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Learning at its Best

Reflections on AERO: 2011

Wow, I came out of four days in Portland with such a different feeling from my experience at the AERO Conference last year in Albany.  Things had really changed for me in just one year.  Both experiences provided me with a window into a world I didn’t know much about, helped me understand the alternatives out there, and allowed me to meet face-to-face with the voices of progressive educators that I had previously only accessed in books, blogs, etc.

This year the conference felt more organized and the vibe felt more welcoming.  I felt the energy was at a higher frequency and that a bigger, more inclusive process of change was at work rather than individual, scattered efforts, only making a difference for their specific communities.  Last year I felt judged for having worked at public schools and for insisting that I’d had the freedom to take the kids in directions that built on their interests and raised the level of engagement.  It was as if some refused to believe such latitude could be found in any public school.  This year it felt like people embraced what others were doing in schools—the curriculum, philosophies, daily practices–whether they were private or public, democratic, open, or free.  That felt good, and more to the point of what we’re all trying to achieve for kids.

When I left Portland on Sunday, I was full, exhausted, inspired, and content.  I had made connections with people who understood me and had experienced similar upbringings in traditional schools but had always questioned things. I got the feeling that even though I am only one person, often feeling geographically isolated from progressive thought–one individual living in a small, rural town, that there are many other individuals living in remote places who feel as I do, and that our relative location needn’t hinder us from being powerfully involved.

The group attending AERO this year had a strong sense of purpose that made our case and our progress towards change all the more powerful.  People were united instead of fragmented.  Agreeing to disagree, and respectful.  Keynoters, presenters, and school representatives were clear about their message and unwavering in their commitment.  The atmosphere was warm, strong, and forward thinking.  I liked the way the founders of The Patchwork School put it, “I have something to say…and I want to hear what you have to say.”  People were empowered and wanted to spread that empowerment to others.

We argued over defining terms—i.e. shall we call it common, shared, or collective vision–which term fits best?– but my general feeling was that we wanted to outline what criteria a term might include without limiting ourselves through words.  Although, defining terms may have helped in the workshop I went to on the power of the Youth Movement.  When we went around introducing ourselves and why we were there, one woman offered that she was curious about the concept, and also, fittingly, a yoga teacher.  Good grief, I thought, not THAT kind of movement!

Lastly, I’d like to speak to some ideas Kirsten shared in her recent “Paradox” post.  The idea of small steps, small but discernible movement is powerful to me.  I think of how Deborah Meier talks of her mentor Lillian Weber, who said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we’ve got to find the cracks in the sidewalk and widen them.  I used to feel pretty isolated out here in southwest Colorado and frequently longed for the progressive thought of a more urban setting where people spoke my language and it all just might be easier.  But then I realized that maybe the answer is that I’m supposed to stay right here, in this small, rural spot and do my work to widen those cracks.  To help open minds around me to the possibilities for change, and to continue to empower the youth I work with every day.  I think it’s important to realize my place and what I can do right here.

Thanks to all of the new minds I connected with at AERO this year, and thanks to all at the COOP for your voices and encouragement–especially to those I have just met in person—Kirsten, David, and Paul!


8 thoughts on “Reflections on AERO: 2011

  1. Does anyone know if AERO or IDEA have plans to submit proposals to conferences like NCTE or ISTE or EduCon? It might be useful to push out sessions or workshops like, “Alternative/Democratic education in the [content area] classroom.”



    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 19, 2011, 9:34 am
    • During the discussion that IDEA (Scott and Kirsten) facilitated on the last night about the relative state of education reform on the national front, we talked about how many of these organizations are so isolated from one another. So many people doing similar work on their own, instead of together. Reminds me of the typical schoolhouse!

      Anyhow, yes, we should look into AERO workshops at these other conferences. I’m not sure if they are being done, but certainly should be. Let’s coordinate our efforts and talents and make each other aware of what we are doing.

      Thanks for putting this out there, Chad. Maybe Isaac knows?

      Posted by jengroves | August 19, 2011, 1:46 pm
  2. How about Cooperative Catalyst workshops???

    Posted by dloitz | August 19, 2011, 3:27 pm
  3. Hey Jen! So great to have you reflecting here and publicly sharing your experiences abut the conference. I too felt a similar more inclusive and high energy vibe, and to me it is heartening to see the movement broadening and becoming more cosmopolitan and inclusive. An activist organization founded on yoga practices may NOT be a bad movement?

    The AERO conference is at a crossroads. Its long-time organizer, Isaac Graves is moving on to other opportunities. I do not know what the future of the conference is, or if it has a future. This means that there are opportunities for many other kinds of alternative gatherings, COOP Members. This is something to consider and think about whether we are up for, and how we could do something that brings people together but does not emphasize positional authority and conventionally-recognized expertise. (One of my least favorite aspects of conference going.)

    What say y’all?

    Also, I want to put in a plug for IDEC 2012, in Puerto RIco in March 2012. It promises to be the most international and social-justice oriented conference of the year for educators, sponsored by incredible folks. I’m going and taking my husband and a couple of family members.

    Thanks for this Jen,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 19, 2011, 3:34 pm
    • I am all for a Cooperative Catalyst Conference in Portland Next Summer! Everyone is invited it will not take place in a Hotel though… I want to find some alternative spaces to hold it…. maybe parks, schools, homes etc…

      let the planning start…

      and yes everyone who can should go to PR in March!


      Posted by dloitz | August 19, 2011, 3:59 pm
  4. Great I have my first follower…now to get all 70+ others to agree!


    Posted by dloitz | August 19, 2011, 8:05 pm
  5. Jen, thank you for this–really affirms so many of the goals for this year’s event. While wonderful, I felt it was just a step in the direction of authentic collaboration and partnership across sectors, organizations, groups, and so on. It is my belief that IDEC 2012 holds the most promise for a conference continuing these aims. I do not see AERO as the best container for continuing these discussions, because it is simply a piece of a much larger puzzle (see Joanna Macy’s theory of change that Linda Stout shared in the final keynote talk). For a gathering to be rooted in these aims, I believe it needs to collaboratively “owned” and organized with all those pieces. This is not a knock on AERO mind you, but a comment on the continuation of what I feel was articulated as one of the major successes of this year’s event. There is a place for all different types of gatherings, but I think we need to be humble at times and say, “It can be even better…and we may not be the container for that growth.” p.s. People will always have different preferences on where events are located, but I strongly encourage anyone convening a gathering to consider what it means to be inclusive and whether the host location can meet those needs. I’m talking specifically about accessibility, family-friendly, climate controlled environments for those with health issues, access to green/outdoor spaces, and so on. It’s near impossible to find that *ideal* venue, but it can be easy to overlook some needs when they are not our own. I say this as a general comment on event organizing that I try to remind people of. 🙂

    Posted by Isaac Graves | August 21, 2011, 5:36 pm

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