Eric Sheninger

Eric Sheninger, senior fellow and thought leader on digital leadership for the International Center for Leadership in Education, speaks at Richland School District’s fourth National Speaker Series on Professional Development on Monday, Feb. 17, 2020.

As keynote speaker Eric Sheninger gave his presentation to an auditorium full of educators one thing became clear, education methods must evolve as students evolve.

Sheninger, a senior fellow and thought leader with the International Center for Leadership in Education, was at Richland High School for the “Creating Schools That Work for Kids” event Monday.

“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” Sheninger said. “I’m here to get you to think about what you’re doing.”

In its fourth year, the Richland National Speaker Series on Professional Development has featured several nationally renowned speakers, according to Richland Director of Educational Services Brandon Bailey.

What led to Sheninger coming to the school was Bailey hearing his presentation before at another conference, and recognizing him as a “dynamic” speaker.

Before becoming a speaker, Sheninger was a teacher and a principal in New Jersey.

He explained that he used to be an administrator who was tough on students who used technology, such as a cellphone, in school.

But on one fateful day, when a student he was reprimanding compared school to jail, Sheninger said he knew he needed to make a change.

In an unorthodox way, he took to the popular social media platform Twitter to learn more. 

“Twitter opened my eyes to what’s possible,” Sheninger said.

That was in 2009. Over the next five years, as he learned and implemented more, his school, New Milford High School, became a top performing institution in the state and eventually in the country.

Sheninger showed a series of slides and videos as he discussed how he, with the help of the teachers, implemented new learning methods and technology into the curriculum of New Milford.

He had the audience, made up of educators from 14 local school districts, participate in two-minute drills to discuss topics such as what innovation means to them, how to make it work in a classroom and what learning spaces in school should include.

Afterward, Sheninger had school representatives go to, punch in a code and share their ideas in real time.

He also touched on personalized learning, challenging conventional learning methods and getting students to think about what they’re learning, why they’re learning it and how to use it.

“The most dangerous phrase in education is, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it,’ ” Sheninger said.

Throughout his entire presentation though, he stressed the fact that he wasn’t there to tell anyone how to do their job. Instead, he wanted to share how he succeeded and get the educators to think about how they teach currently.

By letting students use cellphones and computers in the classroom, coupled with the flexibility to get up and move and creating a thought-conducive space, students are apt to learn more efficiently, according to Sheninger.

Sheninger added that technology integrated for the sake of having it isn’t good, either.

A device must support learning, not drive instruction. Teachers have to think about how a computer, phone or tablet can be used to further the pedagogy, according to him.

Portage high school business and education teacher Kristen Gribbin said she already uses an alternative teaching method: allowing her students to sit on the floor during class.

But she saw a lot in Sheninger’s presentation she liked, such as “switching things up and changing the teaching environment.”

“The kids should be working harder than you in the classroom,” Gribbin said.

Hollidaysburg School District Superintendent Bob Gildea said a lot of what Sheninger presented aligns “with where we want to move the district to better meet the needs of the students.”

Gildea said he also appreciated the emphasis on building relationships with students and preparing them for the world as it is now, not as it used to be.

“For every ‘Yeah, but,’ I can show you how a ‘What if’ led to change,” Sheninger said.

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