Turning high schoolers into savvy media producers
Jeromie Whalen, who earned a master’s degree in learning, media, and technology in 2018, didn’t take a conventional route to teaching. The Northampton High School (MA) media production teacher considered a minor in education to pair with his history major as a UMass undergraduate, but opted for a film certificate instead. When he eventually started his career in teaching, he took the MTELs for his initial licensure and began teaching with some experience but without conventional teacher training. It could have been a disaster. But with support from his school community, a UMass Amherst graduate education, and a lot of work, he has quickly become an accomplished and effective teacher.
Planning a career in nonprofit media production after college, Whalen volunteered with Northampton Community Television and took a job with them when he graduated. Located in Northampton High School, NCTV had begun establishing a relationship with the school, providing educational opportunities for students and access to equipment. Thanks to a grant, Whalen and NCTV were able to team with the school’s technology students to create news broadcasts, giving Whalen the opportunity to teach a class.
While Whalen and the class were brainstorming ideas for broadcasts, one student suggested video games, as one would might expect from a teenager. Instead of dismissing the idea, Whalen ran with it. The group came up with the idea for “Iron Gamer,” based on the cooking competition “Iron Chef,” with students playing Nintendo Wii games against teachers and administrators. “We’d have a three camera live shoot going with the director, and a floor manager, and all this stuff, and they totally forgot about playing the video games,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, they’re so enamored by the whole production process.” It was at that moment that Whalen knew he wanted to teach.
After a detour traveling in South American and working at a community television station in Santa Cruz, CA, Whalen decided to return to Massachusetts and apply for teaching positions. He knew he’d have an uphill battle, because he hadn’t gone through a traditional education preparation program and had no practicum experience. As luck would have it, a job opened up at the school that already knew he had great teaching skills—Northampton High School. He interviewed, and before he got out of the building, they offered him the position.
Whalen started teaching media production at NHS in the fall of 2014 without a curriculum, sufficient media equipment, and little experience navigating the bureaucracy of teaching. As he puts it, “There was a lot of trial by fire in that first year.” He learned to be tenacious in obtaining equipment, sharing with NCTV and purchasing items with grants from the Northampton Education Foundation and the school’s PTO. He even sent a tweet to the president of Smith College, which resulted in a donation of 30 computers and an ongoing relationship.
After a year of teaching, Whalen started pursuing a masters in education, to complete the state’s professional licensure requirement and to broaden his knowledge and skills. “You’re surrounded by other educators and very knowledgeable individuals who look at things from a more macroscopic level,” he says of the draw of graduate work. “They are plugged into the newest technologies and how they’re influencing a large scale change in our educational system, both locally, regionally, and nationally.”
Whalen started with Florence Sullivan’s Foundations and Theories of Learning (EDUC 692K) and he was sold. As someone who thrives with an experiential learning approach, he had been apprehensive about what he thought would be a traditional program. This first course allayed any concerns. “When I took Florence’s class, it kind of changed my world,” he explains. “I didn’t feel like I was a student in a seat—I was more like a member of a community.”
Whalen followed this with Torrey Trust’s Designing Digital Media for Teaching & Learning (EDUC 693K). “Torrey’s class was really just the absolute perfect fit for that experiential knowledge and learning and also creating a positive product for a global community.” After that, he took every one of Trust and Sullivan’s courses available.
It really is something that transcends just a traditional education and transcends the idea of just getting a diploma or degree… It feels like a place where you’ve never stopped growing and learning, where the curriculum is just as important as the kind of relationships that are forged.
“What UMass did for me was they showed me the process of including a diverse range of individuals perspectives and opinions,” he recalls of the process. “And so I worked gathering data at first, seeing what features individuals wanted, really canvassing all the stakeholders in our community… In the conversations that I would have, it became apparent that the website is more than a website, it’s a new modern town square and it’s where individuals come for information, they come to discuss things, and they come together as a community.”
Whalen brought his students into the project, giving them extensive professional experience in website design and construction. He also documented the entire process, so in the end, they had a blueprint that other schools and districts can use.
The risk NHS took when they hired Whalen has proved to be smart one. He currently teaches videography, photography, social entrepreneurship (where students recently created a virtual reality video on domestic violence), and communications and media production, in which students produce the school’s yearbook and The Transcript, the school’s weekly news broadcast. In 2017 The Transcript was nominated for three student Emmy awards. In 2018, it was nominated for two and won one. Projects by his students have also earned honorable mentions in the 2017 and 2018 C-SPAN StudentCam competition. Whalen has been named a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator, and he’s a Google, Apple, and National Geographic Certified Educator. In 2016, just two years into his career, the senior class at Northampton High School voted him teacher of the year.