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Helping Students Unfold the Map of Human Geography Earns Teacher Daniel Willever a $25,000 Milken Educator Award

New Jersey social studies teacher treats students to hands-on social history at Ramsey High School

November 01, 2019

SANTA MONICA, Calif., — Every day is an adventure for students in Daniel Willever's social studies classes at Ramsey High School in Ramsey, NJ. Whether it's a community field trip, a guest speaker with real-life experience relevant to their lessons, or a role-playing session to game out potential Middle East peace scenarios, students must be ready for a challenge—and rise to it. Willever's AP Human Geography class gives students the critical thinking tools to unfold the map of social history as they explore the organizing principles of our society and the larger world. Using blended learning, smart technology and innovative teaching methods, Willever meets students in the world they inhabit now with a view to the one they will someday help create. His multifaceted approach works wonders—producing higher test scores and highly motivated students.

But it was Willever whose prospects were on the rise earlier today. Willever was presented with a Milken Educator Award by Milken Educator Awards Senior Vice President Dr. Jane Foley and New Jersey Commissioner of Education Dr. Lamont Repollet. Willever was named a 2019-20 recipient of the national recognition, which comes with an unrestricted $25,000 cash prize. He is the only Milken Educator Award winner from New Jersey this year, and is among up to 40 honorees for 2019-20.

The Milken Educator Awards, hailed by Teacher magazine as the "Oscars of Teaching" has been opening minds and shaping futures for over 30 years. Research shows teacher quality is the driving in-school factor behind student growth and achievement. The initiative not only aims to reward great teachers, but to celebrate, elevate and activate those innovators in the classroom who are guiding America's next generation of leaders. Milken Educators believe, "The future belongs to the educated."

Willever is helping make that future a reality. Doling out meaty educational morsels from America's multicultural melting pot, Willever's classes touch on a wide range of topics and disciplines including social history, comparative religions, technical innovations in society, the oral history of veterans, refugee studies and the civil rights movement to name just a few. Using project-based learning, capstone projects for seniors, online learning and whatever else works, Willever employs a heady yet pragmatic and hands-on approach.

"A great teacher like Daniel Willever empowers his students with the skills needed to make sense of our complex society through high-technology and, more importantly, critical thinking," said Foley. "His energetic and creative teaching style is the kind of inspirational leadership we seek in our Milken Educators."

"We extend our congratulations to Daniel Willever," said Repollet. "His innovative teaching methods introduce students to diverse opinions and real-world issues. He epitomizes the great teaching that is taking place in classrooms throughout New Jersey."

"An innovative, energetic, action-oriented, and charismatic educator, Mr. Willever, has demonstrated instructional leadership by seeking ways to engage students by creating a student centered approach to instruction," said District Superintendent Dr. Matthew Murphy. "Student engagement comes down to the level of interaction students have with the instructor, the curriculum, and each other. Mr. Willever is a teacher who harnesses student interests, the curriculum, technology, community members, and anything else at his disposal that brings about student engagement."

"Dan Willever's classroom has no walls," said Ramsey High School Principal Dr. Michael Thumm. "He is a Social Studies teacher at Ramsey High School who has distinguished himself as a teacher-leader in our building and across the district with his commitment, innovation, and ability to actively engage students in the learning process. His approach allows students to connect with what they are studying, whether it be History, Law, World and National Affairs, or simply citizenship. He has helped us shape our profile of a Ramsey Graduate initiative, which is centered on reimagining the high school experience for our students, by seeking to shift instructional practices, learning structures, and graduation requirements to help our students meet the demands of the 21st century."  

About Milken Educator Daniel Willever

In Daniel Willever's AP Human Geography class at New Jersey's Ramsey High School, students develop plans to deal with a refugee crisis and reimagine political boundaries in the Middle East to support a peace plan. Every December the class travels to a local synagogue, Hindu temple, Zoroastrian temple and mosque to interact with faith leaders and parishioners as they reflect on their own place in our modern multicultural society. Willever, a proponent of project-based and inquiry-driven learning, brings in guest speakers including lawyers, professors and "living history" representatives like Hiroshima survivor and international peace advocate Koko Kondo. For an oral history project, students interview veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Willever introduced AP Human Geography, which has grown from 25 students in its first year to nearly 60. Students earn an average score of 3.5 on the AP exam, higher than both state and global scores.

Willever embraces innovative teaching methods that create opportunities for Ramsey High School students to grow. He volunteered to pilot blended learning in his classroom, helped the school incorporate capstone projects as a graduation requirement in his role on the steering committee, and serves on the technology integration teacher leadership team. Willever is a Google Level 1 Certified Teacher. In conjunction with the Institute of Play, he ran a half-day professional development on "gamification" learning strategies for computer science teachers in New York City. Willever arranged a partnership with an educational research organization to test virtual reality headsets in social studies classrooms and helped implement both the district's 1:1 iPad initiative and the Schoology learning management system.

As the advisor to the Ramsey High School History Club, Willever takes students to places of historical significance and coaches students in National History Bee and Bowl competitions. Students organize events honoring civil rights heroes and local veterans. Willever has brought new life to the school's mock trial team, which advanced to the county finals for the first time in its 25-year history. Mock trial students practice crafting thoughtful questions, learn to think critically on the fly and hone their presentation skills; several have been inspired to pursue careers in law.

Willever is a lifelong learner. As a Woodrow Wilson Institute Fellow, he studied the pedagogy of play, project-based learning and design thinking in Princeton. He was one of 15 social studies teachers in the country to travel to Japan for cultural and professional experiences as a Keizai Koho Center Fellow. Willever always brings what he learns back to Ramsey High School: He has created units for his classes exploring modern American history through a presidential election role-play and studying public policy around population decline in Japan. Willever wrote the curriculum for World and National Affairs, a new RHS elective that will challenge students to confront narratives in local, global and social media using project-based learning.

Willever earned a bachelor's degree in history from Gettysburg College in 2012. He is working on a master's in history and culture at Drew University and is writing his thesis on civil disobedience to defense preparation during the Cold War.

More information about Willever, plus links to photos and a video from today's assembly, can be found on the Milken Educator Awards website at https://www.milkeneducatorawards.org/educators/view/Daniel-Willever.

Milken Educators are selected in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish. In addition to the $25,000 prize and public recognition, the honor includes membership in the National Milken Educator Network, a group of more than 2,700 top teachers, principals, and specialists dedicated to strengthening education.

In addition to participation in the Milken Educator Network, 2019-20 recipients will attend a Milken Educator Forum in Indianapolis from March 26-28, 2020 where they will network with their new colleagues and exchange ideas with state and federal leaders on the future of education. In addition, the Milken Educator Awards' "Why Not Us" program will pair each 2019-20 recipient with a veteran Milken Educator mentor to explore and prepare for expanded leadership roles that strengthen education practice and policy.

More than $140 million in funding, including $70 million in individual $25,000 awards, has been devoted to the overall Awards initiative, which includes powerful professional development opportunities throughout recipients' careers. Many have gone on to earn advanced degrees and be placed in prominent posts and on state and national education committees.

The Awards alternate yearly between elementary and secondary educators. Unlike most teacher recognition programs, the Milken Educator Award is completely unique: Educators cannot apply for this recognition and do not even know they are under consideration. Candidates are sourced through a confidential selection process and then are reviewed by blue ribbon panels appointed by state departments of education. Those most exceptional are recommended for the Award, with final selection made by the Milken Family Foundation.

The cash award is unrestricted. Recipients have used the money in diverse ways; for instance, on their children's or their own continuing education, financing dream field trips, establishing scholarships, and even on the adoption of children.

To get regular updates on the surprise Milken Educator Award events, follow and use the #MilkenAward hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is encouraged to watch the tour at www.facebook.com/milkeneducatorawards, www.twitter.com/milken, www.youtube.com/milkenaward and www.instagram.com/milkenfamilyfdn.

For more information, visit www.MilkenEducatorAwards.org or call MFF at (310) 570-4772.

About the Milken Educator Awards

The very first Milken Educator Awards were presented by the Milken Family Foundation in 1987. The Awards provide public recognition and individual financial rewards of $25,000 to elementary and secondary school teachers, principals and specialists from around the country who are furthering excellence in education. Recipients are heralded in early to mid-career for what they have achieved and for the promise of what they will accomplish.

Lynne Russo 
(818) 903-6079 cell; 
lynneerusso@gmail.com


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