By Dr Lihong and Joseph McPhail
Dear Public School System,
Our daughters wish to engage with any representatives of the public school system willing to hear their concerns and collaborate on solutions. During the pandemic they launched their own free virtual school, Makeshift Homeschool, and are having great success. We never intended to leave the public school system permanently. But given their success ... we are having trouble justifying their return.
Most parents do not have the time or resources to homeschool their children. For this reason, we are reaching out to public school principals, teachers, and other leaders in hopes that we can learn from each other. Even if our daughters do not return to public schools we support their desire to share and collaborate so that other young people can benefit from their experiences.
You may reach our daughters at your convenience through their platform, or by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sumay.email@example.com. The remainder of this letter includes six parts explaining their concerns and what they are doing to address them.
Problems and Solutions
Aila's story ... a message of hope
Thank you for collaborating with us so that we can help all children reach their potential.
Part 1 - Our story
The past year has been a transformative experience for our family. While the pandemic brought a lot of pain it also brought a lot of opportunity. For the first time our daughters were able to have more control over their learning experience...and what I (their father) saw forced me to rethink my views on childhood education.
After the pandemic hit our daughters took initiative in developing a new approach centered on the belief that children learn best when they are free to follow their interests. They used online tools like Khan Academy, Crash Course and Ted to expose themselves to new ideas and new technologies. After three weeks they had published over 40 lessons on a wide range of topics like Genomics Sequencing, Economics, Statistics, and Positive Psychology.
In short...our daughters were learning and growing more competent at a rate that felt ten times faster than they had experienced while attending their public school, Haycock Elementary in Falls Church, Virgina. For those who are unfamiliar, Haycock is consistently rated one of the top public schools in the country...and for good reason. Our daughters were consistently happy with their teachers and we believe strongly that Haycock is a big reason our daughters have been successful launching their own virtual school and building their own online education tools.
GoGuardian, an EdTech company, heard about Makeshift Homeschool back in July and interviewed Sumay and Aila about it. You can listen to them using the links below (1-4). They were not following a script and did not prepare much. They just shared their experiences and what they planned (and did later) build.
When schools went online for the Fall Semester we asked our daughters to be open minded and give Haycock an opportunity to work with them. This proved challenging for Sumay who was by this time already teaching several other students how to leverage their passions and use technology to write, build and share their own projects as she had learned to do. Sumay was also working with Wei Jiang, her programming instructor, to build a WebApp to help scale their platform to reach more young people.
By October of 2020, Sumay decided to leave Haycock and grow what she believes strongly to be a solution to many of the challenges she experienced. Over the previous six months Sumay and I had interviewed dozens (now over a hundred) parents and kids to learn more about how to improve childhood education. Many said the same things that she had been saying...public school provided little opportunity to build on each young person's unique strengths.
Leaving Haycock was hard for Sumay and our family. We never intended for her to leave the public education system, and the many wonderful teachers that truly are heroes and deserve more support now than ever. For this reason we wrote a letter explaining our reasons and made every effort to point out our intention to return after the pandemic was over, a decision we are now questioning. As we outlined in the letter we wrote to Haycock (Appendix 1) the decision was made harder by Sumay being in the Advanced Placement Program (AAP) which she is not guaranteed to re-enter should she return.
We supported Sumay's decision to drop out of Elementary school because we see the success that Sumay, Aila, and a growing number of fellow students are having ... so like all parents believe we had to do what was best for our kids.
Part 2 - Makeshift Homeschool
When the pandemic hit Aila and Sumay founded Makeshift Homeschool (MSHS), a virtual classroom and WebApp to address key challenges with the traditional education model. These challenges include a lack of opportunity for young people to pursue their interests, learn about new technologies, practice teaching and public speaking, reliance on a single teacher to determine the value of what they create, and limited opportunity to share their creations beyond the classroom. Our younger daughter Aila, age 8, provides an overview of the MSHS App in the video below.
MSHS is also a virtual classroom that allows children of all ages from anywhere in the world to collaborate and share projects with each other. We have found this model to be extremely effective in helping kids grow their confidence, curiosity, and desire to learn and explore. We used snippets from our daughters interview with Goguardian in our latest promotional video.
MSHS is growing because children learn faster and have more fun when they are empowered to follow their passions and share them with the world. For this reason we are spending our own money to hire more programmers and educators to help us expand. We are already working with educators, parents, kids, and others to help us continually improve our approach. We believe that the best way to achieve our mission is to work with all variety of educators, parents, and students because every child is unique.
All children and parents are free to join Makeshift Homeschool. Most of our students still go to traditional schools and use our platform as a supplement. There is no commitment and no expectation. We seek only to help all children reach their potential.
To join, just send us your email through our website below.
Part 3 - Problems and Solutions
At this time, Aila and Sumay are strongly considering not going back to the public education system because of several problems. We uncovered these problems from our experience and after conducting over a hundred interviews with parents and kids. Traditional schools provide many valuable services, but until they address these problems we believe that many children will learn too late to love learning and reach their potential.
To best communicate these problems we first share what we believe to be core principles of learning. Put simply...kids and adults learn best when they...
Solve real problems
Iterate and improve
Are free to explore
Build on strengths, interests and passions
These are the principles upon which Makeshift Homeschool is built. The success of our students is evidence that these principles are sound, as well as scientific research regarding the nature of learning.
While these principles may not appear at first glance to be missing from traditional schools, we wish to point out specifically how they fall short.
Solve real problems - Public schools teach kids to solve made up problems. Kids understand this which is why many dread homework. At MSHS kids solve real problems such as how to build Apps, create recipes, write music, make games and design products with 3D Printing. There are many problems kids can solve around the house, in their neighborhood, in their communities, for their schools, and for each other...but that's hard to standardize. Schools standardize projects so they can compare and rank student abilities and check off if they have achieved certain milestones. But kids that solve real problems that relate to their interests are far more likely to learn to love learning, and kids that love learning will learn much faster.
Iterate and improve - Public schools teach kids that one person can determine the value of their work. Schools also teach kids that value can be measured as a percentage between 0% and 100%. Both of these lessons must be unlearned in the real world where value is determined by the whole market place, and there is no such thing as perfection. Everything of value comes from a process of iteration and improvement. Student's at MSHS do not receive grades. They share their creations with other students and mentors who provide feedback and encouragement. They re-create projects all the time...improving with each iteration until they have made something of value or move on to another project. Our students learn that there is no limit to how much they can improve, and grow an awareness and openness to feedback from many people to reach their potential. Schools teach kids that value has a limit and creation is a one-shot game.
Are free to explore - Public schools provide very little opportunity to explore. Fixed curriculums attempt to solve the problem of giving parents comfort that their child is learning...but do so at the expense of compromising their child's curiosity. Children that are curious do not need to be told to learn. They only need the tools to explore and mentors who can help guide them. At MSHS we hire mentors to help open doors for young people to walk through so they can grow their natural curiosity. As students mature they learn to help younger students to do the same. Children want to share their discoveries and we provide a platform to do this in our virtual classrooms. This further facilitates the feedback loop that helps young people cultivate their curiosity. When kids are in the habit of exploring they become independent and self-directed in their learning process. We have seen this with our own daughters...who never need to be reminded to make productive use of their time and grow themselves.
Build on strengths, interests and passions - Public schools provide little opportunity for young people to build on their unique strengths, interests, and passions. That is unfortunate because these are the ingredients for rapid development. To succeed at a public school, kids must learn to suppress their natural interests so that they can focus on what they are told to do. This is no accident. The current public education system was developed during the Industrial Revolution over 100 years ago, and that economy depended on labor working in factories. The economy of the future will be driven by technology and creativity. Kids that never learn to cultivate their unique strengths, interests, and passions will have a hard time succeeding because they will not know how to differentiate themselves in a world where machines are automating away all the routine and monotonous jobs.
Teaching others - Public schools teach children that they are students. Public schools also go to great lengths to put kids at the same level in the same classroom. This makes it nearly impossible for kids to learn to teach; which is the best way for everyone to learn. Education scientists have shown that teaching is the best way to internalize knowledge and grow one's confidence. For thousands of years kids would teach each other. Oftentimes with older kids teaching the younger ones how to sew clothes, fix tools, learn to read, chop wood, and sing. At Makeshift Homeschool we have kids of all ages sharing and learning together. We believe that the best students of life learn from everything and everyone, and the best way to learn is to help others understand.
We believe that public schools can incorporate these principles. We also believe that these principles can be improved as can our own platform. That is why we are encouraging representatives of the public education system to reach out to our daughters and collaborate so we can better help our children.
Part 4 - Aila's story ... a message of hope
Aila still attends Haycock Elementary, but is likely to dropout and join her sister. This letter to the public education system was initially a letter to Haycock...hoping that they might engage with her and help to address her concerns. But as we continued to iterate and improve our letter it became clear that we really wanted to engage any and all representatives of the public education system because the problems we listed above are bigger than Aila, our family, or our school district.
Aila has many stories. Her favorite story is one she wrote called the "Adventures of Stuffy McLu" ... in which she chronicles the exciting experiences she has had with her stuffed bear.
But the story she wishes to tell is how Haycock rejected her from their advanced placement program (AAP).
Our family never put much emphasis on special programs. Aila's big sister Sumay was in the AAP program, but decided to drop out five months ago. Aila understands that getting into special programs is far less important than having a growth mindset, something she wrote about on her blog.
What bothers Aila is that despite having the highest possible aptitude scores (published in the appendix) she was rejected because the application process did not allow her to share the app she was building, stories she wrote for her blog, a speech she gave to graduate students at my university about programming, and many other accomplishments ... because they were digital.
Aila was seven when she asked her teacher and the principle of Haycock Elementary to present her accomplishments. She was building a PowerPoint presentation, and ready to go in front of everyone to tell them...but was denied.
We published Aila's 99.5% aptitude scores and her full application including dozens of links to her mobile app, links to her blog with over 20 articles (at the time...now maybe 50), videos of Aila teaching a programming language called Python, and documentation showing her experience public speaking and performing shortly after she learned to walk. We published her entire application in the appendix so other families can see and judge for themselves.
Aila was frustrated but she channeled her energy into helping her sister grow MSHS.
Aila co-founded MSHS and has many responsibilities on top of her studies at Haycock Elementary. She runs the MSHS Outreach initiative where she schedules and leads 1-on-1 Zoom calls with potential students and parents. Aila is also helping to develop our WebApp; building on the knowledge she shared in her AAP application. She co-leads our virtual classroom which is where MSHS brings together kids from around the country to collaborate and share their projects.
Aila also co-leads our TV show "Makeshift Homeschool Live" which aires Monday through Thursday at 7:30AM EST. Here is one of 20 episodes Aila helped produce in the past month. In this episode Aila shares her thoughts on childhood education. They are thoughts worth listening to.
Aila also decided to adopt a dog named Juna. She takes sole responsibility for Juna, waking up each morning at 6:50AM to take the dog on her first walk, feeding, giving her medicine for her heartworm, and all other tasks as required. We let her take on this responsibility because she independently wrote several articles on dog training for MSHS which she shared on MSHS Live for her new classmates.
Students at MSHS look to Aila for her leadership. Aila has created several videos for other students to help them expand their understanding of their own potential. Here is one recent video that Aila created independently to showcase her writings on New Zealand. Aila has a wide variety of interests that she is highly motivated to explore...but has very little time while in school to pursue because of Haycock's set curriculum and requirement that she sit in front of her computer for lectures most of the day.
Aila is probably the youngest co-founder of a tech startup in the world. This is not an overstatement. She would be comfortable scheduling a Zoom call with anyone to talk about her experience helping to move the traditional education system into the 21st century. You can contact her by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and are welcome to follow her work through the links below.
MSHS Projects: https://www.makeshifthomeschool.com/aila-m
Personal Blog: https://www.wequil.com/aila
The message of hope that Aila wants to share is this ...
"No one can stop you from achieving your dreams. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. Follow your passions and if anyone tells you that your interests don't matter just keep believing in yourself and follow your heart." - Aila
Part 5 - Conclusion
Thank you for reading this letter in its entirety. We believe our public school teachers are national heroes. During this pandemic, thousands of schools and teachers showed tremendous courage and leadership to help our children during this pandemic. However, our daughters are strongly considering not returning to their public school because they believe that their free homeschooling platform, Makeshift Homeschool, provides them and their growing number of classmates a better opportunity to reach their potential.
Sumay and Aila would appreciate a chance to share and collaborate with representatives of the public education system. They have valuable insights to offer...as evidenced by the growth and success of their platform. You can reach them by contacting me email@example.com or Sumay directly Sumay.L.McPhail@gmail.com.
Finally, the mission of Makeshift Homeschool is to help all children reach their potential. The reality is that this can only happen with the help of public schools. Most parents cannot afford private schools or devote themselves the way we have to our daughters. We charge nothing for Makeshift Homeschool despite spending our own money hiring teachers and programmers to improve our service. We hope that this lack of profit motive is sufficient evidence for public school representatives across the country to recognize where our heart is...with these kids.
Dr Lihong and Joseph McPhail
Part 6 - Appendix
Sumay leaves Haycock Elementary
Aila's First AAP Application Email
Aila's Aptitude Test
Aila's Application Letter
Aila's Second (appeal) Application Email
Appendix 1 - Sumay leaves Haycock Elementary
Hello Haycock Elementary!
Thank you for your outstanding leadership, particularly during this pandemic. Hope you and your family are well.
The purpose of this letter is to inform you that my daughter, Sumay McPhail, who is currently attending 6th grade AAP program at Haycock, will be temporarily homeschooling until a return to normalcy which we hope to occur by the Fall of 2021. We would appreciate confirmation that we have satisfied all regulations with this letter of intent and subjects for our curriculum. We wish to re-enroll Sumay once schools reopen. We would also be grateful to receive any guidance on how we may ensure that Sumay remains in the AAP program when she enters the seventh grade at Longfellow Middle School, which we expect to occur in the Fall semester of 2021. Finally, Sumay wishes to extend an invitation to you to learn an app she built during the lockdown to help kids teach kids.
Sumay has been performing at or near the top of her class since entering Haycock’s Advanced Academic Program (AAP) in the third grade. The curriculum she will follow is designed to ensure that she remains progressing at a high rate so she has no trouble re-entering the AAP program in the 7th grade. To accomplish this we are creating a rigorous curriculum based on materials she has received from her teachers at Haycock which includes all subjects her classmates will be covering math, science, language arts, social studies, and music.
Sumay’s curriculum will extend beyond the lessons being taught to her class at Haycock. During the lockdown Sumay created a mobile application called “Makeshift Homeschool” which allows kids to teach each other. Sumay, along with her sister Aila and several other children in our neighborhood have written and shared lessons on a wide range of subjects through this App such as genomics, 3D printing, and positive psychology. You can find a list of articles Sumay has written about during the lockdown on her blog and her new website for the app.
My wife and I are comfortable providing Sumay with an excellent education during this transition period. We understand that the State of Virginia requires that we have a High School diploma. Sumay’s mother, Lihong McPhail, has a PhD in Economics on top of her Bachelors and Masters degrees. I received my Masters degree in Economics and the Outstanding Alumni Award in 2018 from Iowa State University. We also both received teaching excellence awards while serving the university and continued to teach in some capacity in our professional careers.
We are certain that you have many pressures on your time so we only wish to leave this door open in case you are interested. Sumay would be honored to share with you more about her journey during this lockdown. We mentioned that, on her own initiative, she built a technology solution to help kids teach kids. She also started a podcast in which she interviewed parents and children about remote learning. Her efforts were picked up by the company GoGuardian who shared an interview with us on their website (episode 1, 2, 3, 4).
We believe the teachers and support faculty at Haycock Elementary do an exceptional job of delivering a quality education. For this reason, we want to be clear that our decision is not a reflection of the service provided by her teachers...only the effectiveness of remote learning via live lectures for several hours a day during the lockdown. We have learned a lot about our children during this pandemic and how to inspire them to learn and grow. We believe change is an opportunity for innovation, and we are grateful to share with you our deep interest in helping all children learn to love learning, discover their passions, and become the future leaders we need to make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration. We would appreciate confirmation that we have satisfied all legal requirements with this letter of intent and list of subjects for our curriculum. We would also be grateful to receive any guidance on how we may ensure that Sumay remains in the AAP program when she enters seventh grade at Longfellow Middle School, which we expect to occur as early as the Fall semester of 2021.
Appendix 2 - Aila's First AAP Application Email
Appendix 3 - Aila's Aptitude Test
Appendix 4 - Aila's AAP Application Letter
Dear Haycock Elementary,
We believe that Aila's entrepreneurial experiences including app development, successful public blog, fluency in Chinese, public speaking skills, and extracurricular successes in ballet, piano and investing make her an ideal candidate for AAP.
Aila is the founder of the GirlsHealthApp, a mobile application inspired by her love for exercise and programming. Wei Jiang is Aila's programming instructor. His recommendation letter outlines successful milestones she has achieved including the design of app pages using X-Code for iPhones, business plan, and website development including logo design. Aila's interest in entrepreneurship began with a lemonade stand that netted just under $1,000 over four weekends, which after costs came to about $12 per hour.
Public speaking comes naturally to Aila. Last year Iowa State University invited our family to give a talk to 30 of their undergraduate students about programming. Aila, gave the introduction, sharing her prepared remarks and fielded questions about her experiences. Aila also contributed to our families mini-series "Saturday Morning Live with Pandas" on Facebook which featured Aila's use of Python...a programming language used extensively in data science. Here is just one example of how her ability to explain complex functions using simple English.
Aila writes frequently on her public blog at her own initiatives. Her latest post is a collection of stories from her life that she calls "Adventures of Stuffy McLu". Her articles include "Aila's Favorite Books", "Mental Models", the "Principles of a Growth Mindset", and other writings.
Aila has also co-authored several articles with her sister Sumay as well such as "Tales from Jiangyin China" and "Becoming a Better Big Sister" (five suggestions are provided below). She also assists in editing. For example, she read all 56 pages of Sumay’s first book now available on Kindle titled, “After the Fire”. From these experiences, Aila has become very adept at using computers to blog, research and communicate, a skill that will be increasingly evident after 2nd grade.
We have encouraged Aila to pursue extracurricular activities for which she has a passion including singing, ballet, gymnastics and piano. Aila has been performing since she was 2 years old. When she was five, Aila led the performance of "Bullfrog Blues" in front of a crowd of over 100 people in which she both sang and played the piano while coordinating with her father and her sister.
More recently, she performed a Nutcracker Ballet routine in front of a crowd of 80.
Aila started ballet later than many others in her class, but is the youngest because, as her teacher (Corina) wrote in her letter supporting Aila’s application, she is “self-motivated, focused, and curious to learn” … qualities that make her a “fantastic candidate, who would excel in advanced placement at school”. Aila was just starting to develop the GirlsHealthApp when she started ballet. Aila’s interest in entrepreneurship led her to suggest that Corina start her own school...a suggestion that she accepted, making Aila her first student in a school that now totals over 50 students.
Aila’s extracurricular activities also extend to investing, providing an avenue for her to learn economics, finance and mathematics. She invests money she earns each day from doing her chores in stocks, bonds, commodities, cryptocurrencies, and individual companies. We provide her with statistics on these assets including historical returns and discussed the importance of diversification. Aila bought shares in Tesla after researching the company, going to a Tesla dealership and testing out the product. You can see the video she took and her commentary on YouTube. You may like it...Elon Musk did leading to 1,000,000 impressions on Twitter.
Most importantly, Aila wants to be in AAP. She believes that her accomplishments demonstrate that she has valuable skills that were not included in the COGAT such as mobile app development, general programming, research using Google, typing and blogging using her laptop instead of writing with a pencil, and public speaking and performance. This is unfortunate because going forward Aila’s computer literacy and public speaking are core strengths that AAP is better suited to developing.
With Aila’s education we have avoided the broad temptation to teach to the test. We believe that Aila's training with computers, entrepreneurship, and encouragement to pursue her passions will ultimately prove to be better preparation for higher learning and success in the real world. The fact that she scored as high as she did without taking any test preparation classes demonstrates the advanced mental aptitude and core skills required to excel in AAP.
Thank you for your consideration.
Dr Lihong and Joseph McPhail