Sparking Innovative Ideas

This year, Laura’s science classes at One Spark Academy are focusing on innovation! We started the year with a study of biomimicry…a relatively “new” science where designers, scientists, and engineers use nature’s models to solve human problems. (We even made the news!) In Session 2, students were asked to come up with an invention, and many drummed up ideas that solve some common, everyday frustrations. Here’s a look back at what the students created!

(PS: Stay tuned for their Ventura County Science Fair projects in March!)

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]Aidan had a problem to solve. He goes walking with his mom and their dog, but his mom recently had surgery. What to do? Can your dog help you carry your cellphone and keys when you don’t have pockets?  With a cellphone bandana, yes. It’s a hands-free way to hold the leash or to catch oneself in case of a fall. Aidan also thought it made his dog stylish and helpful.  He did discuss the idea that the weight put in a bandanna should be considered based on the size of the dog.  He doesn’t want dogs harmed, but knows they like to be helpful.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]Amara invented the idea of Shoap. Her concern about the environment combined with her creativity led her to design a shampoo bottle made out of soap, thus reducing the need for plastic.  The lid would be made out of a compostable material that would last the life of the bottle.  Amara noted that she likes liquid shampoo, but her parents have a shampoo soap that lasts longer than her liquid shampoo.  So, to make her liquid shampoo last longer, she could use the bottle for body soap.  She gave facts about the pollution in the ocean and how it harms the fish.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]Aryel’s idea was to improve the safety of cars and reduce the number of accidents on the road.  Cars would have a magnetic forcefield that would not allow them to go into other lanes of traffic, if there was another car.  The cars would repel each other.  Great thinking!

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”right” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]Sophia, who loves to ride, considered the comfort of the animal. She dreamed up a gel type of pad for the horse’s back.  It would be attached to the saddle, and provide comfort and ease to the horse.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]Maya created a commercial that was for her motorized boogie board.  The idea was to help those who were fighting currents, and needed assistance.  She mentioned that you won’t always want to use the motor, but if you drifted off or needed help, it would be available.  She used what she learned from PAX to assist her in her project.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”right” height=”150″ width=”150″][/image_frame]This young lady is asked to wear reflective clothing at night when she goes bike riding, so she created a new line of clothing that is more appealing to youth.

A Fascination with Real Food

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This article was published April 19, 2013, on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (US) website. Article is no longer be available.

When you hear the words “middle school” and “lunch” in the same sentence, you might think of a teenager with a can of Coke in one hand, and a bag of chips in another. What if I asked you, instead, to picture a group of 11-15-year-old students chopping onions with real knives, sautéing vegetables over a burner, or cutting Brussels sprouts off the stalk? Can you imagine teens making brownies with beets and avocado, or enjoying apples dipped in date paste and topped with coconut or almonds? If so, you’ll know what lunch is like at One Spark Academy in Thousand Oaks, CA, courtesy of our Food Fascination courses.

I started One Spark Academy in July 2011 and was adamant that a healthy food component be part of it. After 16 years in public education, it was clear that more kids each year were eating poorly and moving less, and that’s a recipe for big problems down the road! During this time, I hosted “healthy lunch” in the confines of my classroom, to provide a positive environment in which kids could enjoy eating well; meanwhile, in trash bins outside, I observed entire healthy lunches dumped in lieu of candy, chips or extra time to play. My attempts to get kids to commit to choosing real food over processed junk was met with debates about whether a granola bar was healthy, or if iceberg salad laden with heavy dressing could be considered nutritionally acceptable. I came to realize that many adults were disconnected from real food and, as such, their kids had a hard time adopting a healthy diet.

So, I decided to address these issues through One Spark Academy, a learning center for middle school age students who are homeschooled or on independent study. Beyond offering a variety of interesting academic and enrichment courses in a safe, calm environment, our holistic view of education includes a commitment to students’ health as much as to their minds. We want teens to learn about various foods, how to cook, how to eat well, and how to enjoy sweets in moderation. And, everyone who works with us agrees to eat well while at our center. Participants even promise to bypass the vending machines on the property we rent and instead bring healthy snacks.

Educator Laura Holt-Erlig took on the challenge of creating a stellar food program.  With no formal culinary training, her passion for cooking and gardening is combined with creativity and commitment to our mission, which enabled her to dream up something wonderful. Instead of just providing a healthy lunch option four days a week, we took our commitment to nutritional awareness one step further by offering Food Fascination, our signature cooking course, so students could be hands-on participants in the kitchen– learning as they help prepare the day’s meal.

What makes Food Fascination unique is that it’s not just a “How To” class. It’s a “Why?” class as well. Prior to an hour of cooking in the prep kitchen of the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, the facility we rent, there’s a classroom lesson on, for example, seasonal foods, nutrition, or portion size. And, it’s amazing what can be created in a kitchen without a stove, oven or any other modern kitchen appliances typically found in “school kitchens”.

Under the watchful eyes of Laura and chef assistant Jerri Baker, students skillfully and safely use a variety of sharp knives, burners, food processors, toaster ovens, or even a camping stove to create, from scratch, soups, salads, stir-fried vegetables, pasta, vegetarian sushi, and more. Raw ingredients are always fresh and seasonal, with an emphasis on nutritional balance. When available, herbs, squash, and lettuces are picked fresh from our student-run garden. Sometimes, there’s a bit of chicken, and often there’s a delicious dessert with unexpected ingredients (like delectable ice cream made fresh with coconut milk and avocado). Sweets are enjoyed thoroughly, but… in moderation. After lunch, everyone composts what is left, then washes, sterilizes and dries his or her own reusable plate and silverware.

We’re really proud of what we’ve created, and even more proud that we did it with very little money or elaborate kitchen resources.

Our goals are simple: to teach kids about a variety of real food, and provide them the experience of eating well and feeling great. This way, they can make informed choices about their diets and establish the kind of healthy nutritional habits early in life that will serve them as they grow up. Granted, we are still small, presently serving about 25-30 students and staff for lunch a day. But we’re hoping to create a sustainable model that will continue to grow because of our passion, and our commitment to making it happen.

DSC_0672-2About the author: Lori Peters is the Founder, Executive Director, and an Educator at One Spark Academy. While she admits to loving homemade dessert and ice cream as much as she loves salads, sushi, and vegetables, she believes schools have a moral imperative to teach and model healthy habits. Lori is most in her element when working with creative kids who love to learn and passionate teachers who love to teach.


DSC_0156Jerri Baker (L) and Laura Holt-Erlig (R) with our 2012-2013 One Spark Academy Cookbook.


Organic Education?

SlowWhen I first saw this picture (original source unknown), it was one of those “Aha” moments. Todd and I had been tossing around similar PR ideas, hoping to encapsulate our mission and the feeling people seem to have when they join One Spark. But, here, the word “SLOW!” really resonated with me, combined with a picture out in nature– Yes! And, nurturing “free range children” makes a lot of sense these days. In fact, we all need to just slow down, be a bit more free, and get out of the cage that too many of us allow ourselves to live in.

On June 14, 2013, we wrapped up our second year of operation, after a rousing four days of Imaginession. OnTogether that day, we held a wonderful ceremony to honor the kids who are moving on to “real school”, some whom we’ve known a very long time. We grown ups have learned a lot about organic education in the past two years, but at the ceremony and during our Circles that last week, it was clear that the kids were the most instrumental in teaching us. Their interests, their ideas, and their energy… all helped us figure it out because, when we started One Spark, we really didn’t have a clear road map (and I personally didn’t have a clue about how a business runs!). We just knew there were seven kids who wanted something different, a group of us teachers who needed that as well, and parents who were looking for help.

To give you an idea about the organic nature of One Spark, during this past year, Kaylee asked Laura if we could have an archaeology course. Laura knew Kaylee loved all things involving Indiana Jones, and considered how she might pull it together when she herself is not an archaeologist. Well, if you know Laura, you know she’s pretty resourceful. Flash forward to our Archaeology Slideshow to see how this immensely popular class took off. Going back a bit further, in May 2012, Liza and I spent a weekend on Santa Cruz Island for a NatureBridge teacher training. At the end of the two days, the group leaders asked us what we could bring back to our classrooms. A lot of teachers loved the ideas, but couldn’t figure out how to implement them within the constraints of their text-driven science lessons. Thankfully, Liza and I were free to act on our good idea. Let’s make it a course, and let’s call it Local Island Ecology! And, Viola! The results speak for themselves. And up until recently, the idea of a class on Biomimicry had never crossed our minds, until Jerri expressed her passion about it. Within a few weeks, both Laura and Jerri were connected with leading biomimicry experts in LA, had drummed out a short course for Imaginession, and are now excitedly planning out a full session course for next year. Because why? Well, because the kids loved it! (And so did Laura and Jerri).

I mean seriously… how can one person dream up all this fun? Well, one person cannot (and certainly not one person sitting up in Sacramento outlining how to make schools more standardized), but a group of passionate people can. 🙂 And that’s how it happens. Good ideas float our way, and sometimes they just have the right timing and we have the right resources. If your student gets to take First Aid, Cop Talk, Actor’s Studio, or even Mixed Martial Arts next year, you’re seeing organic education in action because those are examples of, “Wow, that sounds neat. Let’s do it.”

Now, to be real, One Spark hasn’t been easy. Okay, it’s been A LOT easier than anything I’ve ever done education-wise, because when we’re in our element, hard stuff doesn’t feel like work. But, there have been sacrifices, to be sure. Todd and I have spent way too much of our own money to get it going, and we’re never quite sure what’s ahead. Our teachers have traded in their financial security (temporarily) for peace of mind. There’s also the fact that even organic planning takes tremendous organization and clarity. And, some of our friends don’t get it and think we’re a bit nuts to not make a “living” for how hard we work. On the flip side… the rewards have been monumental. For my experience, there are the little things, like not worrying too much about making sure my blog posts are timely because no one is breathing down my neck to be a PR expert. There are bigger things, like being able to creatively (and organically) teach kids who want to learn, and not have to spend my valuable planning time on paperwork that no one reads, and silly rules that don’t help kids. Then, there are the biggest things in the world, like how the timing of One Spark serendipitously aligned with the last two years of my father’s life. Because of One Spark’s organic approach, and manageable time commitment, I was able to be there for my Dad when he needed me most– something that, as I see it, was better than a billion dollars.

What’s next? Some great courses are planned for the coming year, but I’m probably most excited about what’s not planned, because when you take a bit of a free-range approach, cool stuff just happens.

~Lori Peters


In Memory of My Greatest Teacher

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left”][/image_frame]On March 27, at 9:15 in the morning, my sweet father, Jan Peters, passed away. The end of his life was expected, as he had been dealing with health problems for several years and recently had elected to receive hospice care, rather than end up in the hospital again. However, as much as we were prepared…nothing ever really prepares you to say goodbye one last time, especially to someone you have spent your whole life looking up to.

No matter how old I got, I called him daddy. With a gentle spirit and loving words, he firmly instilled in all four of his children the value of hard work, honesty, integrity, loyalty, and the responsibility that each of us had to ourselves to follow our passions. He was an educated man, originally from New York, who met and married my beautiful Italian mother Rita on a whim after casually dating her for less than a year (and really, he proposed in a bar and married her on her lunch hour). She would be the love of his life, with whom he would have celebrated 60 incredible years together this coming October. He never worried too much about financial security in those younger days; he just knew hard work would pay off if a life was lived with purpose. He drove an ice cream truck, had a driving school, rode a Harley, was a wrestling champion, changed his name for stage acting, and even served in the US Navy, but then decided to up and leave New York, with his family in tow (but before I was born), so he could pursue his acting career in California.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left”][/image_frame]Although he had a deep passion for acting, he also had a job he mostly enjoyed that paid the bills. For 23 years, Dad worked for the Conejo Valley Unified School District as an educator, attendance officer and counselor–all time spent with high school kids. My mother also worked for the CVUSD, as a school secretary (as she was called then) and then carried on for many years after she retired, serving as a substitute office manager. Combine their years with my 15 years in the CVUSD and that’s a lot of service! In fact, all of us kids were products of the CVUSD. However, when I became disillusioned with my career path, my daddy was the first to remind me that money wasn’t everything. Along with my husband, Dad was my most ardent supporter, even if he was a little nervous when I gave up my tenure and security in the district to pursue other avenues in education. He celebrated with me, and he cried with me. More than anything though, he was proud of me for standing firm in my beliefs. As luck would have it, my departure from public education two years ago gave me the greatest gift a daughter could ask for: to be present for my parents in their time of need.

Dad was a man of the highest moral conviction, even if he wasn’t a man of religious faith. He didn’t stand for insincerity or superficial behavior, but he knew how to have fun and bring out the best in people. He had a wonderful sense of humor and could make us laugh in even the most difficult of situations. It’s no surprise that Dad kept friends for a lifetime, as his children have. The motto “Work hard, play hard” was embodied in my father. He raised sons who followed his lead in terms of integrity and family values (and sarcasm), and he raised a daughter (me) who waited patiently to meet and marry the kind of man who carried the same level of integrity as he had (no doubt, I did!). Dad was proud that all of his children lived healthy, productive, passionate lives, and that we chose spouses who share our values and love us wholly. Our family grew with our betrothed, as well as seven beautiful grandchildren who carry the same passion, light and love as their parents.

Despite his rebellious spirit, Dad was a meticulous planner. His organization and foresight were traits that we are especially appreciating now. He and Mom even planned out all of their funeral arrangements–20 years ago! They didn’t want their children to carry the burden. When years of health problems finally made my daddy’s daily life too difficult in the past couple of years, he worried most about burdening us. He chose hospice care so he could have control over his end of life… to eat the foods he loved, watch the news, and be comfortable with Mom in their assisted living home. When I last saw Dad, I think we both knew it would be our final visit. After our Saturday lunch, I looked him deeply in the eyes and, as I had done so many times before, thanked him for being my daddy, and told him how very much I loved him. Then I left the next day to take the students on our trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, along with my oldest brother Ron and his daughter Rachel (who works for OSA). We got the call on Wednesday, March 27th that Dad had passed away peacefully in his bed, with Mom and his sweet hospice care nurse near his side. Soon after I heard the news, I walked into the rainforest to be alone, and found solace in the beautiful, strong, mossy, and deeply rooted trees. I could feel my father’s embrace in every tree I wrapped my loving arms around.

Knowing Dad’s knack for planning, he probably thought this would be a good time to leave us. He could rest easy knowing that I was doing what I loved, that I would have the following week off to take care of Mom, and that his kids would all be available to deal with what was needed. He loved us in that way.

[image_frame style=”framed_shadow” align=”left”][/image_frame]In response to the Buddhist Koan “The Bodhisattva’s Great Mercy” in the book Bring Me the Rhinoceros, author John Tarrant wrote something that has brought my husband Todd and me great comfort. He wrote: When all the stories about how to live fall away, what is left might be the real. But what about the human experience of the real? What to call it? What accurately describes it? What if the word might be love? When there was simple seeing, that would be love. Catching a ball, that would be love, and picking up a child also. This would make love more basic than any other experiences, placing it underneath everything else, at work in the blind night and the black earth. If this were true, it might make sense of the great intimacy and contentment you can feel just breathing and walking under boughs, walking through a spring morning–through the whole body, as the koan puts it. Sometimes it is hard not to feel linked in a great net. 

So Daddy, here’s to your love. May I continue to embody your spirit, compassion, and integrity, and honor this world with the loving manner in which you lived.

Your Sweetheart,


Note: My father’s charity of choice is One Spark Academy. Nothing would have made him prouder than to know we are making a difference in the lives of children, and that we remain successful. In lieu of flowers, our family is asking that any donations you wish to offer be made to One Spark Academy.






Khan’s One World Schoolhouse

This blog post is by guest blogger Tom Stough, college librarian. Thanks Tom! 

Gentle OSA reader,

One might ask, why read a book by the founder of Khan Academy?  Aren’t his ideas well-known?  (One of his videos is posted right here on the OSA site, in fact.)  Well…your book critic is a librarian and kinda old-fashioned.   However…

I read The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Salman Khan. 

It was gratifying to learn a bit more about Khan the man as opposed to Khan Academy, although both are intertwined.  I learned that he is now the father of two young children, for example.  Many know that KA began as a tutoring project for his young cousin Nadia.  Regarding his philosophy, I had been under the wrong assumption that when my son Aidan learns math from KA, it was intended as a supplement to classroom material.  In fact, Khan intends for his material to be learned (and “mastered”) on its own, though he also describes extensive collaboration with Bay Area schools.

In one chapter, Khan writes at some length about the Prussian/German heritage of K-12 education worldwide and how that legacy hinders children today. This occurs often through low expectations of learning “well enough” rather than achieving “mastery” and “excellence”.  This won’t be news to many homeschooling parents.  However, he is becoming a force in the movement to reform primary and secondary education.  He advocates changing from small, single-age classes to large, multi-age sections taught by teams of teachers and parents.  This resemblance to OSA’s practices is not accidental.  And as a college librarian, I was very interested in Khan’s ideas for transforming higher education.  He skewers the education establishment at all levels for its infamous reliance on the “broadcast lecture”.  He quotes long-ignored studies that show students of all ages “tune out” after about 20 minutes.  (Members of the clergy have understood this for decades.)  I’ll be changing my own teaching practices as a result of reading this thoughtful (and controversial and readable) work.

–Tom Stough, OSA Parent

The One Spark Story

In July, 2011, my husband Todd and I founded One Spark Academy. Within a week or so after choosing its name, we had a business license, website, teachers, a location, and seven students. Compared to other educational endeavors of which I’d been part, the founding of One Spark Academy was a cakewalk. Thankfully, that was the plan: to create a place where creative ideas could be nurtured without “red tape” getting in the way, and where learning would happen in a positive, calm environment, absent the burdens of regulatory restraints, standardization, or a “check off the box” approach to work production.

But, One Spark Academy didn’t just fall out of the sky. In fact, it had been evolving long before we gave it a name.

sc01a4b120The foundation of One Spark Academy actually began in 1994, as a percolating series of ideas and observations about education. I had just completed my teacher training at Blanche Reynolds Open Classroom in Ventura, which later branched off to create Ventura Charter School. What I saw there changed me, and would lay the foundation for my vision of how learning should be. The next year, I started my career as an educator in the Conejo Valley Unified School District’s Open Classroom. CVUSD’s Open Classroom was a special pilot program at that time, with three classrooms in grades K-4, and its founding philosophy rooted in whole-child education. Within just a few years, the program grew to six classrooms and extended through 6th grade.


During those early years, creativity flourished! I had time to put together cross-age lessons that were student-driven. As the program’s team leader for most of my 15-year tenure, I sat on numerous committees and helped drive much of the program’s philosophy and development with a core group of outstanding educators. Over the years, I helped create and/or lead festivals, events, traditions, plays… as well as events for Conejo Elementary (the main campus where our program resided), like spelling bees, the Geography Bee, Student Council, DARE graduations, Women in History, Honor Roll, you name it. If it motivated kids, I was game.

sc01a5be55By 2003, I had found time to pursue my Master’s Degree in Education and my Preliminary Administrative Services Credential. I also enjoyed traveling during summers and breaks. But with each passing year, I noticed it was getting harder to creatively meet the needs of my learners, and connect with them and their families, while enriching my own learning. More of my personal time was encroached upon by the rising demand and stress of new regulations, new administrators, teacher training, curriculum development, tests, and meetings. Most of my weekends and evenings were swallowed up in work: futile attempts to catch up, clean up my classroom and finish grading papers. Sometimes, I would dread the start of the week, especially if I had run out of time to plan the lessons that I knew motivated kids. I started waking up at 4:30 AM so I could have more hours to work before school.

Numerous trainings and summer workshops for exciting thematic units fell by the wayside; there was little room for subjects that wouldn’t be tested. No Child Left Behind drove a push to standardize curriculum and forced education teams to focus their planning on analyzing data, diagnosing kids, and prepping for state tests, rather than highlighting student strengths or figuring out ways to meet unique learning styles. And I wasn’t alone in my observations. Discussions about homework, testing, and the need for more progressive education became part of a national conversation, combined with movies such as Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman. The debates prompted many calls to action but, in such a climate, good ideas seemed too difficult or costly for entire districts to implement. More and more teachers I knew were increasingly frustrated by their inability to do what they felt was right for their students. It became tougher to be an administrator too. In 15 years at CVUSD, I worked under eight different administrators, each one bringing his or her own vision, challenging the staff’s desire for continuity.


Additionally, some of my 6th graders went off to middle school only to find their passion for learning wane. They’d come back to tell me they missed the connection, writing, projects, speeches, creative time, Circle, mentoring, and their little buddies, all of which they experienced in Open Classroom. It wasn’t surprising when they shared what they didn’t like about middle school: bullies, peer pressure, drugs, distractions, and too much homework. Some encountered serious emotional stress, and/or left to homeschool. Parents of these students often felt stuck. Some families became ravaged by the pressures, concerns, and the stress-related illnesses their kids were facing.

I had pursued my administrative credential in case I was offered the opportunity to be the program’s administrator, expand it (maybe to middle school?) and help secure its “whole child” principles of creativity, projects, healthy habits, environmental education, and so forth, since these tenets were being challenged by the focus on standardization and benchmarks. I wanted to see more kids benefit from what I saw was possible in education– education from the inside out.

IMG_3953But, being in a classroom was my life, and I saw myself every bit the learner as I was a teacher. I loved planning events such as Women in History each year, taking kids on field trips, seeing students’ talents and confidence ignite when they did a speech, leading literature groups, and helping kids work through math problems. I also loved the Open Classroom with a passion. I was an advocate for kids and families and loved speaking out about my convictions and the program’s mission.

Sadly, when budget cuts hit the state, solid teaching teams everywhere were hit hard. Fresh, new, energetic teachers with up to five years of experience began getting laid off (or “pink slipped”) in droves, bringing more upheaval. We were not immune. In 2009, the Open Classroom lost four members of its team, out of six. Enough was enough. So, prompted by the requests and frustrations of many parents and kids, I decided to write the framework for a K-8 charter school. It wasn’t an easy decision; I knew that following my heart would be hard on many people I cared about, including my closest colleagues. I considered leaving education entirely, but too many families were counting on me to press on.

IMG00139-20090929-0928Over that next summer, I wrote the charter and became a lead petitioner (along with Laura Erlig and Jon Baker) of a founding group that worked tirelessly to get the school off the ground. Laura and educator Liza Scheer also served with me on a program development team to map out how the vision would be implemented in the classrooms of our future school. During the subsequent school year, Laura and I continued to work at Open Classroom as team partners. It wasn’t easy. Some people in the school and the district stopped speaking to us. I was kicked off of committees, and our efforts were dragged through the press. But, we showed up to work every day, staying strong for our students. After the district expectedly declined our petition, the charter school was approved by the Ventura County Office of Education in February 2010. With heavy hearts about leaving a program we loved, Laura and I resigned in June 2010 from our CVUSD positions, relinquished our tenure, and readied ourselves for the next chapter of our lives.

Unfortunately, soon after embarking on our first year in the new school, we came to find that a new level of politics and bureaucracy continued on with the public charter school. My vision, as set forth in the Charter, was a challenge to implement and my voice was fiercely overruled by members of the school’s new administration. I became convinced that I didn’t have the support to build the school (and middle school program) that I envisioned and promised the community. So, I decided to resign my position as Education Team Leader on June 12, 2011. Walking away from a good salary and health benefits was of little importance to me. At that moment, after so many years of trying to move education in a new direction, I would have rather volunteered my time to pursue what I believed than to work in a way that felt contrary to my convictions. (Little did I know that I would be volunteering my time a lot longer than expected!). Although the months leading up to my resignation were the hardest of my life, I knew that I would be guided by a vision, one that had been my compass for more than 16 years, and the support of many who knew my heart and intentions.

img_3464Miraculously, it would be the students who ignited the next flame. In July 2011, I was contacted by several families who wanted to help me. Parents were prepared to homeschool their kids if it meant their children could learn in the way we had envisioned. A few brainstorming meetings with supporters ensued, and the clouds lifted. The positivity we started to feel again was incredible! The Teen Center leaders believed in us too and agreed to rent us space for our classes. The name, One Spark Academy, was perfect for how this new “out of the box” learning center would proceed.

IMG_2233Thankfully, Laura and Liza were on board. We all agreed that this next chapter in our careers would be aligned under a single vision, and our commitment would be to create an environment where we could teach in the way we believed, without red tape, restrictions, or “feel-bad” management that too often makes teaching and learning a stressful experience. Compared to the charter school, which had taken an emotional and physical toll on us after two years of mostly 16 hour days, 7 days a week, One Spark Academy was up and running in just a few days from its conception. Our creative spirits opened up and we enthusiastically developed new classes (such as Food Fascination, Math at Your Level, Ancient Journeys…) with our small group of students in mind. We had time to problem solve, space to breathe, good energy, compassion, and love. During this process, our hearts healed and our passion for teaching came alive again. Numerous families told us they had sought refuge inside our doors, and stayed because we offered such an incredible, flexible, and positive learning opportunity.

sycamore-hikeIn August 2011, One Spark Academy started its first session with seven kids and four teachers. By October 2015, more than 120 students have benefitted from our classes, and our staff has grown to 11 full and part-time educators and support personnel. In our first year alone, we were recognized in the news for our healthy cooking and our Women in History event. We’ve taken kids and parent chaperones to Yosemite, Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, Santa Cruz Island, and the Santa Monica Mountains for incredible adventures. We’ve held cooking labs at the California Health and Longevity Institute in the Four Seasons, Westlake. We’ve created two cookbooks, launched a new website, and became a non-profit corporation. We’ve documented our progress and passions in numerous videos. We’ve built a stellar reputation for “walking the walk”, even if many still don’t quite know how to define us. We’re not perfect, and we’re certainly still figuring it out, but we’ve shown that when good ideas percolate amongst a group of talented, motivated and committed individuals, great things happen, and they can happen fast! At One Spark Academy, we allow those sparks to ignite. And, isn’t that the purpose of education? To unwrap potential, rather than stifle it? We think so.

~Lori Peters

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Manners vs. Rigor

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“An education filled with rigor but absent inspiration is meaningless, even damaging. But, an inspired education without rigor can be exceptional. That’s because when we’re inspired, learning doesn’t feel rigorous.”

I came up with the above quote while shopping recently in a local Trader Joe’s. Apparently, it was soon after pick-up time from school, because in the 20 or so minutes I was there, I overheard three different conversations amongst parents who happened to run into each other. In the produce section, one woman told a friend about her crying child in the car who was in trouble for not doing her homework. Then, while getting my eggs, another complained behind me to her friend. “He hates school,” she sighed, and then went on to explain how “he HAS to do all of it” (I’m not sure what) or else lose his spot on the team. Finally, near the nuts and wine section (apropos), a group of four parents talked about their recent and upcoming tours of local schools (I’m guessing middle schools), and then debated which of them had the least amount of drug usage and scandal,  citing “I heard…”  stories like they were a group of teenagers. I’m not kidding.

When exactly did education become such a battle, and so filled with anxiety? When did we become so accustomed to it being something we must just get through, with the same enthusiasm one might approach a colonoscopy?

We can change this. And we must. But, we can’t just hit the reset button and approach education like we did 40 years ago, because the tools and the values are different today. Combine that with the exponential pace of information overload, and there’s far too much to memorize or be “required” to know. So, we have to think differently about what it means to be well-educated, and not kid ourselves into thinking that a rigorous education is going to pay off with happiness, success and inspired ideas. After almost 18 years in education, I’m convinced that a good education has NOTHING to do with rigor, at least if rigor is defined as “exhaustive, demanding, strict, or extreme.” Let me explain why.

There are things in life that we must do, things which we don’t love and which may not inspire us. But we do them to achieve a larger goal, or at least we should. And, there are times when “learning activities” can be rigorous: the culmination of a project, hours of rehearsal for a play, or overcoming a challenge in life or school. However, there’s a difference between working hard toward a goal when you have underlying passion, and feeling forced to work hard at something that you can’t find connection to. Too much of the latter, and a “rigorous education” becomes a chore. Not a good way to view something we want kids to engage in for life. Education should include a balance of deep learning opportunities, play, and creativity. Beyond that, kids who are ready for “rigor” will find themselves “working rigorously” at the things in which they find purpose.

In addition, let’s not confuse rigor with manners. Having good manners in education is pretty simple:

  • Show up on time, be prepared with what you need, and know what is expected. This means you value what you’re learning, and the time of those learning with you. Whether in the classroom, or for a job interview…same thing. 
  • Know the material, but not vaguely as in, “I read it but forgot.” Instead, know it like, “I came with questions and am ready to participate today.” Readiness means you value your own learning and will help make the class (activity, event, or?) more engaging. Engaged learning leads to inspiration, something we should have whether in or out of the classroom.
  • Honor your commitments. Did you say you’d write that paper? Did you say you’d bring that prop? Then do it. Can’t remember? Get a notebook to write stuff down. If you don’t plan to honor your commitments, you’re not going to be well-educated, because getting a good education (in anything) means you will need to practice by DOING. Learning doesn’t just happen by osmosis.
  • Finally, good manners means having high expectation in behavior: yourself, other students, parents, and teachers. When the learning environment is pleasant, in the classroom and at home, we want to show up and engage in our learning, not find excuses to avoid it.

None of these steps for being well educated must involve rigor, madness, tedium, stress, or force. If we could just step back, and focus our energies on the idea that education is not a place where we should occasionally show up unannounced, but rather an engagement in which we can choose to be present, we will never have to wonder if we’re “doing enough.”

Early in my career, a wise parent told me why she chose the program where I was teaching her children. She asked herself two questions: “Are they happy? Are they learning?”

Sound advice.

~Lori Peters


Follow Your Dream

Did you ever buy a lottery ticket and wonder what you’d do with the winnings? I haven’t often played, but I’ve had quite a few conversations with people about whether or not we’d return to our jobs if we won. Mostly, the answer was a fairly resounding, “No way!” For most, the idea of a lottery win was a dream to begin again and (this time) follow one’s passion. Fortunately for me, in the early years of my teaching career, I was sure that if I won the lottery, I would keep working with kids. For me, teaching was much more than a job.

My theory was tested in June 2011 when I decided to leave the charter school I helped build, and step away from public education for good. Earlier that year, the charter school was still a dream come true, the culmination of 16 years of practice, success, failures, and research, and I grappled with the decision to leave it. But I learned that the packaging of what I had created was not as important as how that package made people feel, and how it made me feel. There were things happening at the school that I couldn’t support, and there were parents, students and teachers feeling disillusioned with the education system in general. I had talked about my vision for so long, and to so many people, and I took my promise to heart. Mostly, my vision was about education that felt good and felt right. Learning should be inspired, and a classroom should have time for thinking and creating. Additionally, “school” should be the most responsive arena for learning, a place where its leaders could stop doing things we knew weren’t working, without layers of red tape preventing swift change. When I left, even I was surprised by my lack of concern over the loss of my salary, benefits, and stability. My only concern was doing the right thing. Life is short, you know, and I didn’t want to spend another minute thinking, “I should have.”

Suddenly, I was swimming in an ocean that vacillated from darkness to light. The losses I endured (along with many others) were met with an awakening, and a blank canvas on which I could create something new. And, wouldn’t you know… it was my students who showed me the way. One Spark Academy was born just one month later. And, as opposed to over a year of solid 18 hour days (no breaks) creating the charter school, it took just a few days to get One Spark going- coupled with a commitment to the vision, a business license, a devoted support team, common sense, and a desire by so many for a solid educational experience that actually felt good. I’m proud to say that we are not a school. Unfortunately, “school” has too often become synonymous with inflexibility, disconnection, procedural and busy-work overload, overcrowded classrooms, exhausted teachers, and testing to the point of forgetting what the point was of what we were teaching.

One Spark is something new, a model which has yet to be completely defined: a “non-school” home base and alternative to “homeschooling-at-home”. It’s pretty wonderful to have control over our small classroom size, and a schedule with time built in time for teachers to creatively plan and the students to focus on their work.  We can adhere to our commitment of modeling health and wellness, and embrace suggestions or concerns quickly and responsively. When a new participant joins us, he or she is welcomed like family, because every member of our community matters- whether on site for one class, one day, or all week. And, as opportunities for exciting new partnerships present themselves (like the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, the  California Health and Longevity Institute at the Four Seasons, or NatureBridge), our decisions are based on a shared philosophy and mutual enthusiasm, not required adherence. Most importantly, we practice respect, compassion, and care for all involved, on a daily basis.

I’m not opposed to public education, but after so many years of trying to effect change in the system, I decided it was time to change my response to it. I spent enough years putting my personal life and peace of mind on hold, and lost time for the creativity that drove me to be an educator in the first place. One Spark has allowed me, and all those involved in it, more quality time with those we care about, while creating, learning and teaching in a way we believe. I’m one of those “show me, don’t tell me” type of people. So, to those out there scratching their heads over how to get off the treadmill and engage in meaningful education, here’s your spark.

Well, back to that lottery theory. I may not have built my bank account in the past year, but I was given the chance to build my dream. Because of that, I’d say I won the jackpot.

-Lori Peters

Relationships Matter

It’s always been important for me to teach children the importance of real relationships. If students feel a deep connection to their instructor and their peers, they will better remember what was taught, enjoy the process, and most likely be inspired to learn more. It’s within safe, real relationships that we grow and thrive. And, the only way to experience them is to connect to others: conversation, care, interest and empathy.

I’ve learned firsthand how vital our personal relationships are as educators too. I’ve seen gifted and motivated educators crumble when Read more

The Proof of Learning

It’s that time of the year again when everyone who is involved in a public school is enduring some added stress. Yes, it’s testing time. For at least a month in most schools, many exciting activities and lessons are dropped in place of test prep, and normal schedules are in upheaval. Students have been warned to be at school on time, eat a healthy breakfast, and get plenty of sleep (as if those habits aren’t expected on any day of the week). Pages of released questions have probably been sent home, letters have gone home to families to remind them how important testing is, brains have been crammed full of information that may or may not show up on the test, and post-testing parties have likely been planned as an incentive for kids to show up each day. All of this adds up to one assumption about testing: when it comes to a year’s education, not much else seems to matter besides the outcome of these tests. Read more