Walk through the double-door entrance at Northfield Community Middle School, feel the openness of its illuminated atrium and experience the positive energy flowing from its faculty, staff, and, in particular, the students, and you instantly know that there is something special going on in this Atlantic County school for 5-8 graders. “We have come a long way since my first day on the job four years ago when I was greeted with two faculty grievances,” reflected Principal Glenn Robbins as he toured his building with NJPSA Executive Director Pat Wright and FEA CEO Jay Doolan. “I knew we were to going to make a lot of changes.”
The 2016 recipient of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Digital Principal of the Year, Robbins has indeed made big changes to this middle school, which shares its building with Northfield Community Elementary School (PreK – 4). The school’s recharged teachers, one of whom said she has learned more this year than in her 33 previous years of teaching about what kids are capable of, are now all on board.
“It’s all about leadership and the trust that Mr. Robbins has shown us,” said Computer Education teacher Kevin Jarrett. “You don’t always know if a new idea is going to work, but he says, ‘let’s give it a try.’”
One initiative that Robbins brought to the school was an effort to ensure that all teachers knew as much about each student as possible. He passed around a picture of each student to his/her teachers, who would then write everything he/she knew about the student, including how they learn, what they like, where they tend to struggle, hobbies they may have, family information, etc. Then, the teachers would get together to collaborate and share all of this information. Through this process, each teacher learned something new about each student.
Changing an established culture is not an easy task, but Robbins showed that making a few simple additions around the school could make a big difference. One change was mounting white boards, not in the classrooms, but in the hallways, and encouraging students to write whatever they want on them. “Since putting up the boards, we have never had an inappropriate post because the students like it and know that if they misused the privilege, it would have to be taken away,” said Robbins. “We show them we trust them, and they like it, so they do not abuse it.” Students often pose a question for others to answer, such as, “What is your favorite book?” or “What makes you smile?” One day, students were greeted with “If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?” Among the most interesting responses was “Cure ALS.”
The whiteboards were not the only change to be found in the hallways. If you need to burn off some energy, you will find stationary bikes available. You can also let your creative side out at the giant LEGO board affixed to one wall.
While many schools are adopting the “Bring Your Own Device” philosophy, Northfield takes it one step further by adding Charging Stations throughout the hallways, so students can ensure they have enough power in their devices. This is another example of showing trust in the students, who are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn using the technology with which they are most familiar. And, of course, they can keep their device charged.
Moreover, what really gets the students and teachers charged is the newest class that was added this year, EdCamp. “We do so much school reform, but we never ask the kids what they want out of school,” said Robbins. In the Ed Camp class, the students choose what they are going to learn. Each Friday, the 7th and 8th graders suggest the topic that they want to learn about during the daily 40-minute Ed Camp period the following week. Each class then votes on a topic and posts it in the hallway. All of the students are then free to sign up for any of the available projects. Often, the students will know more about the topic than the teacher will, so they have an opportunity to teach others. One of the side benefits of this approach is that students get to interact with other students in the school and with teachers that they don’t normally have for their other subjects.
The topics are varied, and the students can learn important skills while they are having fun, including writing, public speaking, critical thinking, and graphic design. Some of the more interesting recent topics have included the following:
Fractured Fairy Tales (from the villain’s point of view)
In addition to learning new skills and ideas, the students also further develop their writing skills, teamwork, creativity, and project management — all critical skills for college and careers.
The reactions from the students has been overwhelmingly positive, and many of them work on their projects well beyond the 40-minute class. Here are a few quotes from the enthusiastic students who couldn’t wait to share their thoughts on Edcamp:
“Edcamp is a breather. There are no grades, so we can test our limits. It tests what we may want to do one day in our careers.”
“I can let my mind go and be creative.”
“I like all of the topics because it shows how diverse all the kids in our class are.”
“You think that the teacher knows everything, but in ed camp, we can teach them.”
“It’s great when we get to help other students who don’t understand.”
“Edcamp is a great time to connect with teachers, even those who are not our teachers this year. You really get to know them.”
The class is so popular, 6th grade will begin its Ed Camp class in the fourth marking period, and Robbins cannot wait for them to join in. “There are so many great ways to reach kids who want to be creative and want to learn new things, but typically people say ‘let’s wait until they are in high school for that,’” Robbins said. “I don’t understand that thinking. I say let’s do it in middle school.”
Robbins has already prepared his staff for more innovation and changes coming soon. “I’m going to Silicon Valley soon to visit Google and Apple,” he warned. “When I come back, look out!”