Traveling Light

Plastino Scholar Project

Today, first and foremost, I have a confession to make.

Many of us have seen the Lizzie McGuire Movie. For those of you who haven’t seen this 2003 cinema masterpiece it’s definitely worth a watch if you’re feeling in the mood for a nice light-hearted adventure film starring a young, but lovely Hillary Duff trying to maneuver her way through typical teenage problems while on a study abroad trip in Italy. Okay, maybe that description won’t temp all of you, but please bear with me…

One of the culminating scenes of the movie features Lizzie McGuire’s best frenemy, Kate, who screams “Lizzie McGuire…YOU ARE AN OUTFIT REPEATER!” in front of the entire school at graduation (*gasp*). For those of you who might be unfamiliar with this egregious social faux pas, outfit repeating is the act of re-wearing an outfit within a time-frame that others might actively recall the previous occasion on which you wore that specific outfit. “Ah,” you might be thinking, “so Lizzie rewore and outfit…Whats’ the big deal?” Or perhaps you’re now wondering what connection I’m about to make.

Friends, I would like to say that my name is Alexis Holzmann and I have become an outfit repeater, just like Lizzie McGuire. I just spent four days walking around the city of Melbourne on a solo weekend adventure and to be entirely truthful, I wore pretty much the same outfit for the entire time [exhibit A is listed below for your viewing pleasure]. My trip was initially only going to be three days (so four days might be pushing it for the same outfit), but I did have a rationale for outfit repeating. By bringing a few versatile clothing pieces and a pair of pj’s that folded down to nothing I was able to go on a four day adventure with only one backpack, one small purse, and one (always heavier than I remember) camera.

Without a large suitcase or bag I was able to check into and out of hotels and hostels at my own whim. I knew that I had to check out of my hotel this morning before 10 AM. In spite of my resourcefulness I didn’t have many options for storing a ton of stuff. Best possible solution? Only bring things that I could reasonably carry around over the course of a busy day in a city. With that being said I went to multiple museums, cafe’s, and cliche tourist spots today while simultaneously carrying everything that I had brought into Melbourne on my back.

Before anyone judges I would just like to further make the case for traveling light. Traveling light afforded me the opportunity to collect things that didn’t have to be put into a shopping bag. I connected with others and formed friendships, even if only fleeting or limited in their scope. I collected ticket stubs in my jacket pocket to use in a scrapbook or shadowbox at some point in the future. AND, best of all, I filled up my belly with all sorts of delicious food and hot drinks (I’m talking tea AND coffee at some places)!

Traveling light meant that I tried my absolute hardest to not be weighed down physically by my personal belongings or mentally by stress, anxiety, and unnecessary pressure. A light pack made the first goal relatively easy; however, the second portion still remained elusive for me by the second day of this mini-adventure. In the midst of a mild panic about a late tour bus I came to a wonderful realization. At a certain point whether or not the tour bus came to pick me up (it eventually did, although it was 25 minutes late) I would still find a way to have an amazing time in a city that really resonated with my personality. Therefore, the tight sense of worry in my chest and the panicked feeling visible on my scrunched up face was completely unwarranted.

Regardless of whether or not you plan to become an outfit repeater like me and Lizzie, traveling light is a great way to prevent sore shoulders and to maintain a present, non-judgmental attitude towards yourself in a new situation and place. At the same time, be sure to bring some perfume or cologne so your outfit repeating doesn’t scare away potential friends!



Monday Morning Symbols


This morning I had the privilege of sitting in on the Monday morning ritual of symbol sharing with the Sunroom students. The Sunroom is comprised of students who are in the foundation level  (4-5 years old) and level one (6 to 7 years old). Although young, these students have repeatedly impressed me with their socio-emotional articulation skills and I am thoroughly convinced that these young children are more emotionally articulate than many of my peers.

The Sunroom students develop their socio-emotional skills with the help of two main mentors, Hadassah and Jay, who are able to lead without dominating, a skill very few are actually capable of mastering. On Monday mornings this cohort engages in an activity called symbol sharing. After morning meeting, the Sunroom-ers gather around the windowsill to grab small figurines, toys, rocks, and pieces of bric-a-brac from a shadowbox. In this wooden shadowbox there is a smooth black triangular rock next to a small toy penguin missing half an arm next to a small statue of a meditating woman next to a tiny string of pearls next to a light pink seashell. Each student grabs a different piece and heads to the carpet to form a circle.

As the students sit on the carpet, it becomes clear that the students are very aware of where they are in relation to others. Three students initially seated themselves towards the middle of the carpet, blocking other students from being part of the circle. One girl tapped one of these three middle-circlers on the shoulder and said “Can you move back? Not everyone can fit in the circle!” The three middle-circlers scooted back to make a more inclusive circle, checking to ensure that they we no longer blocking anyone else.

Hadassah placed a sand timer in the center of the circle and explained that they allocate 15 minutes to complete the symbol sharing activity. The purpose of the activity is to ‘check-in’ with each other and to see how everyone is doing each Monday morning. This can serve as a insightful experience for both the mentors and for the students. There is neither a speaking order, nor a compulsion to speak, so the symbol sharing activity ebbs and flows as individuals decide when, and if, they would like to share their symbol.

Indie, a perky and confident little redhead, started the activity off right away by holding up the penguin with half an arm and saying “I choose this because I’m feeling kind of sick this morning. So be careful around me today, please.” A minute of silence followed until the activity picked up steam and students began to share in succession. A few times students spoke at the same time, but instead of fighting to speak over each other, they would work out who should speak between the two of them, or another student would share while those two students waited for another gap during which they could describe their symbol decision-making process.

After about 5 minutes of sharing symbols Jessie, a self-assured student in a fuzzy onesie and rain boots, sprawled out on the floor facing away from the group and began to provide a commentary about what she did over the weekend. Hadassah asked Jessie to rejoin the group and reminded everyone to “leave space so that others can share their symbols.” A hush fell back over the group. Finn whispered to Hadassah that he decided to ‘pass’ on this particular Monday, even though he had selected a red rubber lobster. Another student named Jensen held up the shiny black triangular rock and said that he felt like “a black sun” and later added that he also felt like “half a piece of pizza.”

I looked around and realized I was one of the few who had yet to share.  A bit nervously I shared that I had chosen a grey elephant because I was feeling loved. I said the elephant represents feeling loved because there are some great stories about how elephants love each other. In truth, I had picked the elephant because I listened to a silly song called the elephant song during a car ride with the family of a student named Hannah on the previous day on our trip to an animal sanctuary. Once I sat in on the activity for a short length of time though, I realized that these kids who are 15 years my junior had selected more meaningful symbols than I had, so I quickly racked my brain for a better explanation.

Why had I chosen this symbol? I saw two paths in my brain. First, I could take the easy way out and use the elephant as the literal representation I had originally intended. The elephant reminded me of the elephant song and all the exciting Australian animals that I had seen at the Healesville Sanctuary on the previous day. At the same time, I knew that other Sunroomers had been more vulnerable, open, and creative in their use of symbols. I knew I was responsible for being a better member of their community and that I should truly take this opportunity to share about my own emotional status. What did I truly want this symbol to show to the group? What did I really want this circle of 20 kids and adults to know about me on a foggy Monday morning?

I decided to share that I was feeling loved. Not only had Fiona welcomed me with open arms into her home, but one of the Koonwarra Village School families had welcomed me, a complete stranger from the tough state of New York, on a day-long excursion to the Healesville Animal Sanctuary. Moreover, I was feeling loved simply because of the school culture, which invites everyone to the circle exactly as they are. In spite of my American accent and my constant scribbling in my notebook the kids and staff at KVS have generously opened their hearts and minds to my presence. And let me tell you, being accepted exactly as you are? That will make anyone feel loved.


a typical day in a not-so-typical school

Plastino Scholar Project

7:00 AM: wake-up time at Fiona’s. hop in the shower, make myself a cup of tea, read a bit of the things they carried,  and finally convince myself to get dressed in spite of the morning chill.

8:30 AM: walk out the back door with Fiona, through the garden, and pass through the gate that marks the boundary between Fiona’s property and the school.

8:35 AM: talk to the children as they arrive and snack on a few pieces of pear that are nicely waiting in a bowl thanks to Narlan, the school cook extraordinaire.

8:45 AM (or a bit later–mornings can be slow for everyone): a student or mentor (they call all adults who work at the school ‘mentors’) will ring a gong. all children and adults run to the sunroom where the groups arranges itself into a large circle. warm sunlight filters in as a student begins the morning meeting by saying “welcome to morning meeting. does anyone have anything they would like to say?” the student will then call on other students and adults who patiently raise their hand to get their chance to share. once everyone has spoken the student will close the morning meeting and the ‘triskels’ (upper school students) will leave the little ones in the sunroom and head back to their own classroom.

9:00 AM: i wander over to the upper school classrooms with the triskels and sit in on a ‘preso’ (pronounced: prezzo) where Sarah, the mentor, reviews the concept of converting between 24 hour time and 12 hour time to her group of 7 students. at the end of the lesson Sarah explains the activity that the students will be required to complete by the end of the week.

10:30 AM: eyes stray towards the clock as morning tea approaches and at 10:30 mentors and students alike take a break to enjoy some light snacks. there’s rice cakes, honey, peanut butter, apples, clementines, pear slices, and of course, tea. for a half hour everyone basks in the sunshine, runs about, and fills up on healthy and satisfying snacks.

11:00 AM: the ringing of the gong brings everyone back to the main classrooms. I follow a group of students for their ‘contract time.’ each student receives a contract with a different level of guidance at the beginning of the week. the student is then responsible for completing all of the tasks and assignments that are outlined on the contract by the end of the week. emergent learners have a contract with tasks laid out by the day and time that they should be completed. engaged learners have tasks that are laid out by the day. effective learners receive a contract that only has the tasks that need to completed listed out on the page.

12:30 PM: lunch is a delicious and wonderful organic and vegetarian meal prepared by Narlan, the master cook at KVS. lunch is laid out as a buffet and is comprised of local foods and food from the school garden. mentors and students grab plates and take the food wherever they want to eat. people come and go to grab more food and once satiated, dishes are dropped off to be washed and the playing begins in earnest. kids climb trees, explore the garden, create ‘cubbies’ (a type of mini clubhouse made up of found materials, wrestle each other, talk to the mentors, show off things that they brought to school and then go back for more food.

1:30 PM: back to school! based on the timetable that has been created for each student they might have contract time or a preso with one of the other mentors. for the upper school Marni teaches science and some specialist math and Dan teaches humanities and a technology based class.

2:00 PM: students might have a PLP or a personal learning project. these PLPs are 5 week undertakings in which the students pursue a determined passion area. PLPs can focus on sewing, cooking, or even Minecraft!

2:30 PM: if it’s a wednesday there will be a parliament. parliament is a student-run forum in which issues, concerns, and topics that need to be discussed are brought up. a student facilitator monitors the group dynamics and behavior, reading topics that need to be discussed from a list that the students and mentors have added to throughout the week. the group then discusses the issue or topic until a sufficient solution is chosen. the solution is then put into place by the students, with the help of the mentors if this is needed.

3:30 PM: everyone grabs their bags and shoes (did i mention shoes are optional?) and heads home for the day after grabbing another apple, climbing one last tree, or saying goodbye to the school chickens.

3:40 PM: the mentors meet to discuss the day, reflect on anything important that happened, lay out plans for the following day, or add notes to the online school journal system about specific students or general things that happened throughout the day.

4:15 PM: wander back over to Fiona’s to enjoy the beautiful setting sunlight that filters in through the large windows, curl up with a book and sip on yet another cup of tea.

Grabbing My Ducks

Plastino Scholar Project

“So…” they begin slowly, always tentatively, “how did you end up here?”

“Here?” I think to myself. “What even is here? Australia? Koonwarra? On a Plastino Scholar Trip? Studying alternative schooling?”

I decide to respond to all of these questions and more, offering up a winding narrative about how I journeyed from studying the civil war in Syria and the failures of direct food aid in Ethiopia and the neocolonialist powers of the Western world to studying school pedagogy and curriculum and even, simply, how a school is set up. I talked about my inspiration for studying how different schools are set up and how those changes subsequently affect student learning. I talk specifically about the process of applying for the Plastino Scholar Program. I talk about my junior year, my family, my hobbies and my passion areas in life. I tell everything and nothing all at once.

“Well it really sounds like you have all your ducks in a row!” Sarah, one of the mentors (read: teachers) at the Koonwarra Village School responds in an impressed tone.

“Not at all,” I start, “it’s more like I grabbed all my ducks under my arms and ran for the plane!”

Sarah and I laugh together and Sarah adds my quip to the quote section on their online school portal, where they track the students and daily happenings at the school. Just like that I’m immortalized in some small way at KVS.

As much as I want to be that person who has everything together months and years in advance, that’s just not who I am. I know that I am driven and goal-oriented, but I certainly work best within a short-term frame of mind. Just because I’m thinking in the short term doesn’t mean I don’t think about the future, though. I simply have faith in myself and in my ability to discover my own passion areas in life over time. By remaining flexible and adaptable in the long run, I can take advantage of every opportunity that peaks my interest in the short-run. And who knows? Maybe that opportunity will take me half way around the world or maybe it will take me to Newark, Delaware. Both have equal potential to catalyze passion and inspiration in my eyes.

I know that if my eyes were fixed firmly on one future goal I would never see any of these opportunities, which rest just slightly of the path, hidden a bit among the trees. I’ve learned that it’s important to look around even as you forge ahead to find opportunities and to simply see the immense beauty that the world kindfully shares. Too many people go through their daily life without pausing to appreciate the beauty of the present moment. The world is filled with beautiful and amazing things that are all too easily missed. Don’t worry about your ducks. Put them in your backpack and suitcase. You have your whole life to figure out where those ducks need to go. Shoulder your pack, look around, and see what you can find.




Moving Out, Moving On

Plastino Scholar Project

Today marks the end of a grueling 14 week semester that has left me exhausted and spent, much like those awful looking mops that lurk in the corners of restaurants. Today marks the 147th day of 2016, which has been a year of promise and adventure–my two favorite things–in addition to adversity and loss. Today is the 27th day of my beloved birthday month of May, in which my days were brightened by the arrival of loving cards or presents and quality time with all those who I love most in this world. Today is my last day of stress and worry.

And today is the first day of my new adventure.

For those who might not have read the article that my Mother kindly shared at least 4 times on Facebook I will quickly fill you in. I am headed to the Koonwarra Village School in Koonwarra, Australia (about an hour outside of Melbourne, for those of you who aren’t familiar with obscure Australian towns) to begin my Plastino Scholar Project. This is a project of my own design that I proposed in early December. Since then, I have been working to make all the necessary arrangements to leave immediately at the end of the semester from the University of Delaware and head for the land down under. At the Koonwarra Village School I will be completing qualitative research (observing and conducting interviews) with the students and staff in order to get a better understanding of this alternative school. The school, led by headmistress Fiona Mackenzie, is focused on student-led learning, environmental sustainability, and the development of socio-emotional intelligence. Basically, the Koonwarra Village School ( KVS, from here on out) is a mecca of innovative educational practices.

Throughout the course of this month long adventure I plan on climbing a certain famous bridge in Sydney, touring the Yarra Wine Valley by hot air balloon, finishing my scuba diving certification in the Great Barrier Reef, getting lost once or twice, seeing a world-famous opera house, and maybe just enjoying a craft beer here and there. (Hey Mom and Dad, I’m 21 now!) I also promised my 4th grade students that I would try to pet a kangaroo, but we’ll have to wait and see if that pans out…

At the moment, I am resting comfortably in the diffuse light pouring in from the expansive wall of windows in the Admirals Club at the Philadelphia Airport. A HUGE shout out to my cousin Lisa for hooking me up with a free day pass!

To continue with the theme of giving thanks, I want to express my deepest gratitude to my parents and sister who came to UD to help me pack up my room yesterday and and then brought me to the airport today. I want to thank Dave Plastino for endowing these once-in-a-lifetime projects. I want to thank Pete for encouraging me to apply, for having the faith that I would ultimately be selected (even when he gave me an 1870 map, quite presumptuously, of Australia for Christmas before my project was even selected), for putting up with my endless ramblings about the trip, and for teaching me to use Google Earth to scope out all the cool things to do in Australia. I want to hank Dr. Morgan for helping me to plan all the nitty gritty details and to make it through the IRB process. I want to thank Mac for walking with me to turn in my application. I want to thank my friend Sophiana for answering my every question about the program. Finally, I want to extend a huge thank you to anyone reading this and to anyone I might have accidentally left out. This is a huge opportunity and undertaking and I know that all the wonderful people in my life have helped to make this a reality.

No matter what the day is, today is my new start. I can’t wait to see what each day of this month-long journey brings.