The room was full of energy and excitement, which was normal for a first day of school. The thing that felt different about Iowa BIG was this instinctual feeling that this energy wasn’t going to disappear after a few weeks.
The first day of school. The familiar faces of peers we said goodbye to in the spring. Everyone dressed in their new clothes. The smell of new books, and the aching muscles from full backpacks. The anxiety of who is going to be in each class and who there will be to sit by at lunch. These familiar feelings have shown up every fall throughout my childhood. Every fall, except this last one.
Five months ago, I walked into Iowa BIG for the first time as a student. The second I walked through the doors, I had a completely different experience. There wasn’t one teacher standing at the front of the classroom; there wasn’t a row of desks; no rules on the whiteboard that we were about to discuss. Instead, there were groups of students sitting on couches, talking about their expectations for the day, how excited they were for the Iowa BIG experience, ideas they had for projects, and simply introducing themselves to new faces.
The room was full of energy and excitement, which was normal for a first day of school. The thing that felt different about Iowa BIG was this instinctual feeling that this energy wasn’t going to disappear after a few weeks, once the normal high school routine settled in.
I knew every day was going to look different and that I was going to be in charge of my schedule. There would be no bell telling me when to arrive and when to leave; no exact seat that I was expected to be in so the teacher could take attendance. I instantly knew I was going to love it there—I knew it was something that I could make my own.
The leaders at Iowa BIG have built this environment that puts everyone on the same level. We are all learning together. I know that I can go to any of them with any problem I may have, and there will be nothing but support.
The advisors wasted no time on introducing themselves (using their first names, which was a shock in its own right). They gave a quick, warm welcome and jumped right into asking the students tons of questions—wanting to get to know us right away. I have never felt so welcomed in a learning space.
I was used to small efforts from teachers to get to know their students, such as handing out a sheet of paper titled, “All About Me!” It’s funny to think how getting to know a person can happen in silence. At Iowa BIG, the advisors made it feel real. It felt like I was truly seen by every advisor and all of my peers. I could tell every student was feeling the same way.
The leaders at Iowa BIG have built this environment that puts everyone on the same level. We are all learning together. I know that I can go to any of them with any problem I may have, and there will be nothing but support. They check in on me daily to ask how things are going, which is really meaningful for a teenager.
Before I enrolled at Iowa BIG, it was widely advertised at my conventional school and throughout Cedar Rapids. However, it wasn’t something that was always encouraged by my teachers and counselors. Some spoke negatively of it, saying that I would be set up better for college if I spent my time taking advanced placement courses. Some students would speak negatively of those who attended Iowa BIG, saying they did no real work and just wasted their time because they didn’t want to be in school.
I chose to not listen to them and decided that if I wanted to get something out of BIG, then I was going to put in the time and effort to prove that the rumors weren’t true. I was influenced by my older brother, who attended Iowa BIG his senior year. I was a freshman when he was a senior, but despite the slight age gap, we’re very close and he has always been one of my biggest role models. I guess you could say I’m that annoying younger sibling that likes to do everything her older sibling does. He spoke so highly of Iowa BIG that I was instantly sold.
He explained to me that Iowa BIG would open the door to explore a variety of career choices and get hands-on experience in the real world. Both of us were very successful in a conventional school setting, but we were always seeking more. He told me that Iowa BIG would fulfill that desire, and I have come to find out that he was right.
No Time Wasted
To my surprise, we jumped right into work at Iowa BIG. We began by learning about what it means to have an agile mindset. The advisors stressed the four main principles of Iowa BIG: deliver value continuously, learn and experiment rapidly, make safety a prerequisite, and make people awesome.
At the end of each quarter, we reflect on how well we live up to these principles within the context of our projects and how we can improve upon them in the future. It creates a unique shift compared to the conventional education system.
Instead of “get to class on time!”, I’m driven to make safety a prerequisite. Rather than receiving passive instruction to “be kind to others!”, making people awesome is a daily part of my work. It’s all about using everyone’s skills and bringing out the best in each other. These principles, although important in the context of our projects, point to big picture life skills that we will use forever.
To work on these principles right away, the students at Iowa BIG join mini test projects to learn how to plan and start a project. All of the planning was a little bit frustrating for me. I didn’t see the importance of writing down every little task we needed to do.
Now that I’m close to seeing the final result with the project I’m currently working on, I see how important planning was in producing meaningful results. Iowa BIG uses organizational boards for every project. They help aid in the process of seeing how much work has been done, what will come next, and who will benefit from each task. And, it’s not just for us students. It especially helps our business partners see what the students are doing to benefit them and what the intended outcome will be. There isn’t much value in surprising a partner with a product they have no use for.
In only five months, Iowa BIG has made me see myself in an entirely new light. I can’t imagine my education any other way.
During my most recent project, I’ve come to understand that I can’t always take on very large tasks and expect immediate results. Some things need to be broken down into small, manageable pieces. Doing this on a teamwide scale, we all have clarity on our priorities and can ensure everyone has a role that is important to them. This further leads to us providing our community partners with a valuable product.
Without the long planning sessions that provided clear direction, all of our dreams would have remained as such, just dreams. Impressive work takes hours of planning before you can start a project, which was a hard lesson for me to learn. I’ve always wanted to get rolling on an idea right away, but now I know that careful planning and consideration is essential so projects don’t fall apart. Understanding the value of the planning process has allowed me to see everything in place at Iowa BIG serves a purpose. And, if I’m willing to work through my initial frustrations, I’ll continue benefiting from the tremendous value Iowa BIG provides all of its students.
I Have Never Known Myself So Clearly
Through building new relationships with other students and teachers, reflecting on Iowa BIG’s four principles and how they apply to the larger context of life, and working on projects, I have learned a lot about myself as a learner. I have learned I’m a go-getter; I’m good with time management; I like to work on things quickly and iterate as I go; and I can work with many types of learners and enjoy gathering multiple perspectives. Every one of these skills will be applicable for the rest of my life.
In only five months, Iowa BIG has made me see myself in an entirely new light. I can’t imagine my education any other way. And, I can’t believe I get to do this for another 18 months.
When my final first day of school comes around this August, I have no idea what the new year will bring. I don’t know what projects I will be working on or what wonderful opportunities will be available for me, but that is the beauty of Iowa BIG. I get to work with people I have never met, do things I never knew existed, and connect with members of my community. I advocate for Iowa BIG to all of my peers at my “mothership” school. I feel that Iowa BIG has something for everyone, and I believe it can be what we come to expect from our high schools in Cedar Rapids and beyond.