Rogue Waves

Emily Pakes
March 23, 2011

Emily is a student at Durham Technical Community College and is a guest blogger for, a partner of SparkAction.

My friends keep asking me, “How was your trip to California?” 
They’re expecting me to respond with a scene from Baywatch, with words
like “surfing” and “pina colada.”  Instead, I return a strange glowing
smile, and say, “It was like a rogue wave of hope and inspiration.”

Rogue waves are thirty foot walls of water that rise up out of
nowhere and claim everything in their paths.  You don’t expect them. And
when they come, they take you with them.  That was Big Ideas Fest for me.

When I was invited to Big Ideas Fest,
I was excited.  I knew it was going to be some of the top minds in
education and innovation.  But sitting in a room full of experienced
educators, I felt what I’ve been conditioned to feel—these are my
enemies.  Like many others, I didn’t always fit in to a perfect little
box of what the ideal student should be.

Sure, I was bright.  But I had a way about me that seemed to perturb
most teachers.  I’d do things like ask controversial and relevant
questions.  Or call my teacher out on why he called on the boys more
frequently than the girls.  And most vexing of all, I’d ask how we were
going to use a given lesson in the real world.  So looking at the
teachers around me, I initially saw the oppressors.  But I couldn’t have
been more wrong. Surrounding me were the Ms. Honeys in a world of

Over the course of the next three days, we watched sixteen amazing
presenters share what they’re doing to increase effectiveness and
accessibility in education.  People like Stephen Breslin from Futurelab,
who engage children in a student-directed project and coach them
through it start to finish. In this case, elementary school children
designed and built a fountain that mimics their dance moves.  In the
process, the children learned far more about math and science than they
would using traditional teaching methods.

There was also Christopher Rush from School of One,
the nation’s first multi-modal learning center, in which children’s
needs and preferred learning methods are identified, and tracked using a
combination of technology and innovative teaching methods.  The
emphasis is on how the individual child learns, and has proven to be a
remarkable success.

Other speakers included Erin McKean from Wordnik,
a former Oxford Dictionary editor who has embarked on a project to
create an online dictionary, more accessible and relevant than print
dictionaries. They currently have over a billion words, complete with
examples of use.  Also along literary lines, Heather Joseph’s SPARC
is working to create open access online to scholarly journals. Curtis
Wong, principal Microsoft Researcher, blew us all away with,
which has mapped the known universe using actual hubble photos, and
enables people to explore it at the click of a mouse.  His presentation
included an actual nebula tour video made on the site by a six
year-old—both adorable and incredibly informative.

Of course, what was most relevant to me were the presenters focusing
on Community College completion.  Finally, community college students
were not only getting attention, but having our specific needs
addressed.  Like Diego Navarro’s Academy for College Excellence,
who presented research showing that school induced trauma among
minority students is six times higher than that of Iraqi War Veterans. 
His organization helps reconnect those injured students with a positive
learning environment, and set them on a path for success.  Paul
Freedman, of Altius Education, has developed Ivy Bridge College,
an entirely online community college with a 95% retention rate last
term.  Ivy Bridge pairs each student with a mentor that monitors their
progress and notes any potential crisis situations, in order to keep
them on track for graduation. And as the youngest presenter,’s own Maya Enista spoke about all the great work that, Democracy 2.0 and Target2020 Summits have been doing to
increase community college completion.

But the most empowering aspect of Big Ideas Fest were the Action Collabs
These were groups of 10-15 people from all walks of life put in a room
and asked to create an innovative solution to a specific educational
problem.  Prompts were one of the following, “How to enable teachers to
have the greatest impact on learners,” “How to create alternatives for
certifying or credentializing learning, as a means of expanding
education and career opportunities” and “How to create learning
opportunities for students pushed out of formal education.”  I was not
only impressed by how ISKME had
identified the three biggest problems spot-on, but also the environment
of the action collabs.  Here were educators, administrators, developers,
technology people and students all in the same room, with the same
amount of say.  I couldn’t believe it when a school principal in her
seventies, with fifty years of experience in education, not only
listened to my input, but agreed with it!   It is truly remarkable to
know that we’re living in a time of such positive changes, and humbling
to have been a part of it.

I  took my English final yesterday.  After turning in my test, Dr.
Bossing asked me what my plans were from here.  With a smile I said, “I
want to be an English teacher.” He said, “That’s great! There will
always be a need for great teachers.  But you’re not going to be rich.” 
“I’m used to that,” I laughed, “and I’m happy.”

Hearing myself utter those words meant something major had changed. 
Not just for me, but for the cultural climate of people like myself. 
Millenials, who despite their best efforts, have been thwarted by
tremendous barriers time and again.  Paths are being cleared for us, and
we’re the ones clearing them.  There are changes, there are solutions,
there is hope.

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