As 2015 comes to a close…

I’m delighted to write to all of you, our dear friends and supporters, at the end of another significant year in the life of the Academy for the Love of Learning. If 2014 was a year of growth and beginning to see, capture and communicate the impact of our work, 2015 has been a year of stepping into our new skin. For us this has meant turning toward the scaling of our work, expanding to become not only a think-and-do tank but now, a disseminating organization, all while maintaining, even deepening, our Santa Fe and New Mexico programming. Perhaps most important, we have been growing in a natural way while maintaining our differentiators: depth, intimacy, learning and transformation. This has always been our challenge – to grow without losing the depth of our work, a counter-intuitive movement in a world that is spiraling faster and faster.

There is a poem by Richard Wilbur called “Seed Leaves” that I so love. The third stanza brings to mind where we are as an organization right now:

This plant would like to grow

And yet be embryo;

But something at the root

More urgent than that urge

Bids two true leaves emerge,                    

And now the plant resigned

Before it can commerce

With the great universe,

Takes aim at all the sky

And starts to ramify.

At the Academy we have always “taken aim at all the sky,” even as we have been careful to move forward while not losing our differentiators. We are seeing the “ramifications” of our work now, and this has led to a deep inquiry about scaling. When we think about scaling, it’s not just getting bigger, but more like catalyzing the emergence of a movement. It is not about world building, it is about connecting. We know many other people think this way, and many of our friends inspired by our work ask, “How can I help?” Answering this question will become a main theme for us in 2016 – learning how best to channel the outpouring of gratitude and recognition increasingly coming our way. What a wonderful challenge!

Our Institute for Teaching, managed by Seth Biderman and his team, is one great example of growth, gratitude and deepened connection. In 2015 we enhanced the rigor of our ongoing Teacher Renewal workshop series and annual Summer Institute, along with our recurrent Wisdom Circles, while reaching whole new audiences of teachers. In October, some 200 teachers from all over Northern New Mexico discovered our Learning Practice, in a single morning, through an event in downtown Santa Fe organized by the LANL Foundation. As I looked out at the room and offered my opening comments, I was amazed to see so many teachers there to explore our work. This was among the biggest single group of teachers to whom we had ever introduced our learning practice at once, and I wondered inwardly just how much would be possible. At the end of the day when asked, “what was the most valuable aspect of the conference?” teachers wrote: “shared experiential learning,” and “it’s important for teachers to reflect on themselves and their practice.” One teacher wrote that the most valuable aspect was, “the reflection on the practice of teaching and the renewal of energy it produced.” We had succeeded! We had shown that we can introduce our work to new, larger constituencies without sacrificing our deep intentions. These expressions of true understanding and gratitude from teachers help us see this.

Our movement towards scaling also includes cross-programmatic initiatives such as our Leadership Inquiry, a yearlong, through-composed model of collaboration and deeply held community intention. This initiative has been weaving an essential theme of inquiry through the community, showing us how to move more projects into our city and the world, and find the places where the Academy can catalyze collaborative change.

In 2015 we were invited to bring important contributions on both a national and international stage. We had a strong presence at Mind & Life’s Academy for Contemplative and Ethical Leadership (ACEL) where I am a member of the founding faculty. I was a co-designer of this inaugural Academy, created for leaders from all over the world. I invited our own Academy’s Creative Action Team to contribute to the culmination of the Vermont-based event, leaving attendees with a deep experience of reflection and joy.

Internationally, there were thousands of attendees present for my keynote at the Worldwide Conference on Human Values in Monterrey, Mexico. A teacher present for my keynote and a participant in our workshop wrote, “This is educational work that is so urgently needed these days… the most important thing, as your Academy points out, is the Love of learning… that can lead us to break our own internal barriers to see the freedom to be who we really are.” As we move into work with teachers in Mexico and leaders from all over the U.S. and the world we see, and can get excited by, the potential of the dissemination and broader sharing of our work. From Monterrey we have now received an invitation to collaborate on bringing our work to thousands of schools in Mexico. My goodness!

Of course, all of this work will stay small if it is not communicated well. To that end, I am thrilled to say that, under the leadership and imagination of our wonderful communications team we now have a beautiful new website! This portal features more multimedia and in-depth explorations of our work. In the next year this platform will expand our online learning offerings, allowing people in our community and all over the world to experience more fully both the love and the learning that are the keys to our work.

The recognition and growth that we are experiencing is no overnight sensation; it has taken many years of cultivation. For 35 years now I have walked this path, and many have joined with me over the years to co-create what is now the Academy for the Love of Learning. What is particularly exciting to me is how, even as we grow, all of our different modalities of programming, and our staff and faculty capacities are converging around what was my original vision. Most everywhere I go these days, I go with a team of Academy facilitators. We are learning together as we go – and in ever-deepening conversation as we are learning ever more about our pedagogy and its impact. I used to feel that I was a lone voice in the wilderness! We have been waiting for the time when what we have to bring answers the question that the world is holding. Well, it seems, that time is now. Next year, in fact, promises an exciting new project that just might lead to substantial mission accomplishment for the Academy. Stay tuned!

How can you help? Please give a donation, and please connect with us, as we continue to reach out to you and beyond. I know this work truly matters, it transforms, and I know it must be done together—and together we are a voice of sanity in a very challenged world.
With gratitude and warmest wishes for the holidays,

Aaron Stern

Founder and President

Academy for the Love of Learning