Get Engaged!, Museum of Awesomeness, The Back-to-School Project

The Back-to-School Project: Graduating Class 2

By Trace Pickering & Shawn Cornally, Education Community Builders

The Gazette Companies, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

b madisonThe Back-to-School Project Becomes Part of the Corridor Experience

The “Back-to-School Project” has turned into a full-fledged part of the Creative Corridor! This started with a crazy idea – let’s put area business and community people 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. As one participant said, “I think this Project is the awesomest thing ever!”

What is The Back-to-School Project?

We place community and business people back into high school as students to:

  • provide them a new and fresh perspective by “walking in the shoes” of real students
  • better understand the opportunities and challenges facing schools, teachers, and students
  • add their voice to the education conversation in the Corridor
  • better connect business/community with Corridor educators
  • provide a stronger platform from which they can speak to educational issues

The rules are simple: Participants commit to a 1/2 day as a student and a 1/2 day to debrief and agree to not publicly divulge which school they attend. In turn, the schools agree to place them in some core classes and give them unfettered access to the student experience.  

The Experience – Round Two

This class represented the first citizens to apply through our open application process. As in the first class, this group brought a diverse set of experiences and perspectives to the Project. The class included:

·         Eric Engelman, CEO- Geonetric, Inc.
·         Brad Hart, Attorney, Bradley & Riley PC
·         Ben Rogers, County Supervisor, Linn County, Iowa
·         DaLayne Williams, Worksforce Business Services Director, Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD)
·         Danielle Allen, Program Developer, Kirkwood Community College
·         Liz Schott, Director of Community Relations, The Gazette Companies
·         David Drewelow, Head Coach, Action Coach Heartland USA
·         Eric Hanson, Communications Director, Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD)
Facilitators: Trace Pickering and Shawn Cornally

Debrief Question #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?

  • Flexibility. In the way you think about things, approach projects, and adjust your work schedules and priorities. Almost nothing goes according to plan.
  • Self-regulate. Know how to allocate your time, energy, emotions, focus and resources effectively. Life can be overwhelmingly busy and you’ll never really feel “done” or “caught up” so knowing how to regulate and manage your time and energy is critical to success.
  • Communication skills.  You need a well-rounded set of skills including how to communicate with diverse groups and people and how to listen to other peoples’ ideas and understand where they are coming from. Communication means writing, reading, listening, and speaking.
  • Soft skills. These are the skills that can make or break you. If you don’t know how to work with and connect to people it really won’t matter how much you know. Knowing how to treat people decently, say you’re sorry, ask for help, and provide help are examples of critical soft skills.
  • Conflict conversation skills. This is separate from communication skills above because it is so important. One of the skills we see lacking in many of our organizations is the ability to deal with conflict in ways that are both life-affirming and which help improve the culture and performance of people and the organization. Don’t avoid conflict and don’t expect or wait for others to come fix things. Most importantly, avoiding being passive/aggressive. Successful people are able to deal directly with conflict in productive ways. Be one of those people.
  • Passion. You have to love what you do if you want to be successful. Don’t get caught believing that chasing down the big paycheck counts as a passion. Build something, stand for something, utilize your passion and develop your expertise. Know what drives and motivates you.
  • Purpose. Have one. Know who you are, what you are about, and who you are trying to become. Know your values and beliefs and live them – we call this having a good mindset.
  • Responsibility. Freedom’s partner is responsibility. Set big goals and hold yourself responsible for pursuing them. Don’t let others take away your power by taking away your of responsibility. As Pasi Sahlberg, leader of the Finnish education system says, “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”
  • Failure is OK. School often wrongly teaches us that failure is bad, awful, and to be avoided at all costs. Actually, the opposite is true. Failure is one of life’s greatest learning tools. It means you’re stretching, trying new things, pushing to make something happen. Avoiding failure means avoiding learning and playing it safe. This limits your ability to develop and to ultimately be successful. Failure is only bad if you don’t use it to learn, improve, and adapt.
  • Curiosity. Approaching all things with a curious mind opens up wonderful opportunities to learn, develop, and connect. Never lose the curiosity you had when you were five – when you were curious and open to all kinds of learning. One of life’s most important lessons is that the more you know and the more experiences you have, the less you realize you know and understand. Learning means being curious throughout your whole life.
  • Knowledge-Base. You can’t do something well without knowing something well. Make sure that you are constantly learning and adding to what you know so that you can do. Learn as much as you can in your areas of passion and interest but also stretch yourself to learn things from other fields to fully develop yourself.
  • Collaboration. Life is a team sport. Know how to work with others and how to give and take to reach an outcome you couldn’t reach on your own.
  • The smooth road is fiction. People looking for the smooth and easy road to learning and success are chasing a dream. Such a road doesn’t exist. Appreciate the fact that learning and success is often bumpy, curvy, hilly, and muddy more often than it is smooth and dry. Successful people don’t waste time looking for the smooth road, instead they take pride being able to put forth the effort it takes to travel whatever road you’re presented with.
  • Be Teachable/Coachable. Be open to learn from others. No matter how much you know, you can always learn from others. Consider their advice. Seek out people you respect who can be your coaches and mentors. Always be open to new perspectives and to learn from the people you are lucky enough to encounter.
  • Efficacy. Understand your own power – to choose, to succeed, to manage your own life. You must have the belief that you can make things happen for yourself and others. Have the confidence to know that you can make the future you want happen if you so choose. Don’t give others your power to choose your future.
  • Abstraction. There are few absolutes in life and often we’re missing lots of the details. It turns out there isn’t a clear plan or map. Learn to deal with abstractions – it is your job to create the rest of the map and to fill in the pieces by taking action. Learn to be okay with the fuzziness.

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

After each participant shared their experience, the group identified the recurring themes and comments that stood out in their conversation together.

Structure. The structures of school seem to be major barriers for change. Obstructions they noted include:

  1. Schedules were very time driven and rigid. Classes still start at strange times like 9:17 and occur every day at the same time. Some are a fast 40 minutes with 3 minutes to scramble to the next class to start a new topic; others are 80 minutes and work well if the work is engaging but drag on if nothing important is happening. They noted this repetitive daily structure inhibits opportunities for teachers and students to take advantage of and respond to emerging learning opportunities.
  2. The sheer number of students some teachers were dealing with makes it difficult to personalize learning. It gives them little time to know what specific students might be interested in or how they might best connect their learning and make sense of it. The rigid pace of the day’s schedule seems to exacerbate the numbers problem.
  3. Teachers largely teach in isolation making it difficult for them to access the expertise of the other teachers through observation, co-teaching, and coaching. This isolation also seems to exacerbate the variances in teacher quality. Since each largely acts as an independent contractor assigned a specific work schedule, it makes it very hard for them to be creative. Worst of all, it leaves kids largely unable to see the integrated nature of the subjects.
  4. These structures – having to be in a specific class at a specific time every day and not working in an integrated team makes it virtually impossible for a teacher to get out of the school to interface with business and the community to experience what this group got to experience – what happens “out there” and how skills and competencies play out in real contexts and situations. We see how difficult it is to get the kids engaged in interesting, real-world problems and issues since these issues live in context and deal with a variety of disciplines and perspectives. Again, school is organized as if the disciplines are separate and disconnected.
  5. In general things were very casual compared to the experience the participants remembered. In some classes, students seemed to come and go as they pleased without consulting the teacher yet things seemed to flow okay. Students had water bottles and sports drinks in almost every class. In some schools kids often were seen using their cell phones while in others they never saw a cell phone. The group didn’t make a value judgment one way or the other on this – they just noted it and saw cases in which it seemed to work well and others where it did not.

Teachers. The group spent a significant amount of time talking about the teaching they observed during their experience. Collectively the group saw a wide range of teacher quality and engagement. Some courses observed were highly engaging and taught with obvious passion and interest while others were disorganized and led by dispassionate teachers who demonstrated little concern for the learning and engagement of their students. This developed into a very engaging and animated discussion by the group and basically focused on these questions:

Are the poor teachers widely known by other teachers, administrators and students? Can’t we simply fire the poor ones and improve the teaching going on?

The consensus of the group was that, yes, it is probably common knowledge which teachers are poor teachers. Lots of discussion followed about why they aren’t removed if they are widely known as not good. Are unions the problem? Don’t administrators want to take it on? Won’t other teachers do something about it?

After much conversation the complexity of the situation emerged and there was wide recognition that it was likely the system that created these behaviors and barriers more than individual teachers and that you really can’t fire your way to excellence. Factors like the evaluation system, the way in which schools and kids are measured and evaluated, the structure of school, required vs. elective courses, the way teachers and classes are organized, the quality and ability of the administrator and the tolerance of teachers and kids to put up with poor performers all interact to make the issue complex. Simply solving one of the above “problems” would do little to solve the issue of poor teachers. The participants recognized similar issues in their workplace – there are almost always poor performers and dealing with them is never easy.

Did we see teachers doing things based upon what they and their students are ultimately measured on? What are those measures?

There was wide recognition that test scores – particularly standardized test scores – were the only thing that government and the public seemed to measure or care about when it came to school. The group recognized that both their list of needed skills and competencies and the things kids need to learn are largely unmeasured in tests that “count.” It became evident that much of teacher behavior and the structure of school is driven by this test mentality. Kids need to do well on tests, have good GPA’s and take all the “right” classes in order to make it to college. It was also evident that the entire structure was designed to drive kids towards four year colleges. The group largely agreed that, while still important, shouldn’t be the sole or primary objective as the pathways to careers is growing wider and wider.

What impact does the structure and design of school have on teacher behavior and performance?

The measurement question flowed directly to a discussion focused on teacher behavior and performance. Shawn, as a teacher, shared with them that helping students improve their Iowa Assessment scores was a difficult proposition for teachers. Unless they strictly teach to the test, they really can’t make clear and direct connections to the scores the kids get. Additionally, if you don’t teach English, science or math, your work isn’t even reflected on the one measure that counts.

It was easy for the group to see all the other factors outside the control of the teacher and well known by faculty: kids taking the tests sick, dealing with personal and family problems, lacking sleep, juggling work and sports, and simply recognizing that their Iowa Assessment score has no real bearing or makes much difference to them. This makes using only a standardized test as a measure of school, student and teacher performance faulty and wrong on many levels. It was noted that schools and teachers aren’t evaluated or measured by the number of kids they are able to engage and get excited about learning, how many kids are finding their passions and building a sense of efficacy, or how well they help students actually apply their knowledge to solving and dealing with real world problems.

Given the tight and unwavering schedules that teachers work under, it’s not real surprising that the focus on other critical things are often sacrificed or minimized. It was also noted that the idea of teaching in isolation – both by themselves and only one subject – would certainly drive teacher behavior and make it difficult for them to be real creative.

No Passion = No Learning. This theme emerged again and again. They saw a wide distribution of passion both in kids and teachers. It was clear that the teachers who exuded the most passion and interest in the subject generally had more kids engaged and interested. It was also painfully obvious when teachers didn’t seem to care about the subject or the students. In these classes they saw widespread disengagement and boredom. They wondered what school would be like if teachers taught together and integrated the subjects, thus making it more difficult for students to get stuck in a class with an ineffective and dispassionate teacher and providing daily modeling and support from other teachers for continuous improvement. The group discussed the importance of being interested and engaged in a topic, question or idea. They noted that engagement for both teachers and students seemed higher in the elective courses than the required ones.

Debrief – Question #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 four keys to transforming school and creating the learning environments they wanted for kids in the Creative Corridor: flexibility, choice, responsibility and passion. The number of structural barriers limited these four keys surprised the group.  So, in no particular order, here was what they identified as ideas and criteria for recreating school:

  • Monthly Demonstrations of Learning with Parents. Kids need to constantly demonstrate and apply their learning to significant and contextually-rich problems. We would have students conduct monthly demonstrations of their learning and competency to parents, teachers and others. This would help the parents learn more deeply what their kids are learning, where they are in their development, and how they might be able to help. It would also help teachers and students validate important competencies and skills they were developing.
  • A well-rounded rating and feedback system. We don’t see how an evaluation system can be effective without the actual clients having a voice in the performance of teachers and principals. As such, we would develop a rating and feedback system that included parents, students, the supervisor, and peers. This system would work best if students were required to demonstrate and validate content and competency attainment, however, it would work to improve teacher performance in any regard. The system should also measure student’s engagement and interest levels and their self-perceptions of their learning and development. The school and the staff should be responsible for ensuring these measures stay strong – we suggest that these measures are a more important standard of more importance that standardized test scores.
  • New structures for parent engagement. While schools work to improve student engagement, it is still constrained by old structures and barriers. Parents should be a part of the student’s learning plan and be an active agent in helping ensure their children are gaining the experiences and learning they need. Students could gain “credit” for learning they acquire outside the school and can demonstrate in meaningful ways.
  • Focus on kids’ passion. Schools cannot simply run kids through classes and content without connecting it to student passion and interest. They also must demand students’ demonstrate they can effectively apply what they know way beyond a standardized test. Schools and teachers should know exactly what individual kids are passionate about and interested in and use that powerful motivation to develop deep and rich learning experiences. This would require teachers be assembled into teams and work together to develop integrated experiences for kids. Such an approach would help ensure important content was taught and they could apply that content in meaningful ways. As one participant said, “If a child loves cooking and want to be a chef, why couldn’t the school use that passion to teach important content? They could learn reading and writing by building business plans, marketing plans, and building their website. They could learn science and math as they created food and decided on portions and pricing. They would learn how to collaborate with and lead others and they would learn how to deal with and push through failure as a learning tool. The point isn’t to teach them how to be a chef and pigeon-hole them too early as their interest may change. The point is to use their interests to drive important learning.”
  • Everything is an elective. Kids and teachers both would be more likely to engage and get excited if they had great flexibility in how they learned and through what medium they learned it. If we knew the specific content and skills we wanted kids to master and ensured that any course or project offering could support and develop that, we’d have a highly flexible, highly engaging system. Continuing to pretend that we know what content all learners need and when is simply ridiculous. Let teams of teachers design interesting courses, projects, and work that kids can 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. Increase the power of this work by engaging the parents in these choices as well

Joining the Back-to-School Project

To become a member of a Back-to-School class, complete the following Google form.

If you have difficulty with the Google form you may email and express your interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *