Our superintendent was able to secure a visit to New Milford, NJ to visit with Eric Sheninger, principal, blogger, presenter, leader, father, husband, traveler, and more. In Millville Public Schools, we use a systems approach to everything. One of the most important principles in systems thinking is to look to the “best in class”. Eric is considered to be the “best in class” when it comes to social media, leadership, and technology. Who can argue with his close to 20,000 followers, books, presentations, keynote addresses, Scholastic Administrator of the year, and other accolades? Rightfully so!
We were scheduled to be in New Milford High School (NMHS) by 8AM. Our crew (Dr. David Gentile, Superintendent; Dr. Pamm Moore, Assistant Superintendent; Mrs. Kathy Procopio, Principal, Millville Senior High School; and Dr. Spike Cook, Principal, Rebecca Mulford Bacon Elementary) assembled at our meeting place at 5:30AM in order to beat the traffic and allow ourselves time to get there safely. We knew the journey would be part of the experience, so we all set our alarm clocks – EARLY. Armed with my contribution of coffee, we were set to take off.
The ride up was both comical and inspiring. We dealt with a lot of technical issues, including a new GPS system and our lack of experience in commuting in North Jersey. We talked about how our lives were going. We learned about each other’s families and our recent experiences at school. Somehow, we even managed to make it there on time!
Once we arrived at NMHS, Eric’s secretary greeted us with a warm smile. The office was quiet, and all the students and teachers seemed to be in their places. Eric brought us into his conference room and spent the first 30 minutes discussing the day’s planned events, as well as what to expect in this school building. We had prepared questions to guide the discussion, but after a while that was not necessary. Conversation and ideas just flowed. We were curious about the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, technology in the classroom, cell phones, culture and climate of NMHS, and of course, Eric. He took great care in crafting his answers making sure to let us know that he was no “prophet” but rather a man on a mission to bring 21st century learning to the forefront of the educational experiences for his students. Eric feels that the way NMHS embraces technology speaks to what students already understand – that phones are now devices, and making them taboo only adds to the problems, as opposed to being part of the solution.
As we walked through NMHS, it was clear that Mr. Sheninger was in his element. Students approached him with ease, said hello and some continued their conversation with him from earlier. One student, in noticing the visitors remarked, “The suits are here. This must be something important.” We laughed. Eric had us visit a few classrooms to experience what he can only describe to his Twitter followers or presentation attendees. His classrooms are, in some regards, traditional-looking from the hallway, but once inside, I felt something much different. As the students texted answers to their teachers, or looked up resources on their cell phones, there was something oddly normal. As a young lady in a Geometry class articulated, “Using our cell phones in class is really no big deal. When we are finished with it, we just put it away and move on with something different.”
In another math class, the teacher used the responses from the cell phones to understand the learning process of his students. In one question, 100% of the students answered correctly, and he moved on. Following a second question, 55% of the students missed the answer. Using that information, he promptly revisited the skill to address the needs of his class. To me, this was evidence of data driven and learner-centered education at its best!
After our classroom visits, we went back to the conference room for more discussion. Eric showed us his new “interactive white board in a bag.” No, Eric is no magician, he showed us a newer device that connected his iPad, Apple TV, and HDMI display tool to create an interactive display wall. Of course, he mentioned, this can be purchased for a fraction of the cost that an interactive white board costs. Ideas were swirling around in our heads.
Eric was excited to show us the cafeteria. We descended upon one of the first lunches to watch how the students used technology at lunch. Sure enough as we walked through the cafeteria, students were on their devices watching videos, playing Angry Birds, or reading. Dr. Moore and I chatted with two sophomore girls. Similar to the other student in math class, they both said that having their cell phones out at lunch, and when the teacher lets them in class, is nothing big. I asked if they felt that students used these devices to bully, harass, or cause problems at the school, to which one of them said, “Maybe at other schools, but not here.”
We concluded the visits by getting our pictures taken with Principal Twitter, as his secretary jokingly mentioned, “I knew him before all of this, you know.” Eric signed a copy of the Scholastic Magazine featuring his story. He encouraged us to keep Tweeting, blogging and modeling the way for our teachers and students.
On our car ride home, we reflected on the day. It was obvious to us that Eric had developed a culture and climate that valued technology and treated students with dignity and respect. It was also clear that the stakeholders of NMHS mutually agreed that learning was priority number one. We each shared our “takeaways” from the day (in between navigating Teaneck, New Milford, and the NJ Turnpike – think Clark Griswold from European Vacation, “Hey Kids, Big Ben, the Parliament”). Mrs. Procopio, who took 4 pages of notes, felt the experience helped her see how technology can be an integral part of the high school experience. She reflected on the many positive teachers at NMHS, and how she couldn’t wait to explore options for her school. Dr. Gentile felt that the whole experience, both the journey and the destination, was worthwhile and inspiring. Dr. Moore saw the important benefits of technology and curriculum integration which was neither forced nor contrived at NMHS.
As for me, I am looking forward to our district’s journey through technology exploration and our future destination of becoming a world class district.
Are you going to ASCD12?
Check out Dr. David Gentile, Dr. Pamm Moore, Mrs. Joanne Colacurcio, and Mrs. Arlene Jenkins, as they present on Saturday 3/24/12 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm #1335 — Transforming Schools Through Powerful and Systematic Walkthroughs