In August 2002, I attended the very first Big Bang Conference at Bryant University in rural Smithfield, Rhode Island, just a short time after beginning my own Big Picture Learning journey. I was a new teacher – being thrown into this still new and relatively “unproven” educational model. Big Picture was on the verge of expanding to over five cities that fall – all on the success of one small school in Providence that had opened a short six years earlier. That year’s Big Bang took place on campus and everyone—all 200 attendees, none of whom seemed to care—stayed in shared dorms and used communal showers. Folks gathered in common areas, walked the campus in the evenings, ate in cafeterias and stayed up late playing music and playing cards. It felt like I was back in college. It had the undertone of something special. But back then I couldn’t quite put my finger what it was.
I clearly knew why I was taking a leap of faith and switching careers. I mean, I had a chance to visit the Met, meet its students, volunteer, hear about college acceptances, read the local accolades, watch exhibitions and observe the depth of learning taking place. But I, like most people I meet who have visited the Met, was most taken by the joy of learning that permeated the air of the school. The excitement that students had when talking about what work they were engaged in. The way the adults talked about the students – with such care and love. I had had a successful career already in the corporate sector, but I strove for something more. But I wasn’t sure about the other Big Bang attendees’ motivations; their life journeys. I wanted in – but what was driving these additional folks from Oakland, Seattle, Detroit, Denver and Camden to traverse the country and land at the first Big Bang? Were they “really about this life?” Did they see what I saw? Where they genuinely about unapologetic, relentlessly student-centered work? What I came to learn at that first Big Bang, and 14 Big Bangs to follow is this…they were. And in so many ways, all of the folks outside of Providence were the “First Followers” that made this not a moment, but a movement.
Last month, we convened our 15th Big Bang Conference in Orlando, Florida. A few years ago we outgrew the cozy confines of Rhode Island. This year we welcomed 500 attendees, 15 district and system level leaders, 60 workshop sessions, Deep Dives and Leaving to Learn experiences. And, thanks to the support of several national philanthropic organizations and individuals, we were able to welcome—for the first time—over 50 students from across the country who taught as much as they learned. Like our conference – our organization has experienced consistent growth in the last 15 years. From one humble school in Rhode Island, to 60 passionate, confident, and—dare I say—brash, schools across 22 states (and another 70 international schools distributed over 9 different countries).
I wonder how I’ll look back at this Big Bang ten, 15, 20 years from now? If there’s one lesson I can take away from the last 15 years, it’s that this work is too important do alone. The most important feedback we’ve received from this year’s conference is that people left feeling as though they were part of a family. That the overall work was so much more important to take on together than it was individually. We heard from students who felt that their schools were anomalies and anachronisms, and who felt immense joy learning that there were other students just like them, across the country, who also get to take part in a form of education that wasn’t, after all, “alternative” or “non-traditional” but, rather, exceptional.
Any individual or group that joins us at Big Bang for the first time, whether it be our very first conference or our 15th conference, becomes the first followers for whatever year or movement follows. We welcome—to Big Bang, to Big Picture—anyone who wants to lend his or her voice to our collective efforts. We ask only that you open your heart, take on the unapologetic, and—perhaps—be ready to listen, with patience, to those who wax nostalgic about the days when we had to use communal showers.