As the registration line to SXSWedu stretched over three floors of the Austin convention center, it became clear I would not make it on time to Nikhil Goyal’s Keynote. I was looking forward to hearing the 17-year-old Goyal, author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School.  Wearing my lanyard at last, I was able to make the last 20 excellent minutes of the Keynote. Goyal was describing his vision for schools where students chart and pursue their own inquiry path. I may have missed part of it, but you can watch a video of the full speech on Vimeo

This beginning of my SXSWedu journey turned out to represent my experience of the entire conference. With a backdrop of five thousand attendees, fifteen concurrent sessions over nineteen different tracks, and who-knows-how-many corporate sponsored events, I was somehow able to dodge the many big data and technology magic bullets and enjoy an uplifting series of speakers working to make a human, meaningful, student-centered difference in education.

Reflections from the Grassroots
Education reformer and activist Allen Weeks shared how Webb Middle School in Austin have seen dramatic turnaround within a school year through all-hands-on-deck community-based planning. Organizing in support of the school, community stakeholders – from the local library branch and scout troop to the fire dept, from neighborhood businesses to private citizens – were able to remove Webb from the state’s closure list, and put it back on track.

SXSWedu group speaking after Keynote / Photo: Dror Yaron
Photo: Dror Yaron

System Level Perspectives
The Innovation Lab Network is a partnership between state education agencies, districts, and schools in nine states (Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, West Virginia and Wisconsin) whose purpose is to test, refine and prove new designs for public education, putting students at the center of the question, “What would we do if we could create public education anew?” Policies, teacher education and professional development, school administration, learning environment and schedules – they seem to leave no stone unturned.

The Experience of Educators
American History teacher Diana Laufenberg of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia had students take the US Citizenship test and evaluate their own answers to kick off a unit about American identity. She spent time on Twitter and Facebook with her students during State of the Union Address, and sent them out to interview voters on Election Day. In her presentation “Creating the Classrooms We Need” she described the systems and structures that support authentic, experience-based learning. Laufenberg shared practical classroom examples of activities and assessments, all are included on this highly recommended resource page.

Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Demonstrates a Collaborative Model
Just as in Melissa Butler’s Kindergarten Classroom at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5, tangible was the sense of wonder in the room as she, together with Jeremy Boyle, shared the intentionally slow, tactile, in-depth notice of technology and learning that is Children’s Innovation Project. A project of CMU’s CREATE Lab, co-developed by a teacher and an artist in a Pittsburgh Public School classroom, grown in partnership with Carlow UniversityASSET STEM EducationThe Fred Rogers CenterChildren’s Museum of Pittsburgh, and others, Children’s Innovation Project is a fine example of the unique Kids + Creativity climate of collaboration including academy, non-profit, formal and informal education and more.

Now what?
If these reflections pique your interest, I highly recommend attending the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC) coming up in early August in Boulder, CO. Registration for IDEC 2013 is open until July 31, but reservation and payment deadline for the conference’s affordable room and board plans is July 19 – tomorrow.

With no magic bullets to dodge, this year’s International Democratic Education Conference will be a gathering of young people, parents, educators, community organizers, and academics from around the world — coming together to consider ways to transform communities, schools, and learning to ensure that all young people can engage meaningfully in their education and gain the tools to build a just, sustainable, and democratic world.

IDEC used to be a gathering centered on democratic schools and democratic education practitioners. I personally am glad to see it shifting focus to center on democratic practices in education. Organizers estimated 50% of the attendees this year – as part of an intentional effort on behalf of IDEC – will be public educators. One concept that I find especially exciting – in the context and spirit of Kids + Creativity and connected learning – is Education Cities. Leaders of this initiative from Puerto Rico and Israel will be at this year’s conference. I will also be there, with a couple of public school teachers from Pittsburgh. Hope you join us too.

SXSWedu conference room / Photo: Dror Yaron
Photo: Dror Yaro