Friday, December 20, 2013

Big Ideas Fest 2013 Opens Minds and Makes Connections

Third Shift is a project in rural New York State focused on access to education for low-income youth and young adults. Some are still in high school or college and trying to move forward; others left school as early as ninth grade and are eager to re-engage with education, but face considerable barriers.

Trying to find pathways for students amid the clamor surrounding Common Core, higher education access and completion, and whether or not college even matters is a challenge. Working with students on educational access outside of the formal education system illuminates not only barriers but also opportunities in education. These opportunities are often obscured by too many divisions in the delivery of education, and too few connections among key players, so that issues that interact in impacting student well-being are often not seen as being connected at all.  

It is both possible and necessary to make these connections explicit, and a leader in doing so is ISKME's Big Ideas Fest (, which I recently attended for the first time. BIF was the most idea-packed, participatory, engaging conference I have ever been to. The sheen hasn't even begun to wear off. Working together with inspiring teachers and superintendents, community college teachers and continuing education administrators, adventurous high school students, poets, and those from the non-profit sector, as well as ISKME's excellent staff, has informed my work and led to important conversations back home, especially with those most affected by our work: the students.

The short, sharp presentations of real-world trial-and-error innovations at BIF were powerful in their suggestion that it's worth trying, tinkering, throwing it out there, redefining, and trying again. Conferences always offer the opportunity for connections, but BIF went beyond chance encounters with very effective working groups known as Action Collabs. In multiple sessions over several days of the conference, I had the privilege of collaborating with a group of open-minded, experienced individuals who brought diverse perspectives and real commitment to educational issues. The process was much more engaging, and much more demanding, than I could have imagined beforehand. It was a chance to listen to people I need to hear from, and to absorb and consider new approaches and information. Our day-to-day work at home is so consuming, and positions often so polarized, that these sorts of encounters are too rare.

In some ways, no matter how heartbreaking and unjust individual student situations can be, it is easier to solve problems one student at a time than to effect systemic change. But the fact that youth inside and outside of educational systems are looking for a way through, and that they express goals that we, as a society, say we value for our youth, but don't make accessible to all of them, means that a broader approach is necessary as well. BIF provides a framework and tools for supporting our work with individual students while building that broader framework.

Everyone I talked with at Big Ideas Fest cared about the critical conversation that is education today. Big Ideas Fest demonstrates that imaginative and productive conversations among all of us who care about students and education are possible.