The core of Sora’s mission is to provide an educational experience that encourages students to become life-long learners. It’s what we call: school as it should be.
One way we do this is to encourage curiosity by welcoming students to submit ideas for Individual Study projects to our Individual Study Coordinator, Shirley Stubbs. Unlike Capstone projects, which are required of every graduating senior, Individual Study Projects are optional and, if approved, allow the student to pursue lines of inquiry fueled by passion and curiosity.
An ongoing Individual Study Project at Sora is T’s of falcons, which has already earned them academic credits in history, wildlife preservation, and public speaking. Following an initial hands-on internship working with falcons in Texas, T completed two six-week academic cycles of at-home study overseen by Julia Deckrow and Shirley Stubbs which culminated in a “Show What You Know” session. After completing a research paper on the history of falconry, T also presented on the profession in front of their peers as part of another class track.
I sat down with T and Onça, their mother, to hear more about how this project started and their experience through T’s study.
Hi Onça, it’s great to see you again. And it’s great to meet you T! Thanks for sitting down with me to talk about your study of falcons. T, how did this project happen? Are falcons a surprise interest or is this an area you already had background knowledge in?
T: Well actually, my mom mentioned to me that I had the possibility of starting a falcon apprenticeship a few months before the independent study started and got up off the ground. I have always had an interest in animals. We grew up with chickens and I worked pretty closely with them and nursed one back to health. Kaboom, the chicken, and I formed a close bond and there are pictures of me with the chicken hanging out on my shoulders. So my mom knows about how much I love animals and that I’m looking at different animal-related careers like becoming a veterinarian.
Actually, because we have chickens, I’ve always viewed hawks and other raptors as just inherently bad because they will swoop down and try to kill your chickens. A lot of our chickens have died because of falcons and raptors in general. But I’m a lot more neutral towards them now because I know more about them.
It’s cool because after finishing my internship with the falcons, I got a job working at a dog circus. They saw my falcon videos on Instagram and reached out because they needed someone who was good with animals.
Onça: We feel very lucky to be at a school like Sora so that we can take advantage of the way our family is on the road for work-related travel. My husband and I are both performers in the circus arts. The way this falconry internship came about was that I was out in Austin, Texas visiting him during his performance at the Sherwood Forest Faire Medieval Renaissance Festival. I saw that one of the performers was working with falcons and knew that this would be something that T would think was cool.
Like T mentioned, we have chickens. Baby chickens are susceptible to getting sick and dying really easily. I saw how willing T was to literally get in there and get dirty to do the work of animal husbandry and nurse the chicken back to health. There was another time, about five years ago, when we were at an Earth Day Festival. There was a lady there with goats. She was there because you can actually bring in her goats to do sustainable ecological landscape mitigation work, like taking care of poison ivy and things like that. And anyways, T very clearly had a natural affinity with the animals so much so that the lady noticed and asked them to help her with her work. In addition to the landscape mitigation, she is also called in to rescue goats when there are reports of animal abuse. So T was invited to help with her animal rescue work.
It’s very clear to me that T has a natural empathy for animals. I want to keep encouraging this skill in them, beyond the usual cats and dogs. I reached out to Sora to see if it was possible to set something up where they could study falcons and earn academic credit. We went back and forth to figure out what could work, and in the end, we were able to create a falconry expedition that consisted of an internship and book study.
T: We went and stayed in Texas for a full week for the falconry internship. There was a four-day intensive with the birds that was really cool.
What does it take to work with animals? Some animals have personalities, and I’ve always wondered how professionals know how to manage that aspect of their work with animals. Do falcons have personalities?
T: You need a lot of patience. You need to build trust with the animal. Falcons definitely have personalities. During my internship, we were told the falcon sees you as their pet.
Falcons are not affectionate, but they are not violent, nor are they violent toward the people they trust. What are falcons like? They have different personalities. Actually, different birds have different personalities. For example, owls are not affectionate, but they do like being petted and scratched like a cat. They can also purr.
How do you earn trust with a falcon? You have to feed it. Be around it. Normally a bird will pick one person they are particularly fond of. Tropical parrots will pick one person to like and be a jerk to everyone else. Ravens will bite you and nip you but have one preferred person they will rub up against their chest.
What did you learn from the practical part? What about the book part? And why is it important for people to know about birds and care about birds?
T: I learned how to fly falcons around and how to order them from tree to tree. We also went over animal maintenance, which includes things like feeding them. I actually met thirty different kinds of birds including kookaburra and Cara Cara birds.
Kookaburras are a really interesting bird. It’s in the Kingfisher family and looks like an angry bird puffball. It has a cackle and laughs back at you. The way it eats is very brutal. It doesn’t just, like, claw something and eat it because they don’t have claws to actually grab things. They pick up mice and like little lizards like skanks and they just bash them against like a rock until it’s nice and soft. And once it is softened, they just swallow it whole. And they’ll smash it hard enough that pieces of their beak will fall off so their beak has evolved to break off pieces like tree bark that will eventually regrow.
Will was my teacher during the internship with Wildlife Revealed. He was very patient with me. I was frightened to mess anything up. Will was awesome. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to teach me.
I started working with Julia at Sora for the book study part. She’s been helpful in the structure of how I’m going to shape my project, along with helping me with things like the statistics I am doing. I’m doing this very complex project on top of some other classes, and Julia has been really great to work with. She helps me with finishing touches on my work and she even gives me ideas.
I also work heavily with Shirley. During the planning process, we met to discuss which academic units I’d earn and what final project I’d have to do at the end of the individual study. There’s been a lot of learning through reflection as well, which I’ve done with Shirley. It’s been cool to present on falcons to my peers at Sora.
Regular people should not be as scared of falcons as they are. I got to learn how to teach people things, which is very valuable. While teaching people, I could tell they were scared of falcons. I want people not to be afraid but to feel respect for the birds.
If birds stop existing, other things will stop existing. Everything in an ecosystem is vital to the ecosystem. I would say that we are affected by wildlife and the stability of ecosystems. It would also just be terrible to have such amazing creatures go extinct because of a bunch of money-hungry, oil-slobbering humans.
Onça, what has it been like to see T go through this independent study?
Onça: To be 100% candid, one of the most magical and wonderful things was seeing my child in a state of joy and wonder while learning. Because when they’re little, learning is fun. And then as they grow, school can make learning not fun. And if your kid is not a competitive learner, learning can cease to be fun and be more like a stressful job that they’re trying to do while trying to learn the skills to do it.
So I feel like school got “unfun” for a number of years in the sense of just being hard. And it was a joy to see my kid remember what it’s like to love learning something new, like I literally was crying tears of joy to see my kid just sort of unfettered by all of the day-to-day challenges of being an adolescent and just fully in the moment of learning. There’s also nothing like seeing your kid with a giant raptor standing on their arm. looking them in the face.
T: I get bored really easily. It’s easy for me to focus on things that are more out of the ordinary. Like, it’s easier for me to focus on learning how to fly Falcons around than sit in class and learn how to smash numbers together to get the answer. So that’s partly it. It’s more interesting.
What kind of school were you looking for before you enrolled with Sora?
Onça: T actually did eight years of alternative education and prior to high school they were at the Waldorf school. And as we were approaching high school, we knew that we needed to be changing educational modalities. Figuring out the best way to do that was kind of overwhelming. I was trying to find an option that would work not only for T’s intelligence but could allow us to take advantage of the more unique opportunities that my husband’s job opens for us, like being in regular contact with falconers and professional historic crafters, etc.
It was actually a dear member of our inner circle in the community who pointed us to Sora. We’ve been best friends for 25 years and she was best woman at my wedding. Her daughter also attends high school at Sora, and that’s how we initially knew to reach out to the admissions team at the school.
I was really trying to find a school that would embrace wherever T’s interests led them. They are now working at a dog circus, and I think these are really important opportunities. I want T to be able to choose whether they want to stay in the circus arts or go another path that might be more mainstream. Our experience previously with public school was that there are rules the teachers must adhere to in order to stay compliant, and if T wanted to do something cool like a falconry internship, then they would be considered truant. It’s less about shaming the traditional school system and more about saying: these systems are not circus adjacent or designed with our educational needs in mind. I’ve seen this conflict come up over and over for families in our field which is why a lot of people who work in the festival circuits actually homeschool their children.
When we started looking into Sora, we thought: this could give T the opportunity to be with people they already know and care about and to be able to provide them with more of a STEM-oriented education. And it seems like with Sora there might be a possibility to allow our family to make the most of our circus and performance side with regards to T’s education.
The falconry independent study has been great. And again: whatever the kid decides to do, we will support them in living their life to the fullest. Whether that’s in terms of their vocation or their passion, or both. I want to open as many doors as possible for my kid. I prefer working with organizations that support us in helping the kid to create an unusual path because I think the versatility of the entrepreneur is a huge part of being someone who’s going to do well in the future of our economy. Somebody who’s like, “Yeah I can build you a website or I can feed the falcons or I can fix a car.” Any one of those things might turn out to be essential in the future that’s coming.
Next spring, T goes back to Texas to do a month-long internship with Wildlife Revealed and continue working towards academic credit at Sora as part of their Individual Study on falcons.
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