For the past few months I've been working part time with Jill Davidson to put on the final Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum -- their annual national conference. It is also the end of CES as an independent organization, more or less. It was Jill's conference; I was just assisting her vision. There are a bunch of reasons to gracefully wind up the organization at this point: structurally it has always been too loose and decentralized for the current funding climate, and the expanded reach of many of its principles has come through new organizations like Expeditionary Learning, Big Picture Learning, High Tech High, and Deeper Learning.
So we held the conference last week in Providence at the Omni to give everyone a chance for one last "conversation among friends." I suppose it is not my place to say so, but it went really well. We had between 400 and 500 people, which was enough for our financial requirements and enough to make the venue feel full -- but still small enough for Jill and I and a few other volunteers to give everyone quick and personal service. I could easily keep an eye on the 15 or so session rooms myself. The Omni staff was great; food was tasty; A/V support way beyond what teachers are used to.
The goal was to still have the same working conference for classroom teachers from Coalition schools that Fall Forum has always been, with a strong thread of reflection, nostalgia, and opportunity for closure as a community.
The emotional center of the conference -- at this point you might consider how many conferences you've attended that had an emotional center -- was its grand-matriarchs, Deborah Meier and Nancy Faust Sizer. Debbie's eyesight is failing so I (and I am sure many others) made it my mission to scurry around making her path as smooth as possible. Debbie and Nancy were in the middle of everything all weekend. Nancy Sizer's closing words were emotionally raw but perfect for the moment, and wrapping everything up with some second-line tunes from the Extraordinary Rendition Band worked better than I could have hoped.
From my point of view, even the screw-ups were kind of amazing. I'd sent out invitations for participating authors to do book signings, but the actual implementation was a bit ad hoc. I ducked into the main ballroom to finally get a bite to eat on the first full day of the conference and when I came out, Linda Darling-Hammond, Dennis Littky (of Big Picture), Debbie Meier, and George Wood (president of CES) were all sitting around a little table wedged in between the bookseller and another vendor table, having a grand chat. The only problem is that without a proper sign, etc., even if other people had realized it was supposed to be a book signing, it was a rather intimidating conversation to interrupt for a signature. It was a satisfying moment to stand back and observe, and maybe grab a young person and whisper, "Do you know who those people are!?!".
CES is kind of like an American labor union -- full participation is mostly based on where you happen to work -- and since I've never worked at a CES school, I've never been an active member. But CES and Ted Sizer's work at Brown is what brought me to Providence in the first place, and I have always thought of my educational philosophy first and foremost as a "CES-style progressive," so it was an honor to contribute to its legacy and do something for those who built it over the past three decades.