A school where students meet “failure” with a smile

This school leader visited an innovative school program in Iowa that shows the unexpected joys of project-based learning.

By Dustin Hensley

A visit to Iowa BIG shows the unexpected joys of project-based learning

School transformation is hard. If you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume that you know this to be true from firsthand experience. When you’re deep into the work, you sometimes feel like your school is an island and you’re having to do everything yourself to ensure survival.

Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way. The XQ Community of Practice helps create partnerships and networks for schools that are doing similar work but on different timelines and in different contexts.

At Elizabethton High School, we are trying to transform a traditional comprehensive high school with over 100 years of institutional history and culture into an innovative model that is student-centered and project-based. When we began this journey in 2016, the first school that we reached out to for help was Iowa BIG. They were a few years ahead of us in creating their model but were like-minded in their desire to strip away preconceived ideas of what schooling should look like and create something that is focused more on learning and comprehensive human development, while being closely connected to the local community.

It took three years, but we finally made an in-person trip to Iowa BIG to see their fully-integrated model in action. Our main purpose for making this trip was for three of our teachers who will be co-teaching World History and World Literature next year to better develop standards-aligned projects and understand how assessment looks in this type of environment.

As a teacher at Elizabethton High School, going to Iowa BIG last month was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I got to spend two days watching and picking the brains of spectacular teachers and students. I never thought I would enjoy picking the brain of a handful of high school seniors, but I truly did! These students were great examples of how to be engaged in meaningful learning for life after high school.

These students also showed the importance of communicating with others in their community, groups, and teams. This school year, I plan to have students work in groups of three to four. As the students at Iowa BIG demonstrated, working together on a problem and coming up with a collaborative solution is what true learning is all about. Communicating with business leaders and residents in our city of Elizabethton will help my students better prepare for adulthood. Being able to look an adult in the face and make meaningful eye contact is an important aspect of communication the students at Iowa BIG have learned through their community projects.

Students at Iowa BIG pitch their projects to their teachers more than half of the time. I plan on allowing my students to do the same this school year. Giving students ownership of a project makes them want to excel. Multiple students that we talked to at Iowa BIG said that they did not want to leave school. YES! Students were staying until five o’clock on a Friday in spring to work on a community improvement project that they wanted to be successful. This is what I am aiming for with my students at Elizabethton High School.

Students at Iowa BIG have learned to say the word “failure” with a smile. I never realized this could exist until I was able to hear the students at Iowa BIG. A senior told of her experiences of failed projects, but in reality, those projects weren’t truly failures because she had learned so many valuable lessons. Isn’t that what life is all about? Thinking you know plan A, but in the end you use plan C, D, E, etc. I want my students this school year and forever to think this way.

Meet the students of Iowa BIG in this student-produced video, and hear what they have to say about their education:


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