Monday, October 15, 2012

When Initiative and Innovation Collide

I've been blessed to see a number of great things going on in our district and in others. Two weeks ago I travelled to Denver and toured Rock Canyon High School just outside of town. This past Saturday I was at New Milford High School in New Jersey and listened to a number of presentations on creative uses of technology to not only engage students but get them thinking at a critically deep level.

Most of what impressed me was the initiative used by teachers to build an excellent learning community over time with very little money. Even in some cases where school funds weren't even available to purchase a $10 webcam, the teacher either obtained support from a parent group, borrowed equipment from another program when it wasn't being used, or simply doled out the cash from his own pocket, something that all too frequently is happening in this era of cuts to public school funding. The point here is that these teachers see something valuable in what they are trying to build and are willing to take time (often many years) to beg, borrow or purchase the items they need along the way. Simple tech tools that go a long way towards developing a classroom culture or activity that infuses 21st century learning skills in kids.

It brings back memories of my first year as principal for a 4/5/6 building in Wayland, Michigan. I had just retired that summer from active duty and was very excited about my new venture. I noticed about mid-year that the school had been recently wired for closed circuit television. That March I decided to see what this "new fangled" technology could do and chose the awards program at the end of March is Reading Month to test it out. I borrowed my wife's aging Panasonic video camera with built in microphone, stopped by Radio Shack to pick up the required AV cord, plugged it all into the "return feed" outlet in the Media Center and the rest as they say was history. We ran the prize drawing that spring as a televised game show complete with student hosts and kids running excited from their classrooms every time a name was drawn. It turned a pretty standard reward assembly into something different and all for the cost of a cable.

That next fall, we moved into the completely renovated old middle school (which was an old high school at one time dating back to 1940) creating a new single 5/6 school for the district. It was an exciting time as we teamed together to develop a unique program that met the needs of "tweens" and merged two former schools with 5th and 6th graders into one. I decided that year, after the moving dust settled and we were rolling, to develop a student television production program as a lunchtime activity of which I would serve as the faculty advisor. The program and shows would be completely staffed, directed, and produced by 10, 11 and 12 year-old kids.

We started out with the same equipment -- my old, tired Panasonic camera -- but we added an external microphone to improve sound (another "big" personal expense of about $15) and eventually some cheap floodlamps to improve lighting. The weekly show was completely live at first but eventually we started recording shows on tape for playback on Friday mornings. To move ahead and get back to my point, over the next five years we slowly built the program to a point where as many as 80-100 students a year got to be involved in the production and broadcast of approximately four shows each, adding new technology a little at a time and eventually even setting up our own small production studio. That program continues today under the tutelage of Ms. Susan Boehm, one of the most creative and innovative teachers I know. I had a chance last year to watch her crew produce a show segment during the Michigan MACUL conference in Grand Rapids and couldn't help but be impressed by how far they have come. 

And I also couldn't help but smile a little as I recalled that old Panasonic camera back in 1997.