INNOVATION FROM WITHIN

With the new school year approaching, I can’t help but take time to reflect on last year.  The 2013-2014 school year, just finished, was hands down, the most exciting and transformational of my career.  My time at New Milford High School restored my faith in the education system and enthused me with all that is still possible in the age of the Common Core and standardized testing.  As many of you know, I was recruited by my principal, Eric Sheninger.  When Eric connected with me, I was at a crossroads in my career: like so many disheartened teachers I knew (that we all know!), I was questioning my own career path and my aspirations.  The bureaucratic rigors that are now part of what it means to be a teacher have jaded many and sparked a heated debate about the need for education reform.  It was the exceptional leadership of my principal that has made all of the difference in the world.  Eric created a culture of innovation in our school that allowed opportunities for all students and staff who choose to, to flourish and to be catalysts for change.  

As I mentioned in a few previous posts https://worlds-of-learning.com/2013/09/12/crossing-the-chasm-in-k-12/ and https://worlds-of-learning.com/2013/09/26/school-libraries-as-constant-learning-organizations/, in my career as an educator, I have had to look outside of education for my inspiration for innovation.  I am so happy to say that after this most recent school year, I now see that innovation can occur within the four walls of a school and how we at New Milford High School have demonstrated that.  Before this school year had even begun, Eric sent me this article to serve as inspiration for me upon taking on this new endeavor.  I hung this article in my office for daily inspiration and a reminder of my goal to redefine learning experiences in the school library and beyond.

Three big initiatives that I led stand out for me from the last year, and include establishing a Makerspace for our library, creating a digital badge professional learning platform for teachers, and experimenting with teaching and learning in the cloud through the creation of an avatar-based virtual campus for New Milford High School.  With all three initiatives, bolstered brilliantly by some pivotal collaboration from staff, i saw innovation spread like wildfire throughout our school.

I feel lucky that my projects have been written about across the web and have been featured on CBS News, not once, but twice last year (http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2014/02/27/new-milford-h-s-students-explore-new-ways-of-learning-with-librarys-makerspace/ and http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2014/05/16/high-tech-learning-hits-n-j-high-school-in-form-of-virtual-classrooms/ ).  I also had many opportunities to collaborate with teachers in pushing boundaries to authentically engage students and provide meaningful learning opportunities for them.  The creation of our Makerspace has allowed us to transform our library, previously deemed irrelevant by those who had been in the school for some time, into a vibrant media center that serves as a unique learning environment for our students.  Through our open digital badge platform I have seen teachers not only at New Milford High School, but around the world, take control of their own professional learning and realize the value in validating their own informal learning.  I have seen countless examples of their creativity, innovation and professional spirit flourishing as they integrated the web-based tools featured on our site into their practice in ways that have directly impacted student learning in positive ways.  And through the establishment of our virtual campus, I have had the opportunity to explore the unusual and thought-provoking pedagogy that arises from learning in a 3D virtual environment.  Bookending all of this is my knowledge of transmedia and encouraging and coaching our students and staff in becoming effective consumers and producers of digital content.

Under the leadership of Eric Sheninger, New Milford High School has been a veritable breeding ground for innovation.  I have been lucky enough to have found myself in an environment that is not inward looking but incredibly outward looking, willing to learn from others, and seeking always to inspire others and stimulate new ideas in others across the world.  In my career I have always looked for inspiration from the outside, from others; in NMHS, I could continue to do that with the full blessing of the school leadership, but significantly, I was now also able to gain so much from the inside, from the ideas and creativity of my colleagues, because of the autonomy and trust Eric gave to me and to all of us in the school, staff and students alike.  

As many will know already, Eric will not be at New Milford High School next year.  He will be joining Scholastic at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) and with Scholastic Achievement Partners (SAP) as a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership.  It is my hope, that in this new position, Eric will be able to guide more schools, districts, and educators across the globe in initiating and sustaining the types of innovation and transformation that New Milford High School has experienced.  Although I am so sad to see him go, I do know that the strong foundation he has helped to create will continue to thrive and that whatever this next school year holds, I have hope that we will continue to be a creative community, all learning from and inspiring each other, and all learning from and inspiring the wider world.