A few weeks ago, I had an incredible opportunity, that, while very much a ‘real world’ experience, had as much to do with the online world of social media connections as it did face to face ones.
Allow me to explain.
About two years ago, after using Twitter for a while as a fun and casual way to connect with family and friends, I happened upon some Tweets from an educational leader who went by the Twitter handle @NMHS_Principal. I started following him, and was blown away by the incredible amounts of high quality education and edtech resources he was sharing. The names of people he was retweeting were not familiar to me, but as he mentioned them, I began to follow them as well.
Thus began my journey into the world of a PLN (Personal Learning Network). I was soon following and making connections with many educators from around the country and beyond. At the time, I did not realize that @NMHS_Principal, known in real life as Mr. Eric Sheninger, Principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey, was an education administration rock star. It was really only after I got a chance to interact briefly with him at last year’s ISTE Conference, and to see his packed presentations in action, did I see how far of a reach he has.
You can imagine my excitement then, when my good friend and fellow Community of Practice (YU High School Chinuch) facilitator Rabbi Yehuda Chanales informed me that he had arranged a visit to Eric’s school, and that I was invited! What follows are some of my initial thoughts and observations about what I saw at New Milford High School. Eric is doing some incredible things there to move the school forward, and I think that there are applications for our own schools as well, and because NMHS has a well-deserved reputation for being a forward thinking place in terms of educational technology, those concepts are even more significant on our particular CoP.
Time for Sharing: One of the most striking aspects of our visit was how much time and attention Eric gave to us. This is an administrator that clearly works at a frenetic pace, and yet, he gave us an hour and a half of his own time! I thought that maybe we’d say hello, get 10 or 15 minutes, perhaps a conversation with a teacher or mid-level administrator that he would hand us off to. No such thing. We sat for a while in his office, asking him questions and learning about the culture of his school. He then gave us an extremely comprehensive tour of the campus, which included introducing us to several faculty members and some detailed discussions on how certain classrooms were set up. Eric is clearly proud of his school, as well he should be, and that pride shone through in his tour. But for an administrator in his position to be so sharing and open with two individuals who are not even in the same public school universe as he is, well, I think there is something different at play. I think that this tendency is a real world manifestation of the connections and spirit of sharing that exist among educators online. Eric is a member of “Connected Principals,” a blog made up of many thought leaders in the world of educational administration. This culture of sharing with and wanting to learn from others is very much present in Eric’s online persona, and it was wonderful to see this play out in the real world as well. As members of this CoP, it is important for us to remember that we are modeling this culture of sharing every single day, and that we have to be a cheerleader for it when talking to our colleagues and staff who are not yet on board with the concept of connecting and sharing. Especially in our world of Jewish education, the attitude of looking at other educators as competitors and not worthy of sharing with and learning from, still exists. Social media helps break down these barriers, but we can do it face to face in our schools as well.
Tech is not the solution: One of the themes that Eric kept reiterating on our tour is that “I don’t mandate tech in the classroom.” He wants the faculty stretching themselves, always improving, and making the classroom a truly student centered experience. While EdTech tools are often quite helpful in accomplishing those goals, they are not the only way to do so. So in New Milford High School, a lot of the school looks like, well, a regular high school. It’s not some futuristic wonderland. Sure, there are plenty of smartboards, but there are even more regular whiteboards.
It was very interesting to speak to several teachers who are integrating technology in their classrooms. The ones that we spoke to had not completely overhauled their entire classroom. Rather, they were using one or two simple tools, like Poll Everywhere or Twitter, to enhance their existing framework of teaching. It is this recognition that technology is only a tool towards achieving a much more significant goal of improving instruction, that makes New Milford High School a place that is at once moving quickly to the future, and yet at the same time, very well grounded. Those of us who are real tech enthusiasts (and I certainly include myself in this group) can sometimes get caught up in the technology itself, and forget that it has to be utilized with a plan, on top of a solid foundation of good teaching.
Change must be supported, not just championed: Eric was clearly very proud of his school and the building, but he was particularly proud of the purchases he had helped initiate: Carts of netbooks and iPads, a set of digital SLR cameras, and even non tech items like resurfacing the old chalkboards with a material that turns them into whiteboards. The source of his pride, however, was in the fact that he was supporting his teachers with the proper equipment that they needed to teach the class and to grow as educators. The message was clear: in order for any change to occur, it cannot just be talked about, or even mandated. It has to be actively supported. That was why it was so important that all of the classroom computers be new models, because, as Eric said, “how can I ask my teachers to integrate technology with tools that don’t allow them to get the job done?”
Another concrete way that Eric fosters innovation among faculty members is by giving them as much as 3 periods a week from their schedule to work on whatever they feel passionate about that will help them improve as educators. This is loosely based on the Google 20% approach, where software engineers are encouraged to use up to 20% of their time to work on projects they are passionate about (which has spawned such Google products as Gmail). At New Milford, staff members are asked to document their progress in their area of focus, and share their findings with other faculty members in a presentation at the end of the year. This not only provides the staff with time and resources to develop themselves and grow, but it also encourages faculty to learn from one another.
Don’t be scared of new ideas: Finally, under Eric Sheninger’s leadership at New Milford, there is a culture of embracing change a willingness to experiment with new ideas. When we were sitting in Eric’s office, he showed us one of his newest toys, what he called a “Smartboard in a Bag.” Basically, it is a projector, Apple TV device, and an iPad. It allows a teacher to wirelessly present the iPad content on the projector, wherever he or she may be in the classroom. It has much of the functionality of a Smartboard at a fraction of the cost. It’s not a kit that is sold by any retailer or education company. It’s a configuration that Eric recently learned about from fellow educators online, a mere few weeks ago. He went ahead and made the investment because he believed in it.
Eric showed us a new classroom that had just been converted from a computer lab. It was a wonderful prototype for a 21st century classroom, with a long conference table to encourage collaboration, computer workstations along the wall, large projector screens on either side of the room with integrated webcams for videoconferencing, and smaller stations for groups of 2 or 3 students to work together.
One of the programs that New Milford has embraced has been a Holocaust education class. In the class, the students and faculty have made connections with Holocaust survivors throughout the world and frequently interview them via Skype.
These are the types of ideas and initiatives that are often talked about in education circles in wistful tones, as ‘if only we could do this.’ At New Milford, these ideas are implemented in reality. Not every new program will work, but Eric is showing a remarkable willingness to try and experiment.
New Milford High School is an exciting place. There is a buzz in the school, and a sense that faculty and students alike are committed to learning at the highest levels using 21st century tools. The bold vision of their principal is clearly an instrumental component of this culture, and we are grateful that he took that time to share with us!
To see the rest of the pictures from our visit, click HERE.