Jul 03 2013

ISTE's 2013 Teacher of the Year Details His Road to Ed-Tech Glory

Better known as "The Nerdy Teacher," Nicholas Provenzano wields his mastery of social media like a light saber.

Nicholas Provenzano, ISTE's 2013 Outstanding Teacher of the Year, has always been a techie. As a kid, he remembers receiving a special Christmas present that ignited his passion for technology. Provenzano’s father bought an Apple Macintosh computer as a gift for the whole family.

His father understood the impact of this gift on his young son’s life. Provenzano recalls his dad announcing, "This is what's going to be the most important device in your life."

Provenzano quickly became acclimated with the device and played games on it. He even enjoyed printing things with the dot matrix printer. That Christmas, one thing was for sure: Nick was hooked on technology.

Tech Is a Lifelong Journey

While his tech roots took hold on that Christmas long ago, Provenzano is a veritable tall oak in the world of ed-tech now. In 2013 alone, Nick has been named the Michigan Outstanding Technology-Using Teacher of the Year and the 2013 ISTE Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

What, exactly, did Provenzano — an English teacher at Grosse Point South High School — do to win such accolades? He built his influence on social media.

Provenzano has always been that teacher who says, "Why can't I use this?" or "Why can't I have one of these?"

He was the first teacher in his district with a mounted LCD projector in his room, he says. Frustrated that his students couldn't see what he was doing on the tiny TV connected to his computer, he recalls writing a grant in which he proclaimed, "It's terrible! Just get me one of these!" Provenzano paid for the projector himself and waited to get reimbursed by the grant. Two years later, every classroom in Michigan’s Grosse Pointe Public School System has one, he says.

Later, Provenzano participated in a pilot program for interactive whiteboards. His attitude has always been, "Yeah, I'll try it out. We'll see how this goes." The willingness to try new tools and share them with others has become a bit of a habit. And Provenzano has no intentions of breaking it.

It Takes a Village — Or an Online Community

As an English teacher, Provenzano considers himself a writer by trade. He dabbled in writing and often toyed with the idea of writing a blog, but it took him a while to commit to it. On January 2, 2010, he decided it was finally time to create a blog for himself — a destination on the Internet where he could reflect and share his ideas with the world.

"I called it 'The Nerdy Teacher,'" he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, "and I thought that was a pretty accurate description of my self."

Provenzano’s first post was four sentences and said something to the effect of: "I'm starting my master’s in educational technology. Let's see where this will go."

A few blog posts later, he wondered how he could acquire more readers. But Provenzano wasn't merely interested in page views. He was looking for comments that said, "Hey, that lesson is great!" or "This is how I would do it better," or "This is what can improve it."

So Provenzano popped this question into the Google search bar: How can I get my blog out there more?

"Teachers can use Twitter?"

The search results from his query surprised him. One of the first things to pop up was Twitter. "Teachers can use Twitter?" he wondered. "I thought that was just for me to randomly do silly comments to friends and some news updates and things like that."

Provenzano came across several blog posts by educator Shelly Terrell about teachers who were using Twitter effectively. Then he recalls stumbling upon "Ed Chat." This professional development group uses the hashtag #edchat and meets on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. to share best practices and other topics relevant to education.

Kelly Tenkely was the first person to leave a comment on his blog and the first person to retweet his comments.

"I got lucky. Kelly is an amazing person and people follow her and listen to her. Her blog is amazing,” Provenzano admits. “In fact, her blog iLearnTechnology was one I would always go to, so it was weird to be connected to someone who writes all this great stuff that I read. And then for her to retweet my stuff — I was like, 'Oh my goodness! This is amazing!'"

Fun fact: Although Provenzano was named teacher of the year by ISTE this year, prior to joining Twitter, he had no idea what ISTE was. In fact, Provenzano admits he didn't even go to his state's tech conferences until after he went to his first ISTE conference.

Thankfully, Provenzano turned out to be a fast learner when it comes to community building and social media engagement.

"My whole trajectory — from my Twitter account, my blog and all of those things — is solely because of social media and how I interacted with it," he says.

Reflecting back on that Christmas in Detroit when Provenzano’s father said the computer would be a life-changing device, it’s safe to say that dad was right.

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