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Report on the 2017 AERO Conference

The AERO conference of 2017 was held from August 2nd to August 6th. Those who attended experienced a very special event. This included:
  • A spectacular cruise around Manhattan Island.
  • A visit to Pono, an education center in West Harlem in Manhattan
  • Three documentaries, including a presentation by 22 year old Taiwanese film maker Adler Yang of his award-winning film, “If There is a Reason to Study”
  • The book launch of Jerry Mintz’ “School’s Over”
  • A keynote by unschool expert Dayna Martin
  • Six TED-like mini-talks
  • A keynote by MET Schools founder Dennis Littky
  • A keynote by Alliance of Self-Directed Education founder and author Peter Gray
  • A lunch keynote by Argentine film maker German Doin.
  • A keynote by renowned education writer Jonathan Kozol
  • A keynote by minority unschooling expert Akilah Richards
  • Two amazing panels with keynoters
  • An exclusive reading of a keynote written by paralyzed educator and author John Gatto
  • 36 amazing workshops
  • 12 display tables, a virtual reality demonstration, a Mine Craft server, networking events, book signings
We had attendees from 12 countries and 23 states.
Here are some comments from attendees:
“The AERO conference of 2017 was one of the most powerful/ inspiring networking events I have been to in my life. What great work AERO is doing!”  CV, Colombia
“I found the keynote speakers GREATLY inspiring!  DF
“”I had such a wonderful experience at this conference, and met so many amazing people. I hoped to help bring homeschooling into the Alternative Education conversation in the same way that unschooling has always been. I didn’t anticipate that I would leave with a completely re-framed vision of my work, and my place in this movement. Thanks AERO!!” BR
The AERO conference was a great success. I felt especially blessed to appear on the same stage, in a panel discussion,with one of my long-time heroes, Jonathan Kozol.  And, what a treat is was to hear Jerry Mintz read the speech written for this conference by the great John Gatto, on how education is all about the quest for water, food, and overcoming separation. The conference also, I think, saw the birth of a new star in the advocacy for Self-Directed Education.  When I recommended Akilah Richards to Jerry as a keynoter, I knew she would be good, but I didn’t know she would be THAT good.  Thank you, Jerry, for including her.  And thank you for your generosity in making room, at almost the last minute, for representatives of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE) and the ASDE workshop.    Peter Gray
“I have to thank you again for making space for me at AERO this year. It was such a pleasure to learn from and be received by the AERO tribe. I’m still reading through the copious notes I took, and reveling in the wonderful connections made!” Akilah Richards
This quote from Jonathan Kozol’s talk really stuck with Gleamer Sullivan:
“Learning should be a journey of discovery instead of a forced march to a preplanned destination.”
“I’m just back from the Alternative Education Resource Organization AERO conference and don’t have words to describe how beneficial I found it. It was like being as close to hope as we can rightfully get at this moment in history. It was not only about providing for children to become what they want to be. It was also about creating a world in which they feel equal and secure.” RF, Canada
I really enjoyed the keynotes and many workshops.  It was especially useful to have networking time over meals.  Meeting new people who become friends is such a benefit of the conference.
-Candy Landvoigt, Highland School
“The conference was not just informative or thought-provoking, but was bolstering and reaffirming to me as a homeschooler.” MF
“The conference was a gift. I feel more ready to do the work in front of me. It’s as if all I’ve been doing from inside the system has led me to AERO and all the incredible people you attract. Now is the time to show our communities how it all works.”  DM
A child care staff member was told this by a 6 year old, “I know that I am in this child care so my mother can go to workshops at the AERO conference, but to tell you the truth, you made me feel like this was my conference!
The audios of the workshops and videos of the mini-talks and keynoters were made by Jeff Gold’s group. They will be available soon. See below for more information
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Peter Berg’s Report on the AERO Conference

It happens every year. I come back from the AERO conference inspired, invigorated and ready to keep the education revolution moving forward.  This year’s conference was held in New York at Long Island University’s Post Campus.

What AERO does that very few other organizations do is bring together people from anywhere in the world who are interested in the idea of humans as natural learners and learner driven education.

If we all talked to each other, shared our best practices, resources, and energy learner driven education would be the norm, which in my opinion would lead to a more just, sustainable world.

The AERO conference kicked off with two documentaries: Screenagers and Movement which prompted dynamic discussions.

The next day started with a keynote talk by Danya Martin, sharing her work of creating educational freedom for children through mentoring others on the nuances of radical unschooling.

The day continued with min- talks from Jamaal Bowman, Michael Hynes, Brenna Gibson Redpath, Joanna Faber, Jane Macdonald and Debra O’Rourke on topics ranging from what learner driven education can look like in public schools, and homeschooling options, to youth created alternative free schools and the power and nature of creativity.

The evening got underway with a group meet and greet session led by Jerry Mintz, the Executive Director of AERO followed by Jerry reading excerpts from his new book  School’s Over, How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education which signified its official launch.

Shortly after, participants were treated to Adler Yang’s documentary If There Is A Reason To Study followed by a Q & A session with Adler.

As happened every evening many conversations and impromptu meetings lasted well into the late night hours as conference attendees shared their work, resources, passion, and knowledge with each other.

The next day saw many of the incredible, diverse and dynamic workshops kick into high gear.

The day concluded with two amazing keynotes from Dennis Litky on his work of revolutionizing public education through his work with The Big Picture schools and Peter Gray  on the natural way humans learn through play and observation and have been doing so for millennia, and a panel discussion with Peter Gray, Dennis Litky, and Akilah Richards 

As conference goers awoke the next morning they had a variety of workshops to choose from as well as plenty of time for networking and sharing.  During the lunch break German Doin delivered a fascinating keynote sharing his journey of making education documentaries.

The day progressed with more workshops some of which were delivered by students who attended the conference.  As dinner ended attendees piled into the LIU Auditorium for Jonathan Kozol’s keynote on educational freedom, inequality, and justice.

Immediately following, Peter Gray joined Jonothan Kozol in a unique panel discussion where Peter Gray posed some questions to Jonathan Kozol before they both responded to questions from the audience.

The last day of the conference was marked by a dynamic energizing keynote from Akilah Richards where she talked about how self-directed education can and should be available and usable to all.

John Taylor Gatto prepared a written statement, since he is unable to appear in person, for the next keynote which was read by Jerry Mintz and followed up by Gatto publisher David Rodriguez.

The conference ended with an evaluation and call to action session.  Many participants stayed after the conference officially ended to continue their networking and work on furthering the education revolution.

During the conference, the AERO team recorded podcasts with Brenna Gibson Redpath & Anna Smith from Urban Homeschoolers on the ins and outs of homeschooling and some common myths surrounding it; Students from The New School and The Highland School on what it is like to live and learn in a democratic school, and what democratic education looks like, and Akilah Richards on liberating all communities through educational freedom and self-directed education.   Be on the look out for these wonderful podcasts as they will be released shortly, as well as audio CDs of all presentations, and DVDs of the keynotes and mini-talks.

AERO is happy to continue to bring such incredible diversity of educational thought, experience, and practice together in all of its work and has already begun putting together next year’s conference as well as many exciting new initiatives in 2017-2018.

Thank you to all the keynoters, presenters, volunteers and participants.  You are what makes AERO the organization that it is.


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Living in a Democratic Dormitory: A life changing experience

I came to The Highland School at ten years old. I first went to a Sudbury school in Berlin, Germany which I enjoyed but found something lacking. My mother heard about a democratic boarding school in WV, from a staff member at my Sudbury school. After a year of thinking, wanting to be more independent, I applied and was accepted. Once I was there, I fell in love with it, and with that, my dorm life started.

I have been in the dorm for seven years now. Life in the dorm has changed over my time depending on the people who are in it. When I first came, there were four other students in the dorm and two staff. Over the years we’ve had differing ratios of boys to girls; some kids stayed for years, others for a semester, and many came from different countries. Our rules changed with them, and also our ways of doing things. Some rules we keep and others we change based on our experience. We make those changes democratically in our meetings.

General School Meeting

At The Highland School we have a weekly General School Meeting which is run democratically by an elected chairperson. Every school member from the youngest to the oldest has one vote at the meeting. The General School Meeting is one of the most important aspects of our school. It is where we make the majority of our decisions including any new rules. We also create subsets that are called clubs and guilds. These special interest groups are responsible for specific areas, for example, Tree House Committee, which deals with the building of tree houses or Conservation Club, which deals with recycling, Adopt a Highway and preserving natural resources.

How we do things in the Dorm

We are responsible for taking care of many things ourselves. We do our own grocery shopping. We usually go on the weekend to a variety of stores in nearby cities that we decide upon in our dorm meetings. We each currently get a hundred dollars every two weeks for our grocery shopping trips.

We’ve set up housekeeping chores which include cleaning the kitchen, laundry days, and general clean­up. For example, on dish nights we load/unload the dishwasher and clean the rest of the kitchen, we also do our own laundry. The way we set this up changes. Usually, everyone does a night a week and then work together if we don’t have enough people for all the weekdays. In Dorm Meetings, we also decide such things as whether we have quiet hours and when they are. Our Dorm Meetings answers to the weekly General School Meeting. We use Dorm Meetings to resolve any disputes that are not covered by our judicial system. We can also decide on small trips after common school hours and deal with other things that come up such as planning to cook meals together, we deal with disputes about whose stuff is in the sink. If no one remembers, usually someone volunteers or we come up with a different solution.

Life in the dorm

Living in the dorm with all kinds of people from all sorts of backgrounds can be fun. It is also challenging.

I still remember an experience in 2012. There were two boys named Tom and Harry. Tom was a type of person who liked to poke fun at people. Harry was a bully and thought he was on summer break. Sarah and I were in our early teens and the new boys were older. So, as you can imagine Sarah and I didn’t get along that well with Tom and Harry who often poked fun at us. Especially me since I was a very emotional kid and would tear up at any insult. There were many judicial complaints and long meetings.

One evening, we were all in the dorm living room and someone mentioned the video game Blockheads. We talked about how we hadn’t played it in a while. After some reminiscing, we went into another room. We formed teams of Sarah and Harry and Tom and myself. We played the game for hours and for the first time that semester enjoyed each other’s company. Sarah and Tom made fun of us, for turning off the devils which made the game easier. We laughed and had a fun time, all together. The next morning we were back to our feud, but it was less intense. To this day, I think of the fun we had that night and smile.

I have also made friends for life at Highland. My first year there was a girl named Alex. We always watched Futurama in her room and even finished it. Even though she left at the end of my second year, we still talk to this day. We even do the same silly things; just that she is in the Philippines and I’m in West Virginia.

Often the interactions in the dorm are similar to sibling relationships. We have highs and lows like brothers and sisters. However, the key factor is that we live in a democracy, where our individual rights are protected by the system we create together. We hold each other responsible for our actions. In the case of Tom and Harry, there were ways for me to deal with them through our judicial system. If it had gotten to a point where they wouldn’t stop harassing me, I could have brought them up for expulsion at our GSM, but we worked it out on our own.

Why I think boarding school is valuable. It is a unique experience to live away from home and share a place with people from across the world and figure out how to get along with them. You get a new perspective on life by taking care of yourself and being responsible for your own things. The dorm is another step towards being more independent with the support of others if needed. You are always able to reach your parents and talk to friends, but you can also find out who you are on your own.

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IDEC 2017! Pictures From The Conference In Hadera, Israel!

From March 26th through April 5th the AERO team participated in the International Democratic Education Conference in Israel. This was the 5th time the IDEC has been in Israel, where the IDEC started in 1993 with a meeting organized by school founder Yaacov Hecht at the Democratic School of Hadera.

The situation with democratic education in Israel is truly off the charts compared to other countries. There are now thirty public or semi-public democratic schools in Israel. The Democratic School of Hadera, site of the first two days of the conference, now has 500 students in its dramatically reconstructed building site, and will go to 800 next year. There were an estimated 3000 attending on those days, including students, staff members and parents from the other democratic schools around Israel. At an opening ceremony the mayor of Hadera said they plan to construct a 4th democratic school in Hadera with a goal to have 100% of its students in democratic schools. These are schools in which students have a say in the governance of the school and freedom to pursue whatever they are interested in studying.

Famed researcher Sugata Mitra participated in the IDEC throughout the course of the 5 days. He won the TED Prize in 2013 for his "Hole in the Wall Project," in which he placed a computer in a wall of a slum and the students taught themselves to use it, including learning English. He replicated the experiment throughout India with the same results, eventually creating the "School in the Cloud." During the opening session he painted a picture of the world 20 years from now, pointing out that 20 years ago there was no iphone, no Facebook, no Twitter, etc. The point was that, with an accelerated information curve we can hardly imagine that future and certainly don't know how to prepare students for it, except by making sure they are creative self-learners. Mitra keynoted AERO's 2015 conference.

Coincidentally, just as the conference was starting, computer students at the Democratic School of Keshet won a country-wide computer competition against 800 other schools. This was in spite or because of the fact that the school has no computer teacher. The student team taught themselves! This was big national news, featured in many news outlets. Later in the conference the winning team did a workshop with Sugata Mitra about their exploits. They just sent us an exclusive article, written by the students, about their adventure, featured below! .

The attendees at this year's IDEC were from 30 countries! It included many former IDEC organizers such as Kageki Asakura (Japan 2000), Marko Koskinen (Finland 2016), Cecelia Bradley (Australia 2006), Chloe Duff (England 2011), Tae Wook Ha (Korea 2014), Verena Gruner (New Zealand 2015), Ana Yris Guzman Torres (Puerto Rico 2012), Henry Readhead (Summerhill, England 1999). It also included Ramchandra who hopes to host an IDEC in Nepal in 2020. Next year's IDEC will be in India, co-organized by Saumya Sharma-Meier. Remarkably, the IDEC is not an organization. Each year a different school agrees to host the IDEC upon attending at least two IDECs and agreement with the attendees at an IDEC. Yet there have been several spinoffs, such as the European Democratic Education Community and the Asia-Pacific Democratic Education Community. The annual AERO Conference is a direct result of our hosting the IDEC in 2003. Our 14th annual conference will be in New York August 2-6.

A group of attendees went on a two day pre-conference trip, visiting a progressive school in the Arab city of Nazareth and four democratic schools. The last school visited  was the Kanaf Sudbury School in the Golan Heights which, incredibly, has just become perhaps the only public Sudbury in the world.

Several years ago, through our school starter course, we helped start the first democratic schools in Poland. This year there was a big group of Polish attendees. There are now 30 democratic schools in Poland!

Most of the attendees from out of the country stayed at Givat Haviva, a kibbutz and learning center dedicated to peace and cooperation between Jews and Arabs. This is where the rest of the IDEC took place after the first two days at the Democratic School of Hadera. 

Hosting the IDEC has often had a profound effect on the country hosting it. The Stork Family School in Ukraine was on shaky ground when it hosted in 1998. It gave them credibility and it continues to this day, more than 25 years since its founding as the first private school in the Soviet Union. Summerhill was under attack when it hosted in 1999. This helped it win its case with the English education department. Democratic schools were illegal when Germany hosted in 2005. The last day was a university presentation. Six years later a third of the attendees of the IDEC in England were from German democratic schools. In 2014 200 parent-organized democratic schools were threatened with closure during the IDEC. We organized an international demonstration in Seoul that was covered by the media, The legislators backed off and the schools are still open.