AERO Conference, Portland, Oregon

The one sure destination on our trip was the Alternative Education Resource Organisation (AERO) Conference held this year in Portland, Oregon in August. With alternative schools from all over America as well as researchers, veterans, writers and thinkers within the Education Revolution it was greatly exciting to be registered participants. The conference was MC’d by the most revolutionary of all, Jerry Mintz, a very experienced educator, school-starter, principle and massive advocate for democratic education.

It was a five day event, Wednesday to Sunday, beginning on the Wednesday morning with local school visits. This providing our first taste of American alternative schools.

On the corner of what appeared as a motor way, The Summar Academy presented as a rather peculiar space. Once inside, the Academy’s co-founder Ba Luvmore was on hand to greet the constant flow of conference attendants and welcome them into the world of Summar. Founded together with his wife Josette, the Summar academy is the product of many years of work into the psychology of the child, key developmental stages in growth and the consequences such events have on the brain and behaviour. A man of great experience and confidence, Ba received the many and varied questions with ease and a sense of great security in his model and the schools approach. I left curious to learn more and excited to hear both Ba’s and Rosette’s talks at the conference regarding Rites of Passage and natural learning relationships. Here I parted from Tom and the kids and their mission to the science museum and jumped on board a ride share.

Next stop was the Renaissance School of Arts and Sciences. The school presented as a living gallery, a truly spectacular open plan, multi level environment rich in all things arts and science. Regrettably I didn’t take any pictures but you can gage a sense of their work via their website. A dramatically different approach with true expert nerds in art, design, science and maths at the helm.

Our time at Ren was cut short in order to make our way across the city back to the conference with the hope of making the Village Home panel of students Q & A session. Oregon traffic sadly had other ideas for us however, the rich backseat discussion provided an insight into the quality of minds present at the conference. We missed the panel however Lori, the founder gladly answered our questions.

“Village home provides an alternative to conventional schooling, where learners are empowered to create an engaging and fully customized education with the guidance of their family. Learners choose their classes and enjoy learning without testing or grading. We are the home-away-from-home for over 400 preK – high school happy learners. Experience real choices for real learning.”

Thursday morning kicked off the official start of the conference with a rich array of mini talks and workshops, the content of which would continue to entice us for the next 3 days. Tom and I took it in turns to participate and attend to our children’s needs in collaboration with the free school inspired child care, and here we’ll try to highlight some of the juiciest bits that we both got to see and experience.

Tom got to join a morning session held by the ALC group, pioneers of the Agile Learning Centres (ALC). The talk was titled: ALC’s as next step in evolution of Free Schools – What’s the difference? By Arthur Brock. Arthur runs software companies and had children enrolled at the Manhattan Free School when it collapsed in 2012. He offered to step in as temporary director for free, on the condition that he could ‘reboot’ the school as an ALC. This was a brand new evolution, attempting to reframe the self-directed learning environment away from the political activism of the 60’s, from where Democratic Free Schools were born, and bring it more into the contemporary by using                        software-management/culture-creating tools in place of heavily bureaucratic democratic tools, as a means to facilitate children and their self-directed educational journeys.

This was definitely a highlight for Tom, by chance, of the 3 sessions he got to experience during the entire conference, 2 of them happened to be facilitated by someone from an Agile Learning Centre.

I also attended a workshop by an ALF (Agile Learning Facilitator) on the topic of youth enterpenurialship as a means to support self sufficient schools, an area of great interest to me. The group struggled to push past the concept of such an idea but all expressed great desire to see alternative education manifest in ways accessible to all.

I too felt a strong pull to the ALC network which from the vibes and sharing’s from Tom felt like the philosophy that we had been looking for. I was also very drawn to the work of Yes!

“A nonprofit organization that connects, inspires and collaborates with changemakers to join forces for thriving, just and sustainable ways of life for all. We work at the meeting point of internal, interpersonal, and systemic transformation.” 

The workshop I attended with Yes director Shilpa was a beautiful insight into the organisations work. I left feeling connected, alive and inspired to jam, to co-create.

Each night there were inspiring keynote speakers, people who’s work in Alternative Education or the Education Revolution is strongly noteworthy. First night was Stuart Grauer, founder of the Grauer School in San Diego and author of Fearless Teaching. Grauer’s book has been a best seller on Amazon in several categories. He has traveled all over the world to see unusual schools and unusual teaching situations. He is a widely praised story-teller and his talk was about how to get story telling back into teaching.

Friday night was Peter Gray, acclaimed expert on unschooling and play, author of Free to Learn and creator of The Alliance for Self-Directed Education (link: http://www.self-directed.org). Research professor of psychology at Boston College, tells the story of his 9 year old son, facing expulsion from a good public school for not fitting the mold. Instead he chooses to leave and Peter, reluctantly at the time, allows his son a trial at the first Democratic Free School, The Sudbury School, where he is reunited with his deep innate curiosity and freedom to learn. Happy ending and the beginning of a long research career for Peter into self-directed learning.

Saturday Night was Yong Zhao (link:http://zhaolearning.com), the Special Guest of the conference, is a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas. He is also a professorial fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Health and Education Policy, Victoria University in Australia. His works focus on the implications of globalization and technology on education. Originally from China, he has also written many critically acclaimed books such as “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the Best and Worse Education System in the World.” and “World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students”. He talked from personal experience of the place China holds in the world of education, an interesting context for the discussions around alternative education. This is a well received TED talk he’s given.

Before the conference started I had found a seperate workshop with the ALC group for the Monday following the conference. With little knowledge of ALC at that stage but anticipating a post conference lull, I booked a spot. The workshop took place in an incredible hotel/artisan brewery/cinema/restaurant that once stood as a school, the McMenamins Hotel at The Kennedy School. The day provided a much clearer insight into the model, a chance to ask lots of questions and be further inspired. A fellow conference participant Alex has written a fantastic account of the day which can be found here.

The AERO Conference was everything and more than we had hoped for. It would have been quite  impossible for us to do a similar road trip visiting the schools represented at the conference and we felt the immense gratitude for the insights the conference provided. We also had an opportunity to learn more about the American public school system, though perhaps a little one-sidedly. The possibilities and projects already being visioned and created amongst the group of change makers inspired me to the core and also provided a sense that we are a part of something much bigger. The introduction to the ALC network also felt in many ways like the light at the end of the tunnel of the trip. Reluctantly we farewelled Oregon and made our way down the coast to San Fransisco and the final week of the trip.

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