Recently I had the privilege to visit Northfield Community Middle School (Grades 5-8) with a team of nine others from our district. It has been a long time since I have experienced something in the professional realm that left me “wowed”. Not only was I inspired by our visit, but I also feel that I walked away from the visit changed.
I am sure that most of us realize that we teach a generation of students that live in a vastly different world than the one in which we grew up. Technological advances have resulted in a changed world, and the advances in technology are continuing to evolve at a rapid pace. Technology is shaping the world in ways that we could never have imagined. It’s competitive in the digital age, and I am left to think that schools need to consider ways to continue to strive to keep the pace in order to better prepare our students for the age in which they live. But, how?
Northfield Community Middle School is successfully tackling the challenge. One of the ways they are doing this is by having their students engage with learning that asks them to solve real world problems for real people. Kevin Jarrett, the digital shop teacher, told us that he took his inspiration from a documentary, If You Build It, where students from a low performing school district transformed their educational experience by designing something needed by their community. The students at NCMS have incorporated this idea. Now, each grade level has capstone projects where the students design for a real life problem and real life people. One grade level is designing an athletic helmet with a hearing aide to be used during sporting events for a student’s hearing-impaired sibling. Another grade level is working with medical students at Thomas Jefferson University to design ways to make hospitals less scary for young children. Each student spoke about their project with thoughtfulness, enthusiasm, and pride. It was fascinating to witness the energy from the staff and students.
Another inspiration I took away from our visit was their use of student voice in the learning process. Our teachers understand the importance of student voice in the classroom and it is evident when it is often mentioned in lesson plans and played out in the classroom. We have experienced how our expert packets have allowed students to delve deeper into content and choose related activities based on student choice. The results have been wonderful and we continue to grow and strive for excellence. NCMS took this concept much further than I have seen and it was incredible. They implemented what they call a “Student Edcamp” period. For educational professionals, Edcamp is a refreshing and unconventional type of professional development. There is no set agenda, rather the participants decide on the topics that they wish to investigate and learn more about at the start of the day. Imagine a professional development day where you only learn about professional topics in which you are interested! This movement has certainly taken our professional community by storm, and Northfield Community Middle School adapted this philosophy for the students. Genius.
On Fridays, students take to the white boards that are located in the hallways (or “Idea Street”) and write down what they want to learn the following week. Each class then votes on a topic and posts it in the hallway.
The students do not know what teacher will facilitate their learning or what peers signed up for the same topic. They pick their Edcamp experience based on their interest alone with no outside influence but the pure joy of learning. During our visit we encountered an Edcamp session where eighth graders were developing digital comic strips on their Chromebooks. This session happened to be facilitated by a math teacher who knew nothing about how to create digital comic strips. The teacher told us that he advised the students to “figure it out” and they did!
Sure, it seems scary, but the staff recognized the importance of trusting in the students and making their learning meaningful. The staff and students reported that the students work harder in Edcamp then they ever have before!
Some of the other student driven learning this year included: shark tank inventions, stop action video, virtual reality field trips with Google Cardboard, app designing, and mock trials. The energy that filled both the teachers and students was evident and contagious, and I walked away from the experience knowing that this is what student voice means and this is what we need to do!
The above are just two of the ways the school has innovatively disrupted the traditional educational environment. Every corner of the building was innovative, thoughtful, and gauged toward the learners in which they educate. They prepped the walls and desks to become “writable” surfaces so that students can problem solve almost anywhere.
If students needed a brain break, they can take to the stationary bikes or Lego board in the hallway. When furniture is replaced in classrooms, the principal, Mr. Glenn Robbins, asked the students what they wanted and took their suggestions. If students needed to access the Internet, they could use their device. Heck, if their device needed a charge, they could charge it at the charging station in the hallway. The amount of relevance I saw in the things happening in this school has impacted me profoundly.
In a world where technology is becoming more and more embedded in every aspect of our daily lives, I now realize that it is incumbent to replace our conceptual view of school with a more meaningful one. We have amazing and talented educators in Harrison Township School District that want to do the best for the students they serve. I believe our next step is to begin to make the necessary paradigm shifts to replace outdated practices with more effective and relevant ones. This change used to be an overwhelming thought for me, but after my visit, I realize it is an exciting and necessary one. We will need to take risks, have failures, and continue to refine and improve. I promise that I too will take risks, fail, and try again to refine and improve. I am honored to continue to learn and lead alongside with great educators to help prepare our students for the world in which they live!