The Back-to-School Project

Back-to-School Project – Corridor Classes 3 & 4

By Trace Pickering & Shawn Cornally, Education Community Builders

The Gazette Companies, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

DangerfieldConsistent Themes About School Emerge Over 4 Classes

The “Back-to-School Project” finished its “spring season” by hosting classes 3 & 4. We will pick up this project again next school year as interest in participating remains strong!

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 – Rounds Three & Four

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 classes included:

  • David Tominsky, Founder, CoreTSC
  • Jason Glass, Chief People Officer, Four Oaks
  • Kim Beals, K-12 Outreach/STEM Coordinator, Rockwell Collins
  • Brian Brandt, Regional Managing Director, Principal Financial Group
  • Shawn Lueth, Vice-President, Shive-Hattery
  • Casey Prince, Managing Director, Theatre Cedar Rapids
  • Steve Ovel, Associate Vice-President, Kirkwood Community College
  • Mike Wilhelm, Education Director, Theatre Cedar Rapids
  • Ron Maxa, Operations Manager, Cedar Rapids Bank & Trust
  • Jennifer Zach, Owner, Zach Consulting
  • Monica Ryan-Rausch, Autism Consultant, Grant Wood Area Education Agency
  • Susie Weinacht, Executive Director, Iowa Parent Teacher Association

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?

  • Communication skills.  You must be able to read, write, speak. listen, comprehend, and act upon information; the quality of your work in this area is often a reflection of you.
  • Responsibility. You must be willing to be responsible and see things through, do what you say you will do.
  • Interpersonal skills. How to work in diverse groups and teams, how to solve problems, get along with others, learn how to welcome differing viewpoints.
  • Adapt. Be willing to learn and change to adapt to the times. Know the social rules in play in certain situations. Be flexible and open. Understand and appreciate emotional intelligence – yours and those around you.
  • Patience and persistence. Good things rarely happen fast. Have the patience and fortitude to stay the course. Look for small wins along the way to keep you moving forward.
  • Passion. Be passionate about what you do. Find something that really interests and engages you and then apply that to your work and life.
  • How to start. Know how to just get started because the rest gets easy once you get moving. The mark of an effective person is knowing what to do next when you don’t know what to do.
  • Creativity. Be able to think about things and bring creative and novel thinking and ideas to bear on a problem or opportunity.
  • Time management and organization. Know how to prioritize, when and how to say no, and how to manage menial tasks with work that engages you. Stay organized and learn how to respond when the plan falls apart (and it almost always does). Be able to manage projects by staying organized and able to parse out a project into digestible things that show people progress is being made and that the work is do-able. Finish what you start and what you commit to doing.
  • Build community. Know how to build a community- how to be inclusive and welcoming, how to engage and ask questions that push people to think in new ways, really get to know people and know how to effectively interact with all sorts of people.
  • Find a mentor. Mentors are critical to your success – learn how to find them (they’re everywhere) and engage deeply with them. Mentors can push, cajole, support, and challenge you and are always on your side.
  • Be present. Be engaged and “tuned-in” in the place you are and in the work you are doing. Appreciate the “preciousness” of other people. Multi-tasking is a myth – give people and situations your full attention.
  • Ask good questions. Know how and when to ask a good question. Know where to go to ask and get an answer to a question. You won’t be expected to know everything, but you will be expected to know how to find out and where to go. Know where resources are and how to access them.
  • Critical feedback. Be able to give and receive critical feedback. Take the positive view – give critical feedback in a gift-giving way, as a way to help facilitate the development of others. Receive it from others in the same spirit.
  • Track personal and professional goals. Know what you are trying to accomplish. Set goals that are hard but not crazy out-of-reach. Picture yourself living and doing and being the person who accomplishes those goals.
  • Maximize your strengths, delegate your weaknesses. Your personal strengths are likely tied to your passion areas. Focus on developing your strengths and doing work aligned to those strengths. Delegate your weaknesses to others who have strengths you don’t. Don’t spend you life improving your weaknesses unless you want to end up with just average skills.
  • See rejection and failure as gifts. We all suffer failures and rejection. Those who use it to learn and get better, do. Work through these tough times for this is when the true you appears. Know you’ll be stronger/better when you come out the other side (and you will come out the other side).
  • Lead when its time to lead. Understand team dynamics and work with it. Every team is different, find ways to help people play roles they are best at; find the natural leaders and know when it is your time to lead.
  • Technical skills. Have the ability to apply basic technology tools to your work and be able to devote the time to learn the ones you don’t know.

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.

Teacher and Student Passion and Interest Matter. 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. The team saw parallels in their workplace whereby some people simply were going through the motions and others are sparked by a passion for what they are doing. They recognized that a lot of the content, while good, wasn’t connecting with the kids because they either couldn’t see how it was valuable in context or how it connected and enhanced what they were passionate about. Some classes were seen as a total waste of time for the participant while others were fantastic.  The participants universally agreed that time spend just learning content or spitting back the content to the teacher was generally boring and a waste of time.”We were given 80 minutes to explore a concept that I Googled and had not only the answer but the concept in about five minutes. The rest of the time was wasted with all of us sitting around doing almost nothing. That disappointed me.” From the same participant: “In the next class, the teacher was clearly excited about the topic and immediately engaged the kids. The teacher used interesting technology and let the kids run with their creativity to understand and make sense of the concept being taught. THAT 80 minutes flew by!”

Kids are at all different levels and places. The class saw clearly through their experience how widely diverse students were in the same classroom. They noted how hard the teachers seemed to work to find the “right” amount of time to give kids to pick up ideas or complete work. Some kids were done in a few minutes and sat bored or fiddled with phones or had other conversations while others needed most of the time to get the work done and still others seemed almost resigned to not getting it at all. It was often hard for them to tell if a student disengaged out of boredom, frustration, or that they simply “got it” and moved to something more interesting. This really highlighted for them the need for personalized learning and considering different structures and way to provide learning experiences for kids.

Space and place matter. Participants were intrigued by the varying configurations and room arrangements they saw. While still seeing the traditional rows of desks in some classes, others noted how much effort teachers placed in room configuration. They noted how things were set up for collaboration and teamwork and that spaces were often more “homey” feeling that the institutional look they remember. They observed students more relaxed and tuned in to the teacher in those environments as opposed to the desks and rows configuration.

Separated subject and teaching “soft skills” in isolation problematic. Both classes noted the artificial and absurd separating of subjects and soft skills. (Note: we have been quite surprised that this theme plays out through all four classes – the observation that teaching subjects in isolation seemed silly). As the team looked at their list of essential skills and abilities generated at the start, they saw little integration of those things in the classroom. “After a couple of classes, we went to another class to watch a movie about how to get along with others. This really struck me as odd. Shouldn’t this skill be embedded in the everyday life of the school and the learning?” The team noted the isolation of the teachers as they seemed to be on their own and it seemed obvious that the kids weren’t making connections across and between their subjects. They also recognized the assembly-line worker way in which teachers spent their day. “They need to get out and see how people interact with content and concepts in real context, but the current way they are organized makes that impossible,” said one participant.

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?”

Comparing their school experience with the things they identified as critical for success as an adult, the team came up with the following design elements they would have in a school if they could design from scratch:

  • Real world applications. Kids need real problems to solve to understand just how messy things can be “in context.”
  • Fully integrated learning. Subjects would be taught through meaningful projects and problems so they could see both the importance of “knowing stuff” and, more importantly, how that “stuff” helps people solve problems and create new things. Additionally, the “soft skills” would also be necessary for you cannot be successful without those skills as you do “real work.”
  • Purposeful community creation. The school would create strong community not only among students but with parents, businesses, teachers, and the community as a whole. Children need to see adults living in community to work together and make a better life for all. Learning about one another, sharing gifts to improve self and others, and being present with others around you.
  • Public facing learning. Learning and “school” would happen in and through the community. The line between school and community would be nearly indistinguishable and schools would be vibrant and alive with all sorts of activity. The community would once again take responsibility for its children and the school would be completely transparent.
  • Learning anchored in passion. We all learn best and most when we are passionate about the topic or thing we are learning. Our schools would utilize student passions and interests to fuel learning and discovery – we would celebrate curiosity. Students would be pursuing multiple passions simultaneously to deepen their experience. Teachers would also teach through their passions to help expand children’s view of the world and how passionate and engaged adults behave.
  • Student choice. School would be heavily choice-based. Children would have choice about their areas of interest, how fast or slow they moved through various learning cycles, where they learned, and choice of the teacher teams who guide their learning. As children aged, their choices in these matters would expand commensurate with their emerging maturity.
  • Teacher teams. Teachers would work in true teams, fully collaborating, sharing and learning together about how to best serve the children under their care. This would allow teachers to play to their strengths, deepen their skill sets, and provide the best learning environment possible for their kids. These teams, like the kids, would have wide choice in their own professional development and would maximize the potential of social media as a tool for connection and learning.
  • Performance-based teacher evaluation. We would pay the great teachers $100,000 a year. Unlike typical “pay-for-performance” schemes we see touted, our system would be anchored in student competency. A competency-based learning system would carefully document and guide student learning and experiences. Since children and parents have a great deal of choice about who they have teaching and guiding them, “evaluation” becomes easy. Teachers sought after because of their ability to spark children’s curiosity and learning and help them progress through their competencies would be rewarded based upon the demand for their talents, not unlike the private sector.
  • Teacher externships as a part of their work. Teachers would be year-round employees and would consistently and regularly spend meaningful time working in the community’s businesses and organizations in order to best understand the learning and experiences children must have to be successful.
  • Block funding. Schools would be provided funds as one lump sum and the local board would have full control over how it is spent.
  • Community evaluation/validation. The community would be directly engaged in the process of validating student learning and competency. Schools would provide specific “asks” and community experts would assist in determining student attainment of competencies. Since students, especially older ones, would be tackling community problems, this give-and-take would be of mutual benefit.

Joining the Back-to-School Project

To become a member of a Back-to-School class, complete the following Google form. We will be organizing “classes” again next fall.

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

Thanks to all of the schools and principals who so graciously open their doors for an unfettered experience for our Corridor! You are all special people and you know who you are!

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