We walked in silence to a giant field overlooking the red stone monuments in the distance. We formed a circle, taking in breath, eyes closed, grounding ourselves in the red dirt underneath our feet. Eyes open, full of tears, I realized I was part of a community of educators who share the belief that learning should be grounded in the framework of ma ka hana ka ʻike (by doing one learns). That learners benefit when they experience the communities and world around them first hand. I had found my people.

In January I had the opportunity to attend the ISEEN Winter Institute Conference in Sedona, Arizona. The conference was hosted by Verde Valley School, a model for place based learning and experiential education. The theme of the 2021 conference was Belonging to Our Place, Stewardship, Well Being, and Heritage. There were hundreds of experiential educators, organizations, and thought leaders overjoyed that in the midst of a global pandemic we were able to gather (with vaccines, testing, and plenty of space outdoors) and commune with one another.

ISEEN was a potent learning experience. It started on the group bus ride from the Phoenix airport to Sedona, where a small group of us struck up a conversation about ethos, logos, and pathos in entrepreneurship education for youth. An educator from Cary Academy in North Carolina then spoke to the power of focusing on mythos when students are in the ideation phase of their projects. The topic changed to equity and inclusion in outdoor learning and then changed to how we more authentically assess experiential learning. And this was just the bus ride. From this one conversation came friendships and threads that wove throughout the conference.

I went to learn and listen, and to better understand what experiential learning looked, felt, smelled, and tasted like. The conference reinforced the power of personal reflection paired with communal learning. Presenters, workshop leaders, and Verde Valley teachers emphasized, again and again, that when out on an expedition or working on a sustainability project on campus, human connection and collaboration were crucial to success and experience. We were given time on our own to personally reflect and connect with the landscape around us, and then we came together to share insights into how we interacted with the world. 

ISEEN was the first conference where I had a micro-cohort I met with multiple times a day, almost like an advisory. And I lucked out with my group of 6 people. We were educators and administrators from high school and higher education that got vulnerable and authentic real fast. We shared the struggles and victories of our schools and programs. We shared hilarious stories about family members, and harrowing tales of personal growth and loss. We cried, laughed, listened, shouted, and waxed poetic together. We modeled what authentic, experiential learning looked and felt like. 

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