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I heard Eric Sheninger speak yesterday via a virtual keynote as part of BASTOW Leading Schools in the Digital Age program. 

Eric is the highly regarded principal of New Milford High School in the US. He shared a personal story about reprimanding a child for being in the school hall during classtime and the student responding to this by saying “Thankyou for creating a jail out of what should be a school!” Sheninger then explained how this throwaway student comment shook him to his philosophical foundations and provoked a shift in his leadership style and overall philosophy about learning in schools. It made me reflect back on the significant moments in my practice that led to a change in mindset?

Back in 2001, I attended an Apple conference in Wollongong and got to participate in a 5 day workshop with Marco Torres and Don Henderson on the software Final Cut Pro. I thought I was learning about a software tool but it was much more than that. I learnt about collaborating, editing, storyboarding, the power of visual literacy to convey a message, engagement and risk taking. I had a go at something that I initially thought was too complex for me to learn. At the start I felt rather overwhelmed and out of my depth by these two Americans who were doing amazing things in education. They showed examples that their students had created which were inspirational, moving and powerful. One high school student had made a heartbreaking movie about sweatshops as his mother and relatives spent many hours working in them. It made me cry. Several students from Marco Torres’ San Fernando High School left high school and went to work directly for Dreamworks because their skills and creativity was so impressive! WOW! Talk about making a difference in kids lives!

For the duration of the workshop I was fully immersed in learning. I experimented, took risks, had fun, sought feedback from peers and got completely hooked on the power of multimedia collaborative projects to bring about powerful learning. I worked through breaks, stayed late and arrived early to sessions. I didn’t wait for the “workshop” to start each day – I just got in there and picked up where I left off. I learnt skills far beyond what I thought I was capable of. I was unbelivably proud of what I accomplished as it was hard work. I had many frustrations but I persevered and problem solved through them.

When I returned to my school, I immediately fed my experience into my planning for my upcoming unit with my 3/4 class. We were learning about the water and the drought and I had kids design 30 sec advertisements to save water. The kids collaborated in groups, “had a go” at film-making, took risks, problem solved, used sound and vision to send a powerful message. They were completely engaged. They didn’t want to go home or stop for recess or lunch. What they came up with BLEW ME AWAY! We invited parents and other classes in to see what they had created and they proudly shared their work. The kids and I invited our audience to take a pledge to turn the water off when they brushed their teeth. All kids promised, hand over heart. I had parents telling me two years later that their kids told them off if they wasted water at home. For me that was it!

What did I learn? The power of risk taking. Experimenting. Working with others. The importance of relevance and personal resonance. The feeling of empowerment. That strong pedagogy is the foundation of good teaching and learning – the technology is just the tool. Have I grown and evolved since then? Of course but I think that week in November 2001 has shaped me enormously as an educator. I experienced real learning and had a powerful “aha” moment about teaching and learning. The challenge is trying to create opportunities for all teachers to have an “aha” moment. One that inspires a transformative change and elicits a commitment to a newfound moral purpose.

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