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090: Re-envisioning School after a Crisis, with Trace Pickering of Iowa Big

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I never imagined I would see a worldwide crisis like this in my lifetime. But lately I like to dream that it will galvanize us, as a nation, to make good changes.

With so many people working from home, pollution is WAY down. And a lot of work is still getting done. What if more companies let people work at home a few days a week?

With schools closed, most of the rigamarole of standardized testing has been cancelled. Many schools are prioritizing relationships and engagement over content coverage and test prep. Projects and choice boards are everywhere. What if we, as educators, choose to use this moment in time as a pivot point, and approach school quite differently when we return?

With the obvious problem that the virus is widening the gap between those who have stable incomes and family resources to lean on and those that do not, our country’s attention is on caring for those who need help in a fresh and important way. Conversations around sick leave, a fair level of income and racial wealth disparities that come from a long history of structural racism are suddenly in the spotlight. I hope we don’t forget these important conversations in a few months when we are all relaxing back into the relief of seeing family and friends, grabbing a kitchen sink cookie at Panera, and kissing our kids before they head off to school.

Today on the podcast I’m talking to Trace Pickering, head of an innovative program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that he helped to found after a natural disaster destroyed much of his city. A terrible storm flooded ten square miles of the city, and when the water began to clear and the people began to talk about their next horizons, it was clear Cedar Rapids wanted to reinvent itself.

Trace helped lead the charge in education. As you’ll hear in the pod, he galvanized his community to discover what they actually wanted high school students to be able to do when they graduated, and then built a program that would make it happen. Now students in Cedar Rapids can register for core courses at Iowa Big, working on two major projects with partner community organizations and hitting their core standards as they do this important work.

It is my hope that as you listen to Trace talk of the innovation and the joy that has come out of the terrible disaster that came to Cedar Rapids, your imagination will begin to leap forward.

What might our schools do differently when they reopen?

You can listen to our conversation on the podcast player below or on Apple PodcastsBlubrry, Spotify, or Stitcher. And/or, you can read on for the highlights.

Meet Trace Pickering

When Trace started out in education, he set his sights on Division I Basketball coaching. But soon he shifted his dream to transforming the education system. He saw how disengaged kids were in class who became incredibly engaged in practice after school, and he wanted to do something about it. For twenty-five years he dreamed of a new way to approach education, and now his dream has been a reality through Iowa Big for the last eight.

From Dreams to Reality: Lighting a Community Fire

Trace will tell you that the education system isn’t broken, just obsolete. In 2008, an opportunity came for him to help his corner of the world change that. Cedar Rapids, IA was a dying rust belt city when the Iowa Flood hit, leaving ten square miles of the city under floodwaters.

Cedar Rapids seized the moment to reinvent itself, and Trace and his friend, Shaun Cornally, began pushing to find out how the education system could be part of that. In what they laughingly called the “Billy Madison Project,” they sent sixty community members off to school for a day as students, then brought them back to discuss their findings.

The Billy Madison project revealed many things. Its participants felt that learning was too decontextualized. By separating the disciplines so totally, schools had made the material boring to learn and hard to teach. This led to conversations about what school would be like if it was structured for the era at hand.

The Billy Madison Project revealed the community had three priorities for school:

  • Focusing on student passions and interests
  • Giving students real work to do that actually matters
  • Connecting schools and community so community members can teach and demonstrate things to kids that they can’t really learn in their classroom
Shaun and Trace had plenty of ideas for how to translate these principles into education, but as Trace puts it, they “had no sandbox to play in,” as they weren’t working in the same context and Trace was employed outside of the school districts. They decided to start a summer school so they’d have room to experiment. They wrote about what they were learning and thinking about for the paper, and lo and beyond, the school board president called to say she was all in. She wanted them to start a new program and she wanted to support them every step of the way.  

How Iowa Big Ticks

So began Iowa Big. The program hosts students from four school districts. Most of the kids (80%) spend half their day in their local school, which they jokingly refer to as their “mother ship,” and the rest with Iowa Big. Trace and Shaun wanted to build a program that would allow for the transformation of education in the core academic subjects, not in the electives or after-school space, so students sign up for core courses like English, sociology, government, business, etc.

Once registered with Iowa Big, each student chooses two projects they want to work on and form teams. Iowa Big maintains a library of about one hundred project options through connections in the community, though students may also pitch their own project ideas and the program can help them connect to partners. As students begin to work on their projects, Iowa Big teachers connect the work of the core to the work of the projects in a highly interdisciplinary way. While students might not see that a well-crafted email or a public relations release is an extension of English, their teacher can help them to make those connections and improve their skills.

The projects aren’t categorized by discipline, the assumption being that every discipline can connect to every project. For English teachers, virtually every project is rich in opportunities to help students develop their reading, research, speaking and writing skills. The goal at Iowa Big is to have the students working through all the standards of their different classes through the projects. When there is a specific standard that really doesn’t play into the project, teachers can cover it in complementary ways. English students, for example, generally meet regularly with their teacher in what amounts to a book club, so they can read and discuss fiction that just isn’t naturally an extension of most projects.

Projects finish when they finish, so students may rotate on and off teams without being there for the final culmination. They are real world projects, after all, not simply term projects. Students are not graded on the success of any one project, but on what they are learning and understanding as they go. For Iowa Big, it’s important for students to fail sometimes and understand where to go from there.

What the Students Say

Students often make similar statements about their experiences at Iowa Big. They say it’s “refreshing to be treated like a full human being,” not someone who’s just trying to learn some content. At Iowa Big, they feel they are treated as peers, respected for what they can contribute. They like pursuing things they actually care about and want to work on.

Though Trace and Shaun wondered if students would suffer in college as a result of covering less content while diving deep into projects, alumni report the opposite. Graduates of Iowa Big overwhelmingly say that hasn’t been a problem at all. They learned how to think, how to find things, how to learn on their own, how to build networks, and how to advocate for themselves. Those are the skills they needed for college and beyond.


Takeaways for any School

The biggest challenge for a traditional school in learning from Iowa Big is the basic assumptions of traditional school structure – being locked into a solo disciplinary classroom and given such a very limited time each day. But it is possible to focus more on connecting the disciplines within a traditional structure. You can look for ways to create interdisciplinary projects and programs. You can show how the power of English – the reading, writing, researching, and speaking – plays out in other fields and in students’ own lives beyond the acquisition of points on a test.

The other big takeaway is the value of choice. Giving students choice in what they read and how they approach different standards can make such a difference in their engagement and learning. At Iowa Big, students can learn the skills they need by working on projects they’re passionate about. Giving students room to define their own projects and pathways within a traditional course would be one way to try what’s working well for Iowa Big on a smaller scale.

Starting a Pilot Program in your Community

Changing the structure and nature of education in your community is all about galvanizing that community. Administrators can’t lead change like this, it has to come from a widespread movement. Trace and Shaun used the Billy Madison Project to show people in the community what schools are like today and get the conversation started. Without that experience and those conversations, people in the community just had no idea what would be good for schools, and were more likely to parrot the media with suggestions to drill down on initiatives that flowed from the past.

Trace and Shaun were lucky to find support on the school board, but one thing is for sure, your school board will feel much safer supporting a new initiative that comes from the whole community, not one person they see as a rogue progressive. As Trace says, it will take time to incubate a new program. You need a community coalition to help support it as you build it, and you need to be strong enough to deal with the backlash by people who feel threatened by it.

It can be done. Trace did it. What first step could you take during this time of crisis to get people in your community thinking and dreaming about what school might be when life returns to normal?

Connect with Trace and Iowa Big

Trace is the executive director and co-founder of Iowa Big. Connect with him and learn more about this program following the links below.

The Iowa Big Website

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