we are experiencing lots of change in the transitions each of us is going through as we “readjust” to routine and life here in Seattle. After what we’ve experienced though, change itself is easier for all of us and very exciting. That was a key benefit we hoped that Aidan and Nev got from our experience. I’m not sure though if they realize how differently they – actually all of us – approach things now.

I started my transition back in August really. That’s when I started reaching out to folks and looking for a new job. I had a pretty firm set of things I was and was not looking for in my ideal new job. Perhaps that’s why has taken several months to find my place.

Leaving for a year, and especially having the opportunity to spend so much time with my family, made me think hard about what type of job I wanted to have that would take me away from them for so many hours a day. Deb and I had the luxury of spending all of our time together. We love working on things together. That’s why it’s a big deal for me to transition back to seeing co-workers for more hours per day in many cases than Deb.

I didn’t feel compelled to return to any sort of “ladder climb” in a company. I could have managed a large team again, but I wanted something different. Ideally I wanted to find a place where I could be more “hands on.” I wanted to do something that had benefit beyond corporate success. So I took a position as an “individual contributor” in a company and industry that will get me right back to my roots in helping to evolve education.

A year or more ago I probably would have worried a bit about taking a “step down” from a bigger position and title. Not now. I feel solidly centered on how I want to spend the precious time I have. For me it’s about the “why”, not the “what” or “how much.” And I expect this ride to be even more thrilling than the previous things I’ve had the privilege of doing.

Deb is choosing not to return to the corporate world for now. True to her nature, she has a wild idea about want she wants to do next. That transition is far more in her nature and will include being out in nature a lot more. Deb is not ready to talk about it yet here in more detail. It will take some explaining to do, hopefully in a future post.

Nev has decided to go to back to public (high) school – but not just any high school. Nev enjoyed home schooling and was doing well. As we mentioned awhile back, a large public middle school was a nightmare for Nev with all of the posturing, bullying, cliques, and stress. We were a little surprised about the interest in going back to a public school, but this one could not be more fitting for Nev.

Nova is indeed a Seattle public school but it is very alternative. When we first drove up for a visit, we saw a bunch of students in the parking lot and a lot of diverse hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. This was clearly a place where people felt comfortable being who they were and Nev said that it felt like “home.”

But Nova is not alternative because of the students. Rather, I think it simply attracts more alternative students. Nova is run more like a college where you choose your classes and everyone’s schedule may be different. They have some incredibly interesting and non-mainstream classes like Experimental Animation, Feminism and Fashion, and Naked Truth on Stereotypes. Students and faculty work together to make the school a very open and accepting forum for ideas and place for people. And the teachers are as refreshing as the students.

Transitioning from a year in Costa Rica being homeschooled to even an alternative high school will be a big transition, but Nev is ready and excited.

Aidan, as usual, is open to everything and excited about trying new things. He and Deb are attending a home school cooperative program Mondays and Fridays where different parents teach different classes and where Aidan can meet some new friends. That leaves lots of time for doing some activities Aidan and Deb work out. It’s a bit different approach to unschooling, but it will be a fun, new adventure for Aidan.

The most interesting thing to me about our transition back isn’t what we each are doing; it’s how our general perspectives have changed, especially Aidan and Nev’s. We are living much more simply. We don’t need much “stuff.” The young adults are taking on much more responsibility. And change is something we take in stride pretty easily.

I expect that all of this didn’t simply come from living in Costa Rica. Some of it would have happened naturally, I’m sure. I think our experience though may have hastened and facilitated much of it.

We each have our own work, school, and life transitions back to the world we knew. On the surface, they seem fairly normal compared to our previous year. But they are all very definitely, and very intentionally, “off-path”. I hope our off-path perspectives don’t dim as we return to reality. I don’t expect they ever will, though, and that’s a good thing. Pura vida.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Border

Things are always moving on our new adventure. And sadly, they will be coming to an end soon – but not before we have a chance to experience more interesting, inspiring, and well, odd and embarrassing things here. First the fun stuff.

Deb and I just completed our SCUBA PADI certification. This is something Deb has always wanted to do. What better place than Costa Rica. While we have friends who love diving in Seattle, sorry, it’s juts to cold and dark for us. We’ll take the 86° F water and 40 feet of visibility any day.

Our good friend Risky was our instructor out of Aquacenter in Playa Flamingo. He suggested we wait until June/July because the water is clearer then. We wanted to do wait anyway for all of the tourists to be gone (its low season now). We ended up doing it in 4 days, culminating in the most amazing final open water dives.

The Caribbean has its wrecks and coral, the Mediterranean also has wrecks caves. Costa Rica has no coral or wrecks, but what you get here are incredible numbers of sea life in great diversity. As an example, on our final dive we saw a pod of dolphins on the way to the site and two humpback whales on the way back. While diving, the dolphins were serenading us – we could hear their “chirpy” vocalizations underwater. During the dive we saw several adult and baby white-tipped sharks, an eagle ray, many flavors of moray eels, an octopus, and tons of fish of all kinds. The puffer fish are pretty friendly. They hovered and watch me and when I stuck my finger out they would go for a nibble.

That was one dive. While it was the first time we saw whales, dolphins and sharks, the rest and more were pretty common on our other dives. We hear from Risky that this particular area off the coast of Play Flamingo is one of the best diving spots in Central America. We sure had a blast. We took our GoPro and have some great video (although note that the original GoPro and GoPro 2 have domed lenses and that makes for a bit of blurriness in underwater conditions.

Deb and Aidan (and me when I can) will start running a computer class at Abriendo Mentes next week. It is one of the organizations for which Deb recently helped put on a fundraiser. Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. I’ll let Deb say more about the class once she starts it.

Speaking of classes, I start teaching my Information Visualization class at Universidad Veritas next Thursday. I’ve completed all of the course content. I think I have around 1200 visualization examples for 13 classes. It’s not all lecture. I’ll talk for a bit, we’ll have some discussions and critiques, and the class will have some in-class exercises and projects. I’ve been inspired a bit by the challenges in Hell’s Kitchen so I’m going to try to set up a few challenges that way. J


The young adults are motoring along with unschoolingstill. They are doing some math now online on IXL while Deb helps in the tougher spots. We are supplementing that with some science content, including a few science fiction movies that have a lot of good science, including Gattaca and the Andromeda Strain so far. Aidan and Nev both though the Andromeda Strain, which was done in the 70’s, was “pretty good” despite not having CG, cool special effects and computers. It was a little eerie to see that again and all of the really “old school” science technology.

It’s pretty clear that Aidan and Nev are digital natives – people born after computers, digital technology, and the internet. For that matter, most of my students are as well. There isn’t a term though that I have found for kids who technically fit the criteria for digital natives but who have never used a computer or the Internet. There are many kids like that here and that’s why the work that we’ll be doing with Abriendo Mentes is so important. Abriendo Mentes is the one place most of these kids can work with technology. What we’ve heard is that, like most kids, they take to it like breathing, so I expect Deb and Aidan will have their hands full quickly. Deb is looking to bring in some new content and Aidan is the designated Minecraft expert!

For those who read my Border Run post and Deb’s border run, I had to do another one Friday. I have some updates and an interesting story. There are some new official, and unofficial, procedures that have come into being compared to January. First off, Costa Rica still requires the $7 exit tax. You’ll find that you need more dollars in Nicaragua given a few changes. One is that you now pay $12 to enter Nicaragua. It used to be $2.

What was interesting about the $12 was that immigration has to fill out a new form evidently, as a receipt of cash. I paid $12 USD. I just happened to actually look at the receipt later and saw two things. First, the immigration official marked it as a receipt of cash in Nicaraguan cordobas, not dollars as I paid. I initially thought they had a very creative process for working the exchange rate (dollars are much stronger). Heck, it works for banks, why not immigration? However, I also noticed that the receipt was for what I believe I remember to be 44 cordobas. Sadly, I didn’t keep the receipt, but that is about $2. I’m not sure how official the $12 was, so keep an eye out.

There are a few new rules as well. One is that you now need to photocopy your passport for immigration when you leave Nicaragua. Fortunately, there is a handy “fotocopias” hut near the immigration entry/exit station (add $1 here for a photocopy).

Another new rule is that you now need to spend a minimum of 5 hours in Nicaragua (or 8, depending on who you talk to). We heard this from both the Nicaraguan tourist “helpers” and the immigration folks. There does seem to be an unofficial but fairly structured way around it. It was important in my case because I was on a bus with 8 people and if anyone didn’t follow this process, we’d all be waiting 5 hours. Of course, that’s how most people do border runs.

In terms of this process around the 5 hour rule, first, the local “helpers” are good at spotting folks who are doing border runs and they’ll find you. They basically tell you that you need to stay 5 hours unless you pay a special fee. It is supposedly not a tip, but rather for the immigration official. I paid $10 but others on our bus paid $20. First they go off and “talk” to immigration. When ready, they go with you through the Nicaraguan exit immigration where the immigration official just charges another $2. Interestingly and unsolicited, mine told me (in Spanish of course) that I should not need to pay anyone else anything. It was curious at the time.

After getting our exit papers and stamp, we paid our $10 fee and walked toward the exit to “no man’s land.” Here it gets interesting. If you don’t go through the process, or evidently if you don’t pay your “helper” enough, when you approach the exit immigration official, the helper run up and shout that you have not been here 5 hours. I saw it twice.

The big surprise was that the exit official was telling all of the gringos in line that they had not been there long enough. Helpers told me that I should give him $2. Now I understood the strange comment from the other official.

This seemed clearly like a shakedown. It was confirmed by a few others who had been through this before. I and one of the women from the bus were waiting for him to give us back our passports, but he wasn’t. Meanwhile, more and more gringos were coming into line and he was taking their passports too, to check. Well, one of them started making a big and loud huff. The “helpers” were saying that the person hadn’t been in Nicaragua for 5 hours. The tourist was arguing vociferously that it didn’t matter. It is one of those situations that I could see going south quickly and everyone gets in trouble, so I asked for my passport for a “momentito”, returned it to the official with $2 inside, and got my passport back and left. The argument continued as a few more officials started toward the tourist.

My experience may have been rare, so don’t take it as the expected process, but at least be prepared. While I dislike the idea of bribes, this all seemed part of the experience and big waves were caused when the process wasn’t followed. At the end of the day, it was only a few dollars. The economy in Nicaragua is so bad that a dollar goes a long way and if it helps the folks at the border, I don’t mind. Hopefully, it is not a cultural experience I’ll have to get used to. I would have been fine waiting 5 hours but my bus wasn’t. But then, we had one more bit of excitement to come.

I exited Costa Rica through immigration in an incredible 6 minutes this time, including filling out the form. I got 90 days, even though I really only need 30. My immigration officer was very nice and on a roll. From there, it was back to the bus and home. Well, not quite yet.

As I said, there were 8 of us on the bus. Two of the passengers were very boisterous older men from the US who had been staying in Tamarindo. They had only been in Costa Rica 5 weeks, but were staying for 4 months and so needed to do a border run at some point and chose Friday. One of the two guys got very angry in Nicaragua when he found out that he had to get a photocopy of his passport and started yelling at everyone, including his friend. I thought it was odd at the time, but I have seen worse, sadly, from other American tourists.

Well, 6 of us were waiting in the bus for these last two. The one that was not angry came back and when he did not see his partner, he told the driver that his buddy was escorted to the front side of the building. This is where you first arrive and where they have their interrogation rooms. We waited about 15 minutes and he was a no show. The driver was clearly worried and so went to immigration to check. When he returned he did indeed say that this guy was taken by immigration officials.

Meanwhile, his friend had tried several times to call him without luck. After about another 10 minutes, his friend gets a call. His buddy was being detained. Here was an arrest warrant out for him in Texas that was triggered when he tried to re-enter Costa Rica. The Costa Rican’s were putting him on a bus to Managua so he could go to the US Embassy there.

The guy who was detained had on shorts and a tank top and nothing else with him. His buddy thought he could meet him in Managua with his stuff and they could return together. Unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t likely to be going anywhere other than back to the US – or perhaps a permanent, unofficial stay in Nicaragua. So, since there was nothing we could do about the detainee, we left. The whole bus, including his friend, was speculating on what this guy, who was the “nicest guy in the world” according to his friend, did and why they caught him here instead of when they first landed. The warrant must have triggered in the 5 weeks since they’ve been here.

Once again, border runs seem to be good experiences to see karma in action. Pura Vida.

Of Dogs, Kids, and Things

It has been an incredibly busy 2 weeks here on our new adventure. It almost feels like a typical week in Seattle with work, kid activities, volunteer work, etc. Of course, a huge difference is the warm hot weather and the gorgeous views of the beach we have every day here.

Deb just finished a huge project with our friends Colleen and Kim – they pulled off a huge fundraiser, especially for this area. Deb mentioned it in Giving Back. The fundraiser benefited two great organizations here: Abriendo Mentes, an organization that helps school kids with after school activities such as learning English and working with computers, and Costa Rica Pet Care, an organization that helps spay and neuter street dogs here.

We held the event last night at El Oasis in Brasilito. Shelly, the manager graciously allowed us to use her restaurant on a Saturday night for the event. We had several awesome local bands playing, including Local Legends and Los Dos. There were about 150 people in attendance and we all had a rocking good time. With ticket sales, drinks, food, and raffle, it looks like we netted about $4200. It was an extremely successful event by all measures. It even did far better than several fundraisers I’ve seen in Seattle. I think one of the key reasons is that everyone here knows the two organizations and really appreciates their work. We had all of the food and drinks donated as well as the venue and the bands. That says a lot about the community we live in here. It was a ton of work, but really satisfying.

The fundraiser was just one of a few things going on. While Deb was working on the fundraiser a lot, I’ve been working on my class in Information Visualization at Universidad Veritas. Creating the course and material always takes a lot of time (Deb seems to think I get a bit obsessive!). When she and I taught at UW, we got to work together, but we were also working full time. Fortunately, this is my only “job” this time around. J

I’m averaging about 2.5 classes worth of content per week, so I should be ready in plenty of time for the start of class July 24 and still have time to put my conference talk together for the Interaction Design Summit here. I’ll have a few awesome friends in Seattle giving guest talks for parts of classes. Tableau Software has donated licenses for the whole class and we’ll also be using Microsoft’s new Power Map, so I hope the students have a blast.

There is also a small world event going in Brasil that has a big impact here. For our non-futbol friends, it’s called the World Cup. We’ve managed to carve out time to keep up with our 3 teams. The US is our first team, of course, and they have done well in game 1, but will have a lot of challenge with Portugal today. Brasil is always our favorite. We have so many wonderful ties to Brazil with friends and extended (au pair) families. This is a particularly exciting cup because it is in Brasil. We would have actually gone to Brasil if we hadn’t decided to live in Costa Rica for a year.

The most exciting news and fun so far though, is our Costa Rica team! Going into the Cup, they ended up in what everyone has called “el grupo del muerto” – the group of death. The group includes Costa Rica and 3 previous World Cup winners: Uruguay, Italy, and England. Costa Rica has pulled off two stunning upsets so far, first beating Uruguay and then beating Italy! I can’t tell you how incredible it is to be in a bar full of Ticos and gringos and watch Costa Rica win. Before the Cup, many of our Tico friends didn’t think Costa Rica had any chance. Now, they are all starting to believe. Watching this transition and the underdog story in Costa Rica is priceless. It’s will be one of our most memorable experiences here.

We have jerseys for our 3 teams. Hopefully, we won’t have to choose which to wear anytime soon since none of them will play each other – for a while at least. But hopefully it will happen. We’ll have a lot to root for.

Finally, Deb’s birthday was the 19th. We are having a little bonfire party for her tonight. Somehow I got it into my head two weeks ago that I wanted to paint a picture of her for her birthday. It’s been a loooooong two weeks. I hadn’t picked up a paint brush (for painting pictures) in almost 20 years, so I was a bit rusty. I wanted it to be a surprise, so I hid the painting in progress and all of my paints and brushes around the house so she couldn’t find them. I had to wait for her to go to bed to get everything out for the most part. It usually took me about 15 minutes to set up and another 15-20 minutes to tear down. Fortunately, as the fundraiser approached, she was out working on it for good chunks of time in the day and that helped. Aidan even helped by taking her to the beach one day.

As of the writing of this, she hasn’t seen it yet. I’ll surprise her soon. I hope she likes it. Here’s the initial drawing:


And here’s the final painting (I need to take a picture outside with good light – I took this late at night with a flash):

While the last two weeks have been more of an exception to our time here, they feel oddly normal, possibly comfortable. Maybe I like having several things going on. More likely, I think I might unconsciously be preparing myself for the job hunt and return to Seattle ahead. It is coming much faster than we all think. Deb and I recently started pinging a few folks about possible opportunities and some things are starting pop up. Likely, we’ll have some big decisions ahead with work, staying at home, unschooling for the young adults, and maybe even where we live. For now, it’s nice to step back and just enjoy the time here while it lasts. We want to make every last minute count. Pura Vida!

The “Gravity” of a Learning Moment

Here on our new adventure Deb and I are always looking for new ways to introduce learning and to make something more interesting to our young adults. While watching the movie Gravity the other night, I found an unexpected opportunity to try to get Aidan and Nev more interested in math and science.

For a bit of context, neither Aidan nor Nev like math very much. Aidan likes chemistry a bit but generally their view on science is “ho-hum.” Deb and I were planning to introduce a math and science project after the young adults’ current history and religion project. Aidan has had some great approaches to both at University Cooperative School but Nev has endured the more traditional approaches which I think can tend to kill interest pretty quickly. Like most kids, they don’t have a lot of good examples of needing math in their lives – or science for that matter.

Gravity, in case you have not heard of it, is an incredible movie about two astronauts caught in a disaster in space. The movie is very high on realism – including no sound in space, but I get ahead of myself. It is an exciting film to watch.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Gravity, you may want to avoid reading the rest of this until you do.

About 20 minutes or so into Gravity, Houston warns the astronauts that the satellite the Russians detonated earlier has caused a chain reaction and that there is a large amount of space debris hurling towards them. Nev asked, “What’s a chain reaction?” I got my first surprising opportunity for a “learning moment.”

I use the word “learning moment” here in the same way most people would use “teachable moment.” It generally refers to a moment when a particular topic, idea or skill becomes easy to learn, usually because the learner is particularly engaged. While accurate, I dislike “teachable” because it centers the focus on the “teacher”. This is really about the “learner” and their interest. A “teacher” may simply facilitate the learning but a teacher need not even be present for the opportunity to happen.

I paused the movie and explained that a “chain reaction” meant that every time pieces of the Russian satellite hit another satellite, they would create another explosion, sending even more debris into orbit and striking even more satellites. That progression is a chain reaction. And that’s when it started.

I had mentioned something about the pieces shooting around orbit like bullets and Nev and Aidan looked a little confused. It got clearer when I “reminded” them about space physics: there is no friction. When things start moving, they maintain their speed, unless disrupted, and nothing slows them down. When you add Earth’s gravity, those pieces get pulled into orbit around the Earth and will keep travelling around the Earth like a blanket of death for a long time. They were engaged – even after I said this was all just physics.

They asked some more questions and we talked about the fact that after such an event, we’d unlikely be able to have many functioning satellites for a long time (and what that would mean). We talked about how extraordinarily challenging cleaning something up like that would be. Aidan was a little worried that it might happen.

I unpaused the movie and we continued watching. They then saw all of the pieces come shooting by the astronauts in the first pass, destroying the shuttle, killing the crew, and wreaking havoc on other space vehicles. It was a real moment. They saw the “chain reaction” happening. I paused the movie again and reminded them that the debris would be back again…why? We had another good, short discussion.

As an aside, we don’t usually pause movies except to get snacks or to answer the rare question. I was surprised, happily, that they kept asking questions throughout the movie and didn’t mind the pauses.

We had another good physics discussion when George Clooney was towing Sandra Bullock. I paused the movie and asked them if they knew why when the line became taught it would jerk George Clooney. We talked about how there is momentum in space but no friction (again) and that means when Sandra gets moving she has counter force on George; i.e., an “equal and opposite reaction.” Space was becoming fun and more questions followed.

A math moment came when George Clooney said they should set their watches because the debris would be back in about 90 minutes. I paused the movie and said “do you know what he just did?” He did math in his head. I said that without a calculator, he had to estimate how fast the debris was moving, what its orbital path was, what the distance around the Earth was at their altitude, etc., and then figure out when they would have to watch out. He was the experienced guy but not the scientist. He still needed to be able to do that math.

We all play video games and tend to like to see ourselves leading groups, etc. I told them that people in real positions like this need to be able to do math. It might be “cool” to be the experienced space captain, but you can’t get there without math. Heads, surprisingly, nodded.

There were several other times we paused. Aidan asked why they were hitting the ship so fast after George got Sandra. I asked “well, how would they stop?” There are no “brakes.” George was out of propellant (which would not brake, really, just shoot them in the other direction counteracting their current speed). Then Aidan started getting even more engaged, peppering me with things like “so, if they kept going and hit the space capsule, they’d break something?” and “so, if they kept going they would just burn up in the atmosphere?”

“Yes, but why?” They’ve seen enough sci-fi and Cosmos to know about “burning up in the atmosphere” but had never tied it to the fact that there is no friction in space, but the atmosphere creates friction and moving very fast with friction creates heat. Ahhh. More head nods.

I think they were aware of these types of facts generally but had never processed the “why” – the mechanisms of physics. Physics, and to some degree, math, weren’t abstract anymore. They made connections about events in the movie now with how physics, as much as they knew, worked. And that made physics maybe just a little “cooler.”

Now I’m not fooling myself into thinking that we’ve just created two young adults who will now want to learn math and science eagerly. Not yet, at least J But, we did have a number of great conversations about math and science during an exciting movie and not only did they not mind, they enjoyed it. That’s the spark we always hope for. We can build from that.

Last night we somehow got on the subject of zombie apocalypse. I challenged, “You know, the zombie apocalypse is all about math.” Then I quickly explained epidemiologic math – the math behind infection rates – you know, if one person infects two others and they infect two others, etc. How would you know how fast it will hit if you don’t know math? So now, Aidan and Nev are moderately interested (read “moderate” here as a stunning success) in doing zombie apocalypse math. I think they are probably going to become wary now that we will connect many “cool” things with math and science. We won’t abuse it, but we will use it.

We are thinking of adding some more movies that can illustrate math and science concepts to their upcoming project. Apollo 13 is definitely on the list. Maybe we’ll find some horrible ones too and let the young adults critique the (poor) science. If you have any good suggestions, please send them!

It is so exciting to see their energy when they want to learn. I had expected to see it a lot more with unschooling, but they are pretty much teenagers and I am happy with what we find. As I mentioned before, they learn differently than me and they are motivated differently than me. I’m still getting used to that. While I am, I still treasure these kinds of moments, as I treasure my time with them on this adventure. Pura vida.

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.


Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

mum n mnm

Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

A Few Changes

There are ebbs and flows in most things and that includes our new adventure. We made a few more changes on the path to getting unschooling right with Aidan and Vie this past week. Things weren’t working quite as well as we liked and so we needed to do some tuning. The changes have given us all some new energy.

If you remember, we started our path in unschooling with a bit of structure in when we did unschooling; i.e., we had a daily schedule. On the flip side, we gave the young adults a lot of freedom in their choice of “projects” and helped them understand that they were responsible for their unschooling (with help and support of course).

Shortly thereafter I made my first mistake and realized that I was giving the young adults freedom in unschooling pursuits, but not in their schedules. So, I reined that in and allowed them to set their own schedules for when they got up, worked on unschooling, etc. as long as they hit an average of about 20 hours a week.

After working this way for about two months, the pendulum is swinging back a bit in the other direction. While we are still giving Aidan and Vie schedule flexibility, we are adding back more structure to their unschooling work. And I’m taking a little break while Deb, who recently finished working remotely, takes over.

Many things were going on, but I think the biggest factors leading to these changes were overexposure to technology and what I’d probably call dwindling motivation in Aidan and Vie to take unschooling seriously. It got a bit too easy for them to slip into letting technology drive what they did vs. driving it themselves.

In fairness, they are 13 and 11. Having the responsibility for directing one’s schooling path, while an awesome opportunity for pre-teens, can also be a daunting and at times complex task. We adults are still working to get it right.

I had already come to a good understanding of how Aidan learns, which is very different than me. That led to some learning on my part, which I also wrote about. While Aidan did continue to work on his recipes, more and more of his time was spent watching videos on YouTube, not just of cooking, but really anything he could rationalize as unschooling. He’d track his unschooling time meticulously and then switch to watching more YouTube videos – not unschooling related – and not keeping track of his technology time as we had asked.

Vie also tracked unschooling and technology time and focused. The challenge with Vie was in what the topics of focus were. We went from a project comparing digital art tools and another focused on making videos of walkthroughs of Vie playing a video game, to creating a video game, to just wanting to play video games as learning. Topics would change almost weekly and get more abstract.

Each time Vie would change topics, I would spend a number of hours researching the topic, learning the tools (e.g., Adobe Flash gaming engine to build a video game), etc. It was getting frustrating to me.

Vie and I had a good discussion about gamification, Gabe Zicherman’s TED talk How Games Make Kids Smarter, and how Vie wanted to focus on being a video gamer. While I was hesitant, I was open-minded towards trying it. My requirements were simply that Vie describe what the particular video game offered in terms of learning content, and then after playing the game, how would you know that you learned something; i.e., how do you know you were successful at learning what you expected to.

As we went along, it was getting harder and harder to get Vie and Aidan to tell me what they were working on. They weren’t doing the few things I asked them to do. For example, Vie wasn’t writing up what was learned from gaming. I was also getting a lot of “Dad, we are responsible for our unschooling so why do we have to tell you what we are doing?” It is certainly a creative argument that I would probably raise – they are my young adults after all 🙂 – but it wasn’t helping me help them.

What I was coming to realize was that Vie and Aidan, in different ways, really didn’t want to unschool. That didn’t mean they wanted to go to school. They disliked that idea even more. They just weren’t very interested in [any]schooling. Period.

We had set them on this path of unschooling. Here I’ll emphasize unschooling and not home schooling. In Grace Llewellyn’s great book on unschooling, Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, the book is targeted toward young adults who want to do this and may need help convincing their parents. We had a bit of the opposite situation, so the book didn’t help as much.

I went online looking for some help and guidance. What I found surprised me. I found tons of advice on tactics for helping learners with different subjects, what tools and resources are most helpful, where to go for all sorts of supporting material, etc. I also found strategies for helping learners develop curricula for their unschooling. I even found information on how to help your learner learn a subject they think they dislike, such as math. What I didn’t find was anything helping with getting your learner to want to unschool. Most of the information assumed that that wasn’t a problem. While I can’t say I did an exhaustive search, I did expect to find some information fairly quickly.

Adding to the mix, more and more, particularly with Vie, most of my suggestions and asks were getting met with arguments. Aidan didn’t generally argue, he just often “forgot” about requirements and rules.

I was getting frustrated. I felt like I was giving them lots of room. I was open-minded about what they were working on and how they were doing it. And yet, I felt like it wasn’t working. While I felt that Vie and Aidan were taking advantage of the situation a bit, I felt like I was failing in making unschooling work. And I hate to fail. I know, I need more Type-A Detox. Failing is an opportunity to learn something. While that’s true, and I do embrace that philosophy, it was “different” for me when my kids schooling is on the line.

After one particular night where we caught both the young adults on their computers well past their bed time and against our rule of no technology after bed, and then learned that it was a pattern, we decided we needed some changes. My trust in them was a bit broken. And I needed a little break. This was Deb’s very good idea.

Fortunately, Deb had recently finished her part-time remote work and had time to step in more deeply. We had a family meeting and talked about what we needed to change. We talked about how we needed to add back more structure to the unschooling.

Deb started with having Vie describe to Aidan what middle school was like. Vie had a fairly typical unpleasant middle school experience, full of rules and consequences, lots of behavior management and little actual learning, bullies, and micromanagement of time to name a few. It was a brilliant move. Aidan had had an awesome experience at University Cooperative School, but didn’t have a larger context of what most schools were like. And this got Vie to remember all the reasons why the middle school experience was so bad, hopefully creating some appreciation for unschooling in both cases.

Deb adding back more structure around what they were working on along with a little more structure around daily activities to go back, at least a bit, to a routine. We also limited technology in a few ways. Vie and Aidan needed to write up short descriptions of what they wanted to do online and why before they did. They also needed to use their computers in the main room of the house; no more sneaking computer time late at night. We explained that in time, if they were working well with this structure, then we could try relaxing it a bit.

Deb is also adding in some structured time for conversation – talking about things in the world, why things are the way they are, etc. to spark broader interest and questions. It was a great idea. It’s already led to discussions on economics, body chemistry and biology.

This last week has been a lot more manageable after the changes, even with the serendipitous intervention of having no Internet for 5 days now. While it’s been inconvenient for all of us to not have internet access, and while it’s been frustrating getting the cable company to make a visit to fix it, it’s been interesting to see the household effects of no internet on top of our added structure. Stepping back and taking a break (from technology) may help Aidan and Vie get some perspective. It works for adults too. It already has in my case.

In reflecting on recent events and doing some more research (thanks to the Wi-Fi at the Shack), there are a few insights I had that I’d thought I’d share.

Systems and Goals
Awhile back, Deb found a great article on systems and goals. I had intended to do something with this in a future blog post, but the opportunity for application in our current situation was powerful. Essentially, the author James Clear makes the argument that systems are more valuable than goals. We all grow up – and continue into the work force – setting and achieving goals. Goals aren’t bad. But systems can be more useful. Systems are structured ways for consistently working toward a goal.

As an example, you may have a new year’s resolution to lose some amount of weight or get fit or save some amount of money. Many people abandon these after a short time. The goal doesn’t easily lead to day to day energy and focus on the goal. In contrast, if you simply start going to the gym consistently a few days a week and put in place some structure to make that easy, then you will eventually lose weight/get fit. More importantly, you don’t just achieve the goal. You now have in place tools that will help you consistently achieve that goal in the form of a system.

In our case, I was focusing on the young adults having projects and goals (of their choosing). I did not have in place enough structure (a system) for them to make consistent progress. I think adding back structure to our unschooling will help Aidan and Vie develop more systems for working toward achieving any goal.

Executive Function
Adults have the ability to visualize and plan for the future, think strategically, and see how they need to tune near term actions to better help them with their longer term strategy and goals. It’s called “executive function.” This ability is not well developed yet in pre-teens. Immediate gratification trumps longer term, and more substantial, benefits. We probably all have examples of this coming into play in our early teen years.

Unschooling gives responsibility to the learner to determine what and how they want to learn. They develop a love for learning and with some guidance, they can learn anything. The challenge I see, now, is that without developed executive function skills, it’s hard to expect a pre-teen to be able to do this well. I’m sure in time they may naturally get there, but I also see the role of a parent is to be a significant “flywheel” in this process – something that makes it go better, faster, stronger. At times, I think this means that we need to add more structure and help edit goals and systems a bit.

I’m still getting past my ego and inability to make this work smoothly so far, which is tough. We came into this so optimistic, thinking it would be a wonderful, easy experience. At least I did. I was naïve. It’s hard. Though, it may not be nearly as hard as dealing with some of the negative side effects of schools (over reliance on homework, bullies, less attention to individual learning styles, etc.) over which you feel as though you have little ability to effect change.

However I can’t think of anything more important and so we will keep learning, tuning, and refining what we are doing. We’ll also keep sharing our journey. Maybe it will keep some folks from falling into some of the holes along the way that we did! It is all part of the journey and I think we will all be stronger for it. Pura Vida!

“That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”


Why We Decided to Unschool

The decision to home school or to unschool may be as unique as the families that do it. We actually made the decision to unschool a number of months before we committed to coming to Costa Rica for our new adventure. This is how we came to our decision.

Before jumping in, there is a big difference between home schooling and unschooling, or “hack schooling,” even though they share some similarities. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the Well-Trained Mind has a good description of home schooling that begins with:

Home schooling occurs when parents take charge of their children’s education — organizing subjects, teaching lessons or arranging for tutors, evaluating progress, and supervising social contacts.

Unschooling goes a bit further. There are several good descriptions of unschooling: Earl Stevens, John Holt, even Wikipedia. John Holt is one of the early pioneers of unschooling and we like his definition, which can be summarized crisply as:

This is also known as interest driven, child-led, natural, organic, eclectic, or self-directed learning. Lately, the term “unschooling” has come to be associated with the type of homeschooling that doesn’t use a fixed curriculum.

While one key difference between home schooling and unschooling is no fixed curriculum, the bigger difference for Debbie and I is that in unschooling, the students direct their own learning based on their individual interests. As Holt notes, unschooling is “…the natural way to learn.” It is “…the way we learn before going to school and the way we learn when we leave school and enter the world of work.”

Debbie and I are both human-centered designers. Human-centered design is basically a design process that emphasizes creation of artifacts based on the understanding the goals and needs of people (as opposed to making the user have to adapt to the product). For us, unschooling is the educational equivalent. We tailor learning to the interests of the learners.

We had three big reasons for why we favor the unschooling approach, but like many things, there was an initial “trigger.”

By the end of year 2 of middle school, Vie absolutely hated school. While it was the largest middle school in Seattle, it had many of the same challenges as other public, and many private, schools: large class sizes, emphasis on memorization and testing, little individual creativity, lots of effort spent on managing the class, and little actual time spent on learning.

I remember going to a science fair and seeing a number of signs in the classrooms about what the kids could not do, right next to equally large signs about what the consequences were if someone did them. I asked if they actually spent much time learning and Vie said “no”. Add to that all the mental bullying among pre-teens and Vie was ready to try unschooling.

In contrast, Aidan had a fabulous experience at University Cooperative School. We loved the place, the teachers, and the parents – and continue to be inspired by them – but he had graduated from 5th grade and was destined for a similar middle school experience.

We had planned to start unschooling this year in Seattle. As we first planned and then started making Costa Rica a reality, we saw our adventure as yet another way to enhance unschooling.

With that, here are the 3 big reasons why we decided to pursue this path of unschooling. Like most things, this is a change we are trying. We hope and expect it will bear great fruit. We don’t expect to get everything right but we all expect to work together to fix things when they aren’t working.

The Challenge – A Failing System Under Pressure

Our schools are under incredible pressure these days and are less and less capable of achieving the goals we all put on them. There are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the incredible documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here. Add to this consistent budget cuts to education and the consequent growing class size, reduction in class diversity (especially the arts), and other downstream challenges. John Taylor Gatto talks about a lot of this in his “underground classic” Dumbing us Down and his other books.

Probably the most telling challenge to me is that so many bright and creative teachers – the ones who can bring change, the ones who are willing to take risks and try new things – are getting burned out or pushed out of the system.

That saddens me especially since, at least generally in our system, every student has to experience the same thing. An incredibly gifted teacher, and we’ve seen many, can make almost any subject interesting. But that places all of the weight on one part of the system and those teachers are getting to be few and far between.

The Opportunity – Learning to Love Learning

Lifelong learning is an important value for both Deb and I. We embrace it completely and continue to learn every day. We want to help our young adults embrace this value as well. That’s one reason why we left our high-tech jobs for a year – so that our young adults have an opportunity to experience another culture. However, to get our young adults to embrace lifelong learning, they have to love learning, which is difficult if they “hate school.”

We wanted to get Aidan and Vie back to the point where they loved learning as young kids. Letting them experience learning more naturally by what drives their interests harnesses their natural passion and curiosity. Basic skills like reading, writing and math can be learned in the context of something they care about in ways that help them understand why it is important to learn those skills.

A good example is what Vie and Aidan when they did their “paper quest.” Aidan generally didn’t like writing, even at UCoop. Vie was uninspired at best, except perhaps for creative writing. Both did have a good foundation of how to write a paper though. They just had assignments that didn’t engage their interests. It used to be like pulling teeth to get Aidan to write more than a few sentences, even though he loves speaking and has an incredible vocabulary.

Aidan and Vie’s “paper quest” was a “quest” to write a paper comparing two of their favorite video games. They were both excited to write about it. Their final paper was a 28 page multimedia paper. That’s more than I’ve seen either of them write before – or anyone in their schools for that matter. The incredible part is that we didn’t say anything about length; we just let them go. They wanted to write this much. This example just reinforces for me the benefit of harnessing their natural, and different, interests and using them to cover the more basic things.

An unschooling approach is really tailored to each of them naturally. We aren’t designing curricula around their interests. They are. We simply help them bring some structure, take responsibility, find resources, act as sounding boards, and yes, help motivate them – especially now in our early days of doing this. Logistically, this doesn’t fit the one-size-fits-all approach in schools; that’s not how they are structured. And unlike home schooling, it doesn’t rely on Deb, me, or anyone for that matter to find or create a curriculum to teach them. They learn naturally because they want to. Or at least, that is what we are hoping.

Almost by definition, an unschooling approach focuses on building confidence, interest and passion – more than mastery. It’s the fuel for mastery. There is a place for mastery, but I believe mastery is actually not possible without the former, otherwise it ends up being short term memorization to pass a test. I even saw this at Stanford, a school I love dearly. As a premed (who decided not to pursue medicine), I saw many people studying for science tests, writing memorized formulas and facts down on those tests to get “partial credit,” rather than actually trying to solve the problem. That approach may work well in the short term for tests, and perhaps for some schools, but not for creating mastery.

Creativity, along with mastery, allow people to do or solve things that they have never seen before. To get there, people need to be good at learning new things, applying knowledge in new ways, and fearlessly trying new things that might not work out. In other words, they need to know how to learn more than what to learn. With the latter, you can do what you know, if you manage to remember it. With the former, you can do anything. We need more of that in our world, especially now. And it won’t be on any test you can study for.

Learning is changing

There’s one more reason for why we are unschooling. It wasn’t on our radar as much before we started this journey. We are seeing learning itself changing, not through some plan, but rather organically, shaped by the economy, generational differences, technology, the internet, and Universities themselves.

According to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.” Much of it is available online now. If we want to learn about something, or try doing something, it’s likely that there is a YouTube video on it. [As a fun aside, Aidan wanted to make Deb and I Margaritas the other day. He looked up a video on YouTube, made the drink, and brought it to us, all without us knowing about it. He made a great Margarita to boot.] We are getting good at looking things up “just in time” when we need them. People are learning how to learn differently as part of the digital world most of us live in.

Now think about all of the incredible resources that are becoming available online. For younger folks there is Khan Academy of course. But college classes from some of the best instructors in the best Universities in the world are available through services such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX. They are available to the whole world, not just their “home” Universities.

I heard an amazing story at the IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference last year (thanks to Carl Bass). A few years ago, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford put their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online for anyone to take for free. More than 160,000 students from around the world enrolled. Evidently, the top ranking Stanford student in that class of 160,000 was somewhere in the 300’s. The company Udacity was created out of this experience. Talk about levelling a playing field.

What happens when instead of paying a large sum of money to one University (even a top one), you can pick and choose the best of the best University classes from all of the top Universities for a fraction of the cost? This is reality today.

On top of this, we have a worldwide job market that is trending to care less about degrees and pedigrees and more about what you can do and what value you can bring. David Wong describes this well in his scathing Cracked post 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person. Be sure to watch the video from Glengarry Glenn Ross (warning: it has NSFW (not safe for work) language).

Vie will be college age in perhaps 5 years and Aidan in 7 or maybe less. That’s a very long time in our digital world. Would they even want, or need, to go to a physical college? One thing is clear to me, however. Taking advantage of resources like this, creating your “own path” as a “major”, circumventing the institutional system entirely and yet learning what you want, will all take a honed ability to know how to learn as well as a curiosity and passion for learning itself.

On our unschooling road, we have really just started taking baby steps. We are working hard to create interest and passion. We can then can work toward confidence. There is still a lot of work to go on helping Aidan and Vie learn how to learn and at least for now it comes a little at the expense of learning some basic skills such as math and science. We’ll get there. That’s part of this journey we are on – one that itself will hopefully be a model for how to learn new things.