Making friends at the conference

This month I attended the AERO conference in Long Island, New York. I have been considering attending this conference for several years. So, what pulled me this time to say “yes” to attending? Several reasons made this event appealing to me. I have been involved in choices in education and learning for over 20 years and this was the focus of the conference. In addition, the speakers and workshops were led by a variety of educators, teens, and activists with the belief that learning is a natural process, which is not necessarily the model for public education.

The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) organized the conference of educators, parents, students and community activists. The event took place on the Long Island University – Post Campus. AERO was founded in 1989 by Jerry Mintz, an advocate for alternative education. He established the organization to help communities create alternative schools around the world.

Something else that pulled me to attend a conference about alternative education was that the keynote speakers. They are men and women who have been advocating for a type of education centered on the student’s natural way of learning. The mainstream educational establishment has worked for decades on creating opportunities for teachers to learn how to better engage students in a curriculum they have designed for the students. On many occasions, I have been part of designing curriculum for students and I know that there is usually an element of coercion where students’ attention is directed toward learning what the official standards put forth as important. In contrast, AERO brings together teachers, parents, students, and community advocates who believe that education (and life) are at their best when the pursuit of knowledge is based on an approach where the learner self-directs the curriculum.

Here are some highlights from the keynotes speakers at the AERO Conference.


Dennis Littky was keynote on the first evening of the conference. Mr. Littky is the co-founder of Big Picture Learning which creates student-centered public schools throughout the country and the world. My big takeaway from his talk was that education in public schools can be student-centered and personalized. The community, teachers, and administrators just need to be willing to give the control to the students to design their own learning processes. This is a huge ask, but it is also the heart of many of the alternative education models.

The second keynote of the evening was psychologist Peter Gray. Peter Gray is an advocate for self-directed learning and one of the founders of a new organization, Alliance for Self-Directed Education (ASDE). As a trained researcher and professor at Boston College, Peter has studied hunter-gatherer cultures, and alternative-schooled families and has determined that the traditional model of education for children is self-directed learning. He and many others believe that the next civil rights movement is self-directed education for all children!

I was intrigued by the contrast between Dennis Littky and Peter Gray in that each approached education reform from a different perspective. Dennis Littky approached education reform through the transformation of the public school system, and Peter Gray through research and creating transformation outside the public school system.


Jonathan Kozol has been writing books about education since the late 1960’s. He received the National Book Award for Death at an Early Age.  He has a passion for educational inequality and social justice. In his keynote speech, Kozol highlighted his experiences with teaching children of color in a poverty-stricken area in Boston during the early 1960’s. He commented on the oppression of children of color by corporate-backed schools such as the KIPP schools. One of the highlights for me was seeing Peter Gray interview, Jonathan Kozol. In the interview, Gray posed a question about what happened to the free and progressive school movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Kozol’s response was to point to William Bennet, Secretary of the Department of Education under the Regan administration, who frequently criticized schools for low standards. The frequent criticizing of education and the increasing conservativism in the political time of the late 70’s and 80’s created an environment where progressive and free schools were not able to flourish. My take away is that the current environment is ready to see change in the traditional public school system and now may be the time for change through creating opportunities for self-directed learning. In my research of Willliam Bennet, I was interested to note that he is the owner of K12, a company that sells a traditional education curriculum in an online format.


Akilah Richards was my favorite speaker of the conference. She is a homeschooling mom with a podcast, “Fare of the Free Child,” about unschooling, self-directed learning, and her parenting journey. Her keynote focused on creating a language of partnership with children. As adults, she says, we are in one of two modes: presenting or partnering. When presenting (lecturing) to our children, the ego takes over, centering on compliance and competition. When partnering with our children, the eco-center (whole system), is represented through cooperation, community, and care. She urged parents and teachers to shift their language from a place of being ego-centered (self) to eco-centered (holistic). One of my favorite quotes from Richards was, “We cannot wait for schools and systems to treat our children better.” My take away is that education reform starts with the parents and teachers in disrupting and challenging our regular ways of education.

The closing address was an essay written by John Taylor Gotto as read by Jerry Mintz because the author cannot speak due a stroke he suffered in 2011. John Taylor Gotto is a long-time educator and activist for education reform. He taught in the New York public school system, and then after being named New York teacher of the year, he quit teaching in 1991 stating that he did not want to hurt children anymore through teaching. I will give a review of the speech in a follow-up post.

The AERO Conference was a positive experience for connecting with people who believe that education needs to be learner-centered, no matter if the learning takes place in the current system or in the many alternative education options. It was a chance for me to find people who align with my thoughts and hopes for all children and their education. The workshops and mini-talks given at the AERO Conferences will be covered in follow-up posts.

Wildewood Learning is a light in the dark to those parents and students who are challenged by the state of the current school system. Ninety percent of our children in this nation are attending public school. Wildewood helps parents and teens who want to be empowered to speak up for their rights in education. There are many ways to be educated and to learn if the current system doesn’t fit your child. As a parent, know that you and your children do have choices!


Kathy Magnusson M.Ed.

Kathy Magnusson, M. Ed, support parents in creating educational options for their teen. She has been in the field of education for over 20 years and is passionate in engaging young adults in unleashing their unique brilliance. As an educator and coach, Kathy has supported parents in finding ways to help their teen feel more capable and confident. When she’s not chasing after her own four teens on a farm near Roseau, MN, you can find her serenely kayaking or relaxing with a good book at the family lake cabin in Ontario, Canada.

1 Comment

Norbert Engfer · February 20, 2019 at 11:36 am

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