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What is Community in Education?

by Jerry Mintz

Communities are associations of human beings who share some common interest.

According to this definition, communities can manifest in endless configurations, and they do.

These are some of my communities:

  • The AERO network
  • Democratic schools community
  • International Democratic Education Conference community
  • Brooklyn Free School community
  • Manhattan Free School Community
  • Summerhill School Community
  • Boys and Girls Club Community
  • United States Association of Table Tennis Community
  • Boys and Girls Club Table Tennis Club Community
  • High School Alumni Community
  • Shaker Mountain School Alumni community
  • Goddard College Alumni Community
  • Antioch New England Graduate School Community.
  • People living in my house community
  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram/orphanage Community
  • Stork Family School community
  • Coach Yuxiang Li table tennis club community
  • Korean table tennis club community.
  • Roslyn Country Club Community

In many cases there is a lot of crossover between the communities. You could probably outline these with a Venn diagram (overlapping circles). In many cases there is none and the people in them only know me in the context of their community.  In other cases there is a very unexpected crossover. 

As you can see, most of these communities are related to the work I do in alternative and democratic education. These tend to overlap, historically and currently. The biggest network is the AERO network. In the broadest sense this community has hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions in it. It not only includes people I have met personally, but also people I have met electronically and well as countless other who have come to the AERO network though our website but have never directly communicated to me. Nevertheless most of them have a sense of what AERO is, who I am, and would be comfortable contacting me when they need to. Conversely, there many who I have not heard from who have found enough information through the resources and articles on our website that they have been able to find what they were looking for: An alternative school for their child, a school to teach in which to teach, or even enough guidance to homeschool or start their own school or program.

Perhaps my biggest area of expertise is democratic education.  Our definition of democratic education is simple: It is "education in which young people have the freedom to organize their daily activities, and in which there is equality and democratic decision-making among young people and adults," as quoted from AERO's Directory of Democratic Education. Put more simply, students need to have decision-making power about their own education and their own school while it is in process. The reason why I put it this way is because some people and organizations use the term "democratic education" when they mean they are training students to participate in democracy at some point in the future.  This is in contrast to our definition. In fact, students at democratic schools have a vote that is equal to other students and staff members in decision-making.

This was the case at Shaker Mountain School, and is the case at Brooklyn Free School, Manhattan Free School, and remarkably, at the democratic table tennis club within the Boys and Girls Club where I volunteer. Our table tennis club of over 50, mostly minority students age six to sixteen, elects student supervisors as young as age eight, and runs the club six days a week. I am a volunteer there two days a week for two hours. Recently the club brought a team of twelve of them to play a match at Coach Yuxiang Li’s Club as two of my communities overlapped.

This is a good example of unexpected intersection of communities: One of the parents of one of my table tennis students was a homeschooler and needed help when there was a family crisis. She knew that I also worked with homeschoolers. She contacted me and for most of one school year her children spent much of the day at the AERO office and we had a homeschool resource center there!

I teach table tennis as I love the game and have developed the ability to teach beginners to moderate players. A good teacher will appreciate the moment when their students' eyes light up in accomplishment and understanding. I get to see that all the time when I teach table tennis, thus helping students become more confident in their ability to learn in a non-academic, non-threatening way. This is a skill I have applied in many of my communities. For example, I have taught table tennis in 21 countries, mostly places where I was doing an educational consultation or at an IDEC. I am official the "Very, very part-time table tennis coach" at Summerhill School in England. I teach there every year or two when I am on my way somewhere, most recently on the way back from a TEDx talk in Norway. I was honored that the US Olympic Committee presented me an award as Volunteer Coach of the Year.


I have never been to one community that I am part of: the Sri Aurobindo Ashram/orphanage. I met its founder, Ramchandra, in New York when he was fundraising for it. After running away from Nepal at twelve and educating himself in India, partly at the Sri Auromindo Ashram in Oroville, India, he returned to Nepal after 20 years. Discovering great poverty and many children on the street, he started the orphanage near Katmandu. I got him involved with the IDEC community and he spoke at the 2002 IDEC in New Zealand. We raised funds for Ramchandra, another teacher from the Ashram and one student to attend the IDEC we hosted in 2003. That teacher was his younger sister, now married and living with her husband and two year old daughter at my house, helping with AERO. I met several other students and staff members at subsequent IDECs in India and Australia. I taught table tennis to many of the students and donated funds to them so they could develop a table tennis program at the Ashram. I often Skype with them and we have continue to raise funds to support them. Many people from the AERO network have visited them. They keep on asking me to visit and I hope to do so when I have the opportunity.

I met the community of the Stark Family School of Vinnitsa, Ukraine at the first New Schools Festival of the Soviet Union in August, 1991. They were the first parent coop school in the Soviet Union. This was the first contact between Eastern and Western alternatives. We hit it off immediately, especially when they discovered that my grandmother was born in Ukraine. They said I was American only by accident of birth and was now one of their family. They even gave me a part in their play, the Goose that Lain the Golden Egg. I had to learn my lines in Russian!

I stayed in communication with them, helping them weather attacks from their government, which was taking 80% of their tuition in takes. At one point, shades of the cold war, we transmitted a grant of $10,000 we had arranged for them by physically strapping in on the body of the granddaughter of their math teacher when she was visiting New York, so she could sneak it into the country! I didn't get to actually visit the Stark School until I arranged for them to host the IDEC in 1998. In 2011 they insisted they pay my way to their 20th anniversary celebration in Vinnitsa.

Finally one of my most remarkable experiences with community:

When I was a student at Goddard College I took a course with Alan Walker called Community Laboratory. This course brought me into the local community. I started an amateur radio club, a 4H club that did cancer research, and a recreation center. Recently I received a letter in the mail from a woman from the community who had noticed an item about me and AERO in the Goddard College newsletter. She said, "I remember being very struck by your interest in the young people in Plainfield and how you considered starting a recreation center. I was really touched that someone would care about us village kids in that way. I felt the love in it. And for that reason I am writing to say THANK YOU, as it is people like you who helped make my childhood/girlhood a golden one…"

This letter from community involvement 50 years ago was completely unexpected and has deeply affected me. Community is forever.

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NAREN Conference (Event)

NAREN, the National At-Risk Education Network, will hold its 2014 National Conference in Baltimore, on April 23-25, 2014.
The conference offers "hot topics" with nationally recognized presenters, limited enrollment for personal interactions, a live 3-D Brain Path experience, a "poverty experience" simulation, and a chance to participate in a service project with at-risk youth.
For more information, please visit NAREN » 2014 NAREN National Conference or contact Cheryl Giantsios at

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Educating for Human Greatness: A Framework for Redesigning the Public School System

by Anthony Dallmann-Jones Phd and Lynn Stoddard

“Everybody is a genius! But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  -Einstein

Every child is a genius! There we have said it: The Biggest Secret repressed and denied by our society.  Question: Why would anyone want to keep such a wonderful thing like that a secret? Perhaps if we imagine the following scenario for a few seconds we can answer our own question: Consider the prospect of teaching 25 or 30 kids all year who are smarter than you are, or administering a school of 1,000 children, each more talented than the administrator. That would easily create a reason for the subconscious mind to put on blinders.

But, let us assume that after eating a bit of humble pie, you as a teacher do finally come to accept the fact that the kids may be smarter and/or more talented than their teacher in many ways.

Then you get hit with The 2nd Secret: Each child may be smarter or more talented than all the others! What?   Is that possible?

Then, without mercy, comes Secret #3: Each child is a genius in their own way but different from one another. 

The implications of these three secrets for our schools admittedly are nothing short of formidable. So much so that few educators or the politicians who institute educational legislation would allow themselves to admit them, much less consider implementing changes based on them. In order to bring these secrets into light you will need to show them to policy makers who have a willingness to admit the truth of these secrets and encourage them to initiate support for starting programs that will implement them.

We feel sorry for educators (and we are educators! :-) because where does this leave us if we admit these three secrets? Where/How to begin the changes needed to accommodate the true genius of every child? Well, hold on: Is it not true that out of challenge comes opportunity? And then, just as you wonder how in the world something like these three secrets could be implemented, out of relative obscurity comes a little known philosophy that shows promise for transforming public education in America .

The philosophy is called “Educating for Human Greatness.” It differs from conventional education in several significant ways, not the least of which is extraordinary student accomplishment. And it gladly embraces The Three Secrets. Wouldn’t every parent (and we grandparents as well) love to see the innate genius of children flourish instead of being squashed into standardized molds?


Can you imagine a school that gives almost no teacher-assigned home “work” but where students engage in much self-chosen home “study?”

Can you imagine a school that deliberately and purposefully aims to develop each child’s unique talents, gifts, interests and abilities

Can you imagine a school where each student learns to read naturally, at his or her own time and pace, without commercial programs or high-pressure instruction and testing – a school where students choose to spend much time reading about the things in which they are interested – a school that provides time to read and a great variety of reading materials?

Can you imagine a school where teachers are honored, respected and allowed to practice their craft of guiding children toward their genius – a school where parents and other primary care givers are involved as full partners?

When you walk up to an Educating for Greatness School , the first thing you notice is a large banner across the front entrance that says, “GROWING GREATNESS.” Then, the minute you step through the front door, you can sense something unusual. Next to the office you see a large poster with the following: 



The Mission of Educating for Human Greatness: Help students discover and develop their unique purposes for existing to be special contributors to society.

Main Priorities/goals of this school: 

We use an endless variety of subjects to help each student grow and achieve in the following powers of human genius:

Identity – We value student differences and help each student develop a unique set of talents, gifts, and abilities.
Inquiry – We expand curiosity and develop the power to ask great questions.
Interaction – We develop leadership, caring, cooperation, and communication.
Initiative – We help students develop the power of will to pursue projects with passion.
Imagination – We use the arts and other disciplines to develop creativity.
Intuition – We develop the power to sense truth with the heart.
Integrity – We nurture honesty, respect and responsibility for self and toward others.

Near the office of the school is a large mail-drop box and a steady stream of students coming to mail their letters. You stop a child to ask, “What are you doing?”
“I’m mailing a letter to my friend in another class.” 
“Did your teacher assign you to write a letter?”
“Oh, No. We write lots of letters to others in the school and some pen pals far away. I have one pen pal in Germany , another one in Australia and lots here in the school.”
“Without being assigned to do it? Why?”
“Because it’s fun, we learn a lot and we help younger students learn how to read and write.” And off she goes, skipping down the hallway. You later learn that “mail time” is a big thing in each class each day and some students spend much time writing letters. Mail delivery is accomplished each morning by a rotating crew of student volunteers.

This first encounter with an Educating for Greatness student is your basic introduction to  teacher-guided, student self-chosen learning – a kind of activity that pervades much of the day in this remarkable school.

As you walk down the hall, you notice posters made by the students, each depicting one of the seven powers of human greatness. One has IMAGINATION across the top and a large drawing of a boy’s head surrounded by pictures of futuristic aircraft, automobiles, trains, ships, a man running, a doctor seemingly operating with a laser, a student examining something with a magnifying lens and a farmer raising extra tall corn. Underneath the pictures are the words. “Brainstorm to Create New Ideas.” Another poster, INTERACTION, shows a group of children holding hands in a circle, with the words, “Love and Respect Change Everything.”    

Further along the hall you see a long poster called, “THE GREAT BRAIN HALL OF FAME,” on which is posted dozens of head photos of students with the title of each person’s project(s) and the level of great brain achievement, “specialist,” “expert,” “mastermind,” or “genius.” As you walk along, two boys and a girl in a wheelchair are talking about one of the students on the “Hall of Fame” poster. You slow your step to eavesdrop.

“Look, Mathew achieved Genius level for his project on the Legislature.”
“Yes, I know. I went to hear him give his presentation.”
“Was it good?
“It was great! He certainly knows a lot about how laws are made. Maybe he’ll run for governor some day.” (giggle)
“That’s a joke. He’s too fat for that.”
“Randy, you mustn’t talk like that. Mathew’s a good kid.”
“Susan, How are you coming with your project on butterflies?”
“OK, but I haven’t been able to catch very many different kinds yet. I move too slow in my wheel chair. And I’m still not sure I’ve asked the right questions.”
“Can I help? We could go out right after school, if you want. And Maybe I can help you think of some brilliant questions. My super brain never stops.” (laugh)
“Cory, your “super brain” is crazy. (giggle)

As you move on down the hall, you come to the first classroom. You enter to find a talent show just getting started with a student acting as mistress of ceremonies. A young lady about 9 or 10 years old introduces the first act —  “For the first talent, please welcome Steven Randall, a famous orator, who will give a patriotic speech.” Then Steven tells about his uncle serving in Afghanistan , his cousin, who died in the Iraq war, and goes on with great passion, to tell about the freedoms and standard of living we enjoy in our country and what we should do about it. It is a very moving speech that brings a tear to your eye and a lump in your throat, not merely because of the content, but because a person so young could have and express these kinds of feelings.

You stay for the remainder of the talent show, long enough to see an acrobatics demonstration, a young lady singing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables, a student showing his artwork in oils, pastels and watercolors and explaining where he got the ideas and how he did each one. You also enjoy a performance of three boys performing a number with home-made musical instruments and demonstrating how the pitch of sound is altered by changing the length of the vibrating string. The one who explained this said he was doing a Great Brain Project on sound and how it travels. After the talent show, it is recess time and the teacher explains that every class in the school holds a weekly talent show and the outstanding acts are chosen by the students to perform in a quarterly, whole school show. Over a period of time, as students choose from a shopping list of more than 80 different kinds of talents, they begin to learn who they are and what they can do to be contributors to the world. The teacher explains that many students work very hard on their talent presentations and some have tried out several different kinds of talents.

When you enter the next classroom, you see five groups of about 5 or 6 students in each group, working on a math problem. The teacher has provided each group with a small box of rocks (10 or 12 rocks in each box) and challenged them to arrange the rocks in a row from lightest to heaviest. They are to do this without the benefit of a measuring scale, but they may invent their own ways to weigh the rocks. Students must be able to prove their answers. One group found a larger rock that weighed less than some smaller ones — leading to a discussion of volume, mass and how it could be measured. The students were also challenged to see how many different ways they could classify the rocks, by color, texture, hardness, etc. an introduction to igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary.

The Advantages/Results of Educating FOR Human Genius

Because it is difficult for some people to see the difference between what we have just described and what goes on in regular public schools, we would like to point out some key differences and some advantages of aiming to develop human genius.
The first difference, not readily apparent, is how curriculum is used by students, teachers, parents and other care-givers. It is an amazing paradox how it works. Students achieve more in reading, writing, mathematics and other subjects because this is NOT what is aimed for. It is not the primary goal. The basic skills are not taught as ends, in and of themselves, but as a means of fostering student growth in the great powers of human genius: Identity, Inquiry, Interaction, Initiative, Imagination, Intuition and Integrity. Because everyone aims primarily for student growth in the powers of genius, student achievement in basic skills comes as a wonderful bonus. For example, students become better readers because teachers nurture curiosity and the skills of inquiry. Reading is taught as one of the tools of inquiry. One teacher teaches beginning reading by labeling children’s art work with the words each child uses to describe his or her picture – “This is my family,” “This is our dog going after a stick my Dad threw in the lake,” and etc. Children learn to read by reading their own words and the words of others who send them letters in the school post office!

The first priority of Educating for Greatness is Identity. Because every person born on Earth is different from every other person, and was designed by the Creator to be unique, it calls for teachers to help students learn who they are and what they can do. It calls for us to nurture positive human diversity (phd) in every student. When schools and homes unite to nurture student differences there are many advantages over trying to build human uniformity as the “National Common Core Standards” aimed to do.

When teachers and parents unite to find and develop the special genius of each child, it changes the whole paradigm of public education – it transforms the system. The old Stanford Binet IQ Test has led several generations to believe that only a few people have superior intelligence. Because of this, a great many people have lived their whole lives believing that, if not stupid, they are, in many ways, inferior. This is a catastrophe and huge loss for our country because it limits what people can do and what they can become.

Now we know it’s not possible to measure human intelligence numerically. The Binet IQ Test measured no more than eight of over one hundred and forty mental functions that humans posses in trillions of different combinations.

Humans are so different from one another that it’s impossible to compare exceptionalism in one of the many trillions of different mental functions. How can you decide which student is the smartest? – In the same way you decide which snowflake is the most beautiful? After working for many years with a great variety of students we have found that each person is a one-of-a-kind miracle with unlimited potential.

At an International Gathering of Savants in Texas a few years ago we learned that there are many people born with severe mental deficiencies in some areas who are amazingly gifted in other areas. Tony Deblois, blind and autistic, can play any piece of music, classical or otherwise, flawlessly on the piano after hearing it only once. The late Kim Peek of Salt Lake City , memorized phone books and read other books with his left eye reading the left page, while simultaneously, his right eye was reading the right hand page. Others at the conference could add long columns of five or six digits faster in their heads than anyone else could do it on a computer.  Others, while nearly blind, produced amazing pieces of sculpture or paintings.

How will education change, if parents and teachers unite to help each child find and develop his or her genius? Here are some of the advantages of switching to EfHG, Educating for Human Greatness, (or Genius):

  1. Nurturing human differences builds student, teacher and parent self-worth.
  2. Every Child Can Excel in something.
  3. Our country is strong because of the great variety of its people, not their standardized uniformity.
  4. Teachers perform as professionals when they aim to help students grow as individuals. It requires teacher and parent stretching in knowledge and creativity.
  5. Students thrive when they are treated as individuals, each with unlimited potential.
  6. Parents are meaningfully involved as partners aiming for the same goals as teachers and students.
  7. Students love school because they can follow their own interests and projects. They do not drop out.  
  8. Cooperation rather than competition results in students treating one another with respect and kindness.
  9. When students value differences it changes the way they treat one another. Bullying is eliminated.
  10. Students learn more, in a deeper way, when searching for answers to their own questions.
  11. Students engage with passion in self-chosen and self-directed inquiry and study.
  12. Students learn how to solve problems that are important to them.
  13. Students learn literacy and math skills in a relaxed natural way when the time is right for each one, not when cultural tradition has decreed that they must learn them. They become avid readers. 

Inventing Strategies

One thing to remember about Educating for Human Greatness is that it is not a finished plan, but a living, growing plan that can be fashioned to serve the needs of each community. The seven powers of genius serve as a framework for students, teachers and parents to invent strategies for accomplishing each dimension. The teachers who created EfHG were inspired by the words of Marilyn King, an Olympic hopeful, who after getting seriously injured in an automobile accident, spent several weeks lying in a hospital bed visualizing how she would perform each pentathlon event when she got well. She Said, “We know that to accomplish any lofty goal, you must have a crystal clear image of that goal and keep it uppermost in your mind.  We know that by maintaining that image, the ‘how-to” steps necessary for the realization of the goal will begin to emerge spontaneously.” The teachers, students and parents found if they could maintain Identity, Inquiry and Interaction at the front of their minds as primary goals, their brains would invent strategies for accomplishing them. The School Post Office was invented by some students to encourage and develop written INTERACTION. The Shining Stars Talent Shows were invented to cultivate IDENTITY and The Great Brain Project was created to foster INQUIRY.  Each of the dimensions is amenable to many ways to accomplish it, especially for teachers to develop/create their own ways to do it. Some schools have found a group effort to be challenging — Monday is for Inquiry, Tuesday for Imagination, Wednesday for Identity, Thursday for Initiative and so on, or a week to focus on each of the major powers of genius. This is one way the school gives intense focus on each power of greatness and creates many strategies for developing each power. Teachers and parents share strategies periodically in short debriefing sessions.

Assessment and Accountability

If we stop trying to standardize students, how can we measure their growth? Our culture thought it was easy to measure human uniformity, but how is it possible to assess student growth in the divers powers of greatness? Can we really measure student growth in individuality? Who is responsible?

Ask yourself, on a scale of zero to five, how well your school and/or family are doing in developing each of these fundamental powers:

  1. The power of identity: To what degree does your school/home help students know who they are, see their great potential as contributors, and develop their unique talents, gifts, interests and abilities? ______
  2. The power of inquiry: To what degree is your school/home nurturing curiosity and helping students learn how to ask good questions? Do teachers and parents set an example of a curious, inquiring attitude? _______
  3. The power of interaction: To what degree does my school/home promote respect, courtesy, caring, communication, and cooperation? ______
  4. The power of initiative: How much does this school/home foster self-directed learning, self-reliance, will power and self-evaluation? ______
  5. The power of imagination: How much does this school/home nurture creativity and creative expression?  ______
  6. The power of intuition: How much does this school/home help students discover truth with their hearts as well as with their minds? _______
  7. The power of integrity: To what degree does this school/home develop honesty, character, morality and responsibility for self? _______
  8. The power of partnership: To what degree do teachers and parents work as full partners to help students grow their genius and be active contributors to the school, home and community? _____

The bottom line of Educating for Human Greatness is a community committed to a  process of helping one another find reasons for existing to be valuable contributors to society. The big shift occurs when the school stops trying to standardize students, an impossible task, and starts to nurture wonderful differences. This results in a total change of attitudes toward the process of teaching and learning. Students and teachers are no longer demoralized from trying to please distant politicians, but are eager to go to school each day to rediscover the joy of learning and teaching. When teaching is restored as a respected profession, wonderful things begin to happen.

I recently attended a showing of “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat.” It reminded me of the amazing genius of Andrew Lloyd Weber, who composed the music to it and several other outstanding productions. When we change the purpose of education to discover and develop the genius of each person, we are going to find the likes of many Einsteins, Webers, Frank Lloyd Wrights, Edisons, Mother Teresas,  Shakespears and Oprah Winfreys waiting to be discovered and developed. How many adults are yet to discover their special genius and reasons for existing to be special contributors to society – all because the school system they attended was intent on standardizing everyone?

In EfHG schools they are finding that every child has a special genius to be developed through in-depth study of self-selected topics or show it in one of the talent shows that are held to help students find their special talents. Megan, a first-grader, became a genius on hummingbirds and Susan, a third grader, gave an outstanding rendition of a song she composed and performed on the piano as part of her “Great Brain” report on dinosaurs. Val, an eighth-grader, composed a piece for full orchestra, woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion, which was chosen to be played at the state music-educator’s conference.

At the time of this writing there are three schools actively engaged in EfHG, a Montessori school in Phoenix , a private school near Austin , Texas and a public elementary school in Seattle – and others tooling up. If you want to investigate the possibility of having an Educating for Human Genius School in your community, get in touch with the author of this book. You can add your voice to the revolution in education that is beginning to catch fire.

Order Educating for Human Greatness here. Find out more about the authors and their work here.


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Recap of 10th Annual AERO Conference (2013)

The 2013 AERO conference has ended, but in many ways, it continues. People there said this conference had a quality of presentation and interaction that went beyond even the wonderful ones they had previously experienced. Networks have been created to continue conversations started at the conference. 

We wanted to get a quick report to you with a more detailed one in the future. People came from at least 25 states and 10 countries. Many came up to tell us it was life-changing.

-Jerry Mintz

Here are some pictures and a few snippets already sent to us from attendees:

I am so grateful I was able to attend. It was powerful!
-Nancy Tilton

Great conference as always!
-Peter Berg

It was great to be back and enjoy the energy of the conference.
-Craig Goodman

The Conference was as always a much needed recharging of the batteries, motivating ever increasing efforts towards advocating for and working with students. For me, the spreading of various forms of authentic Democratic Ed. was invigorating, meeting more unschoolers, homeschoolers who have a learning center which functions much as a Free School does, and of course my personal favorite, the Free Schools themselves than I can ever remember. The number of people who are creating new structures or methods of expanding freedom for an increasing number of students was terrific and certainly reinspired me to do my small part by finishing my dissertation! Thanks to all for the support, informative conversations, and just generally awesome positive time many of you spent with me; I will remember AERO 2013 as I do the 6 I was fortunate enough to attend prior, with nothing but fond memories of old friends as well as new ones, thank you all & particularly to Jerry for continuing to do an amazing job making it all happen!
-Kirk Cunningham

Movement Matters had fun with the youngsters and adults alike! Many children passed by the MM booth and stopped to curiously inquire about the materials on the shelf. Coco played with the Air, Land and Water animals working to sort them and differentiate them by where they live. As she sorted, she chose different locomotor movements to practice as she: jumped, hopped, ran and walked backwards or slithered to place animals. One charming toddler giggled as she batted the 'Easy Ball' around, another chose and sorted colored sticks while another tossed sock balls and mini-frisbees at a target! Easy, inexpesive movement activities for children. All you need is to watch the children and you know it works! Wish you had been with us at the workshop while we all played "Clean Out the Back Yard Throwing" Good fun with game adults! Yes, Movement Matters!
-Melani Fuchs

Although I have been an AERO member for seven years, this is the first year I have attended the conference. I waited so long because, as the co-founder of a public unschool, my concern was unschooling. I saw AERO as resource organization for all alternatives in education. It supported a much broader understanding of alternative education than relevant to me.

But, over the last year, I have noticed more and more people on the AERO list server talking in terms that resonate with unschooling ideas. I not only attended the conference this year, but facilitated a workshop on public unschooling.

I am so glad I attended. There truly are more and more people who see that the education revolution isn't just about patching up the current system, it's really about allowing people to be free to self-direct their learning. There were so many liked-minded people from throughout the world who said they were no longer willing to support coercive education. Jerry especially is to be commended for nurturing AERO to the point where we are ready to find ways to allow young people to free themselves to learn as they choose.
-Carol Nash

Consciousness and Self-Organization: AERO 2013
I had already missed the session on "When Learners Own Their own Learning," because I was presenting my own workshop, on "Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educators." And I knew I had a conflict preventing me from going to "Welcome to the Self-Design Learning Community," the next day. It was looking like I would miss the whole topic of learner's self-designing this year. Too bad, I thought, until I entered the session on "Consciousness: The Missing Dimension in Education." The teacher did not show up.

Talk about a missing dimension! A few of us started introducing ourselves and suggesting some issues on consciousness in education. We were tinkering, filling in the sense of "in limbo," but the teacher was still not showing up. When we finally realized we were alone, we started some introductions. Someone said we should move the desks around to include everyone, a most conscious suggestion. Was this self-organizing?

A similar thing had happened to me in, of all places, Cuba, just a few days earlier. I had taken my class to visit a school on the outskirts of Havana and we were introduced to a cohort class of Cuban kids. The teacher, realizing a group of American kids was a significant distraction, wisely cancelled the rest of the class and we all headed for the beach together. Americans had never set foot in their school before. Trouble was, neither group supplied any leadership, and so when our two, foreign classes disembarked onto the beach, a spectacular, secluded Caribbean spot, no on knew what to do. A few started meandering into the warm water. Then someone threw a ball in. Within a few minutes, most of the kids were lured in, forming in a circle, moving the ball all around, splashing and smiling together.

What would be the object in our consciousness seminar? We had no warm water. And no ball. As it turned out, consciousness was the warm water. We went around the circle, everyone expressing their take on the state of consciousness in their lives. Then another aspect of organizing occurred, one we often neglect: the opt-out phase. About a quarter of the people in the room determined that they would either not risk self-organizing and would only be willing to rely upon the professed expert, or perhaps they had hoped for something more leader-centric. That phase takes a lot of courage–people have to walk out and risk showing disapproval. I honor the people who walk out in situations like that. It is a difficult but necessary part of self-organizing. Next phase: we tightened the circle. Everyone took the ball, our invisible talking stick, held it for a while, made their contribution to the circle, and then passed it on.

In our next phase of self-organizing, after the initial organization into a whole (a single group), an analysis phase began. Analysis is simply the act of breaking things down into parts. As such, themes began to emerge. One participant had just graduated from University of California, San Diego, with a doctorate in this very area. Another was a beginning teacher who many never have imagined how she could integrate something so metacognitive into a classroom. A dichotomy was the first analysis I sensed our circle forming: Some people were curious on what this consciousness movement really entailed, others were very experienced. Further categorizations and analyses occurred as people expressed their own takes on the topic. There were those from the meditation perspective, the yoga and movement angle, the mind and brain research perspective, the classroom environment practitioners, the artificial intelligence faction, and the new learner perspective (from those who were new to this topic).

Having a pre-allocated time helped us create our organization, and I would imagine if it had not been printed on the conference schedule, someone would have naturally introduced the dimension of time at some point. Themed discussions ensued until the end of the allocated time, at which point someone suggested we continue the group beyond the walls of this classroom at this conference. The follow-up phase. So we all signed on so that someone could create a "consciousness email group." Following that, we entered into yet another part of self-organizing that I had not thought of: the remainder phase. Here, as we all stood to depart, in the most natural way, individuals approached other individuals whom they saw as kindred or stimulating. For my part, I walked about, picking the brains of a few in the room whom I thought had a lot to offer me, and I actually handed out some business cards. Other people did, too.

In the end, consciousness is only such as it connects us to our specific ecosystem. If that ecosystem includes groups of people, staying conscious might be a whole lot harder than if we are alone in the desert, for instance. However, given the professional teaching roles of most people at AERO this year, our ability to develop and sustain consciousness amidst groups of people would seem paramount, much more critical than solo meditation (also essential). Our group achieved this sense of group consciousness together. At our leaderless seminar, "Consciousness: The Missing Dimension in Education," we all could see that consciousness does not have to be missing after all.

Later on, I suggested to Jerry that AERO put some no-host topics on the agenda, to allow for "the consciousness of self-organization." Jerry thought so too, and I think many of us at AERO this year would agree that conscious people self-organizing would be one of the best imaginable outcomes for a conference.

-Stuart Grauer, Ed.D.