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.

Giving back

Wherever you live there are opportunities to become involved in helping your community. Our community here in CostaRica is no exception. My current project is working with a group of local residents to plan and host a fundraising event, called Books and Barks, to benefit two organizations that consistently improve the community here – Abriendo Mentes  & Costa Rica Pet Care.

Our party will be held June 21. A local restaurant, Oasis, is donating the whole restaurant and kitchen. Many, many businesses – from restaurants, resorts, and bars, to markets, ice suppliers, and musicians – are donating food, drinks, supplies, and musical entertainment. It should be a very fun event with 4 bands confirmed. We have a core team of local folks headed by our fearless local yoga instructor, who are planning, coordinating volunteers, advertising, selling tickets, and procuring. Fortunately, I have our fabulous UCoop school auctions to look to for models of how to run very fun and successful fundraising events.

Here is a little bit about our awesome local organizations/funding beneficiaries:

Abriendo Mentes provides a safe, constructive, and vibrant place for children to go after school where they learn invaluable computer and English language skills. The local economy has shifted from agriculture and fishing to tourism jobs, leading to roughly 40% unemployment. The regional state elementary schools operate only about 3 hours per day for 85 days per year and only about 13% graduate from high school. Abriendo Mentes provides a foundation that prepares local children to one day become successful, economically stable adults.

Costa Rica Pet Care has been working tirelessly for 12 years to help our local pets. And by Costa Rica Pet Care, I largely mean the founder, Dawn. Her work includes sterilizing over roughly 12,500 dogs and cats. Dawn coordinates with veterinarians all over Costa Rica who donate their services for 1 weekend per month doing spay and neuter clinics. She tirelessly drives through the rural regions, finding sick and injured animals and provides medical care for these animals. This work helps to keep diseases from spreading at alarming rates through the community.

Dawn

dawn

 

Some before and after medical care photos:

 

Spay and neuter clinic photos

3cats

I know that most of you reading this blog don’t live here and cannot attend our fabulous fundraising fiesta. However, I do hope that you would consider helping by donating a few dollars (via PayPal) through the link below. Any money you send will be split equally between the two organizations. A little bit goes a long way.

  • $10 can provide deworming or distemper shot
  • $25 can provide 1 year of school supplies for a child OR feed a dog for a month
  • $30 can spay or neuter 2 pets
  • $50 provides art materials for a month of creative projects
  • $100 funds ESL and technology education for one child for a whole year
  • $500 can provide a (much needed) computer for the lab

donation button alone 2

Guanacaste Literacy Inc, (DBA: Abriendo Mentes) is a 501(c)3 organization in the state of Texas. Tax ID: 27-1427847 Address: 3310 Crosspark Lane, Houston, TX  77007          

 

 

 

 

Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, 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 heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!

Differences (so far) – Part 2

A few posts ago I talked about things that were different here in Costa Rica compared to Seattle. Things that were better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. I promised that I would mention some of the differences that were less great, more expensive, or harder. None of it detracts from the amazing experience of living here, however. It is all part of our new adventure.

At the risk of duplication, I will repeat a few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Cars
    I had mentioned in my previous post that auto mechanics were much cheaper here. It’s a good thing, because in most other respects, owning a car is much more expensive and difficult. I related a bit of this when I talked about getting our new family “member”,
    Moose, a 1990 Mitsubishi Montero. All cars are incredibly expensive here as are car parts, which isn’t really a huge surprise. It’s the other things that make it harder and more complicated.

    Japanese cars seem to be the ones the mechanics know best and the ones for which parts are easiest to get. If you have different types of car, you may wait weeks for a part to come in – assuming they can get it here.

    All cars have some complexities, particularly for expats. To buy a car, for example, we learned that you actually need a lawyer. The lawyer (about $114) creates the bill of sale submits the registration information. It takes a few weeks to get that back. Once you do, you go to the bank and pay the tax on the vehicle. It is a value-based tax, dependent on the value of the car, as we have in some states. In our case it was only $170.

    Then, there is a vehicle certification every car needs to go through, sort of like a very involved smog check. You do it in a month based on the last digit of your license plate. You need to get it done in special facilities, which are only in large cities. In our case, we have to go to Liberia, about an hour away. It’s a little tricky evidently. Some new vehicles haven’t even made the certification. Sometimes they find small things. Sometimes they find involved things. That means you get to travel back to where you live, get the car fixed, and take it back to get certified – paying again and hoping that it passes. We hear that there is a guy in the next town whom you can pay to take your car to get certified. We hear they always pass. Ironically, though, we are lucky having an old car. Certification is evidently much easier for cars over 20 years old. We’ll find out in March when it’s our turn.

    And one last thing. Even though our residency visa application (in the system queue) means that we don’t have to leave every 90 days as most expats do, in order for us to legally drive, our passports must show that our 90 tourist visa is valid. We are not allowed to get a Costa Rica driver’s license until our residency visa application is actually approved.

  • Scorpions and other poisonous critters
    I talked a bit about snakes last week as part of my
    “jungle” adventure. Fortunately, I didn’t see any. Scorpions, however, are a different thing. Deb (and it always seems to be Deb), found a dead one by her side of the bed. A few weeks ago she found a live one on the wall above Aidan’s bed. Scorpions stings aren’t lethal and don’t require treatment generally, but they evidently hurt. However, there seems to be a creepiness factor in the household – likely because we have almost no nasty critters in Seattle.
  • Some technology
    Technology here is not nearly as expensive as I would have expected. The few things we have acquired here – a TV, Android tablet for freelancing, printer – were about the same as the US or maybe a bit cheaper in the case of the TV. The harder things to find tend to be associated with newer technology, such as micro-HDMI to HDMI cables (for tablets connecting to TVs). Gaming systems are expensive. What makes it harder is that these cannot be shipped from US suppliers due to export restrictions.
  • Vegetable diversity
    Vegetables here tend to be very cheap – at least the local ones. You can pay about $10 for asparagus imported from the US if you really want it. The challenge with vegetables for us is the diversity. At least, I am comparing this to places in the US like Seattle where you can find huge vegetable and fruit sections in stores. In Costa Rica in most smaller stores you can reliably find things like potatoes, herbs, cruciferous vegetables, as well as plantains, tropical fruits, and root vegetables like Yucca.

    yucca

    The produce sections are small, though, as you can see below. In fact, most stores are the size of the typical produce section in QFC, Safeway, etc. I can tell you that we are very fortunate in places like Seattle to have the range of vegetables and fruit that we do. But, it gives me a new challenge to figure out what to make with what we have. We like challenges.

    produce aisle

  • Co-ed soccer
    This one is probably the most disappointing. Essentially, there is no co-ed soccer. Based on my last data point, Seattle had about 232 co-ed teams across 3-4 soccer leagues. I noted earlier that I had discovered a great pick-up soccer game here. I just expected that both Deb and I could play. It turns out that when Deb asked our friend, Fabricio, who told us of the game, whether women play soccer with the men here, he got a very shocked and horrified look on his face and responded with a stuttering “no, no, no mixto.” We learned that there are a few (yet to be discovered) women in the area who play…with other women. But no, women never play with the men.
  • Mail and Shipping
    We are learning the hard way about mail here. Mail takes a LONG time to get here, period. Packages are usually screened and opened and import duties applied – if you get the package. After about two months now, our first two packages sent from my parents – one with an iPhone replacement for Deb and the other with a Kindle for Vie – are still not here. Two others with clothing did come, however, as well as one shipped via DHL.

    We have since learned that you should not ship packages by the US Postal Service at all, even with a tracking number (which we did not have). We have heard stories of people getting packages 4-5 months after shipping. Many don’t arrive at all. DHL is the most reliable, but it is expensive. If you ship packages in soft (bubble-wrap type) envelopes, it usually comes quickly and easily. If it is a box then sometimes they are opened. However, they still make it here.

    All options though are usually so expensive that a very creative service has arisen: Aeropost. Essentially, you mail your packages to them to a virtual PO box. They fly them directly into the country (most of Latin America). Shipping is much cheaper but you still pay duties. A video game, for example, gets a 70% duty on it. Once here, they deliver them to your door. We think we will stick with having visitors bring us things or trips.

    And, I was wrong about Amazon. The few items (relatively speaking) they can ship internationally, costs a lot to ship and the prepaid duties are high. While they show $4.99 to Costa Rica, it is probably only for very thin books and doesn’t include duties.

  • Software downloads
    I expected that if we needed any software we hadn’t planned for, especially for unschooling, we could just download it. It turns out it is not so easy. Our region is Latin America now, identified by our IP addresses. Most sites can tell where you are connecting from (some even helpfully switch to Spanish). You can use a VPN service that makes it seem as if you are connecting from the US and we do have one of those. However, the one we have only works for things like Pandora and Netflix. So far it has been tricky to get things like Pimsleur language downloads and Xbox Live products. Again, we may have to just wait for a trip back to get some of these.
  • Movies
    We love movies. Unfortunately, there are no theaters near us (the closest is an hour away). Downloading movies from Xbox Live used to be fun, but that doesn’t work for us now. There are very few movie rental stores as far as we can tell and they are regionally encoded so they won’t work in our DVD player (our Xbox). They might work in a PC if we had a DVD drive. It isn’t a huge deal as it turns out. We have discovered torrents. I’ll let you explore that one on your own.
  • Racing bugwrath
    Each evening, the mosquitos and other biting, stinging, and eating insects come out and are really abundant around 6pm. Really. Abundant. This is about the time I finish soccer on Tuesdays. “Racing bugwrath” is when I get on my bike and try to make the 20 minute ride home more like 10 minutes. Even when I am fast, I still catch “bugwrath.” You know when you are in a car driving cross country and get out and see a storm of insects plastered on the front of your car? Same thing, except when I make it home the insects are alive and plastered to my sweaty body. I can run my hand across my chest and it is covered in black bugs. Fortunately, we have a hose and a swimming pool!
  • Ice cream
    Ice cream is (was) our guilty pleasure. At any time in Seattle, we’d have 7-10 pints of ice cream, usually Haagen Dazs, in our freezer. Really! Here, a pint costs about 4,000 colones or about $8 in the few big stores where we can find it. There are a few local brands but the ice cream is not as rich. More importantly for all the ice cream, it is usually so hot that the ice cream in the stores melts a bit and then gets refrozen, creating an “icy” consistency. Consequently, we are not eating ice cream.
  • Roses
    You’ve heard me mention this one in a previous post, A Rose By Any Other Name… After almost two months, no roses L I can’t even find the national flower, the guaria morada, where we are (good submitted idea, though). I did try origami…step-by-step directions, YouTube videos, and more. Sadly, I fall short here in my skills. I’m still working on it though!

But what about…?

  • Heat
    The young adults will differ with me on heat. It does tend to be consistently in the 80’s and 90’s for most of the year.

    weather
    Courtesy HolidayWeather.com.

    There does tend to be a lot of humidity here. But compared to Seattle, I’ll take the heat any day.

    seattle weather

    And notice that this is a rare week in Seattle where you can actually see appearances of the lovely yellow ball despite the cold.

  • Things take a long time
    Finally, one we were expecting, and were warned about, was that things take a long time here. They call it “Tico time.” Honestly, we have not seen it. Deb expected to spend half a day at the bank to pay the car tax based on what we heard. It took an hour. The main waterline for our town runs under our yard and burst last week. We expected no water for a few days. It was fixed (by Juan Carlos, who lives down the street) in a few hours. We had a small issue in the rental house. Hairo was here in 15 minutes to fix it. I wouldn’t expect responsiveness like that in Seattle. So, perhaps it is indeed an issue but maybe it’s just a way to keep the expat population down.

Happy Holidays and pura vida!

It’s a Jungle Out There

It’s a Jungle Out There

We got a chance to do a little unexpected yard work this past weekend as part of our new adventure. It’s a little different from Seattle…and we weren’t really prepared.

The whole adventure started simply enough with Deb and I practicing our soccer (futbol) juggling skills in the back yard. We have a nice big wall along the back of our backyard. Still, I managed to flip the ball over the wall L Now, we knew there was an open lot and field behind there, but we never took a close look. We were not expecting to see this:

jungle sm

It may not look like it from the photo, but the plants were 3-4 feet tall and dense. The ball was somewhere in the middle of it. It was kind of like a challenge on the Amazing Race – at least that’s how my mind was working. It was the new Seattle Sounders soccer ball that I brought with me so I had to get it. I expected that this would be a long, hot, exhausting hunt.

Of course, this isn’t Seattle, it is Costa Rica, home to many critters. One type of critter in abundance here is snakes.

[If you are like Indiana Jones, you should probably stop reading here].

One of the snakes here is the fer-de-lance  (or terciapelo in Espanol), a viper:

This infamous viper’s large size, long fangs, and high venom production and toxicity are paired with an active and edgy disposition, making it one of the most dangerous creatures one can encounter in Costa Rica.

I knew about the all the spiders, scorpions, and snakes, including this one, but I hadn’t read the article above. And yes, according to the article (one of many I read afterward), you can find them in the lowland region we live in.

We had seen a few gardeners clearing vegetation on the side of the road or in empty lots since we have been here and I noticed that they wore snake guards. They look something like this:

snakeguards

Deb suggested, smartly, that we could find someone to clear the area who had the proper equipment. It wasn’t our lot though and I was a bit worried about whether we could do that. I also really did not want to lose my ball. Some might call me stubborn. So, since I did not have the “proper” equipment, I improvised.

I put on my one pair of heavy jeans and hiking shoes. Then I took some thick towels and wrapped them around my ankles, securing them with straps. I had no machete here (though they are in abundance in the hardware stores). Instead, I found the longest kitchen knife we had – one with a nice, long, sturdy rectangular blade. I also got out a flat broom since didn’t have a proper snake stick. And finally, I grabbed our long pool cleaning net, in case I could see the ball and reach it with that. Sadly, I had no gloves.

I then went to work. It was incredibly hot and I was dripping with sweat the whole time. I started hacking my way into the “jungle,” being very careful to watch, cut, and clear. I discovered a wonderful little plant along the way with long and intensely sharp thorns. I was pretty sure the snakes didn’t like those either.

About 10 yards (or meters) in, I realized that I didn’t even know what he emergency number was in Costa Rica. It turns out that Deb knew (911 also), but I didn’t. We also didn’t have a car. Moose was in the shop. The nearest clinic was 10 minutes by car, assuming it was open and assuming it had anti-venom in case I got bit. You would think that that this should turn me back, but I am stubborn and, well, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”

I finally found the ball. Fortunately, it was only about 25 yards in and I actually found it.

SONY DSC

I had my doubts. And, of course, no snakes at all. No scorpions, spiders, or other nasty critters. And no dreaded fer-de-lance. It turned out to be relatively easy and painless in the end. Maybe the snakes have pura vida here too!

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Differences (so far) – Part 1

Day 50 of our new adventure in Costa Rica. It’s hard to believe it’s only been 50 days. In some ways, it feels like we have been here longer. In some ways, it still feels like a beginning, which it really is.

I’ve been writing down things over the last month or two that are different here compared at least to Seattle. Some are harder or more expensive. Some are easier, cheaper or better. I’m sure I will add more things as we go along but I thought it would be fun to share some of these, especially for those who are thinking about coming here for a trip or longer.

I’ll split the list in two and start with things that are better, easier, cheaper or just more exciting. A few caveats: these are coming from a former Seattleite, Chicagoan, and Californian who is living in a small town on the coast of Costa Rica, and not working. The comparison is clearly not “apples to apples”. And these are mine – I won’t speak here for Aidan, Vie or Debbie.

  • Sun
    I can’t even begin to say how energizing it is to see the sun and feel its warmth every day. Vitamin D is a wonderful thing too. I won’t belabor the point for our Seattle friends going through winter right now. 
  • Auto mechanics
    While cars and parts may be more expensive, auto mechanics are much cheaper. Tomás, our mechanic for Moose, is replacing shocks, engine valves, suspension struts, fixing all the electric windows, repairing the back door handle and adding new tires all for the price of about 3 hours (or less) labor in Seattle terms. It offsets the cost of owning a car a bit.
  • Produce (of the types that are available)
    On the up side, the types of produce you can find in Costa Rica are plentiful and cheap. We have a great local produce stand about 2 blocks away owned by Rafael. He’s such a nice guy and is always giving us a new interesting thing to try. One recent discovery – Peruvian cherries.
  • Futbol (soccer)
    Soccer on a grass field in the warm (OK, hot) sun at sunset playing with Ticos and learning their moves. In contrast, this last week it was 28 degrees at night when we would normally be playing soccer in Seattle. I don’t miss the rainy, cold, windy games (though I do miss our team immensely).
  • Medical professional access
    It is very easy to talk to your medical professionals here. We found great doctors. They gave us their email addresses so we can contact them through email if it was more convenient. What a concept! What is really surprising, though, is that they gave us their personal cell phone numbers as well.
  • No commute
    This one is low hanging fruit, I know, compared to Seattle and the Bay Area. While I loved my MINI Cooper Coupe, I don’t miss the quality time I spent with it every day in commute traffic in Seattle.
  • Beach volleyball
    I love beach volleyball. In Seattle, we had indoor volleyball, which was fun. We also had beach volley ball in a very cold indoor arena on imported sand. What can I say about getting back beach volleyball on a real beach in the sun. Like most activities here, though, you stop between 12 and 3 because the sand and the temperature are way too hot.
  • Speaking Spanish
    There is something very empowering about learning to speak another language. We are still working on fluency right now, but Deb and I have reasonable conversational skills. It’s been challenging at times, but very satisfying.
  • No American fast food
    The nearest American fast food chain is 90 minutes away in the closest big city, Liberia. No McDonalds, Burger King, Jack, KFC, etc. All the places here are local and we eat locally whenever we can. Of course, Vie does mourn the loss of access to Starbucks.
  • Soccer on TV
    It’s so great to see soccer on TV. Every night. And I don’t mean only during the World Cup on cable channels or the final World Cup matches on a major network. Almost every night we can choose from UEFA Champions or Europa league games, European premiere leagues, Mexican, South American, or Central American league games. The latter are usually live.
  • Not having to drive everywhere
    We only got a car to get to good surfing. Everything else – food, bars, grocery stores, the beach, yoga, soccer, haircuts, the doctor, etc. are all within walking or riding distance. We love not needing to burn gas every day.
  • Seeing Deb in her bikini every day
    This one is clearly personal, but I just had to list it. Life is good J
  • Surfing
    I never surfed in Washington. It was cold. More importantly, on northern Washington beaches you see trees thrown up on the shore from the surf, so that means as a surfer you’d be competing with trees! A more realistic comparison is snowboarding though. Surfing and snowboarding are nearly even. If I really had to pick one though, it would be surfing. Warm sun and warm ocean say it all. Oh yeah, and you can walk 10 feet to get a Margarita without having to take your equipment off compared to making it to a lodge on a ski slope.
  • Powdered Gatorade
    We do have powdered Gatorade in Seattle, but we had never tried it. We live by it here. Vie and I go through 6-7 bottles per day. Between the cost difference in powder vs. liquid and the fact that we grocery shop on bicycles, powdered Gatorade has become a necessity. One nice discovery is that you can make it a little sweeter. Sometime in the 2000’s I remember Gatorade tried out an “endurance” formula that was a bit sweeter and thicker. I loved it but they stopped producing it. I’m pretty sure was simply more concentrated and now we can make that ourselves.
  • Knowing a bunch of people in the area
    It is striking how quickly we have gotten to know a lot of people in our community. We walk down the street and see someone we know now and stop to chat. Whenever we go to one of our hangouts, like La Perla, The Shack, or Maxwell’s we know most of the folks there. It is a small community to be sure, but it is wonderful to have a community.
  • Pura Vida
    I’ll end with the most profound I think. Pura vida truly is a way of life here. It is one that we are loving every day. It’s difficult to describe just how completely different attitudes are here and how people approach life. Seattle and Silicon Valley, two places where I’ve lived a long time, tend to be very fast paced and intense. Yes, it can be exciting. It can also be complex, stressful, and overscheduled. I always felt behind no matter how much I got done. Time was a rare commodity and far too much of it seemed to be focused on work (including getting there and back). Going to and from places, we seemed to be focused on getting there; rarely saying “hi” to people and stopping to smell the roses. Even schooling is getting to be stressful and all-consuming.Here, everyone says “hi” to each other on the street (or “pura vida”). You get to know people quickly and easily. There is time to take time and smell the roses. One could argue that my comparison of my current and former lifestyle isn’t exactly fair, and it isn’t. But, I would argue that the “pura vida” attitude is that it is important to slow down and live life. It’s important to take the time. It’s important to enjoy doing things. It might be tough to make this work in a fast-paced, high-tech lifestyle, but I believe it is possible. I know “pura vida” is already having a welcome effect on me. And change is something to embrace.

Look for the List, part 2, coming soon.

My First Mistake

It’s inevitable that we’d make mistakes along the way in unschooling in our new adventure. It’s part of the learning process. It’s part of good design thinking and iterative design. It’s how you make something better. You rarely get anything right the first time, after all. Still, knowing all of this, I walked right in on this mistake.

Now, I’m sure it wasn’t really my first mistake; I’m sure I’ve made a bunch along the way. Those were probably so quickly or easily corrected that we didn’t dwell on them. This one was in the end still fairly easy to correct, actually. I still dwell on it though. I think it’s because it never would have happened if I had actually listened to myself…or even read my own blog 🙂

The young adults had just completed their awesome 28 page paper comparing Diablo III and Borderlands. That was a “quest” and a sort of warm-up to unschooling. We were now ready to really dig in and start getting into the meat of unschooling. As I had written before, we had already done our prep work to begin unschooling. I had had Vie and Aidan think about and write down 10 things they were interested in. I was starting with their interests and needs, which were different. We’d build a set of projects from that. This part started well. That’s where the learning from my mistake also started.

I had good intentions. I wanted to provide a bit of daily structure for our young adults in their unschooling path, especially because it was new to all of us. We had decided to try about 4 hours per day as a target for unschooling work. Deb had read that kids on average need only about 2-3 hours per day to cover a traditional daily school curriculum and we figured that if we kept to about 4 hours, we could accomplish all of our goals and the kids would still have more time. I suggested that Vie and Aidan get up at 10 am and be ready to start by 10:30 am. There wasn’t anything magic about 10 am though really. It also happened to be convenient for me and gave me a few hours to get my stuff done and look for inspiring material for them before we started. That should have been a clue.

In comparison, last year, Vie had to be at middle school by 7:30 am and Aidan had to be there by 8:45 am. We knew that teenagers’ body clocks aren’t ready for school at that time (and yet that seems to be when they get a lot of tests). I figured 10 am was a good start. It seemed to work well during their paper quest. I even told them that the time before 10:30 am was theirs to do what they want – sleep, watch videos, etc.

I thought I was doing pretty well until Wednesday this week. We had pretty slow starts on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, I got frustrated. I guess it had been building. Vie would get up at 10 but then snooze on the couch until 10:30 am and still be sleepy. Aidan would get up about 9 am and then watch videos until 10:30 am. On Wednesday, I was excited to start but I got a luke-warm reception from both of them. Vie was still sleepy and not really into it and Aidan had been ready for awhile but now got engaged in something else and didn’t really want to switch. I felt like I had to play the role of “unschooling cop”, which I disliked. We were all frustrated.

I felt like I was pushing rope. I’m sure Aidan and Vie felt like they were back in school with lots of rules. No one was happy. With some help from Deb, I realized that I wasn’t following my (our) own intent. And then I had the “aha” moment I needed.

I was trying hard to help Aidan and Vie really drive their own unschooling with their interests. It is one of the core tenets of unschooling. They should be responsible for their learning. My misstep was not taking that all the way to how we structured the days. They are different people with different needs and rhythms and yet I was putting this schedule on them that wasn’t working for either. More importantly, I wasn’t really giving them responsibility for it, as we said we’d do. I wasn’t listening to their needs and I wasn’t iterating when it wasn’t working. I didn’t even think of the 10 am start as a prototype that would not be correct in its first version. The “aha” moment was actually a “duh” moment.

I changed several things after that. Aidan and Vie don’t have to start at the same time. Aidan is usually up earlier and ready to go. He takes more breaks. Vie gets up later but works continuously. I told them they were responsible for their schedule but we still wanted to unschool for an average of about 20 hours per week (4 hours a day or so). They didn’t need to even work the same schedule every day unless they wanted to. The real point was that they have a goal to work toward and that there are many flexible ways to get there.

Things got a lot better. And as a reflection, today Vie, Deb and I had a great conversation about it. Vie volunteers for a few hours Friday through Sunday and mentioned that there really isn’t a day “off” between school and volunteer work. It was a good observation. We all brainstormed ways that Vie could get a “day off”, settling on taking Monday off and unschooling Tuesday-Friday, working a bit more on average each of those days.

As I reflect, this kind of flexible schedule is exactly what I like, and expect, in work. We are fortunate to have worked in the tech industry where this is pretty common – and for good reason. It gives us the opportunity to be at our best. Vie and Aidan should get no less of an opportunity.

I learned a lot from this whole experience. It should have been more obvious and easier to learn, but sometimes the best and most memorable learnings come this way. Just like life. And hopefully for our young adults, they also learned about flexibility and responsibility. Just like life.