Community Learning Exchange

Texas Conference Participants Benefit from Collective Leadership Practices

Can a Community Learning Exchange happen meaningfully in a conventional setting?

Earlier this month, Dr. Miguel Guajardo and his team at Texas State University -- Dr. John Oliver, Dr. Monica Valadez, doctoral students Samuel Garcia, Lee Francis, and a number of other colleagues -- decided to find out, by turning a traditional academic conference into a hybrid space. They took what is familiar to the institution and modified some of the social processes for engagement.

The 160 participants, mostly teachers, educational leadership students, and faculty, were in for a revival when they showed up to the annual one-day conference. They expected to passively receive knowledge from the presenters, as is typical for traditional conferences and professional development experiences. Instead, they were asked to become active co-creators of the experience, using the collective leadership processes of the Community Learning Exchange.

The CLE: 'An emerging new type of consciousness'

“The CLE is a convening methodology,” said Guajardo, a professor in the Education and Community Leadership Program at Texas State. “Wherever I go, and whatever space I’m engaged with, I bring the whole CLE consciousness into that space. The tension is always between the existing culture and an emerging new type of consciousness,” he said.

This was the 12th year for the Educational and Community Leadership Conference. “Every year there’s a traditional keynote, breakout sessions, lunch, another keynote, and more breakout sessions,” said Guajardo. “This year we used CLE methodology. We went with a framework that allowed us to play within that context. We thought, if we can’t change the culture, we’ll change the context, and the culture will follow.”

The 2013 conference took place on Friday, February 8. Its theme was The Arts(s) of Leadership, and it focused on creating the climate, infrastructure and process that facilitate the creative imagination. The conference welcomed participants who are committed to improving education for children and youth, want to learn how to build stronger schools and communities, and want to stay connected with other educational and community leaders.

Many voices instead of one

Guajardo’s brother, Francisco, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American, set the tone for the non-traditional conference climate by opening with an unconventional keynote. Instead of being a “sage on the stage,” he presented collaboratively with his students. They shared stories about their childhood memories of education, their imagination, and the role their parents played in nurturing this process. They then facilitated a conversation on how these personal experiences could transfer to school leadership possibilities among the participants.

“Everyone in the audience participated to a certain extent,” said Guajardo. “For a traditional group of educators, this disrupted the whole system, from the individual to the establishment. They were expecting a lesson to be given to them, yet in this space, they co-constructed the learning and by design, the keynote.”

After the keynote, the typical breakout workshop sessions were replaced with Open Space Technology, an approach for hosting gatherings without a formal agenda. Participants teach and learn together by spontaneously proposing conversations that they’d like to lead, then having those conversations with the people who show up.

“People usually go to sessions to listen to someone,” said Guajardo. “We told them, ‘You’re going to convene a session. You’re going to use your imagination and be artistic about it.'"

“There were around 10 minutes of organized chaos,” said Guajardo, then people were in sessions, deep in reflection and conversation, documenting the exchanges for those who couldn’t attend. Topics during the Open Space session ranged from the process of opening a new school campus to cyber-bullying, to a youth-led session about organizing youth spaces. This space allowed participants from all sectors of the educational system -- including professors, school principals, teachers, graduate students and high school students -- to convene dialogues.

“The power was neutralized, and the invitation was authentic. This context yielded great conversations,” said Guajardo.

Deep conversations replace brief presentations

After lunch, instead of having participants go to one 50-minute session after another as usual, Guajardo and his team asked them to go deep. The planning team had invited specific people to lead two-hour conversations on topics such as parent engagement, culturally relevant supervision, community mapping, play, and youth work. 

“We followed the CLE engagement process and spent the whole day in deep conversations,” said Guajardo. “People were very engaged. We collected feedback, and there were no negative comments, outside of ‘we needed more time.’”

The CLE methodology works without having to name it and explain it, says Guajardo. “At no point did we say ‘This is a CLE event.' We had to leave some structures that were familiar so we weren’t totally shocked. But we used all the pedagogy of CLE, and the rules of engagement for CLE.” 

Guajardo and his team introduced the CLE at the end of the conference by sharing its literature with the participants and inviting them to learn more about it on their own. Each participant received literature about Kellogg Leadership for Community Change (KLCC) work, the precursor initiative that informed the CLE work. 

'It reinvigorated my teaching.' 

After the conference, Guajardo was interested in hearing takeaways from his students, most of whom had participated in it. During a collective reflection circle, “what transpired was energy beyond anybody’s expectations,” he said. "The collective energy was contagious and invited those who did not attend to inquire and learn more about the event and the processes. Though we live busy lives, this class participants felt that this was a worthwhile day away from their classrooms."

In the second class he teaches, Guajardo gathered his students in a circle and said, “Tell me about one moment in the conference that really touched you, and how it impacts your work.” One student said, “Dr. G, that experience Friday was spiritual. It touched me in a way that no conference has ever touched me. It reinvigorated my teaching.” Another said, “This is a moment I will remember, because it has given me a path to continue my education.” As they went around the circle, several other students made similar comments about the transformative nature of the conference.

According to Guajardo, a teacher and her students who attended the conference returned to their school in Waelder, TX, passionate about bringing Open Space technology into their classrooms and school culture. They have already taken an impressive step toward creating the kinds of learning spaces they experienced at the conference. Recently, they testified before the Texas Senate Committee on Education about accountability and the need to improve education in their state. “This is the type of action we want to encourage as we work to rebuild our civil society," said Guajardo. "Our youth are not only the leaders of tomorrow, indeed, they have much power as leaders of today.”

“People will continue this work,” said Guajardo. “It has impacted instruction and leadership for the long run.” He said that the planning team will continue to bring the lessons from the conference into their classrooms and communities, and that the conference itself will benefit from inviting colleagues and students into the planning process in the future.

"The voices of our conference participants speak loudly to the power behind the invitation to co-create public learning spaces. This conference is an example of how we can re-imagine and transform traditional spaces into living pedagogical public spaces," said Guajardo. "It invited a diverse group of school and community leaders, and once the space was re-structured, the conversation, the storytelling and the public learning followed. This is what our new Education and Community Leadership Conference has become, and the CLE pedagogies are at the center of this practice.

Read more about the Educational and Community Leadership Conference.

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