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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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By Yan LI


From the oldest continuously running democratic school Summerhill founded in 1921, till now, democratic education has developed into a global movement, from kindergarten to high school. There are a number of democratic schools at the pre-school, primary and intermediate levels but at the higher levels, there are less. I was then curious to know how are the principles of democratic education implemented at the university level?

Shure University in Tokyo is a 27-year- old college where students have the freedom to choose what and how they learn and where they use a democratic decision-making process among students and staff. Mr. Kageki Asakura is one of the founders of Shure University. We met at the First Asia Pacific Democratic Education Conference (APDEC), which was held in the Holistic School, Miaoli County in Taiwan from July 18 – 24, 2016. During this conference, keynote speeches in the morning were given by appointed speakers and after that, most time segments were open space where anyone can sign up and share their own experiences in workshops, discussions, and other formats.

During the keynotes, Mr. Kageki interpreted the speeches to the students who gathered together and listened intently. On the 22 nd , Japan Democratic School network held an Open Space about “Japanese School Refusal and the Democratic School Network Movement.” Apparently, school refusal in Japan is a huge issue in the field of education. Many democratic school students go through the process of school refusal. In the beginning, the students who went through this process themselves, explained what school refusal is, why the students refuse to go to school and how the democratic schools meet the student’s need.  They don’t really refuse school for economic or health reasons but for deeper reasons that question their sense of self, their values and identity.

One student shared her own story: at the state school she felt bored and was under pressure to perform because everything was measured by how one’s accomplishments compare with the others. There were expectations which she had to try and live up to. She refused to go to school.  At nineteen years old, she went to Shure University and spent one week trying it out. During that short experimental period, she realized what was taken away from her – that idea that it’s okay to pursue something you are interested in. That idea empowered her to alter her self- perception and turn her life around. From somebody who did not believe in herself and had a very low self-esteem, she became self-assured and motivated to pursue her own unique path in life ( At the APDEC, she went on stage to express her idea of offering her photographs for sale at the fundraiser. She was active, confident and creative in front of the participants. In another open space, Shure students presented the Japanese tea ceremony, paper folding, self-designed stamps and so on which attracted a lot of participants. I was impressed by their kind, caring and calm smile and then began to gather more information about this democratic university.

In Shure University brochures, it says: “To live as I want. To get the world back to the self. To study, to express, to be reborn.” Shure Tokyo is the parent organization of Shure University, an non-profit organization founded by students in 1999 who wanted to continue their education. There are no qualifications necessary, no pre- defined curriculum, only freedom. In China, students are measured according to their academic performance at a college entrance examination. We judge students by the grades they get, not by who they are. We have a compulsory curriculum. If the students fail, they can’t get their degree.

“Accepted” is a 2006 comedy film made in the United States about a group of high school seniors who, after being rejected by all colleges to which they had applied, create their own college, the South Harmon Institute of Technology ( The students decide what they study based on their own individual schedule, how to spend their tuition, how long it takes to finish the course. They don’t have traditional teachers, classrooms or library, however they find their creativity and passion for learning with a desire for self- growth. Ironically, true learning takes place in this fake college. The students don’t need society’s approval to tell them what to learn or how to learn. It’s about total self-acceptance. When I introduced this American film to my students in Psychology class, they began to feel inspired, but later they said it was just a movie and not real.


I was eager to see how the concept of democratic university works in real life. Not long after the conference, on August 4, 2016, I visited the Shure University in Tokyo. Located in a two-story building, including one room for teenage democratic students, Shure University put the dream of democratic education into practice. Although that day fell on their summer vacation, the staff and students of Shure University were busy preparing for the Shure University International Film Festival all the way until night time. It was to be held a few weeks after so as the students labored, Mr. Asakura showed me around the building and patiently answered my questions.


Shure is an ancient Greek word, which means a place where people can use their mind freely. Mr. Asakura and his previous democratic school students started Shure University, because the students didn’t want to go to the traditional university to further their study. They wanted to continue the practice of making democratic decisions about the way they learn, including the tuition they pay, the curriculum they cover and the years they spend in college. Before establishing the Shure University, Kageki had already been teaching at free schools for decades and taught sociology at the University.

In Shure University’s website, the philosophy behind their school is best embodied in the phrase “creating your own way of life.” Society usually expects people to graduate from high school and university, get a job and be a productive member of the community. Democratic education posits that this is not the only route to take. “Changing yourself to match society’s expectation is only one way to live. Another way is to create your own values through your own interests and experiences for the purpose of suiting your own lifestyle. How do you want to work? How do you want to spend your time? How do you want to build relationships with others? Students here try to create their own values with other students, staff members, advisers and other friends of Shure University.” (


Now, there are around forty students, four staff members and almost fifty professional advisers from various fields. In the end, the students in Shure University do not receive a degree. Why then do they choose to attend? For them, education is about true learning, and not merely a certificate. The tuition cost is higher than the state universities but below the private ones. Without recognition by the Japanese Ministry of Education and comparatively low tuitions, Shure University has no economic advantage to attract famous experts to teach here. However, there are still fifty professional advisers such as Serizawa Shunsuke, Hirata Oriza, Shin Sugo, Hau Yasuo, Ozawa Makiko, Ueno Chizuko. The university attracts the people that they do because the students are highly self-motivated and tend to excel in the things they do since they choose it themselves.

Referring to the advisers, Mr. Asakura said that “We need fifty of them because interest of students are so diverse.” Even though the school only has forty students, the interests are so broad, spanning philosophy, anthropology, music, law, drama, cinema, history, documentary and others. These also change over time so the university has to be ready to deal with the evolving interests. Sometimes, the adviser comes to the university to hold a workshop or a class while other times, the student can visit the adviser’s office to have a personal tutorial or consultation.

It is understandable how diverse the composition of experts and advisers are because there are many unique courses available in Shure including: Alternative Education, Academic History, School Truancy, Family Discourse, Life Discourse, Cultural History, Politics and Economics, World History Research Seminar, Creating Your Way of Life, Literary Discussion, Pop Music, Computer Science, Tokyo Cultural Activities, Live Theater, Modern and Fine Arts, as well as language classes such as English and Korean. Project-based classes are also available including Film, Drama, Music and How to Build and Race Solar Powered Cars (


There are unique personal courses and a number of group projects. Students here decide how many classes they have and how many years they attend. They explore their own path with other students, staff members, advisers and other friends of Shure University. The graduate is evaluated on individual and project-based performance. One of the Shure University students, Yui Sakamoto explained that there is a meeting each semester to discuss and reflect on the seminars and group projects, what they want to get during the present semester and what they got during the previous one. Each student has tutorial time when they talk about their individual plans and reflect on their own work. Each student makes a presentation around March including an evaluation of their own work while other members give a response or comment on the presentation. They don’t use numerals to evaluate anything or anyone. In a sense, according to Yui Sakamoto, this is more challenging so when she needs to get a deeper understanding, she has to ask questions to grasp what she wants. For her, the most important thing is “living her own life and making the kind of world that she wants.”

At the APDEC 2016, American psychologist Peter Gray, author of Free To Learn explained how he would evaluate an educational system based on two questions: 1) Are the students happy? and 2) Do they live satisfying lives and are productive in society? ( From this perspective, the graduates of Shure University seem to fulfill these standards. The majority work at an NGO or take care of senior citizens. Almost none of them takes part in the commercial field. They become responsible, caring adults.

The next APDEC will be held in Tokyo at The National Olympic Youth Centre on August 1 – 7, 2017. People from the Shure University will actively be involved in organizing this major, international event. Joining it may be an ideal way to continue learning more about this exceptional university and about democratic education in general.


About the Author:

Donna (Yan LI) is a Educational Psychology Lecturer at the School of Communications, Tianjin Foreign Studies University. As much as she possibly can, she wants to promote the ideas of democratic education and hopes to start a Democratic School in mainland China someday.

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Along The Way To Accreditation In A Progressive Education

By Karen M. Giuffre', M.Ed. Founding Director, Voyagers Community School

Voyagers’ Community School in Eatontown, New Jersey, is proud to announce that we have been recommended for accreditation by the Middle States Association visiting team! Our Prekindergarten through High School program offers “Traditional academics in non-traditional ways” based on a constructivist philosophy.

For those of us in the progressive education field, the challenge of explaining and often defending our approach has become part of an ongoing dialogue that reaches well beyond the classroom. Although we know, as professionals who work closely with children everyday, that our pedagogy is successful, there are times when we are called to prove ourselves by parents, students, educators, community leaders and others. Sometimes the call comes from collaborative colleagues around a table asking,”How do we know?” About three years ago, Voyagers’ Community School committed to taking a good look at itself through the eyes of Middle States Association (MSA). We decided to seek accreditation through a rigorous process set forth by an impartial entity.

Through our first ten years, we measured success by looking at our process and ensuing outcomes. We were certain of our effectiveness. Then came a time when we decided to prove it to the naysayers, and to allay the fears often expressed by unknowing prospective students, parents and grandparents. We thought, “Accreditation could help “prove” that our approach is valid.” It was a risk because the opposite could be found and revealed, or worse yet we could find ourselves shifting and changing to meet the standards expected by MSA.

When seeking accreditation, there are many things to consider. First, you must choose an accrediting agency. Our school chose to accredit through Middle States Association because they purport to assure that a school holds itself to its mission, vision, beliefs and goals in daily decisions; remains committed to continuous improvement in student learning and to its capacity to produce the levels of learning desired and expected by its community; and operates in a collegial and collaborative way with all of its stakeholders. Given these standards among many more we felt no pressure to change, instead we understood the challenge, to narrate for a visiting team and for the larger organization the who, why, where, what and how at Voyagers’.

To be clear, we are, with 65 students, quite possibly among the smallest schools being considered for accreditation by MSA. Also, being open for 13 years we are most likely among the younger schools to be considered. Being an amalgam of various approaches including holistic, democratic, progressive and reggio inspired wasn't in our favor either. More commonplace alternative approaches accredited by MSA seemed to include Montessori, Waldorf and Friends schools, all grown from an underlying, longstanding and clearly defined philosophy. While making our accreditation choices we were well aware that we were part of what, by many, is considered a fringe movement in education, albeit known among our colleagues to have deep traditional roots. Despite these probable reasons to retreat from the painstaking process of accreditation we moved forward in inimitable Voyagers’ fashion.

Over the years since we first expressed our interest in accreditation we have committed an obscene number of hours to organizing, examining our work, and peeling back the onion to see clearly who we are, what we do and how we tell our story. Some 300 self-study pages later, we are proud to have secured an accreditation recommendation without compromising our philosophical foundations and underpinnings or changing what we do in any way. It was, at times, difficult to fit our long-winded answers into the boxes provided, mostly because telling our story required out of the box explanations. We often slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, altered the format provided by MSA. In doing so, we offered all the information requested and more. We provided a good sense of who we are. This became clear when the visiting team saw our school in action and had fewer or quite different questions than we anticipated.

Since the purpose of the self study was to benefit the school, we made the MSA format and approach to gathering data fit as best we could. We organized our answers to question after question in a way that made sense to MSA while engaging in an examination of ourselves and our work. In the last two years of our self study no less than 20 people, working in collaborative teams, searched for evidence and composed responses to groups of questions. Often larger groups and sometimes everyone would come together to take a look at the work in its entirety. We realized, on paper we looked more traditional, this stirred up concern. Many times during staff meetings and board meetings we considered whether the process was changing our approach. Throughout, we were lead by our resolve to tell our story so that MSA could hold it up to their light and have a good look, but also so that we could digest it and connect all of our moving parts into one whole conglomerate.

In a small private, nonprofit school who has the time for the daily routines let alone the demands of accreditation? Composing a self study, which requires more than cursory input from all community members, teachers, students, parents, board members, etc, is not for the faint of heart. In our case, we assigned three coordinators, composed a steering committee of six and created about 25 subcommittees. Teachers, administrators and board members spent an inordinate number of hours looking at everyday practice, current and archived documents, responses from surveys and founding and planning documents to answer the questions MSA posed. During the closing months, at least 4 people read and reread sections and 3 people read the document in its entirety, in many cases, asking committees to return to their work. Just moments before releasing the document to the visiting team we were editing and adding more data.

What follows, the visit, is harrowing no matter how confident you are. It's like baring your foibles to your mother or father in law. In our case, a committee of four visitors, none from a progressive school and one from the MSA office, which is unusual, spent three days in our school. With notepads and clipboards in hand they held up in an office with our 26, 2 inch binders. They wandered from class to class and corner to corner of our building with obvious purpose. They followed our students outdoors to the arboretum and our playground areas and through a fire drill. They talked to countless people including the owner of our janitorial company and our board president. They verified our data through observation and questioning and assessed our contribution to the education of a community of children and their representatives.

Every individual who participated in our accreditation efforts from start to finish poured their hearts into the process, often following long days in the classroom and at desks. Our work spilled over into staff meetings and development days that would have otherwise been spent on other pressing matters. Gaining accreditation is quite the endeavor. We took on, as a small school, what much larger schools hesitate to consider. Significant in this process is the financial commitment. Beyond paying for extra staff hours, which is the greatest and most constant drain on an operating budget, there are fees to an outside survey companies, accountants and bookkeepers, and in our case an attorney who was asked to review an existing document for clarification. Of course there are the application fees to MSA throughout the process and then the cost of hosting a visiting team for three days and nights. For almost a decade, our understanding of the monetary commitment and the years of consistent effort necessary for accreditation, outweighed the anticipated benefits, especially when compared to what else the school needed in its early years. Among responsible and realistic reasons for pursuing accreditation is the prominence of boosting enrollment. Early in the process this was the only way to grapple with the related costs.

The Middle States Association Visiting Team has recommended us for accreditation with accolades. This brought tears to the eyes of many and was cause for celebration. However, we are only in the home stretch. The report generated by the visiting team alongside our self study will be reviewed by MSA staff and several of their committees before a final decision is made in the spring of 2017.

At this juncture we have already benefitted in ways we never anticipated. We now know and have memorialized for others what we do, why we do it, how we do it and how and why it works, without a shadow of a doubt. We also know where we need to improve and we have action plans and committees in place. There are benefits to the self study process even if accreditation is not the outcome. We have set larger goals and created the framework necessary to reach our goals, particularly those related to student achievement and organizational strength. Accreditation is an ongoing process, we will be held accountable to each other and to Middle States Association for our progress. There was a time when we might have bristled at the notion of some outside entity “snooping around” but now we realize the overarching benefit and value of accreditation.

We are proud to have exposed our constructivist methods and practices to those representing a well respected accreditation agency, without wavering from our founding philosophy, adjusting our history or changing who we are. We look forward to the end goal which is accreditation, but we are basking in the knowledge that we are changing the world with another ripple in a big pond. This process helped us accurately assess how we function. We can now with certainty make strategic improvements for our future.

We welcome others who are invested and interested in progressive education to contact us about a visit or professional development opportunities at Voyagers’ Community School.