The Weehawken Public Schools kicked off the new academic year with a keynote speaker for the faculty on Wednesday Sept 7 before classes began on Sept 8. Superintendent Dr. Robert Zywicki brought in Eric Sheninger to motivate the educators about the importance of technology in the educational system. Sheninger was principal of New Milford High School for seven years, during which time he became one of the first educators in New Jersey to integrate technology into his school. Since then Sheninger has written four books on the subject and is currently working on his fifth. He is now a Senior Fellow and Thought Leader on Digital Leadership with the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE).
Zywicki said that he believed Sheninger was the ideal choice when choosing a speaker to address Weehawken’s teachers.
“We met on Twitter and Eric had a big influence on my professional learning network and the use of devices, integrating them in instruction,” said Zywicki.
Zywicki believes that the use of technology in the district’s schools is important to foster learning in children.
“We use a lot of web supported tools so Eric is the perfect person to come in as we’re kicking off this year and crystallize how we are trying to be bold and do new things and bring all that to learning,“ said Zywicki.
Last year the school district began moving toward more technology by providing Chromebooks or tablets to its teachers and students from grades 3- 12.
Over the course of the summer over 80 educators attended professional development courses including a Google certification course.
Social Studies teacher Jim Panepinto said that Zywicki is “dragging us kicking and screaming into the modern world and we’ve been given a lot of tech tools to enhance teaching and learning.”
Sheninger said that like many industries, education can be adverse to change. He admitted that he himself was not a fan before he embraced the idea of technology in schools.
“As principal, I used to run around my school taking phones away from students,” said Sheninger. “One day, a student told me that school was like prison.”
Sheninger said that educators have the responsibility to awe their students and “bring back the awe to learning.”
“Awe in learning requires innovation,” said Sheninger.
He explained the necessity of innovation through examples of major companies who neglected it and thus went the way of the dinosaur.
“How many of you heard of blockbuster?” Sheninger asked the audience. “You went to blockbuster to rent a movie on VHS tape and then when you got there they were all already rented. I read somewhere that an executive at blockbuster pitched the same idea of Netflix, movie mailing service and streaming, but he was fired because implementing his idea would cost too much money.”
He believes that one of the real issues in today’s education system is the “lack of authentic student engagement in schools” and that technology can be the bridge between learning and awe, which can increase student engagement.
Sheninger pointed to Google Cardboard as an example of technology that can be used for this purpose.
Google cardboard allows people to use their smartphones to enter virtual realities through apps with endless possibilities.
“Students could actually see the great barrier reef,” said Sheninger.
During his presentation Sheninger fostered audience involvement through a website called Mentimeter.com.
“I have to be willing to try and use technology to reach students.” –Jim Panepinto
Audience members were able to answer questions anonymously, in real time, through the website which would create graphs, word collages, and more with their answers.
Jim Panepinto said he plans on using the site in his upcoming lectures although he proclaimed himself to be one of the teachers who drag their feet when it comes to change especially since he “isn’t the most tech savvy.”
“Morally and ethically, I have to be willing to try and use technology to reach students otherwise, I am shortchanging my students and myself,” said Panepinto. “Technology is a tool for us to enhance our teaching and their learning as long as we are willing to use it and not be afraid to try.”
Panepinto believed that the “big takeaway” from the two-hour presentation was that “teachers have the awesome responsibility to shape our students futures and society’s.”
Zywicki said that collaboration was Sheninger’s message.
“I think the message here was collaboration,” said Zywicki. “When teachers are sharing their practices they are more likely to take risks and innovate.”
Sheninger ended the lecture with the true hidden meaning of his speech.
“My message wasn’t about technology my message was about you,” said Sheninger. “You are the awe that our kids need. you made the decision to go into a profession that makes a difference your kids might not know it this year or next year or 5 years or 20 years from now but when kids think about their success I’m telling you right now they will remember you… you have the opportunity every single day to impact the life of a kid… every profession is a result of you and your work. You can usher in bold ideas for a new future… let’s bring the awe back into learning.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org