Independent Education Project: Building a tiny house

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Hannah Wnuk, a participant in Rise Out’s 2014 Independent Education Project. Hannah is building a tiny house. Please consider supporting her project through her Indiegogo campaign

Hello All,

My name is Hannah, I’m 16, and I am a homeschooler. This year and until I graduate I will be taking a more unschooler route to my education. What I love about unschooling is that I can take a project I am really interested in and make it part of my education. The project I have my heart set on is building a tiny house for myself.

The term “Tiny House” generally refers to a house that is 400 square feet or less. They are often built on trailers, but not always. They are inexpensive to live in, and generally have a low environmental impact. The Tiny House Movement has been making a push to get more people in smaller, more environmentally friendly homes, and to simplify their lives. I love that idea.

I have always loved being in small spaces. When I was little, I slept in my closet for a month because the walls on either side felt comforting. When I got a bit older, my dad and I started to build a tree house in my backyard that I could hang out in. He was a very good builder and I would have learned how to build very well if we had had the opportunity to build more than the basic floor frame. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was 11. I didn’t get to learn all his skills from him and I know he would be so proud of me for planning to build this tiny house.

I learned about tiny houses online. I found one cool video, then another, then another, and pretty soon it was 2:00am in the morning and I had spent the past 5 hours watching videos and looking at blogs about tiny houses. Originally, I thought it was a cool idea but nothing more. I never expected to want to live in one, let alone build it myself.

As time passed and I immersed myself more into the idea of living in a tiny house, I found that it really appealed to me. I watched an episode of Hoarders and did a “deep clean” of my bedroom. In retrospect, I didn’t get rid of much, but it was a start.

I had ignited my dream of living a minimalist life in a tiny house.

As a homeschooler, my education centers on my interests, and this past year I made it very clear to my mom that I was interested in tiny houses. I spent hours looking at all the different houses and styles and I fell in love with a particular house from Tumbleweed. Together we went to Tumbleweedhouses.com and bought me a set of blueprints for a tiny house that is 18’ long by 7.5’ wide.

Shortly after the holiday season at the end of 2014 my mom decided that if I am going to build a tiny house, I must get myself some resources, and she signed me up for a weekend tiny house workshop that I recently completed.

The workshop was very helpful to me because it gave me a more complete understanding of what I was getting into. I learned about what kind of bathroom systems are best and what an R Value is when you are talking about insulation. I got a lot of contacts with people who can help me or could point me in a helpful direction. I also got a book that included everything I learned about in the workshop so I will be able to consult it at home.

Already I have looked back into the book to find out about trailers and the different options that Tumbleweed sells. I plan to buy a trailer from them because that way I know I will not have any major problems with that aspect of my build.

I have saved money in my “Tiny House Account” since I began working and will continue to save. I plan to sell a lot of my belongings, from Pokemon cards to clothes to my entire Polly Pocket collection that I’ve had since I was 3 years old.I’m doing as much dog and cat sitting in my neighborhood as I can to earn more money. But in order for this project to begin in this year, I need outside help. I have estimated that the build for my dream-home/school-project is going to be about $30,000. I will use reclaimed materials where I can, to lower the price, but the best way to save in the long term, living in the house, is to spend a little bit more on the build. That way I can assure I will have minimal problems in the future.

I have a builder who has built his own tiny house on board with my project. He has agreed to help mentor me with the process. I plan to build a model in SketchUp and have him help me perfect it.

I am very excited to build my tiny house and can’t wait to get started.

These are the things I will learn as I create my tiny house:

  •  I will learn trigonometry through making measurements on my tiny house.
  • I will learn writing with things like this blog post and other ways of raising awareness and money
  • I will learn HOW TO BUILD MY OWN HOUSE
  • I will learn how to use power tools
  • I will learn how to use SketchUp
  • I will learn how to ask people for help graciously
  • I will learn how to budget
  • I will learn how to convince people to help me build
  • I will learn how to market myself and spread awareness for things like the tiny house movement and my project
  • I will learn about building codes and housing laws
  • I will learn physics through building
  • I will learn how to keep in touch with useful people
  • And I will learn so much more

High school students don’t need me? Oh well.

The Rise Out Independent Education Project has been going along swimmingly. We have nine dedicated students who are working in a diverse range of fields: music, coding, health and fitness, history research, and patent development.

When I first launched this initiative, my focus was on the word Project. What would students actually DO for a year? I spent an inordinate amount of time coming up with example projects, assuming that students would appreciate my suggestions. Yeah never mind. As it turned out, each of them already had a project in mind, or developed one during the first semester, something borne out of their own interests: a question they were grappling with, a problem they were prepared to spend a full year pursuing.

My secondary focus was on the word Education. All projects should be educational, right? How would I ensure this? Who defines what’s “educational”? What if a student proposed to watch nothing but hockey? Or write a report on the Kardashian family history? Would it be up to me to veto projects I considered shallow? What if I approved, but their parents didn’t? How would I handle that? I debated all this, in the privacy of my own brain, during the summer before anyone had even enrolled in the class.

In all that time, though, I’d given little to thought to what I now realize is the most important word in that phrase: Independent. It took a death in the family to make me realize its importance.

Two weeks before our final meeting before Christmas, I learned that my 21-year-old cousin had been killed in a car accident in Iowa. I sent a quick e-mail to the Rise Out students, telling them I wouldn’t be able to make our last meeting but encouraging them to go on without me, and then turned my attention to packing. I left Boston that same night, too distracted to think about anything but my family. Had the whole class collapsed because of my last-minute absence, I’m not sure I would have noticed. At that moment, my mind was elsewhere.

But then a remarkable thing happened. Something that made me realize why I like doing this work in the first place.

A few days before the group was set to meet, I checked my e-mail in Iowa and saw that I’d received a polite note from Alex, age 17, one of Rise Out’s student participants. He gave me his condolences, and then asked if I had a facilitator in mind for the meeting I could not attend. If not, he and his brother, Owen — another student participant — offered to organize it in my absence. Of course I agreed.

A week later Alex e-mailed me the notes from that meeting: the meeting I (naively) worried they couldn’t manage without me. I’m including it here, with Alex’s permission, because I think it wonderfully illustrates that once you have Independent in place, Education and Project will naturally follow:

Hi Laura,

I hope you’re doing well! Friday’s meeting was more or less a success.

Matthew started for us. He’s been talking with various people involved with his internship. One of them explained to him that the MIT “Build Your Own Drone” workshop wants to follow his project and watch it, which is exciting. That was all he really had to say, but he did go over some math stuff with Eddy and Owen as well. The content of that talk is lost on me (as math is not my strong suit).

Owen presented some work in Python that he had been doing lately. This included a program he calls the “Cracker”, which generates a random 3-digit password and then sets about trying to find the password. The Cracker did not quite work as intended though, because upon finding the password, it would continue to search and wouldn’t stop. Owen and Matthew looked at the code itself while I conveniently avoided that by talking with Eddy about Sebastian and about the difficulties of writing sheet music.

Then it was my turn. I displayed a video I had made, featuring a song of mine set to a slideshow. Upon its completion, I gave Eddy and Matthew a small questionnaire I had made, asking for their general opinions on what I do and asking if they know any artists that I could try to create cover art for my album with. With that, I had nothing more to add and so I ended my turn far ahead of schedule.

Finally, Eddy’s turn arrived. It turns out, he has built a large, clunky model of his invention. Also, upon plugging it into his computer, he could use a program made in Visual C++ that would display the results of the measuring. At this point, a small coding debate broke out because Matthew considers the Visual version of C++ as cheating, while Eddy and Owen defended the system. It was a civil debate, but then Eddy’s computer ran out of battery so his turn also came to an end.

The last 30 minutes of the meeting were filled up by Eddy asking Matthew an intense math question. The idea behind it seemed to be that Eddy needs to make a robot and wants to know if there’s a way to program it to go in an arc towards a destination. This seemingly simple question was not as simple as one might think, and it took about 30 minutes to even come close to an answer. I meanwhile tried to stay awake (trigonometry is boring, what can I say?). Upon reaching 12 PM, Eddy and Matthew dashed off, talking about math, leaving Owen and I to put all the chairs back (not that we minded, of course).

So that, therefore, concludes this report of the meeting. I hope you enjoyed, and have yourself a merry little Chri… Umm, I mean, Holiday Season!
— Alex LaRosa

I’ve been teaching for over a dozen years, and never have I felt so gloriously irrelevant. The stated goal, in all my professional development workshops, is that we, as educators, do our tasks so well that we work ourselves out of a job. A wonderful goal! But one we never really expect to happen.

Yet here I am. Convinced yet again that as adults we give ourselves too much credit.

Video games and homeschooling: An interview with a professional video game tester

“What if he just sits around playing video games all day?”

It’s one of the most frequently asked questions from parents considering homeschooling. This issue comes up almost as often as the “S-question” (“What about socialization?”), but unlike the S-question — which is usually easy to answer — the dreaded “V-question” is controversial. Some parents are very strict about screen time, and may ban video games outright. On the other end of the spectrum, there are parents who don’t believe in squashing any of their children’s interests, and if gaming is what they like to do, then by all means enjoy it round-the-clock.

But the vast majority of homeschooling parents lie somewhere in the middle: one of the reasons they homeschooled in the first place was to give their kids more freedom, but now the single-minded focus on video games seems uncomfortably obsessive. These parents get bashed from both sides: the screen time enforcers call them lax and negligent, while the follow-your-own-interests crowd decries them as fascist and controlling.

And then, inevitably, someone will wander into the conversation and point out that mastering video games is as valid as mastering any other skill, since, after all, gaming is a big business.

It’s that last claim that interests me, because while it’s true the video game industry is huge, I think it’s widely misunderstood. As luck would have it, I have a friend who’s spent more than a decade working in this industry, and he graciously agreed to be interviewed about his job. The main takeaway? Getting your foot in the door as a video game tester is easy, but that work is insecure, poorly-paid, and not very interesting. As you advance, the work pays better and is more rewarding, but to do this you will need skills beyond “plays a lot of video games.”

+ + +

Q. What’s your official job title? Tell us in technical terms and then describe it in regular human language.

A. My official job title is “senior test lead.” What this means in practice is I manage teams of about 40 people (give or take, depending on project) in testing various new features of a console and how they interact with various titles in the pool of titles available for that console. The titles themselves have already been released in most cases, or are very close to release; we’re testing whether or not any new peripherals, interfaces, etc. will break those titles in any way.

Q: When I think of someone who tests video games for a living, I imagine someone who plays games all day and then makes a phone call to their boss upstairs, saying, “Yep, this game’s fun! Release it to the world!” or “Nope, this one needs more work, send it back.” But I’m guessing that’s not actually what you do. Or is it? What DO you do?

A. This is kind of the scenario that we lure people in the door with. “Would you like to play games all day and get paid for it? Then you should come work for us.” In practice, that’s not really how it works out, naturally – at least not at this level. Testing of the type you describe *does* happen, but usually it’s called “beta testing” or “usability testing” and it’s unpaid, or paid in product only. By the time a game gets to that stage, it’s basically ready to ship.

“Functional testing” does, indeed, interact with new, unreleased titles all day. They are the last line of defense before a title is released. They get a few days to play it through, but usually they’re not “playing” in any traditional sense. Most of them are running them against test cases – such as, “what happens when you idle at this screen for 15 minutes”, “does the game provide appropriate messaging if you do [thing X]”, that sort of thing. One person does get to be “the rabbit” and their job is to race through the title as fast as possible – this is really the closest you will ever come to a person who is “getting paid to play games all day.”

My testing, which is “consumer acceptance testing,” sometimes lets you play games all day and sometimes does not. We have one test case that allows people to play multiple titles for various periods of time over the course of the day, and just record a few metrics while doing so; people like this test case. We have other test cases that, say, require you to boot the console over and over and over, all day, using various methods. People like that one significantly less.

There’s other types of testing that goes on at game labs – like “compliance” testing, where you basically boot a title over and over using various connection types, monitors, etc. and never actually see gameplay. And then there’s the testing that goes on at development studios which is a whole ‘nother ball of wax, where you’ll “play” the same title, over and over, in various iterations, for sometimes over a year. Just that one title. I hear you get really, really sick of that title by the time it ships, but that kind of testing can be a good foot in the door to higher positions in a developer studio, especially if you know programming.

Q: When our friends learned you’d gotten this kind of job, we all laughed (appreciatively!) because it seemed like such an obvious fit – we all played video games occasionally, but you played them in 30-hour marathon sessions. But I ALSO remember that you were a big history buff and did well in math and knew how to program. What sorts of skills and education do you bring to your job?

A. Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t have to know very much at all to get in at a testing position in a game testing lab. A lot of the things we do are not complicated, and mostly require a lot of bodies. The hiring process is generally “can you work [day X]? Then come on down.” At that level, you are essentially an on-call hourly worker with no job security. You get paid minimum wage, or close to it. You might work when there is work, and you won’t when there isn’t. Sometimes, it can be a long time between projects (weeks or months). This is where I started.

Some testing labs (fortunately, mine among them) will promote people from within to higher level positions within the company as they exhibit ability. Attention to detail is a big plus – your job is to find bugs and issues, and if you’re not sharp of eye you might miss them. Attendance, sadly, is also a huge plus – this will come as a surprise to you, I’m sure, but people who want to game above all else sometimes aren’t interested in showing up for possibly unpleasant work activities. You have to be able to execute boring, tedious tasks for hours on end, day after day (while still remaining conscious enough to exhibit the aforementioned attention to detail). If you show leadership skills, such as helping your fellow testers with test cases or issues, people might consider you for a lead position, where you (usually) won’t be executing test cases any more but instead managing teams of other testers to help them execute test cases.

After a few months or years, sometimes you can lever your experience game testing in game testing labs to other positions in game studios or publisher, especially if you know how to code (better than I do – you say I knew programming, but I was really, really bad at it. Our secret, shhhh). Programming is extremely helpful to rise in the gaming world as a tester – I can’t stress that enough. Without coding knowledge, all you’ll be able to do is “black box” testing (which is mostly the kind of testing I describe above in your second question) where you’ll be doing various things to the title/console, but you won’t really know how those processes are supposed to interact on the inside. If you know programming, you can do “white box” testing where you stress the code directly, and that kind of testing is paid significantly more and has much better job security. From there you can sometimes go onto actual development as well, and in game development, all sorts of eclectic skills can come into play. The game studio Valve, for example, has full-time writers, economists, and even psychologists on staff to help them add story and realism to their titles. But getting to that point requires, as a general rule, good programming knowledge.

If your programming knowledge is not great, but you have those good leadership skills, you can at least hope to be promoted to lead and maybe senior lead. From there, the things you learn are more business/administrative – managing teams, filing paperwork, hiring and firing, meetings with clients, that sort of thing – although you still have to have a good eye for issues and good judgment. But these positions are few and generally prized, and most people who get them stay there for years – unlike testers with programming skills, where new positions with better pay (certainly better than what I get paid) are opening up all the time.

Q. If you knew a 15-year-old who wanted to go into this industry, what would tell them to do now to start preparing?

A. Pursuant to my answer above: learn to code. Learn hard. You can be self-taught – that’s still a way to go; people care more about what you can do than what certifications you have. But if you’re self-taught, be prepared to discard assumptions you’ve made along the way. Notch (the Minecraft lead developer) was self-taught, and was self-admittedly not a great programmer as a result, because he learned a lot of things in a way that didn’t lead to very good code. Many programmers work as a team, and you will generally be a better coder if you learn with and from others.

If what you care about is developing titles – develop some. There are a large number of great tools and engines out there that will help you get started. Many are free, and they don’t require knowledge of coding; and better yet, using them might teach you something about scripting (which is kind of “programming lite” and super-helpful for understanding coding and coders). RPG Maker Ace, Unity, Torque, XNA – these are just a few names of many, and a lot of them have free trials or stripped-down free versions. Some games even have “build your own adventure tools” inside the game itself, like Neverwinter’s Foundry. Downloading one and playing around with it will give you a great idea of the kinds of things that go into developing a game. And if you successfully develop one, you’ll have something in your portfolio to show other people who might want to hire you.

If all you care about is getting a job that sometimes *plays games* – you don’t care about developing, you don’t feel like learning to program, you just want to work somewhere where everyone is as obsessed about games as you are – then you still need to be prepared to move to a city with test labs and developer studios, work long hours (or no hours), spend time doing mind-numbing things, and budget meager paychecks – in short, a lot of the things they “teach” you in high school. The main difference is that at a game testing lab, if you play hooky one too many times, you don’t get to go back. The job is, as one of my co-workers frequently put it, “better than digging ditches.” And sometimes, you will get to play games all day, for pay. Not too often, and definitely not as often as the recruiters will imply to you. But sometimes.

Q. I’ve heard that musicians and non-musicians listen to music differently: those who just enjoy it relate to it on a creative, emotional level, while those who play it also listen to it on a technical level. I know that when I’m spending a lot of time writing or painting, I definitely read and look at art differently, paying much more attention to craft. Do you approach video games differently now that you’re not (only) a player, but also involved in the creation of them? Are there things you notice now that you didn’t before?

A. I think I’m still more a player than really involved in the creation of the title. My ability to influence a title’s development is extremely peripheral if present at all, no matter what department I am in. I’m not involved in the design document, the roadmap, any of that sort of thing. I’m a cog in the machine, and just one of hundreds at that. So I still tend to look at games as a player in most respects.

What my time here has made me much more sympathetic to is the bugs themselves. The whole testing process is directly related to time. Finding bugs, fixing bugs, finding the bugs that got created by fixing the old bugs… that all takes time. Sometimes testers don’t find bugs because they didn’t have enough time to thoroughly test a feature, and sometimes developers don’t fix bugs because they didn’t have enough time to fix it right. Issues are judged on severity, and the most severe game-breaking issues are of course (usually) fixed, but that frequently means that other, more minor issues aren’t. So now when I see some kind of graphical occlusion or glitch, or something doesn’t make the right noise all of the time, or some process isn’t quite balanced, I don’t berate the developers, or the testing labs, or even the publishers. Sometimes, there are just bugs, and the nature of the development cycle is that sometimes games get released with bugs. You can’t fix everything.

I also read the list of credits at the end of games much more closely, because sometimes my friends are there. Testers that tested titles directly at the studios generally get listed at the end of the credits. It’s like being the 3rd assistant gaffer at some Hollywood movie. You played a small part, but you played a part, and it’s cool to see your name or the name of someone you know in the lights, even if it’s only for a second.

Our year of 14 standardized tests

I don’t believe standardized tests are an accurate measure of learning. In fact, one of the reasons I encourage students to extract themselves from high school is because it means leaving behind a culture where education is gauged by letter grades and multiple choice exams.

But I’m also strategic. If colleges want to award you a semester’s worth of credit in exchange for a one-hour, $100 test? Why argue?

In the first year after my daughter quit high school, she took 14 standardized tests. This felt absurd even as it was happening. I’d supported her leaving high school so that she could skip the busywork and have more time for authentic learning experiences, yet here we were, purchasing SAT and ACT preparation books, which she studied in lieu of actual literature.

But I don’t regret it, and here’s why. There is substantial overlap between the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. If you’ve already mastered this content, there’s no reason to start all over again taking Composition 101 your freshman year. Testing out of elementary college classes lets you take more interesting, engaging classes beginning with your very first semester. It lets you graduate sooner, it gives you more flexibility if you want to study abroad or do a double major or take a year off, and it can potentially save you thousands of dollars. Test out of your freshman year and your total college costs go down by 1/4. Depending on your tuition, your expected family contribution, and your total student loan debt, that can be a savings of twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars or more.

So what exams did she take?

CLEP tests

CLEP tests might be colleges’ best-kept secret. Most schools accept CLEP credit, but very few students have heard of this option. You can use CLEP exams to test out of many introductory classes, including College Composition, American history and American government, French, Spanish, and German, Western Civilization, first-year biology and chemistry, math through calculus, and other subjects. CLEP tests are easier than AP and SAT-II exams, but offer the same amount of credit. Each test takes about an hour and costs about $100 — far less than taking the class itself, even paying in-state tuition at a community college.

The first month she dropped rose out of high school, my daughter took 3 CLEP tests, for which she earned 24 hours of college credit, the equivalent of almost a year of college. The College Composition test allowed her to skip two semesters of Freshman English, and she tested out of her general education requirements in literature by passing the Analyzing Literature CLEP exam. She also tested out of her foreign language requirement by earning a full four semestersof German credit through a one-hour CLEP exam. Thanks in part to CLEP tests, she went from being a high school sophomore to a college sophomore in the space of one summer, while she was still sixteen.

SAT subject tests

Most selective schools recommend submitting at least two, and sometimes three, SAT subject tests (also called SAT-II tests). But strong SAT-II scores not only boost your admissions chances: at many schools, you can test out of basic requirements by scoring well on these exams. Consider taking some SAT-II subject tests even if your intended college does not require them.

While CLEP tests have very flexible scheduling — at Bunker Hill, you can take them on a drop-in basis — the SAT-IIs are only offered on certain days each year. Make sure you get the schedule and register in advance. Also be aware that some schools only accept foreign language SAT-II credit if it comes with a listening component. This test might be offered only one day a year. Deadlines are important!

PSAT

The PSAT is billed as a “practice” SAT exam, but it is much more than that. High PSAT scores might help you qualify as a National Merit Scholar, which makes you very desirable to colleges and usually comes with scholarship money. And the mere fact that you’ve taken the PSAT at all alerts colleges to your existence; it’s usually at this point that your family will be inundated with letters and e-mail from schools. The PSAT must be taken in the fall of 11th grade. Contact the College Board to register.

SAT and ACT

Everyone’s heard of the SAT, which is standard at most East and West Coast schools. The ACTis more popular in the Midwest. But most schools will accept either.

I strongly believe that most students should take both, since most do better on one test than the other. Once you receive your scores, submit the one with the highest overall percentile rank. You can take both tests multiple times, and only need submit your best scores.

NOTE: Sometimes schools will say that SAT/ACT scores are optional. If you’ve scored highly on these exams you should always submit them, even if they’re not required.

BDEA placement exam and the MCAS

Students who want to direct their own education but still want a high school diploma might consider enrolling in the Boston Day and Evening Academy, an alternative high school that awards credit by mastery over material, rather than “seat time” in traditional classes. My daughter enrolled in BDEA as a distance learning student. Although she didn’t take classes there, being a BDEA student allowed her to take advantage of their phenomenal personal support and guidance counseling.

She began her BDEA journey by taking a placement exam. She was given high school credit for work she’d already done; then worked out a plan to complete her remaining coursework at a community college. In order to earn a diploma from this public high school, she also needed to pass the MCAS.

Homeschooled students do not need a diploma to go to college, nor do they need to take the MCAS. However, there are many advantages to going this route.

Accuplacer

Many colleges allow high school-age students to enroll in individual courses as what’s called a “non-degree student.” As soon as she left high school, my daughter signed up for summer courses in College Algebra and Intro to Sociology at a community college. In order to be admitted, she had to first take the Accuplacer, a standardized test that measures college readiness in reading, writing, and math. Your Accuplacer score won’t earn you college credit, but it can earn you a place in a higher-level course, thus jumping over elementary requirements.

You’ll probably be told that this is just a placement exam, so there’s no point in studying for it. I disagree. It’s hard to raise your English score, but there’s a good chance you have all kinds of obscure math formulas floating around in your head, only half-remembered. Spend a week or two refreshing things like elementary algebraic formulas, the PEMDAS rule, and how to multiply fractions, and chances are you’ll test out of some remedial no-credit classes.

AP and DSST

Two other options of credit by exam are AP tests and DSST (formerly DANTES) tests. Traditionally, high school students taking AP exams have spent a year studying the subject in school, but this is not a requirement to register for the test. All things being equal, I’d recommend CLEP or SAT-II tests over the AP test, only because the AP test is very specific in both content and format. But some colleges that don’t accept CLEP or SAT-II credit do accept AP scores, so you should be aware of this option. DSST tests were designed for military personnel, but can be taken by anyone. They offer a wider range of subjects than the other options listed here.

My daughter didn’t take AP or DSST exams, but I’d be interested in hearing about the experiences of those who did.

Some general advice:

1. Not all colleges accept the same types of credit. Bunker Hill Community College, where my daughter got her AA, accepted up to 12 hours of CLEP credit in foreign languages, but didn’t accept any SAT-II credit. UMass-Amherst, on the other hand, where she’s now pursuing her BA, accepts up to 6 hours of SAT-II credit for each foreign language, but doesn’t accept any CLEP credit. And while both schools accept credit for German, only UMass-Amherst accepts credit for Latin. By taking the CLEP test in German, the SAT-II test in German with Listening, and the SAT-II test in Latin, she covered all her bases: earning 12 hours of credit at each institution, and passing out of her foreign language requirement entirely at both schools.

Knowing which schools accept which types of exam credit should be part of your college exploration process. For my daughter, it proved crucial: she was accepted at more than one school, but only UMass-Amherst accepted all of her exam credit, which allowed her to enter as a junior at age eighteen. Had she gone to one of the other schools that accepted her, she would have had to enter as a sophomore. Skipping an entire year of college leads to enormous cost savings, and was one of the key factors she took into account when she was deciding which college to attend.

2. It’s best to use credit by exam for subjects you already know, or subjects you don’t know but are enthusiastic about pursuing. If you already speak Spanish, preparing for the exam won’t require much time, so you can get your credit quickly and then move on to other things. On the flip side, say you’ve never studied American literature but you’re passionate about the subject and want to spend a year delving into books and designing your own curriculum. Great! Do that, and at the end of the year use an exam to get credit for your efforts. Chances are the exam will only ask you about a fraction of the knowledge you’ve acquired, but that’s fine: it was the intellectual journey you were after; college credit is just icing on that cake.

But if it’s a subject you don’t already know and you’re not especially interested in it — yet it’s required for college admittance or for college graduation — then you’re better off taking a regular class, either through an online high school program or a community college. Yes, it’s true you could buy a couple of prep books, study only the things they predict you’ll need to know, and try to game the system that way. I don’t begrudge anyone who chooses to jump through hoops like that, but really, is that the best use of your time? The hours you spend trying to second-guess the test could be spent in a real college class, where the curriculum is already developed for you and an instructor is there to answer all your questions.

3. At no point do you have to subscribe to the view that standardized tests are awesome. I know some folks — homeschooling parents especially — who foam at the mouth at the suggestion that standardized tests measure anything of value. Sure, they’ll say, this whole credit-by-exam scheme might be fine for drones, who believe testing is equivalent to learning. I get it. And yet I’d ask them, who’s the drone? Personally, I think it’s the college student who spends a year or two taking elementary survey classes — studying books she’s already read, math facts she’s already mastered, and foreign languages she already understands — and then spends another ten years working off the student loan debt for that experience. That’s the route I took myself, because I had no idea there were alternatives.

I hate standardized tests. I do. But until we have a more holistic system that allows students to get credit for independent study, this is an option that students can use to their own advantage.

Congratulations Liz!

Congratulations to Liz, who received her high school diploma yesterday! Liz was one of Rise Out’s very first students. This is what she had to say:

Best experience and a great opportunity to anyone who needs to finish high school or help with college options:

Rise Out helped me finish high school and get my diploma when I had no money, and very few options. When I had just half of a class left to finish (5 credits), every other option me and my school counselor had looked into would have made me repeat an ENTIRE semester’s worth of work. So instead of having to finish only half of a class, I would have had to take an entire semester worth of classes.

On top of that I would have had to PAY to do such.

When my friend referred me to Rise Out, Laura was able to help me find a way to finish my class online, just what I needed without the excess classes and work. Laura was flexible and kept in touch throughout the entire course, making sure I didn’t fall behind and giving me encouragement when I needed it! Since I also had no way to pay for my online class, I was given a grant which paid for my class, my book, and the other fees associated with signing up for the course.

Now, the course is over: I have my diploma and can now move on to finally starting college when I am ready, and can afford it. Rise Out is also helping me look into ways to help find and figure out ways to be able to complete college. This has helped me more than I could have ever imagined and I am extremely grateful and would recommend it to anyone who needs help finishing high school, or help with looking into college.
THANK YOU!! This has opened so many doors and opportunities for me and I will forever be grateful for being able to have had this option and opportunity.
— Liz Davis

Liz is planning to pursue a degree in Environmental Science. We’ll be keeping up with her, and look forward to hearing about her future endeavors!

Rise Out’s first students take different paths to college

Rise Out’s Indiegogo campaign has come to end. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed. Having a scholarship fund has helped us get off the ground as a new organization, starting with the support of two talented students.

Rise Out’s very first student has started taking college classes as she finishes her last semester at an alternative high school. She plans to become a teacher in an area of Boston that has had difficulty retaining qualified educators. She is already an advocate for children and the arts, as well as for girls and LGBT students who face bullying and gender stereotyping in school. I’m excited that she’s been working with us, because the country needs more smart teachers who love learning for its own sake, but who also understand that there are many valid reasons that students might disengage with school. She’ll be applying her personal experience with non-traditional education, concretely and directly, in her future career, thus paying forward the contributions of everyone who supported our summer campaign.

Rise Out’s second student moved across the country in the final semester of her senior year. Her new city offered few solutions for credit recovery; she was told that she needed to re-enroll in high school full-time and start her senior year all over again, even though she was only one credit shy of her diploma. By working with Rise Out, she was able to get approval to take one self-paced course online and transfer it back to her old school, allowing her to graduate much sooner. She’s now exploring her college options, as well as work and study opportunities abroad.

Two different students, in different circumstances, with different future goals, but both have been able to benefit from an individualized approach as they transition from high school to college.

Ann Romney and the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship

I have made at least half a dozen phone calls this summer trying to track down my daughter’s John and Abigail Adams Scholarship award money. This happens: her name is spelled two different ways in the BPS computer system, so things inevitably get lost. Sometimes I’ve wondered why I bother. At this point, it is only my obsessive-compulsive need for her to get all the scholarship money to which she is entitled that keeps me chasing after the paperwork, because the scholarship itself is not a game-changer. The estimated cost of attending UMass–Amherst for one year is $23,167. The Adams Scholarship covers $1,714. (And in my daughter’s case, only $286/semester, since the award overlaps with another one she received.)

So I was surprised last night when Ann Romney, in her speech to the Republican National Convention, championed this program as one of her husband’s strongest achievements during his one-term stint as Massachusetts governor:

Under Mitt, Massachusetts’s schools were the best in the nation. The best. He started the John and Abigail Adams scholarships, which give the top 25 percent of high school graduates a four-year tuition-free scholarship.

If you heard that and thought it sounded too good to be true, you’d be right. The Adams Scholarship is only available to Massachusetts public school graduates who go on to public colleges and universities, and in the UMass system, more than 80% of college costs are collected through “fees,” not “tuition.” And that doesn’t include the cost of room and board, books, travel expenses, and health insurance.

So yes, it’s a full-tuition scholarship... but tuition at UMass–Amherst is $857/semester. Families still have to come up with the other $10,000/semester in fees from other sources. (See also UMass–Lowell, UMass–Boston, and Bunker Hill Community College.)

And students who attend private colleges, or those who attend part-time, are not eligible at all.

That said, if you received an Advanced score on one section of the MCAS and an Advanced or Proficient score on the other, and if your combined scored placed you in the top 25% of your district’s graduating class, you will be eligible for the scholarship if you complete your diploma at a public high school in Massachusetts. Over the course of four years, that’s a $6,856 benefit in the form of a grant, not a loan, so it doesn’t have to be paid back. You don’t need to demonstrate financial need to qualify for it, and you don’t even have to fill out any special application; it’s awarded automatically (unless, of course, your name is spelled two different ways in the BPS computer system, in which case you should set aside your summer to track it down). If you are close to graduating but are considering leaving school, you should factor this into your decision. Homeschooled and privately educated students forfeit their eligibility.

One way around this is to transfer to an alternative high school. Initially, this was the reason my daughter enrolled in the Distance Learning Program at the Boston Day and Evening Academy. She did most of her academic work outside the school, but by earning a BDEA diploma she still qualified for the scholarship. BDEA has since become more restrictive about the students it accepts into the Distance program, but they are still far more flexible than most traditional high schools.

Re-thinking vocational education

Last May, education historian Diane Ravitch wrote a guest blog post forThe Washington Post questioning the wisdom of policies that aim to send all high school graduates to college. She called this idea a sham, pointing out that only a quarter of jobs in growth industries require a college degree, and rightly noting that college will change if it becomes compulsory: “It becomes like high school or even junior high school if unwilling and unready students are pushed into [it].”

Agreed. But she should have gone further.

Unfortunately, like so many articles on this subject, her post still assumes that there is a bright dividing line between intellectual and vocational work. The first is comprised of lofty scholarly pursuits (“ancient Greek or philosophy or archaeology or sociology”); the second, trades like plumbing or building a house. She calls these latter jobs “honorable,” which is usually code for “simple.”

We see this kind of either/or thinking all the time. Smart people work with their minds. Slow folks work with their hands. If you don’t like school, you must be in the second group. But that’s okay!you’re told. That work is “honorable.”

But is that division really accurate or useful? In her ethnographic study of surgeons, anthropologist Joan Cassell stressed the way surgeons admired (and envied) each other’s knowledge and experience and other personal qualities, but especially their technical proficiency:

Fundamental to a good surgeon is technical proficiency, or “good hands.” Lacking technical skill, a surgeon may be a good doctor, but never a good surgeon. A house officer told me that a senior surgeon, whose personal and professional behavior he described as “sleazy,” had very good hands. “He’s an elegant surgeon,” he said. When one observes a surgeon with “good hands” operate, everything looks easy, almost inevitable; the performance has a kind of rhythm, speed, and flow. Even emergencies, such as an unexpected hemorrhage, appear to be under control. Surgeons describe such colleagues admiringly, as a “superb technician,” a “brilliant technical surgeon,” a “good operator.” Of a man characterized as “the absolute essence of the ideal general surgeon,” a young surgeon said: “He just had the most incredibly gifted hands. You could compare him to Michaelangelo. That’s how much of a pleasure it was to operate with him and watch him.”

The young surgeon might also have mentioned Leonardo da Vinci, best known as an artist but also a brilliant cartographer, scientist, musician, and engineer who designed a prototype for the helicopter 400 years before humans achieved flight. Leonardo was so gifted in so many subjects that he has been described as the archetypical Renaissance man, but if he were alive today he’d probably be known as that guy who doodles in notebooks and tinkers in his garage.

If we can challenge the idea that intellectual work contains no hands-on component, it’s even easier to challenge the idea that hands-on work requires no intellect. Author and motorcycle mechanic, Matthew Crawford, Ph.D., wrote a beautiful article about this for The New York Times,“The Case for Working With Your Hands.”

“When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful,” he says, “the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail.” This portrayal obscures the mental challenge of such work:

In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire…

There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic. Measured in likelihood of screw-ups, the cost is not identical for all avenues of inquiry when deciding which hypothesis to pursue. Imagine you’re trying to figure out why a bike won’t start. The fasteners holding the engine covers on 1970s-era Hondas are Phillips head, and they are almost always rounded out and corroded. Do you really want to check the condition of the starter clutch if each of eight screws will need to be drilled out and extracted, risking damage to the engine case? Such impediments have to be taken into account. The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms. There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well.

Does it really make sense to describe the surgeons’ work as exclusively intellectual, and the mechanic’s work as exclusively “hands-on”? Their jobs are different, but both involve logic, diagnostics, judgment, technical competence (“good hands”), intense scrutiny to detail, participation in a community of learners, and years of acquired background knowledge.

Mythbusters’ Adam Savage is also a hands-on guy — and the work he does is probably even “honorable” in the sense that he inspires others with it — but no one would call that work simple. If you’ve ever watched an episode of Mythbusters, you know that all the what-if? science questions are followed by building and testing. Yet even to say “followed by” implies that the skills are discrete; they are not. Science, design, and construction are interwoven. Would you send a kid who liked that stuff to art school, engineering school, tell them to get a liberal arts degree in math or physics, or steer them towards shop and vo-tech? In an ideal world they wouldn’t have to choose, since each part feeds off the others.

In this video Savage talks about the challenges and joys of being a “maker”:

(For examples of what he means, see 10 Insanely Cool Things We Saw at Maker Faire.)

This debate is an old one. In the 1920s and 1930s, progressive education reformers like John Dewey advocated vocational work as part of the ordinary school day, and designed schools that included farm work and apprenticeships in the trades — for all kids, not just the “not-schoolish” ones. This educational model was popular with farmers in the Midwest, but immigrants to urban areas protested that they had not risked life and limb to come to America in order for their children to feed goats or work in a bakery. They wanted their children to be reading books. Both sides of this argument have merit, and it was never really settled. But that was at a time when technology did not permeate nearly every occupation the way it does today: “thinking” work required little technical competence, and “hands-on” work required little creativity.

Today, students who cast their lot with either side of this false divide — whether from fear, or from prejudice — risk falling behind in both.

Teach yourself German for free

I have been pleasantly surprised at how many good resources there are for learning German online. Below are some of the links I’ve found most useful. All of these sites are professionally managed, updated regularly, easy to navigate, and attentive to detail — they’re run by Germans, after all (ha) — and, most importantly, all of them are FREE. I haven’t included anything that requires you to purchase a book, buy software, pay a registration fee, take a class, etc.

First, familiarize yourself with the six levels of language competency outlined by the Common European Framework of Reference for Language, since German as Foreign Language sites rely on these a lot. Take the Goethe Institut placement test to determine your level. The Goethe Institut also has information about standardized tests at each level. Above the B2 level, most of the exams are recognized at all German universities and throughout the business world. I’ve found it useful to just to know such exams exist, since “learning German” is a vague goal but “passing the TestDaF” is very concrete.

Deutsche Welle should be your next stop. This site has more information than one person can use, and it’s updated daily. Most notably, they offer a free online German course for levels A1.1-B1.2. I worked through the last two levels and was amazed at how much information could be conveyed without a human teacher. Things like this raise the bar for online learning; it’s worth checking out just for that aspect alone.

Beyond that, the site has podcasts, short audio and video programs (with accompanying worksheets), world news (“slowly spoken”), general information about German history and culture, and much more. Almost all of the Deutsche Welle audio programs have an RSS feed, so you don’t have to keep returning to the site. The news programs come daily; the topical programs send two or three a week. Each program varies in length from two minutes to about half an hour, at all levels of German. I subscribed to about a half dozen of these.

While I was setting that up, I also subscribed to Deutsch lernen und studieren, Uli Mattmüller’s blog for students preparing to study in Germany. This is one of many sites devoted to preparation for standardized tests, including the TestDaF, Germany’s equivalent of the TOEFL exam. Others sites include Zertifikat Deutsch and the European Language Certificates mock exam site.

For vocabulary work, I discovered Flashcard Exchange, a web-based flashcard program. Make your own, or import others’ card files. (The interface isn’t great, but it does the job.) The VocabulixVocabulary Builder is also useful.

Grammar is probably the hardest thing to search for, not because there are too few sites, but because there are so many. Here are some that I like:

One particularly good grammar site is mein-deuschbuch.de, which has exercises in dictation, reading comprehension, and grammar, organized by level.

If all that gets tedious, find some German-only music on Last.fm, e.g. Deutschpop, Deutschrock, or Deutschpunk, or watch old episodes of the 1970s German sketch comedy Loriot.

Finally, italki and LiveMocha are social networking sites for foreign language learners. You can join italki independently or through Facebook. You can also visit Goethe-Island on Second Life.

Other sites

Beginning level:

  • Talk German, a beginning German course from the BBC, part of their German language section. The emphasis seems to be on vocabulary for travelers, with almost no grammar. Good choice for tourists; not so great if you plan on studying further.
  • German for Beginners, Hyde Flippo’s online course in basic German.
  • Radio Goethe plays exclusively German music.
  • Die Ärzte videos: This is a band I used to like in high school. I doubt they’d see themselves as a foreign language resource, but what I like about Die Ärzte is that all their lyrics use clear, standard German in rhyming quatrains, so they’re easy to understand. They’re usually funny, too, so there’s a payoff for figuring out the translation.
  • On a similar note, the BRAVO Magazine archive has 50 years of pop culture history written in uncomplicated German.

Intermediate/advanced level:

  • DeutschLern.net has grammar and comprehension exercises based on popular songs and movies. They also have a chat forum and allow you to communicate by e-mail with an instructor. Registration is required, but it’s free.
  • Deutsche Geschichte für Deutschlerner is an extended lesson on the history of the Berlin Wall, with comprehension worksheets.
  • KuBus is an archive of about 50 15-minute films about German culture and history.
  • RTLNOW: German television. Mostly reality TV, but programs load quickly and you can hear how people actually speak. ETA: This seems to be unavailable in the U.S. now. Try ZDF,DasErste, or ARTE instead.

Advanced level:

FYI

Study in Germany:
DAAD: The German Academic Exchange Service (college & grad school)
Fulbright (grad school)
Council on International Educational Exchange (high school & college)
Rotary International (high school)
German School System (K-12)
Transitions Abroad (all)

Jobs in Germany:
Bundesanstalt für Arbeit
Stellenmarkt von Die Zeit
IT & Telekommunikation
Stellenangebote am Careernet

On confidence, or conquering your “little hater”

Henry Rollins, former front man of Black Flag -- "You must go at it with almost monastic obsession."

MSNBC host (and high school drop-out!) Melissa Harris-Perry at Wellesley's 2012 graduation -- "Everybody's got to have a Charlotte. You're gonna be Wilbur a lot."

And Jay Smooth on conquering perfectionism and procrastination -- "We each have a little hater that lives inside our heads and tries to set up traps for us."

John Cleese on creativity

As we all know, it’s easier to do trivial things that are urgent than it is to do important things that are not urgent, like thinking. And it’s also easier to do little things we know we can do than to start on big things that we’re not so sure about. So, when I say create an oasis of quiet, know that when you have, your mind will pretty soon start racing again, but you’re not going to take that race seriously. You just sit there for a bit, tolerating the racing and the slight anxiety that comes with it. And after a time, your mind will quieten down again.
— John Cleese

Rise Out is launching!

Once just an idea, then a Tumblr account, then a Facebook group, Rise Out, Inc. is now a nonprofit organization incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. We will be launching on July 1, 2012. Very exciting!

Rise Out will provide academic counseling to Boston-area teens who want to leave high school (with or without a diploma) in order to create their own individualized, self-designed, one-of-a-kind education — an education where learning is paramount, but school is optional.

We’re currently filling out approximately sixteen thousand tax forms, which we hope will impress the kindly folk at the Internal Revenue Service. If they approve our nonprofit mission and grant us 501(c)(3) status, we — like Gandalf and Yoda before us — will be able to provide sage academic wisdom at no charge to students with financial need, and we’ll be able to give scholarships to students who want to take classes, workshops, or participate in activities around Boston. We’re also setting aside some money to give to financially strapped students who want to design projects of their own, like starting a business, or setting up a home art studio.

Rise Out, The Nonprofit Organization (as opposed to the less impressive Rise Out, The Tumblr Page) is made possible through the generosity of a donor who liked our idea and has agreed to pay our start-up costs. However, we’ll still need to do more fundraising to cover the cost of scholarships. We’ll be starting a crowdfunding campaign soon, but in the meantime feel free to visit our Support page and donate. Even small gifts make a difference!