Home(school) Sweet (Home)School

Early this past Wednesday morning I received a text message from ROCS Director Cheryl Ryan asking if I could come in to substitute. I wanted to help but I had some things scheduled in the morning. And then, frankly, I was looking forward to some time by myself.

My daughter attends ROCS Wednesdays-Fridays and had only had one day of school the previous week due to parent-teacher conferences. As a part-time homeschooling mom I cherish the time I spend with my daughter learning together and I am grateful for Red Oak so I don't have to be entirely responsible for filling her days. I also realize that in order for the school to flourish and be there for me when I need time to work uninterrupted, I sometimes need to make sacrifices. That's what it means to be a cooperative enterprise. (For more on this see Ask Not (Just) What Red Oak Can Do for You...) 

And so, I went to school to lend a hand in the afternoon. And I'm so glad I did.

In my new role as acting chair of the Education Committee, I had been meaning to schedule time to observe during the school day anyway. I have been outside with the kids many times and volunteered to sing with them, but not spent much time nor had a real sense of what their indoor instructional time looked, sounded, or felt like.

What I found brought me back to some original marketing materials for ROCS which described it as a "gentle place to learn." I think this may have been a reference to homeschool champion Charlotte Mason, about whom I didn't and still don't know very much. But something about that phrase resonated with me. If I wasn't going to homeschool my daughter full-time, I wanted her to spend her "school days" someplace that felt like home. A place where physical and cognitive barriers were somewhat fluid, where she could sing while she did arithmetic, and where she could learn through play, where she could read books throughout the day....

No doubt part of this home away from home feel comes from our current location inside a charming old farmhouse. This is an advantage, and reflection of the Reggio Emilia principle of "the classroom as third teacher." The idea is that the spaces in which we learn contribute to our learning and have lessons to teach us as much as our teachers and classmates. But the house has some disadvantages too as it can get loud and feel a bit cramped. So, I'll look forward to seeing how our little school grows over time, as I cherish where were are today.

Here are a few things I saw. I hope I was able to capture the hygge I felt.
-Jodi Kushins, ROCS Mom and Blog Editor

A flock of Hawks reading to a story together with their teacher.

A flock of Hawks reading to a story together with their teacher.

A circle of Chickadees playing with math concepts.

A circle of Chickadees playing with math concepts.

A group of Hawkinals exploring prehistoric life through a game.

A group of Hawkinals exploring prehistoric life through a game.

I Need Help

Here's another testimonial from a Red Oak parent about the difference our little school has made in her life, and most importantly, the life of her son. Thank you Kacy Wiant and others taking time to put thoughts down and share them. - ROCS


From the time he came earth side, my son has been my greatest teacher. Beginning as an infant suffering with 50 food and environmental allergies, moving into toddlerhood with speech delays, and later onto early elementary with mounting frustration in the traditional public school setting, he has needed his mom to think outside the box, to brainstorm, and most importantly, to advocate for him. This has been challenging, heart-stretching work. 

I have approached each of these pivotal times, as the perfectionist I am. I turned over every stone, spent hours upon hours online performing detective-style research and finally, when in spite of all that, I just could not figure it all out myself and I felt like time was running out, I secretly whispered a plea into the 4:00 am sky, “I need some help.” And every time, help would come. We found a wonderful naturopath to clear his allergies. The Help Me Grow program to provided speech therapy. And then, at the beginning of 2nd grade when my bright and creative child was ready to give up on school and I found myself laying wide awake in bed with tears streaming down my face, we found Red Oak Community School, or maybe ROCS found us.

When asked to sit at a desk or in front of a computer, tactile learners such as my son can start to look like kids who cannot focus, who misbehave, and who have trouble settling their bodies down. Traditional public schools often limit children's space or ability to move, a detriment to kinesthetic learners.

I knew my son was capable, he just needed space to move while he was doing academic work. At home we would bounce balls while doing math facts; he would roll around on the couch while studying sight words; and while reading out loud to him, he would draw the story in his art pad. He did not like sitting down to do homework sheets, as he would much rather be outside climbing trees. In first grade, he learned to play guitar and taught himself chords. By second grade we knew he had a musical gift when he could listen to music and play it on his guitar the first time. When I reached out to his teacher to see if he could bring his guitar in and play a song for the class, she said, “I am sorry. We don’t do show and tell at school.” 



There were multiple conferences with multiple teachers ringing alarm bells that he was very smart, but they were worried he could not channel his intelligence into success in the classroom and that he would not pass the 3rd grade English Language Arts (ELA) test due to his inability to sit for long periods of time. There was mention of medication. They attempted some tactile tools like fidgets, bands on the chairs, letting him take a walk around the library in the morning, and sitting at the back of the rug in case he needed to wiggle. Still he came home in tears day after day when he had to move his clip down on the discipline chart and his new mantra became, “I’m just a bad kid.”

As a mom, there came a point when I could no longer listen to my son say he was a bad kid anymore! I was ready to quit my job and homeschool him even though in my heart I knew that was not a feasible option for our family. I reached out to my Facebook community and that’s when I learned about ROCS, a “homeschool school.” My interest was piqued.  I spent hours on the website learning about this fascinating school where kids can play in the woods, use sensory tools for all the lessons, where they do not assign homework nor tests, and where they listen and learn from children’s need to move while learning (read more about this in Movement Matters).

I knew this was the place for my son. I wrote a check to Red Oak Community School with the application form and carried it in my purse. When my husband and I toured the school and Cheryl, the school manager, said, “Think about it and let me know,” I handed her the check and said “I already know.” He was added to the wait list for 5-Day students and 1 month later, we got a call: “We have an opening for your son. We cannot wait to have him.” Even though he started a few months after the first school year began, he was welcomed with open arms.

Today he is thriving! He loves school, his creative spirit has an outlet, he is successful, and he can move! He has brought his guitar in and played many times, including during the filming of the school song. His eyes light up on Monday when he eagerly checks the weather and gets his gear ready for the day. He has never uttered “I am a bad kid” again. 


Ask Not (Just) What ROCS Can Do For You...

I'm often at a loss for how to talk about ROCS. Calling it a private school doesn't feel quite right. Most days calling it a school doesn't even capture all that we are attempting to be and do. As with many other volunteer-driven non-profit organizations I've been a part of, ROCS will only be as strong as its members. We will reap what we sow - both in the education our own kids receive and in the future we carve for the school itself. 

Our parent volunteer requirement ensures that everyone lends their time and talents to ROCS in some way. As such we are structured a bit like a cooperative. Some of us volunteer our time in the classroom during Tankyuu and some take home the laundry. Some collect supplies to meet our teachers' requests and build bridges and clear paths so the kids can run and play. Some write for this blog and some serve on the committees which help steer our ship forward - facilities, education, parent and community connections, fundraising, and more. If you are interested in joining or volunteering with a specific committee, check in with the board. There's room for everyone at the table.

As a small independent school striving to keep tuition costs as low as possible, we need to find other ways to bring in money for facilities development and maintenance, special programming, and professional development for our teachers and staff. At the start of my family's ROCS journey a friend told me to be prepared to be asked for money throughout the year. Without public support, every dollar we need is a dollar we have to find. 

The Development Committee (chaired by Amy Cummings) is actively seeking grants and donations to meet some of these needs. We recently secured, for example, $500 through the Ohio Division of Wildlife to plant flowers and shrubs and install bird feeders to attract native birds, bees, and butterflies. Bethany looks forward to working on this installation and subsequent studies of the plants and pollinators as part of her curriculum. Stay tuned for ways you can help.

Some parents have taken it upon themselves to raise funds. Kacy Wiant and Anna Shadley both used charitable giving tools on Facebook to run flash fund-drives for ROCS. After reflecting the impact ROCS made on her and her family, Anna "launched a pop-up mini fundraiser" for ROCS. She set a goal of $150 and ended the day with $211. Kacy "donated her birthday to ROCS" and raised $450. She drafted an essay about how ROCS has helped her son which will appear in this space soon. We'll see the impact of these gifts this spring as we work on habitat restoration and and establishing more outdoor learning options for our kids (and their families).

This past weekend, Naomi Fuller-Brown, ROCS mom, tattoo artist, and owner of Thrill Vulture Tattoo held a fundraiser with all proceeds coming to ROCS. She raised nearly $4,000! While you might not be able to do anything on this scale, every little bit of time and money we give to the school helps. So, ask not (just) what ROCS can do you for your child, ask what you can do for ROCS.

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Jodi Kushins, ROCS Mom and Blog Editor


Lots of people are thinking about school this time of year. Is my kid happy where she is? Could he thrive someplace else? Should we re-enroll where we are? Is there a school out there that would be a better fit with my worldview and philosophy of education? With that in mind, we present this testimony from ROCS mom Anna Shadley about her family's school choice. 

A few years ago, we sent our son off to kindergarten at a well-rated public school. I was excited—I’d always loved school and excelled in the traditional setting, and I was sure my kind, sensitive child would, too.  We packed his little lunchbox with a peanut butter sandwich (ah, freedom from the preschool ban!) and some veggies and other snacks, and sent him on his way. He was a little anxious, but mostly interested in seeing what this big kid school was all about.

It didn’t take long, though, for his stomachaches to kick in. Every morning when it was time to get ready for school, he’d tell me his stomach hurt.  It was more than butterflies from nervousness. Although he wasn’t physically sick with anything, he wasn’t faking. His stomach really did hurt. Whether the anxiety came from his struggles with reading, the large institutional setting, or the fact that they only had two fifteen minute recesses all day (and if the weather was “bad,” not even that), I didn’t know. I didn’t care about the cause. All I knew was that a kindergartener should not be feeling such extreme anxiety, on a daily basis, at the thought of going to school. There had to be a better way.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Red Oak, but it came at a time when we had no idea what we were going to do. Parent-teacher conferences at his school were increasingly uncomfortable (a hard thing for an authority-pleasing person like me) as I tried to advocate for my child, his sick days were mounting, and we didn’t have family time in the evenings because he had homework. But then… Red Oak.

Red Oak. The answer. The school hadn’t started yet, but the plans were well underway. A nature immersion school, a place where children were respected as  people, as individuals, a place that pledged to meet each student where he or she was. No homework. Plentiful time outside.  A strong desire to build a community of teachers, administrators, parents, students. No tests, no grades. A safe place to learn and grow.

We had just made the scary decision to pull our son out of school and homeschool him for the remainder of the year. We signed up for Red Oak before it even had a home, but we knew everything would work out. We trusted that ROCS would happily care for our son and help him thrive.

We haven’t looked back once.  The stomachaches vanished, and when it isn't a school day, our son is disappointed. He comes home from school muddy, tired, full of details about his day, and happy. At ROCS I've found a community of wonderful and amazing people committed to the school and to each other. I can’t begin to express adequately how much we feel that Red Oak saved us; how much we feel that Red Oak continues to save us.

As my son was getting ready for school one morning recently, he paused and asked, “Mom, what’s that feeling in your stomach when you’re happy about going to school?”

I hesitated, thinking back to his kindergarten stomachaches. Then I responded, “Oh. Those are butterflies. The good kind.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “The good kind.”

        A moth raised and released by ROCS students, Spring 2017.

        A moth raised and released by ROCS students, Spring 2017.

School Spirit, Red Oak Style

School spirit can take a lot of forms. At a small independent school like ours, it is typically manifest in non-traditional ways like blazing new trails through the woods together and bragging about the ways we are different from other schools on social media. But the power of more traditional heraldry like school colors and songs is not lost on us.

School colors are often worn to boost community identity and collective morale. They are usually used in pairs of primary and secondary colors that can be found on the Pantone color guide. Last year, our school adopted mud as our color as a tongue-in-cheek response to how much the kids embraced the sludge left in the wake of winter snow melts like the one we experienced this past week. While not all the kids embrace the mud with equal passion, none are afraid of venturing out in it. 

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Adopting mud as our school color challenges parents and teachers to consider what it means to choose nature-immersion education. It means standing in the freezing cold and helping kids with dirty boots. It means committing to doing more laundry as we support kids' exploration of the messiness of playing outdoors. Some of that clean-up happens individually, and some we share, again, building school spirit. 

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My daughter has, thus far, shown little interest in making mud angels. I'm grateful. In our experience then, mud is more of a metaphorical school color, standing for more than the sum of its parts and the trail it leaves behind. 

Our school song came to us by way of ROCS dad and blog contributor Mark Fisher. According to Mark, "I woke up in the middle of the night and heard in my mind a melody carrying the words Red Oak Community School. I don't remember what dream preceded that but I know I had been thinking how glad I was that Raad was attending such a wonderful school where he could spend so much time playing and learning outside in all kinds of weather. Once the song started I couldn't stop so I went downstairs and finished it, plunking out the music on the piano as quietly as I could while the family slept." 

Here's what he came up with:

Mark planned to teach the song to the kids but major surgery got in his way. Upon hearing the song and Mark's plan, ROCS Director Cheryl Ryan suggested we teach it to the kids and send Mark a recording as a form of Get Well message. Having taught the kids a song last year, I volunteered to introduce it to them and Miss Maureen planned to practice it with them. 

When he first introduced the song to me, Mark feared it might be too corny. But it's a perfect alma mater, which, according to Wikipedia "is typically slow, light in instrumentation and with lyrics that wax nostalgic about the institution's setting and affirm the singer's devotion to, and fondness for, the institution." When I talked through the lyrics with the kids, they instantly commented on the slow tempo which they eagerly associated with the Star Wars theme song. They also noticed the repetition between verses which is part of what makes it such a catchy tune.

Here's their first public rendition. There's sure to be many, many more.

Jodi Kushins
ROCS Mom and Blog Editor

Tankyuu - Inspiring Big and Small Quests at Red Oak

As school got started this year, a few of us got to talking again about how to get parents and others from our extended community time to work with our students on a regular basis. It was decided that last year's Free Day Friday would be reconceived to serve this purpose. After a few weeks of trial including martial arts, music, gardening, and readers' theater, the staff discussed what to call that time. Some parents didn't like the idea of free time at school and the term didn't fully convey the learning that goes on during these extracurricular opportunities. Meridith Kiyosue, ROCS Japanese and related cutural arts teacher, suggested Tankyuu, Japanese for quest and exploration. In this post, Meridith offers some further thoughts on the meaning of tankyuu, how it can further our thinking about teaching and learning, and a recent tankyuu session she organized with support from the Japan America Society of Central Ohio (JASCO).

Photo by Meridith Kiyosue

Photo by Meridith Kiyosue

Within contemporary educational conversations, educators often speak about learning outside traditional subjects and classrooms as quests. All too often, however, the guides and seekers in such situations are directed to arrive at a planned destination leaving little room for authentic exploration. A map is drawn and a schedule is made; bypassing the twists, turns, and beautiful inspirational sites one might find along the way. Language learning, for example, too often becomes a rigid, measurable pursuit complete with national standardized tests that categorize proficiency to make it possible for prospective employers to identify desirable employees. This is particularly true with learning Japanese, and while there is no shortage of educators of Nihongo (Japanese) yearning to inspire their students to explore beyond grammar and language acquisition, academic systems are leaving less room for creativity. With online language learning becoming commonplace, studying is less and less about the communal experience of learning a language and more about individual attainment of information.

Photo by Maureen Alley

Photo by Maureen Alley

But learning another language flows a bit differently at Red Oak. As we strive to develop stewards of the natural world, through Japanese language and culture we have an opportunity to inspire stewards of the global world as well. My personal introduction to Japan and the Japanese language was simple: I sat next to an exchange student in college and she became a dear friend. When she went back to Japan, I took a course in Japanese so I could keep in touch with her. That began my own incredible tankyuu, an educational and lifelong journey that brought me to live in Japan and and currently sees me as a ROCS educator. When my child, Ren, enjoyed a year with grandparents abroad in Japan and attended first grade, it wasn’t perfection of the language that made the experience memorable. Rather, it was the new friendships made through play, laughter, and fun. Through these natural teachers, Ren picked up Japanese rather quickly.

I keep this in mind as I guide ROCS students each day in Japanese class. Building on their curiosities, I strive to support exploration and to identify a purpose for our work together.  I use our time together to promote responsibility to connect and build friendships beyond borders, to make friends and inspire kizuna (strong bonds) with many people.

Photo by Josh Smith-Geta

Photo by Josh Smith-Geta

During tankyuu on November 20th, I organized Kimono Day.  It started with a brief presentation and story to all students in attendance. My friend read "Tsuru no Ongaeshi or "The Grateful Crane" in Japanese and I translated. Then the students circulated around stations where they could work on an art project, complete a packet to learn more about kimonos, or read Japanese fairytales. When their group was called, they were invited to come back into the main room to try on a kimono. The kimonos belonged to the Japan America Society of Central Ohio (JASCO).

Photo by Josh Smith-Geta

Photo by Josh Smith-Geta

A Japanese family visited ROCS to help the students try on kimonos. The young boy accompanying them remarked to his mother as they were leaving “Tomodachi dekita, yo!” “I made friends!” He and our children played unencumbered by language barriers.  Through art, social studies, music, pop culture, fairy tales, history, pen pal letters and paper cranes -all mixed in with language studies- I hope being a good tomodachi remains an ever-present goal. May our children’s tankyuu continue always and see them as ambassadors of friendship and peace along the way. Heiwa.



Safe Risks

by ROCS teacher Maureen Alley

Sometimes as teachers we toss around educational words and phrases assuming everyone knows what they mean.  I recently realized this may not be the case when I talk about students at Red Oak taking "safe risks." At our school, safe risks come in three forms: social, physical, and academic.


Every time a child asks another child to play, they risk rejection.  "Will the other kid say no?  What if they don't want to play with me?  What happens next?"  When there are trusted adults nearby for support, however, this risk becomes manageable.  Students know that we are there to help them navigate the social waters, while still letting them captain their own ship.  

On the other end of this equation, there is a risk to telling a peer "no."  Each time a student decides and articulates that they'd rather play a two-person game, or play alone, they run the risk of upsetting their peer.  In more traditional settings they also run the risk of being forced into a game or partnership they don't want.  At Red Oak, we help the students find the balance between caring for others' feelings and taking care of one’s own.

Physical risks are the easiest ones to see!  Climbing downed trees, jumping off stumps, swinging on vines, and navigating muddy slopes are risky.  But the more practice kids have using their big muscle groups the less likely they are to get hurt while doing so.  At Red Oak we allow them to find the edges of their abilities and push a little further.  

Academic risks are taken every time a child stretches beyond their comfort zone, answers a question even though they might get it wrong, or uses inventive spelling to get their thoughts on paper.  We often discuss what happens when you make a mistake: “Fix it or ask for help!”  You can often hear Red Oak students tell themselves and others, "Erasers are awesome!" as encouragement to erase and try again.


Part of our curriculum[K1]  at Red Oak is how to make mistakes and how to learn from failure!  The Piggie and Elephant books by Mo Willems address failure and ways to move on in very kid-friendly ways. I also find it to be very valuable to let the students see my mistakes and struggles.  For example, I am not a very adept artist, but I keep on trying, modeling out loud, "Well, it kind of looks like a person.  I did my best on that one!"

At Red Oak we cultivate a culture that accepts risks in all forms.  It is a joy to watch the students grown and learn as they test their limits.  

#optoutside @ROCS

In 2015, Recreational Equipment Inc. encouraged people to spend Black Friday outdoors. REI closed its stores that day in support of their vision. Given you're reading this blog you probably don't need convincing that a day spent adventuring outside is better than any day spent at the mall. Either way, the #optoutside video campaign that year was heartwarming and worth a few minutes of your time. Every day we bring our kids to ROCS, we #optoutside. 

Photo credit: Maureen Alley

Photo credit: Maureen Alley

In a recent conversation with ROCS Director, Cheryl Ryan and the chair of ROCS Education Committee and Metro Parks Education Administrator, Tanya Taylor, we got to talking about what playing and learning outside currently looks like at ROCS and how  that might that change over time. At the root of the conversation were questions like: What does it mean to be a nature-immersion school? Why do we #optputside at ROCS and how does that look day-to-day?

Photo credit: Michelle McNabb

Photo credit: Michelle McNabb

Reflecting we realized these questions had multiple answers. We identified at least two parts to the equation: 1) providing environmentally connected programming and, 2) simply enabling kids to play and learn outdoors. People tend to think of environmentally-embedded education when they hear nature-immersion - school gardens, nature walks to collect and study specimens, habitat restoration, and other things we very much see as our goals. Most ROCS parents are concerned about the environment and want our kids to learn to be stewards of the earth before its too late. However, there are many other reasons to be glad we #optoutside during the school day.

A recent report from REI and Futerra, The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors, released just in time for Black Friday 2017, might help us articulate more of those reasons in the future. It suggests, "Often, the outdoor community is focused on what we need to do to fix the outdoors, but it isn’t the only thing suffering — we are too. The outdoors can be the antidote to so much of what ails us in our 21st century life."

The Path Ahead is "designed to provoke discussion by exploring nine ‘brutal truths’ juxtaposed with nine ‘beautiful possibilities." For example, to combat humans' ever-increasing evolution towards an "Indoor Species," they propose a return to "Free Range Humans." To address the kind of "Urban Sprawl" we are all too familiar with in central Ohio, development that erases our last vast green spaces, they call for more "Wild Cities" where nature is integrated into planning. More than just a manifesto, it is packed with references to research studies for further reading. 

Photo credit: Maureen Alley

Photo credit: Maureen Alley

The report brought me back to a recent morning I spent in the natural playspace chatting with our Chickadees teacher Michelle McNabb. Michelle has decades of experience teaching, both in traditional school settings and homeschooling her own children. I wanted to follow-up on something she'd told me: While she'd been nervous at the start of the year about having to transition a group of 5 and 6 year-olds from over an hour of unstructured play to an hour and a half of structured academic time, she found the opposite to be true. After their free time playing outside, the kids were ready to settle in and focus. The typical wiggles of kindergarteners in a classroom were greatly reduced and they were able to be more productive as a result. (Compare this with The Path Ahead "All Work No Play" -> "Headspace")

Michelle begins her weekly reports to parents with notes and observations about outdoor play time. For example, for October 24-27 she wrote,

In outside news, we had our first campfire of the season!  Students helped gather dry(ish) sticks and learned how to make a cone of kindling with recycled fire starter material in the middle.  We also reviewed fire safety expectations: only grownups start or put materials in a fire, walking only around the fire pit, and stand arm's length away from the pit.  Students learned that fires need fuel and air to burn, and how to encourage embers by blowing gently on them.  They also experienced the difference between smoke and steam when we put the fire out using creek water.  Students also enjoyed exploring our expanded play area.  The discovery of an animal skull led to the creation of paleontology club that searched for more remains. A new slide and an uphill trek with the aid of a climbing rope has been a fun physical challenge as well as an added running loop for more large motor movement. 

Photo credit: Michelle McNabb

Photo credit: Michelle McNabb

The morning I spent with Michelle, I noticed my own daughter and a friend sat on a log side-by-side and read, in the low 40-degree temperatures(!) for nearly the full first hour of school. Michelle suggested that different kids need different things from that time on different days. Sometimes they need to run and scream and sometimes they just need to sit quietly with friends and talk. (Compare this with The Path Ahead "Sick and Sad" -> "Nature RX")

It's no secret our school is in its infancy. That means we are doing some totally amazing things, and we're still working hard to figure out lots of others. Refining our vision and developing curriculum and general standards of practice fully in line with that vision won't happen overnight. But let's remember and be thankful that our teachers and children, board members and parents are working towards that goal everyday - through our actions and interactions. 

This Friday we hope you'll #optoutside. If you share any photos on social media, we'd love to see them! Tag Red Oak Community School (on Facebook) and @redoackcommunityschool (on Instagram). It'll be fun how many of us are out there, wherever we might be!

Happy Thanksgiving,
Jodi Kushins
ROCS Mom, Education Committee Member, and Blog Editor

No Matter the Weather - Seasonal Reflections on Being a ROCS Parent

I hate the cold and I hate the heat. Spring and Fall are my seasons. But you won't hear me telling my kid anything like that on our way into school. No matter the weather (down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit), ROCS kids will be outside, playing and learning. Last winter, I realized quickly that I couldn't express any concern or irritation about the weather if I wanted to ensure a swift and smiley morning drop-off. Cora and I rode our bikes to school most mornings and I learned to embrace the cold, and the wet, and the laundry.


Last Monday's rainy playspace workday and this evening's frigid Stone Soup were perfect examples of events I might have skipped in a former life, because of the weather. But being a ROCS mom has implored me to stretch beyond my edges, just as it is stretching my daughter. In the winter I will pull on my snowpants so I can hang around at pickup if the kids want to play for awhile. In the spring, I'll pull on my rainboots and grab a baseball cap if it's raining so I can take in the sights, sounds, and smells that come to us only with those conditions.

See you out there?

- Jodi Kushins
ROCS Blog Editor

Giving Kids Space to Make Community

Red Oak Community School was founded in part on the notion that children need to learn how to live in community with one another. As the school got off the ground last year, ROCS Director Cheryl Ryan began to understand that vision within the context of the 2 hours of unstructured time our kids spend outdoors each day. "There is science behind the large chunks of time we give the kids," she shared in a recent conversation. "They need that time to figure out whom they want to play with and what they want to play. Then they need time to play and to change the rules of their play and whom they are playing with."

Sounds rather simple on its face, but when you stop to think about what kids are learning as they navigate all of those steps of engaging in play, things become more complex. Cheryl notes, for example, that our children are developing social, executive function, conflict resolution, and cooperative skills as they figure out how to play together. Such social and emotional skills are often left behind in traditional school settings. At ROCS they are a primary concern, however, "The teachers are there to supervise but do not get involved unless they are asked for help or see space to encourage further thinking or action." In other words, the students are teaching and learning from one another, in community. We're giving kids space to be self-determined but socially aware human beings, rather than treating them as bodies needing to be managed by outside forces.

Cheryl shared the following story which illustrates this point.

"Recently I noticed conversations between some of my friends trying to figure out how to navigate situations where their kids were being bullied at school by other kids they thought were their friends. I was following the discussion, but I didn't have perspective because I hadn't experienced anything like it. It may be that this is happening at ROCS and I'm naive, but I haven't heard about it or seen it.

What I have seen is kids being kind and inviting to kids who don't come to school in a good mood. If those kids continue to struggle to settle in, I've seen staff approach such children's difficult behaviors with empathy. And I've seen kids let other kids know when they think their behavior is out of step with the caring culture of our school.

I was on vacation last week and reflecting on all this when I got this photo from Meridith, one of our teachers. The conversation that followed helped further my thinking about how institutionally, we organize the school so the kids have space and time to build community."


Kids with Sticks

This post comes from ROCS Dad, Mark Fisher. Mark and I met when we were both active organizers for the Community Festival (ComFest). Based on our work together in that venue, I know him to be someone who engages the world with appreciation and wonder. A retired attorney, he loves live music and makes handmade greeting cards for his friends and family. When he offered to write for the ROCS Blog, I was excited to see what he'd come up with.

In trying to explain my goals for the ROCS blog to teachers, staff, and the ROCS Education committee, I often talk about making learning visible, a concept borrowed from the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Making learning visible strives to document aspects of learning that cannot be captured by summative tests and assessments, the learning that happens as students explore concepts together and share their ideas.

Inspired by my introduction to making learning visible, Mark observed the kids during unstructured outdoor play time one morning in late September. I love his contribution both for what it brings to our attention about how children play, but also as an outlet for his own creative connection to the natural world. Look forward to more reflections from him in the future.
- Jodi Kushins

Kids with Sticks - by Mark Fisher (with photos from Cassie Lewis)

After talking with Jodi and reading about making learning visible in the Ohio Visible Learning Project (OVLP), I noticed a lot of focus on listening to children. With that in mind, I took my notebook and pen and sat on a log to observe our ROCS kids during a morning session in the play area. At first I tried to concentrate on their conversations. Well, that didn’t work out too well. At my age and with my long history of listening to live rock and roll, I have a hard enough time understanding what adults are saying when they talk directly to me, much less children who are conversing with each other as they run around the woods. Pretty quickly I shifted my approach and ended up just visually observing what the children were doing.

There was one common activity that was inescapably obvious. So much of what the kids were doing involved their appropriation of the plentiful supply and variety of fractured remnants of fallen tree branches. Having succumbed to the forces of Mother Nature, they no longer stretched into the sky seeking a place for their leaves to catch the sunlight. They had devolved into stripped smooth, skeletal remains, perfect for tiny hands to comfortably grasp and young muscles to wield through the air. No longer the progeny of a family tree with life giving sap coursing through them or leaves sprouting from them, now they were just sticks. Reduced to the most basic, elemental shape; a line, a mark, a stroke.

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The ancient simplicity of a stick and the magic of human imagination it can unlock, connects each child who grasps it with millennia of ancestors. It recalled for me, the scene in Kubricks’s 2001:  A Space Odyssey in which the proto-human learns the power of a stick-like bone by playfully, at first, tapping then hitting then viciously smashing an animal skeleton with it. From toy to tool to weapon to elongated bone-white spaceship, the stick elicits a primal response in the hand of a child. My guess is that most children descended from chimps have picked up a stick in a wooded area and played with it, dug with it, fought with it and transformed it in their imagination.


As I watched the kids in the play area I saw a variety of of behaviors with the sticks. Sometimes they used them to create art. One child skewered fallen leaves. Another stuck small sticks into the ground creating an architectural sculpture. Some children seemed to just enjoy collecting and bundling sticks. Moving around larger sticks and small logs became a feat of strength. Medium-sized sticks were leaned against vines or bushes creating a type of shelter or sanctuary. A stick was used to dig into a rotted tree just for the visceral pleasure of disemboweling its soft, pulpy guts. Sticks were punched into the earth, unsuccessfully stuffed in a pocket and slapped against boots and legs. Swords slashed the through the air accompanied by swashbuckling exclamations of bravura and the swishing sounds expelled by bursts of air between clenched teeth. I heard the popping sound of pistols being fired, war cries and yelps. Spears were chucked, knives were sharpened and leaves were stirred in a pan. A twig suspended a plushy possum by its tail to make it fly. Ninja battles were choreographed in slow motion ballets. Sticks were carried around wherever they went, symbols of power and confidence, magic wands, scepters. They formed a fellowship of stick-wielders. Holding something so easy to grasp and manipulate radiates control and security, a palpable connection to the outside world, an entree into interaction with others, a key to unlock the flow of imagination.


One of the few memories I have of my own childhood is an undeveloped wooded area on the edge of my elementary school grounds where we played war, unsupervised, running down dirt paths, hiding in the bushes, splashing through the creek. I remember stick play was popular last year at ROCS how but I don’t remember thinking too much about it. The OVLP book suggests that “documentation requires learners, children, teachers and parents to slow down and reflect on the content and processes of learning” (OVLP). I’m not sure what I’ve learned or achieved by documenting kids with sticks, whether I’ve added anything to the scholarly discussion or helped increase understanding of their learning process but I did slow down and reflect. “Documenters are asked not only to observe and record but to interpret and share their observations” (OVLP) Thank you, at least, for allowing me to share my somewhat kaleidoscopic reflections with you.


Learning through Change at Red Oak Community School

This post comes from ROCS mom, Cassie Lewis. Cassie is a fabulous person as well as a fantastic photographer. She'll be at school this coming week to take photos of the kids for school picture day. You can see more of her work at LewisLens Photography. Look forward to more ROCS photo essays here in the months to come.

"Last year, I was in the First UU indoor and outdoor classroom with the homeschool program every day. I had an enrolled child who needed my presence at school. I learned the ins and outs of the school days as we all formed strong community bonds.

This year, my child wants to be dropped off at school. She has blossomed immensely with her time at ROCS. I feel safe leaving her in the hands of what we have built so far, a place that honors children and families, and will always have her social and emotional growth in mind.

Since I don’t have as many opportunities to catch school-day photos this year, I did a drop-off excursion to the play area in this late summer weather.

I am reminded that the only constant is change, and I am inspired by how ROCS has rolled and grown with this change. I am reminded of our humble beginnings. ROCS started in 2015 with a few parents talking about their unhappiness with school options in Central Ohio. When we joined together and made developmentally appropriate practice our cornerstone, we began to build our foundation. We solidified that foundation in the first school year with our talented educators and the families that gave it a chance. Now, in our second school year, we bring our children to a beautiful 15-acre urban farm. We still await our permanent facilities, but I can feel those community bonds at work. We work towards them through our partnership with Sunbury Urban Farm and welcome newcomers to help us grow. [Editor's note: Check out how you can help make these dreams a reality through Project Grow!

In those early times, we imagined an acorn and called it “potential.”
Now watch us continue to unfold our branches and leaves."

[Click through the slide show below for a glimpse at ROCS kids in our natural play area, as seen through Cassie's lens.]

The Life of a Ninja

This year, ROCS students began studying Japanese language and culture with Meridith Kiyosue. Meridith's work is cross-disciplinary, engaging, and enables our students to think of themselves as citizens of a world in new and interesting ways. This post is based on her class notes from August 23 through September 29, 2017.

The first week of school, Meridith spent time measuring the students' comfort levels and exploring their interests and prior knowledge to identify ways to engage them in learning that would be relevant and meaningful to them.

Together they discovered small connections to Japan they experience in their daily lives including martial arts, origami, an interest in ninjas, a love of sushi, and video games. 

In the first few weeks of school, Meridith led the students through a study of ninjas. They learned the origins and evolution of the ways of the ninja over time. Drawing from the book Ninja: 1,000 Years of the Shadow Warrior by John Man, they learned how ninjas began as farmers defending their villages in war-torn Japan nearly 700 years ago.

Through their studies, they dispelled some common myths such as: ninjas always wear black (black actually stands out in bright moonlight!) and identified the 6 items ninjas always carried (they didn't always carry a sword or throw shuriken!)

Meridith and Maureen introduced the concept of correct mind required first and foremost of all ninjas. Correct mind includes: being responsible, remaining calm & peaceful, being flexible and shugyo (training like crazy or persevering).


As their studies continues, students used a simple embossing technique with aluminum foil and dried leaves to made a tsuba or hand guard for a sword.

Some students currently practicing martial arts shared their skills with the students. And they colored paper ninjas complete with common tools and items ninjas historically carried.

Students labeled parts of the ninja atama, kata, hiza, ashi (head, shoulders, knees and toes), practicing more new vocabulary, which they could practice using an already familiar children's song.


All students enjoyed the dramatic storytelling of "How a Ninja Grows from a Single Bamboo Sprout", a well-known ninja legend in Japan.

The story introduced more new vocabulary including ta-ke, jishin, ame, kaze, kaminari, and yuki (bamboo, earthquake, rain, wind, thunder & lightning, and snow).

This past week, Sensei Dan Rotnem, the uncle of two of our students, visited ROCS.  Sensei Dan, as the students call him, introduced himself with a palm strike, breaking a concrete concrete block with one swift action. 


After getting our attention in a big way, Sensei Dan went on to explain the meaning of the kanji characters of "ninja" (忍者) :  one who endures via perfect practice every day.  The students used their prior knowledge to answer questions on mindfulness, real ninjas, and to count to ten in Japanese.

Next, Sensei Dan led the students on a Zen meditation walk where they practiced being in the moment, listening to the ambient sounds, and feeling the breeze on their skin. 

He spoke of a circle having no beginning and no end, and how there is always someone ahead of you from whom you can learn, and someone behind you whom you can help. The goal is being mindful of others and less focused on the self.


Next, Dan got the students moving with some karate forms including the  騎馬立ち - horse stance from which we learned the basic punch, followed by a complimentary block (外腕受け - outside forearm block).


Not only was this unit interdisciplinary, it impacted students intellectual, social-emotion, and physical development.

We look forward to seeing what Meridith will explore next with the students!

Annual Pawpaw Celebration

Earlier this month, ROCS science educator, Bethany Filipow, led students through a week-long celebration of the pawpaw.

Those unfamiliar with the state fruit of Ohio, which ripens in the fall, can learn more about its rising popularity through this recent NPR story.

Learning to identify, harvest, and process this wild fruit offered students a connection to the natural world and the food they eat that would be hard to find in the produce section of the grocery story. This unit of study demonstrates the kind of integrated, real-world learning we value at Red Oak.

After reviewing some of the basic facts they learned about pawpaws last fall, students practiced skills related to prediction, observation, and documentation to record the weight, length, circumference, and number of seeds in pawpaws they examined.

Students began by recording predictions on data sheets (see below, left). Next they found the actual measurements using rulers and scales. 

Afterwards, some students created number sentences to find the difference between their estimation and actual result. They also hiked to our parking area to observe and sketch the pawpaw patch on our school property (see below, top right).


Next, students dissected and processed pawpaws for use.

They separated the skins, pulp, and seeds. The skins were composted while the seeds were used as math manipulatives and will eventually become beads for jewelry.

Wednesday was production and marketing day.

Students made their "pawsicles" (pawpaw popsicles) and came up with flavor names - Tropical Explosion, Blueberry Crush, and Banana Splash. 

Our older students determined a sliding scale price of $1-3 per frozen treat. They also computed the initial investment of frozen fruit (which was added to the pawpaw pulp) and plastic cups of $12 which would have to be subtracted from their sales to obtain the true profit. They created posters and went through cash register training, practicing making change.

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As the week came to an end, Bethany led students into the woods to plant some of the pawpaw seeds. We hope one day we'll have more trees on the school property to pick from. 



The week ended with a the pawsicles sale. The students sold out and made a total profit of $107.90!  This included the sale of some surplus pawpaws at $.10/oz, which was not only a bargain price for customers, but a nice round figure for converting weight to cost.

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Our next task is for the students to decide how would they like to spend our money. Come back to the ROCS blog for updates!

Celebrating Outdoor Classroom Day

Environmental education (EE) is a primary pillar of teaching and learning at Red Oak Community School (ROCS). Students spend 2 full hours each day playing outdoors with little adult intervention. In our next post we'll share more on how and why we do this, followed by a series of posts documenting some of the ways kids are learning during that time.

In this, our second year of operation, ROCS teachers are working to bring more instructional activities outdoors as well. This is a learning process for them, as well as our students and parents accustomed to more conventional methods and modes of instruction. Last Thursday, they took advantage of Outdoor Classroom Day, an international effort to keep kids outdoors for an entire school day. We'd like to think of it as an introduction and celebration of more outdoor teaching and learning to come. The following notes from second year ROCS teacher Maureen Alley offer some snapshots of what went on at ROCS that day.

"In the morning, students constructed a slingshot using old nylon rope and sticks.  They decided on this project themselves, created it, tested it, then shared their contraption with others.  It was a student-led endeavor that came about because there was enough time and space to work though the idea!

Later in the morning, our older students chose targeted learning groups to participate in. Some went to the creek to collect rocks to paint.  These works of art will eventually line the paths between the new classrooms on our property. 

Others chose to play a large-scale version of the game Mancala (read about how to play here - then go out and find some rocks and acorns and make your own set at home!).  Playing by the rules led to questioning the rules, creating new mancala rules, and experimenting to see which rules worked best. Students then experimented with different ways to create checker and hopscotch boards using chalk and rocks.


Other students played The Web of Life game, learning about how the sun, producers, and consumers work together to support life.  They also modified the game to see what would happen to the web if something happened to one group of creatures.


The youngest group went on a "micro hike."  They used magnifying glasses to examine the ground around a single piece of string.  They observed insects, eggs, leaves, and more activity than they expected.  We were impressed to see this activity occupy ten five-year olds for forty-five minutes!

And of course, there was reading!  We read A Beetle Is Shy, clapping out syllables to new vocab words and trying to identify a beetle we found outside.  Some students chose independent reading, warming themselves in the sun on the brick porch or finding a shady spot in the grass.  It is so wonderful to see children choose reading as a refuge to relax and recharge.


The afternoon saw self-portraits made with found natural materials, reading, and art in the grass, and a massive creek-clean up.  Students hauled out buckets of broken brick, pointed out glass for the teachers to pick up, and practiced environmental stewardship in a real and tangible way."



The kids were so happy, and tired, and dirty at the end of the day. Some even reported that they'd had a "free day," but the adults who were present know that a lot of learning was going on. We're looking forward to documenting more of how we can make this seemingly invisible learning more visible to our students, their parents, and readers of this blog.

Field Trip!! To Stratford Ecological Center

Stratford Ecological Center is a non-profit educational organic farm and nature preserve just about 30 minutes north of our school, in Deleware, Ohio.

We spent the day there tromping around in the mud, learning about tapping and processing maple syrup. We learned all about it's history and how the Native Americans processed and used it. They cooked it further down into sugar - making it easier to store. 

Learning about the tapping process                                      Cooking syrup in the "sugar shack"

Learning about the tapping process                                      Cooking syrup in the "sugar shack"

We learned all about how to tap the trees and when. And how to cook it down it get that yummy amber syrup we all love to drown our pancakes in. Most importantly how very special these trees are, Sugar Maples only grow here in the Northeastern North America . From Ohio north up into Canada and east to the coast. Very Special and very Yummy!



We also visited all the Springtime babies! Tons of baby goats jumping and bumping around. Climbing all over their Mamas and the llamas! Killer cuteness and many of us wanted to bring one home!

New born calf with her Mama.

New born calf with her Mama.

Also on that very day we visited, a sweet little calf was born in the morning. We saw her an her very protective Mama. We fed the chickens and roosters and taste tested in the greenhouse. Overall it was a pretty awesome farm day field trip! Thank you Stratford Ecological Center!


What We Did Last Week.... Explorers

The Explorers are our Three Day/Half Day - (Homeschool Hybrid) group.

Hello, Red Oak families!  This week was a short one, but still full of learning and exploration. We got to enjoy the iglu made by the Page Fisher family for a day before the rain dissolved its glue.  We were sad to see it go, but the students had fun playing in it while we could!

We are collecting diaper packs for refugee families here in Columbus and money to send to buy diapers in refugee camps in Serbia, France, and Greece until March 10. We will be making welcome to Columbus cards to include with the diaper packs next week.

The Explorers read the book Teacup and created timelines of their day using analog clock drawings, and finished their I Have a Dream writing.

After time, our next math focus will be addition and subtraction, with multiplication and division for older students. 

In science this week we enjoyed checking in on our bread mold experiment. Many of the groups have begun seeing some changes begin to show.  We enjoyed getting out the magnifying glasses to help in creating our detailed entries in our observation journals.

This week in Material World we journeyed to South Africa. We discussed Nelson Mandela and his role in the country's history. Explorers had the chance to work on a kente cloth weaving, a textile that originated from the Ashanti people of Ghana. 

What We Did Last Week.... Cheetahs and Morning Kittens

Cheetahs are our Five Day/Full Day group and Morning Kittens are our Five Day/Half Day group.

Hello, Red Oak families!  This week was a short one, but still full of learning and exploration.  First thing last we,  we got to enjoy the iglu made by a ROCS family for a day before the rain dissolved its glue.  We were sad to see it go, but the students had fun playing in it and recycling the milk jugs the next day!


We started collecting diaper packs for refugee families here in Columbus and money to send to buy diapers in refugee camps in Serbia, France, and Greece.  We also started making cards to include with the diaper packs.  Students wrote welcome messages and drew pictures for families new to Columbus.  

In writing we've gone from big picture thinking, like in the I Have A Dream writing, to smaller-scale, concrete examples of ways we can be helpers in our lives.  Students wrote about bringing diapers to school, clearing the table off at home, and playing with little siblings. 


In reading we started with a biography of Nelson Mandela.  We discussed how he learned from Dr. King, compared and contrasted segregation in the US with apartheid in South Africa, and how Nelson educated his fellow prisoners while he was incarcerated.  One particular part of the book caught the attention of many students.  When Nelson went "underground", and had to wear disguises and sleep in a different place each night.  There was a discussion about what "going underground" really meant, and a few students made the book to book connection that there are three books in our classroom about the Underground Railroad.  They wondered if that was the same kind of thing that Nelson Mandela had to do, so we started exploring the Underground Railroad by reading Henry's Freedom Box, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, and Barefoot Escape on the Underground Railroad. 

Slavery is a very difficult topic to teach to young children.  In an effort to keep our exploration developmentally appropriate, we will only be reading about the Underground Railroad and the path to freedom it offered.  The students are interested in the helpers, or "stations" along the way, the quilt pattern signals used, and map songs such as Follow the Drinking Gourd. Other songs we have listened to are Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Wade in the Water, which were instructional songs.  





In math we continued working on telling time.  Our next focus will be on addition and subtraction number sentences, with multiplication and division for the older students. 

In science this week we enjoyed checking in on our bread mold experiment. Many of the groups have begun seeing some changes begin to show.  We enjoyed getting out the magnifying glasses to help in creating our detailed entries in our observation journals.


This week in Material World we journeyed to South Africa. We discussed Nelson Mandela and his role in the country's history. Explorers had the chance to work on a kente cloth weaving, a textile that originated from the Ashanti people of Ghana. Cheetahs and Kittens had the opportunity to make a mbira, a African musical instrument, also known as a thumb piano.

Water Filtration

Water Filtration

It was exciting to see that many of our potato pals have begun to sprout roots and are looking and smelling stranger than ever.  We finished up the week by discussing how the continent of Africa is considered part of the developing world.  We learned about how people living in these countries do not have access to affordable clean drinking water.  Students put their engineering design skills to work in creating a device to help filter dirty water into something cleaner.  Student designed their purification system in a solo cup and had a table full of materials to choose from in creating their filter.  After their test was complete they had to think of how they could improve their design to make the water even clearer.  Some students had the chance to rebuild and test their new ideas several times.

The Cheetahs continued to explore Africa with some map skills work which had us identify some of the major biomes and animal life found on the continent. We also worked on strengthening our fine motor muscles with our upside down drawing of our African continent and playing Mancala using tweezers to move pom poms to the different egg carton compartments.