‘Social media is not the enemy:’ District 203 holds tech conference

Capturing students’ attention in the digital age is no easy task for educators.

“Our learners have changed. They’ve grown up in a world that is 1,000 percent more exciting than school,” keynote speaker Eric Sheninger told the more than 200 teachers from throughout Naperville School District 203 who spent Tuesday learning how technology can augment classroom activities.

Organized by John David Son, District 203’s director of instructional technology, the day-long technology conference at Naperville Central High School featured sessions taught by 47 of District 203’s own teaching and administrative staff. The goal was to provide strategies, tools and techniques that can be incorporated into classrooms throughout the district.

“We are excited to provide this opportunity for our teachers to explore, collaborate and innovate with technology as an instructional tool in their classrooms,” Son said.

Sessions included everything from flipped classrooms (kids watch lessons on computer at home and engage in activities related to the lesson at school) to a course titled “Twitter for the Beginner.”

Lincoln Junior High science teacher Matt Langes’ “A New Hope: Star Wars and Teaching” explored the vast galaxy of educational technology tools by comparing them to “Star Wars” mythos.

In addition to a list of free programs teachers can use in their classrooms, Langes suggested all teachers should have a Twitter account, just so they can follow leaders in their profession. He suggests Lodge McCammon, Kevin Honeycutt and Justin Tarte, all master teachers who he likened to master Jedi.

“Right now, I am just a consumer, as you can see how many Twitter posts I’ve made: 0,” said Langes, who despite his lack of posts still has 52 people following him.

Another person Langes follows was the event’s keynote speaker. Sheninger just recently retired as principal of New Milford High School in New Jersey. He put his school on the map for its push to bring technology into the classroom, despite the challenges with money and infrastructure Sheninger faced.

The author of “Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times” told Naperville teachers to embrace technology rather than fear it.

“Social media is not the enemy,” Sheninger said. “I am here to show you what’s possible in education.”

Sheninger said one of the most noticeable changes were in the learning spaces, particularly the school’s media center. He said the school got rid of a third of the library’s books and replaced the bookshelves with leather couches and a “makerspace,” an area where students can tinker with robotics, stop-motion animation, 3-D printing/design, computer programming, molecular gastronomy, wearable tech and more.

Sheninger said the media center once was an underused area of the school and now is an active environment where educators have to kick students out of at the end of the day.

School District 203 is in the process of piloting something similar in the Learning Resource Centers of Beebe Elementary and Jefferson Junior High. Both school libraries are getting a make-over this summer that includes soft seating and a genius bar to encourage more student collaboration.

Educators’ misunderstanding of technology often leads to fears that new technology will be too timely to implement because teachers’ plates already are filled with new state standards. Other fears are that technology costs too much, can be difficult to assess, gives students too much freedom and control, and requires a lot of training.

Sheninger said with technology, learning becomes more relevant, meaningful and engaging for students.

As a principal, Sheninger understands that schools lack funding. He said costs can be kept down through free Web tools, by implementing a Bring Your Own Device program or using lease-purchase programs for computers.

When it comes to assessing projects involving technology, Sheninger urged teachers to collaborate with each other to develop rubrics or use software and web-based programs that provide assessments.

Control can be a difficult challenge to overcome, Sheninger admitted. He said New Milford has not spiraled out of control with students shifting off task or cheating when using their own devices.

Sheninger said teachers are the true catalysts in the equation.

“The world is changing because of technology, and we need to change,” he said.

Suzanne Baker, Naperville Sun, August 11