SFR Talk: Learning Curve

With Aaron Stern

Aaron Stern, the founder and director of Santa Fe’s Academy for the Love of Learning, is on a mission to reform education. He’s starting one teacher at a time: Last month, the Academy hosted its first summer Teacher Renewal program, a three-day workshop combining music, movement, discussion and reflection to foster what Stern, also a composer and the former dean of the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, calls “an awakening of curiosity.

SFR: You started the Academy with the help of your mentor, composer Leonard Bernstein.


He posed a question: ‘Don’t we never learn?’ It was a deep question: Can we become better human beings? That’s what gave birth to the Academy [which Stern officially founded after Bernstein’s death in 1990].

How’d you meet him?

In 1971, my wife and I went to see the world premiere of his MASS. After it was over, my wife said, ‘We have to go back and meet him.’ We did, and he looked at me and said, ‘Do I know you?’ I said, ‘No!’ He put his arms around me and said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but I know that I love you’—just like that. It was [just after] our wedding, so he put me on one arm and my wife on the other, and he said to his then-manager, ‘These are my friends; find them a wonderful table.’ I sat next to Barbara Walters, and my wife sat next to Gregory Peck, and that’s how we spent the evening.

Fast-forward: Where did the idea of teacher renewal come from?

Teachers are so busy learning and adopting curricula from No Child Left Behind that they don’t have contact with themselves and what they know. We’re trying to bring them back to themselves because we believe teachers know plenty. The school system is going to do what it does—maybe it’ll get better; maybe it’ll get worse. But in the meantime, there’s this one thing the Academy can do to support teachers in their aliveness and respect them.

How did we get to this point, where teachers need renewal?

We’ve been in this massive education reform movement that has been reshuffling the equation—more basic skills, less basic skills; more testing, less testing. It’s shuffling the same ingredients of the recipe, and it doesn’t step back. We all have to learn to read and write, but we also have the seeds of originality in us. Education has to address: ‘Who is this human being? Where are they moving? And how can we design learning [to] support that?’

All 24 of the teachers who participated in the summer renewal workshop were from public schools. What does that say about the need—or motivation—for better teaching at Santa Fe’s public schools?

The public schools are supporting this project. [That]’s saying to the teachers: ‘Relationships matter. Who you are matters.’ And that will translate into the children’s lives.

What do you think was the program’s biggest success?

In our school system, there’s no time: The door opens, the kids come in, they sit down and, 41 minutes later, the bell rings again. It’s a machine, a mechanical model. There’s no reason to reflect in a mechanical model. We were bringing them into reflection on their profession and on themselves. It was profound for them.

You envision a new education system with a deep focus on mentorship and computer-taught basic skills—but how would you fund it?

Largely volunteer.

I’d do it.

I would, too! It’s the ultimate ‘It takes a village.’ We all are responsible for the education of our children, and we all could take bits and pieces of it. It’s the most noble thing in the world to do.

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