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Innovation and Imagination Convene at St. John's Prep
Posted 07/31/2019 04:05PM

In a first-of-its-kind campus event, St. John’s Prep hosted innovativeED 2019 this past week, a conference that brought together elementary and secondary school educators to explore innovative teaching strategies and accompanying tech tools that elicit high levels of student engagement, creativity, and choice. Attended by 50 teachers from around the state, the two-day event featured 14 professional presenters and two keynote addresses, providing fertile ground for the intake and exchange of ideas around the theme "content+creativity."

“If you can pique a little curiosity, students will go that step further on their own,” said Kay O’Dwyer, a teacher at Shore Country Day, who attended the conference. “It’s not about providing them every sliver of content, it’s about getting them enthused and sparking something that gets them going. Coming to a professional development conference like this is affirming, and I wanted to find out more about the technology that can help me deliver that learning experience to my students.”

Conceived in St. John’s Center for Teaching and Learning and included in the Prep's summer professional learning offerings overseen by Dr. Michael Orlando, assistant principal for Mission and Identity, the conference was eight months in the making and drew attendees from the public school districts of Andover, Danvers, Boston, Millis, Natick, Norton, Rockport, Weymouth, and Worcester along with individual institutions like Pingree, Marblehead Charter School, Shore Country Day, the Lawrence Family Development Charter School, and Londonderry High (NH). Also in attendance was a member of the state’s 10-district SEEM Collaborative educational services agency, and teachers from Essex North Shore Agricultural & Technical high school, which admits students from across the state, including 17 member communities along the North Shore.

“If you’ve chosen to be in education, you know that it’s a creative profession at its foundation,” says Kerry Gallagher, St. John’s assistant principal for teaching and learning. “Of course, you’re expert in your content area, but the actual teaching expertise is about designing the student experience around your content. Our digital learning specialists here at the Prep built this conference around the teaching piece.” 

“There’s never been a better time for teachers to take charge of their professional growth,” adds Jed Stefanowicz, the Natick Public Schools’ system-wide Innovation Fellow, who presided over two of the conference’s breakout sessions. “It’s also an intimidating time. Never before have teachers faced a student population that may have a higher skill set than they do in a medium (digital technology) whereby 10 minutes in, their students might surpass the teacher’s ability to help them. We’ve seen the rise of teachers sharing out great professional practices in this realm, and a conference like this is where it happens.”

Stefanowicz provides job-embedded professional development and instructional coaching aimed at building staff and student capacity with digital tools while keeping the focus on practice over product. As an educator, speaker, and blogger, he shares his passion for building classroom experiences that are meaningful, memorable, and measurable. For Joyce Kimani, a teacher at Essex Tech, the innovativeED conference amounted to just that.

“What I love about conferences like this is that the material is presented and taught by teachers, so they get it,” says Kimani. “Teachers know the audience, they understand what we, their colleagues, need and want, and they know that our ultimate goal is to continually improve the ways we teach our students.”

Mary Lou Buell, a tech integration specialist serving all 12 schools in the Weymouth Public Schools district, also made note of the synergy that permeated the attendees’ two days inside the Brother Keefe, C.F.X. Academic Center.

“To come to a conference like this where there are so many different sessions, it’s such a great opportunity to meet with teachers from outside of my district and get fresh perspectives, even on topics and with some tools I already felt familiar with,” said Buell, who also moderated a breakout session. “I’m really excited to go back to my school and put those concepts into practice.”

THE TAIL CAN’T WAG THE DOG

“A theme we focus on here at the Prep is that adding digital tools to the classroom for the sake of adding digital tools isn’t going to magically revolutionize your students’ experience,” says Elizabeth Solomon, a digital learning specialist and Latin teacher at St. John’s. “You have to determine the desired learning outcome and then choose and customize available digital tools that support the learning goal, not the other way around. It’s a toolbox. People don’t say, ‘I want to learn how to use a hammer.’ They say, ‘I want to learn how to build a cabinet.’”

Solomon’s colleague, Julie Cremin, notes that it’s critical to remain intentional and see the forest for the trees when integrating tech tools into the classroom.

“The digital learning team here at St. John’s wants teachers to do what’s best for their students and whatever best advances the learning goals,” says Cremin, a digital learning specialist at the Prep. “Of course, there are times when those things don’t involve digital tools, but the students coming to us now are very different than those from 10 years ago. What was exciting about this conference is that our attendees represented the full spectrum of teachers relative to technology in the classroom, creative design, and innovation. But they all want to do the best work they can to optimize student engagement because they recognize that’s the ultimate benefit for everyone involved.”

Dan Ryder, Success and Innovation Center Director at Mt. Blue High (Maine) delivered the opening keynote address. Co-author of “Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom,” Ryder is an Apple Distinguished Educator and a recipient of an NEA Foundation’s Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. He presents his work on critical creativity and empathy-fueled problem solving all over the United States. Gallagher, who also serves as director of K-12 education for ConnectSafely.org, an internet safety non-profit, delivered a lunchtime keynote addressing the nuances of copyright licensing in the creative classroom and modeling good digital citizenship for students.

“We say it all the time: The jobs our students will have haven’t been invented yet,” says Anne Valluzzi, a conference attendee and teacher in the Millis Public Schools district. “I teach middle school, so my kids are far away from a professional career, which means I have to do as much as I can to help them be prepared for later in life. To do that, I have to know what’s available to enhance their learning experience. If we’re paying attention to students as individuals as opposed to seeing them as a whole class, you have to adapt the way you present the content even if the content is largely unchanged year over year.”

Eight members of the St. John’s faculty and staff presented on innovative teaching strategies and accompanying tech tools during individual breakout sessions. Topics ranged from maximizing class time to boost student curiosity and creativity, to students teaching students with tech, empowering students with design thinking, and creative alternatives to the research paper. 

“We teach certain content, but the way we can deliver that content, what we ask the students to do with that content, and those real-world applications continue to evolve,” says Michael Orlando, St. John’s assistant principal for Mission and Identity. “We need to be on the cutting edge with our own methodologies and strategies. I see hosting a conference like this as a real  opportunity. It keeps us on our toes and aware of the latest and best practices, which helps us cultivate a learning environment that aligns with our mission. That's what we're trying to do here at St. John’s: get these boys ready for life beyond the Prep.”

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