How to Run an Iowa BIG: Our Space #gowhalephants

This begins a series of posts about how one might start a totally project-based, competency-driven, asynchronous schooling environment with a Creative Commons Licensed pedagogical model. We call ourselves Iowa BIG, and yes we know that sounds a bit pretentious, but hey, my official title is Headmaster Cornally, so, deal. Through our initiatives, we deliver core academic credit in English, math, science, and social studies to 70 students who represent a demographically accurate cross section of our community with 3.0 FTE (that’s a 21 S:T, folks).

It all begins with the physical space. We don’t have any classrooms, and we’re located in Vault Co-working, a space in the heart of Iowa’s Creative Corridor (an economic region anchored by Cedar Rapids and Iowa City)

Entrance to Vault
Entrance to Vault

This is all very intentional. Our students are in physical proximity with our community’s creative class of workers. This has the immediate effect of creating a heads-down-get-it-done mentality for everyone in the space.

The stairs leading up to Vault and our school
The stairs leading up to Vault and our school

It’s almost bizarre to watch students acclimate to this environment. A mixed age, mixed purpose space with an emphasis on entrepreneurship seems to be an almost ideal place to have a school. There’s equal parts concern for the feasibility of an initiative mixed with a sense of newness and just-over-the-horizon-ness that feels like you’re swimming with friendly electric eels.

Our eat-in kitchen for student and faculty use.
Our eat-in kitchen for student and faculty use.

The Airlock:

Airlocking is a concept akin to code-switching. It’s an idea I lifted from a team in Cleveland (Lakewood, OH, actually), and the goal is to create a physical space that forces a psychological transition, like an airlock forces a physical one. You don’t have a choice, one door must be closed for the other to open. The mores at Iowa BIG are different (don’t read that as better, we’re not jerks), and we have years of assumptions about the student-teacher interaction to wade through.

The cafe we use as an ad hoc classroom and meeting spcae, note the reclaimed barnwood stage.
The cafe we use as an ad hoc classroom and meeting space, note the reclaimed barn wood stage.

So, when our students transport themselves into the NewBo neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, they hunt out parking just like any other human using a downtown, they badge-in at the front door to the space we share with entrepreneurs and million-dollar-a-year companies, and they seek out the instructional staff in a modular space.

That last bit is really important. One of the space-related changes is the seeking of help. The demand for instruction must come from the student. We use our space at Vault as a perpetual conversation that moves from project to project never quite stopping even thought the participants move on to drum line or a traditional course in chemistry.

The next best thing to being at Vault, is our reliance on community and public spaces. If we want to turn around the AP-mill, which is essentially a sorting device that leaves behind our least educated students and sends the one we spent energy on off to NY or SF, then we’re going to have to create learning environments that network our students and teach them the value that exists in our communities.

Our students have access to a reborn community campus, complete with cafes, local open markets, designed park seating, and an intentional integration into the economics and civics our the city.

Needless to say, this doesn’t feel like Kansas anymore.