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“The Back-to-School Project”

The Back-to-School Project – Graduating Class #1

By Trace Pickering & Shawn Cornally, Education Community Builders

The Gazette Companies, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Back-to-School Project is Born

The on-going effort to connect our communities to their schools led us to a crazy idea – let’s put area business and community leaders back into classrooms as students, and then let them use the experience and their lives as adults to craft a shared vision for transforming education.

But could we convince busy professionals to give up a day to do this and convince a few high schools to play along? The first seven participants and first four principals immediately signed on! The enthusiasm for the idea surprised us and an important new initiative was born!

The rules are simple: Participants agree to become a student for ½ a day – not a guest or “visitor” – and a ½ day to join with others in a discussion and design session. Since the focus is on schools in general, participants agree to not publicly divulge which school they attended. In turn, the schools agree to place them in some core classes and give them unfettered access to the student experience.

The Design Discussion Protocol

After the experience, groups are facilitated by community builders Shawn Cornally and Trace Pickering. The process is straightforward:

  1. Identify the things they need to know, what they have to be able to do, and what they need to be like in their adult life to be successful and productive professionals, community leaders, and private citizens.
  2. Share their “original” high school experience to build an understanding of the bias’ they walked into their experience with and then share their “Back-to-School” experience with the group. The focus is on what they saw, how they felt, and what elements of being a “student” seemed relevant and useful and which parts did not.
  3. Compare and contrast their list of what’s needed to be successful today and their Billy Madison experience and craft a picture of what sort of school system they want our children to have and the changes that they would advocate for and support.

The First “Class”

Our first Back-to-School Class included a wonderful and diverse group of community leaders. Some graduated from area high schools, others from places like Chicago, St. Louis, and California. Some had great high school experiences and some did not. Our first class was diverse in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and professional/life experiences and made for a wonderfully deep and nuanced discussion. The class included:

Mr. Karl Cassell, Director of the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission

Mr. Dennis Jordan, Economic Development Strategist, Cedar Rapids Economic Alliance

Mr. George Kanz, Principal at Shive-Hattery Engineers

Ms. Beth Malicki, Evening News Anchor, KCRG-TV 9/The Gazette Companies

Mr. Mark Nolte, Interim Director of the Iowa City Area Development Group

Mr. Tyler Olson, Iowa House of Representatives & VP of Paulson Electric

Mr. Chad Simmons, Director of Diversity Focus

Ms. Julie Stow, Membership Retention, Cedar Rapids Economic Alliance

The Debrief – Step 1: What do you need to know, be able to do, and be like in your everyday life as a productive professional, a community leader, and personally?

As soon as this question hit the airspace, the room lit up and we frantically recorded their list. Here it is in the order they offered it:

  • Problem solver – dealing with difficult issues with diverse people when problems and answers aren’t easy or obvious
  • Avid reader – you must be able to read constantly in order to stay on top of key issues and to learn
  • Confidence to admit you have questions – knowing what questions to ask in order to learn and understand is vital to success; the right question to ask is usually more important than the right answer
  • Scheduling priorities – there is always too much to do and not enough time, so knowing where the most important work lies is critical – as is knowing what to let go of
  • Form a reasonable argument (sourced, cogent, anticipate) – the ability to see and anticipate all angles of an argument as well as to formulate yours and then conduct it with dignity and respect for those who may not agree with you is vital
  • See both sides – understanding others’ perspectives, irrespective of whether or not you agree, is critical to getting along and moving forward and keeps you open to learning and developing
  • Ignore the noise –distractions and diversions can fill every moment of every day, so know your purpose and what you need to do to reach your goals and live your purpose; not everything is equally important, or even important at all
  • Fearlessly step beyond conformity – our greatest achievements and successes came from stepping up and out rather than simply following the status quo or the existing rules; people who are afraid to fail or are tentative rarely make a mark
  • Adjust your communication style to the audience – you must be able to convey clear messages and listen with your head and heart; the only way you can be helpful and useful is to fully understand your audience; you must learn how to communicate in a myriad of ways – large and small groups, intimate and public settings, confrontational and friendly
  • Digest information usefully –there is way more information and content than you’ll ever be able to comfortably know; you need to know how to ask good questions and to search effectively and efficiently for the information and answers you need to understand an issue, an idea, a person, or a group
  • Filtering information – you must develop a strong but permeable filter for information; the goal isn’t to filter out all things except what you want to hear or already believe, but to know weak information from stronger, more reliable information
  • Confidence in your knowledge – you simply don’t need to know everything you learn in school but you do need to have the knowledge and confidence in your ability to know what you need to know and continue to learn around the areas of your passion and work
  • Spot the issue – the ability to get to the core of an issue is critical; the faster and more completely you can get to core issues, the more effective you become as a leader and do-er
  • Collaboration and diversity – the day you quit thinking you can do it yourself or better than everyone else is the day you become a leader and on the road to success; have confidence in your abilities but recognize the genius and passion in others-share and learn openly
  • Conflict management – life is conflict and the goal is not to eliminate conflict – the goal is to effectively use conflict as an opportunity to develop and to create new and innovative solutions; never just ignore conflict and problems or they’ll come back bigger and harder
  • Writing and reading comprehension – it is critical to be able to read, understand what you are reading, and be able to communicate to others effectively through writing; there isn’t a profession that doesn’t use it
  • Asking a question worth asking – to know what question to ask to gain a new insight, push a conversation or discussion forward, or to help others find solutions to their problems and issues is critical
  • Know your history – there is an ebb and flow, a pattern, to history – not only of our country and the world but our region, our city, and our organizations – know the history; it really helps understand why things are the way they are
  • Networking and data mining – dig the well before you’re thirsty! The ability to build a diverse personal network is critical; meet as many people as possible, learn about what they do and how they think; find ways of helping and supporting them without expecting anything in return; the deeper your networks, the stronger your influence, and the more access you have to learning and succeeding
  • Navigating system structures – every system or organization has structures – some that work and some that don’t; make sure you are diligent in your fact checking; understand you’ll have to do some things you just don’t want to do, but do it well and willingly anyway
  • Be a learner – learning is like breathing – it comes naturally to us; always be open to new learning, asking questions and seeking answers; be curious and stay open to new learning; continuously work on being a better you because you’re never “finished.”
  • Identify passions and stay hungry – you won’t be successful in a profession or field that you don’t have a passion for; number one: know what makes you tick, what you enjoy, and find a profession or field that lets you do that.

The Debrief – Step 2: Talk about what you saw, felt and experienced as a “student” in the Back-to-School Project

This conversation was wide and deep. Rather than provide a synopsis of each person’s experience, we listened for recurring themes and for comments that really stood out. Here is what we heard:

Kids. A common thread focused on student engagement. The participants saw disengaged kids in almost every class, generally more in the required classes than in the electives. It was difficult for them to pinpoint the exact reasons but all were concerned about the level of disengagement they saw. In general, the group felt the amount of content in the classes seemed pretty intense but often lacked context and connection. They also noted teacher delivery methods made a difference as some tried very hard to engage kids in interesting topics and others taught pretty traditionally – like they experienced when they went to school.

For the most part, participants observed happy and enthusiastic students with lots of energy and excitement. However, one experienced quite the opposite: “The first thing I noticed was the poverty. I could clearly see lots of kids who didn’t have many resources at their disposal. What scared me the most was that I saw lots of kids with no glimmer in their eyes. It was like they were zombies. It was actually quite disturbing and I’ve thought about it almost every day since.”

Teachers. Participants experienced a wide range of teaching styles and approaches. In general, they saw teachers well prepared and committed to teaching. However, they did see a variance in style – some teaching very much like the participants experienced during their time in high school and some doing very different things they hadn’t seen before. All the teachers seemed to enjoy kids and care about doing good work. Many commented about the difficulties they saw, “I couldn’t do it. The class time moves so fast and there are so many kids who seem to have so many different needs and styles”; “It seemed hard for many of them to connect their content to relevant and real examples. I was able to see the connections but only because I know how it applies to relevant things I have to deal with. I saw lots of kids not making any real connections, so it’s easy to see how they think learning is just figuring out formulas and algorithms”; “The teachers who exuded a real passion for the topic seemed to have the best response. You could see them connect to the kids in meaningful ways. The energy they expend to do that is amazing and to think they repeat it every 50 minutes all day long!”

Classes and Offerings. The technology in schools surprised them on many levels. The amount of technology provided for industrial technology and other classes impressed the group. 1:1 computers, smart boards and other things also were welcomed sites. But some noticed while they had the technology, they weren’t all using to its full advantage or the technology was limited. They were excited to see new classes like “Forensics” and a media class focused on video and interactive production. It was here where they saw the most engaged students.

The Debrief – Step 3: Given your experiences, what are your recommendations for transforming education?

“Given what you were able to experience with fresh eyes and what you see is needed in the adult/professional world, would you change the school experience and, if so, how would you redesign it?”

Almost in unison, the group identified three key barriers they saw in current school: flexibility, choice and passion. They didn’t see much of this in their Back-to-School Billy Madison experience and, without it, couldn’t see how schools would be able to effectively prepare kids for the world they are going to face. So, in no particular order, here was what they identified as ideas and criteria for recreating school:

  • We must start earlier. We need to know where kids are in their learning early on and tailor an education around them. It seems we still operate under the assumption that all kids are ready for the same thing at the same time –it appeared obvious to us that some had been left behind and the passion was gone. This belies our professional experience and common sense about how people learn and are motivated.
  • Systematically get rid of low expectations and scrap the curve mentality. It seemed pretty obvious to us that the system (not necessarily the people) accepts low expectations for some kids in some classes. There seems to be this “curve” mentality that wants to position kids relative to the other kids in a class as if knowing their relative standing in a particular class at a particular point in time is important. We want to see schools hold high expectations for ALL kids and measure their learning and abilities relative to how far they are advancing rather than whether they are keeping up with others on some sort of time schedule. Learning and not time must be the focal point.
  • Ditch sorting kids. Tied with low expectations is the sorting of kids. We would like a school that didn’t sort kids out based upon how fast or slow they are in a particular class. If time were the variable and learning the constant, sorting would take on a whole new meaning, allowing kids to advance at their own pace rather than having their expectations lowered because the school is driven by time rather than learning.
  • Individual pacing is necessary. Again, we want a system in which time is the variable and learning the constant. Just like our employees and co-workers, we all learn different things at different rates in different ways. Having a system allowing students to learn through the things they are passionate and interested in would bring learning alive and make everything more relevant to the individual student.
  • Spend time building community. We envision a school where diverse groups of kids – age, ethnicity, gender, interest, etc. – are constantly interacting and building a community. Understanding people in deep and meaningful ways takes time and is an essential skill for a successful adult – we must move away from constant content and classes and work on the other important skills like those we listed as critical.
  • Increase the swag of training for a trade. There are many excellent and high-paying careers in the trades – jobs that are impossible to outsource like electricians, plumbers, mechanics, and craftsmen. Provide education and learning opportunities highlighting these trades for everyone. Lots of great learning in science, math, English and history could be done through these vehicles as well.
  • Everything is an elective. Let’s own up to the idea that high school is a buffet and not a tiny college. Especially as kids age towards middle and high school they should be allowed to choose classes and sets of classes that fit their learning styles and interests. Let teams of teachers design interesting courses, projects, and work that kids choose from. Tie this to a system in which kids have to demonstrate core competencies in the subject areas and life skills and you create the ability to be more flexible, adaptable, and relevant.
  • Meaningfully involve community members. Make job shadows and internships meaningful and provide students the opportunity to use that to validate their competencies. Students must see how content is used and applied to deal with real world problems and issues. Find ways for the community to share its expertise and be more integral to the learning and development of students.
  • Schools would draw from other public sector services like health, mental health, family counseling, & career training. Schools seem to be taking on more and more of this sort of thing. We see lots of duplication and gaps in the current system. Our ideal school would integrate other public sector services directly into the schools, making them more community hubs than strictly places for kids to learn. This would bring the community into the school and enable all services to work together to create more complete and nuanced solutions to the problems our kids and communities face.
  • IEPs that work for every student. Each child needs an individualized plan and a pathway for achieving their full potential. A highly flexible and adaptable school filled with choice would need a robust way for individualized plans to work. Technology can make this very do-able.
  • Entrepreneurial mind set. Today’s world is increasingly being run and defined by entrepreneurs and their ability to innovate, break rules, and create new value. Whether or not a child is going to become an entrepreneur in the traditional sense of the word, each of us today needs to act entrepreneurial – and so do our schools. At the heart of entrepreneurialism is the acceptance of failure. Unlike the way school works, entrepreneurs accept failure as a key instrument in learning. We must have schools that don’t send the constant message that mistakes are bad and to be avoided and that it is possible to get “perfect scores” in life.
  • True problem-based learning. Schools should provide students with an ever-increasingly complex set of real-world problems to identify and solve. It is through problem-solving we learn how to integrate what we know and how and what we need to learn in order to come up with a solution. Schools today seem way too focused on acquiring and learning content (We suspect this is in response to the increasing demand for kids to pass tests – something else we don’t do in our adult lives) rather than approaching problems and then identifying what content they need to know to help solve it. Solving today’s problems requires calling on lots of different disciplines simultaneously, rather than learn each separately and in isolation.
  • Identify passions. Schools must identify what individual students are passionate about and give them ample time to explore those passions. We seem to learn best when we are engaged in something we are passionate about. The teachers’ role in this would be to provide projects and activities around kids’ passions and ensure they are teaching important content in the context of the passionate exploration of the child.
  • Seat time is a joke. Of all the things we see in school – this is the most absurd. Schools should eliminate seat-time requirements. It strikes us as a completely useless measure holding schools back from being the flexible, adaptive and relevant places they could be. Some kids will need more time to learn something, others less – let them move along as they need to. We’re not sure what’s so magic about 180 days of Algebra I or U.S. History as it seems each child would arrive at the arbitrary end of their seat time in very different places with very different needs and interests. To unfold their potential, we must see their learning through to the end.
  • Multi-endorsed or interdisciplinary teams of teachers. Our experience really exposed the silliness of isolating the subjects. While it seems to make sense from the outside, we recognize how it isn’t anything like our adult life where things are so integrated and connected. We would like to see teachers with multiple-endorsements or working in interdisciplinary teams allowing courses to be taught in integrated ways. Student would then receive credit for knowing things along different subject lines within the same project or work.
  • From single teacher classrooms with assigned kids to classes of kids that have networks they can call on. Finally, our schools would mirror the world as we see it emerging – from one of hierarchy and command-and-control structures to one of networks and nodes. Even starting at Kindergarten, we would see more network than single class and this would evolve as the kids aged. Kids would be working on projects and in areas of passion and have a full network of teachers, students, and professionals at their disposal when they needed them. This would allow children to see the interconnectedness and own their own learning very early. Such an approach would enable every child to be connected to a team of quality teachers rather than assuming that every teacher can be high quality for every child. Assigning students to one teacher for a year or for an isolated subject makes no sense to us anymore.

Next Steps

The group felt strongly that The Back-to-School Project should continue and that as each group went through they would add their own ideas to these lists and, over time, we would end up with a strong community-designed schools system that could be supported and implemented. We are assembling our next group now – please consider joining us! Applications are available here:



3 thoughts on ““The Back-to-School Project”
  • Tom Persoon says:

    What a great program! As a working professional and part time college educator, I agree with everything in the debrief comments. As next steps, I think the following ought to be considered:
    1)Personally invite every state legislator in the Corridor to participate in a Billy Madison experience. Kudos to Rep. Olson for leading the way on this!
    2)Consider a way to get people the other end of the economic spectrum to participate in a Billy Madison experience. It looks like many of those who attended the first time are in positions of responsibility in their workplaces. Maybe each of those workplaces could sponsor one of their “worker bees” for a Billy Madison experience (i.e. pay them their usual wage and give them the time off to attend). Feedback is needed from that level, too.

    • Trace Pickering says:

      Tom – thanks for your comments. What a fantastic idea about quickly transitioning this beyond leadership. Our focus has been to get those in positions of influence to have this experience in order to better advocate for necessary changes but the wider purpose you suggest is absolutely where we need to go with this!

  • Trace Pickering says:

    This article supports what this group said is needed: HS as a set of electives:

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