Thoughts, links & ideas from the 2008 National Teacher of the Year

Each time I've taken off in a plane since May (which is a lot), I've been writing in my journal, then adding these journal entries on this blog.

Check in often, or subscribe to get headlines fed to you! Oh, and the views expressed here are not those of anyone but me.  And anyone who happens to share the same views, I guess.

(Note: the blue posted dates are actually the dates I wrote the journal entries, not when I posted them online.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book 'Em, Dannie

Denver, CO

When I first got selected as National Teacher, my friend and colleague, Dannie, was laughing pretty hard. “They’re going to make a movie out of you!” she chided. She was referring to The Ron Clark Story, which I had never heard of. (Incidentally, I hadn’t heard of Teacher of the Year, either.) Of course, he was the Disney Teacher of the Year, so that’s a little different story.

Not long after this, Jen told me that the previous National Teacher from Oregon (John Ensworth, 1973) now has an elementary school named after him. “There are going to middle school kids running around in ‘Geisen Middle School’ gym shorts!” I really hope not.

Others informed me (with much more seriousness) that I would never go back to teaching. “They never do.” Actually, this isn’t very accurate, and I, too, plan to pick up where I left off in my same classroom. There are too many things I still want to do. Plus, middle school kids are rad.

But there’s one common prediction that I haven’t decided on yet: writing a book.

I go back and forth. There’s a part of me that thinks: “the last thing we need is another book about education.” This is the same part of me that thinks: “why would anyone pay me to speak at an educational conference?”

But a huge number of people have asked me about it, a number of people have nudged me in that direction, and there has been enough interest in what I have to share that now I’m thinking a bit more about it.

It would be tremendously time consuming, but I think I would enjoy the process. I like to create stuff, and this would be a new challenge. I have no idea if I would make money, or if it’s a bit like coaching: thousands of hours for hundreds of dollars. Plus, I've never aspired to become a motivational speaker, especially one who is peddling a book. What have I become?!

On the other hand, I have a lot of good material, both written and visual, that already could form the backbone of the book. Hmmm. Decisions, decisions…

Comments, anyone?

Educated People

Medford, OR

Graduation season is coming to a close, and I just gave my third commencement address. This one was for my alma mater, Southern Oregon University, in Ashland, where I earned my Masters in teaching in 2001. It was a grand day out on the field with about 900 graduates and a few thousand visitors.

By this date, all the graduation rhetoric and clich├ęs have been used, and as the student speaker mentioned that day, our job as speakers is much like the body at an Irish wake: you kind of need them there at the party, but no one expects them to say much.

So I basically told them “congratulations and all that”, but not to get a big head. They weren’t all that special.

There are over 50 million people with bachelor’s degrees in the U.S. alone (over ¼ of the population.) About 18 million have Master’s degrees. A degree isn’t really enough to set you apart.

So what is? It’s the life-long quest to keep learning, and to keep creating. The formal education of most of these students is over, but it’s how they proceed from here that will set them apart.

After commencement, we visited some good friends of ours who live in the Applegate Valley, not too far from SOU. Michael and Janice have a homestead that they have crafted over the years that is one of the most beautiful and inspiring places we’ve been. Michael’s trade is handcrafting high-quality stringed instruments, and Janice is an expert at stringing bows. Their work is beautiful and timeless.

But it is all of the other things they have their hands in that truly make them so unique. They built their home (and several other buildings on their 100 acres) by hand, mostly using traditional timber framing methods. Michael has a whole log cabin shop devoted to powerless hand tools, and not only collects antique tools, but builds them, too. He teaches woodworking and violin-making workshops on the weekends. He harvests most of his own wood for his projects, mills it up himself, and maintains a small fleet of heavy equipment, too.

Last year, he built an enormous water wheel in the forest up the hill from their home. It weighs tons, but “it’d spin if you got up there and peed in it.” He’s hoping to wire it up to produce the little electricity that they need.

His latest project is building a hot rod from scratch (so far he’s used parts from a model-A, a VW bug, a WWII bomber and a Suzuki Samurai.)

And they do all this while raising their beautiful granddaughter.

Michael and Janice are people that just never quit learning and never quit doing. But most enjoyable is to sit with them and tell stories together. They are both wonderful storytellers, and we all get a great ab workout from laughing so much.

I honestly can’t remember if Michael and Janice have college degrees. They might. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s what they’ve done since then that is so remarkable, and what they will do from now on that will keep their lives – and the world – so fascinating.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


St. Cloud, MN

Last night I had dinner with Jerry Wellik, a gem of a fellow who is a professor of education at St. Cloud State University, about 70 miles outside of Minneapolis. He grew up in a little town in Iowa near where the National Hobo Festival has taken place for over a hundred years. (It’s located at a site near the RR tracks, incidentally.)

As you might imagine, the festivities involve a fair bit of storytelling, and of course, now Jerry lives in Minnesota, home of great storytellers like Garrison Keillor and Kevin Kling. Jerry has been using storytelling in his classes for years now, and teaches other educators to do the same.

Storytelling, along with music, rhythm and dance, have been a part of human pedagogy for hundreds of thousands of years. It is how humans have learned since before we were fully upright, and is hard-wired into our DNA. These are the things that make up the backbone of our cultures, and therefore are what make us unique as people, and unique as a species.

The question, of course, is why they are not a larger part of our pedagogy now. The proof of their effectiveness is in our genes, in the research, and in the eyes of our children.

I have never really thought of myself as a “storyteller,” but looking back at my practice, some of the most intent and focused times in my classroom is when I’m telling a story. Or better yet, making up a story.

I use stories to introduce inquiry labs, to create scenarios around a new concept, to narrate theatre productions, and to explain how two unsuspecting volunteers fell in love and got married so we can determine their theoretical offspring’s genetic traits. Sometimes I read children’s books to my middle school students, and sometimes we write and read our own to each other.

If stories can illustrate the concept, there is often no better way to remember it. After all, we’ve been creating, listening to, and living out stories for as long as we’ve been human.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fer Bummer, and Fer Neat!

Redmond, OR

Happy Anniversary! Exactly fourteen years ago, Jen and I said, “we do.” And we did. And we have. And we are! And we will.

In other news, Aspen and Johanna had their last day of school yesterday, so today is their first day of summer break!

Anniversary… First day of summer break… and where am I? Flying to Minnesota, don’tcha know.

But Aspen and I looked over our summer calendar and calculated that between now and the start of school in the fall, we’ll only be apart for 11% of the nights. That’s a good thing for all of us.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Washington, DC

What a grand couple of days in DC… a ride on the secret Senate subway, hanging out with Toshiba executives and old friends from Japan, cocktails with Bill Nye, flirting with exotic women (she was almost 2), and the possibility of laptops and other technology for my classroom next fall. This was the 17th annual Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision Awards!

Oregon was represented among the eight teams that were selected from among over 13,000 applicants. Michael Lampert, the 2009 Oregon Teacher of the Year, happened to be their coach (it was his fourth time with a winning team), so we got to hang out, as well. The 9th graders from West Salem High School envisioned and explored SMARTpaint, a paint that will contain tiny RFID chips that can detect pressure, temperature, and so on, and could be used in a whole range of applications such as warning of black ice on roadways, helping to officiate sporting events, and monitoring conditions in a building.

Other teams from kindergarten through 12th grade had fabulous winning ideas such as generating electricity from the heat absorbed by roadways, a watch that can administer a shot of epinephrine and call paramedics in the event of an allergic reaction, and a interactive music stand with ingenious features to make practicing and performing more fun, productive and convenient.

These kids, and the thousands of others who participated, are the visionaries who will shape our world. They imagine what the world needs, research what we know and still need to know, and find ways to start us down the pathway to new and innovative products that will – in the words of Bill Nye – “change the world!”

It’s the combination of creativity and analysis that I live by and that guides my teaching. It’s what I’ve been talking about all year. It’s what kids do best, if we let them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Solo Mio

Redmond, OR

I hope I don’t pull a muscle. It’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve given a presentation (not counting our high school graduation ceremony… gotta love country music blaring at the football stadium!)

I’m now officially on my own. I no longer have “people” in DC to book all my arrangements, iron out the details, and tie up all the loose ends.

I’m flying solo now. And I’m flying again. Imagine that.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It is Finished! (emphasis on the "ish")

Los Angeles, CA


In the words of Jesus:  “It is finished!”


Of course, after he said that, he died.  And even then, he kept working.  For a couple thousand more years.  I have a feeling my job will continue to linger on like this, too.  But it’s important work, so that’s okay.


It’s just nice to have passed this major milestone.  Actually, we’re still on the runway, so I’m technically not quite there yet.  But pretty darn close!


And… liftoff!  I have risen!


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

24 Little Hours

Redmond, OR


Well, this is it.  My last official trip as National Teacher of the Year / Slave-to-Whoever-Wants-Me.  It seems like just yesterday that I was… ah, hell with it.  It’s been a looong year, and I have made one heck of a journey.


I wish I was feeling more reflective, but I’m not.  At least not yet.  I still have another 8 or 9 events scheduled for June, and a few more peppered throughout the summer, so I’m not really feeling done.  Jen was smiling pretty big, though, when she dropped me off at the airport today.  I think for her this really marks the end of an extremely long year of single-parent motherhood.  It marks the beginning of a more normal life together.  And if not “normal,” then at least together!


Will I miss it?  Probably some of it.  Definitely the unique opportunities it brought, the wonderful friends I’ve made along the way, and the Odwalla juice smoothies that I can expense while traveling.  But it’s not over, and these opportunities will continue to present themselves.  Only this time I’ll be able to choose Yes or No.


Life will never be “normal” for us again, but I think all four of us are looking forward to a time of family, friends, and community.  Just 24 more little hours…


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

De Belt

Reno, NV


I’m either getting rusty or I’m getting weary.  I’ve been through how many TSA checkpoints this year?  And now I have finally set off the beeper.  Culprit: belt.




Must have been the mild seizure I was experiencing from all the flashing slot machines in the airport.  Ah… Nevada.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Winding down

Redmond, OR


Things are finally starting to wind down a bit.  Now that the 2009 National Teacher of the Year has been announced and the school year is starting to wind down, my schedule is finally beginning to ease.  Only a few more engagements in May and my official reign will be over.  (Then my lucrative career as an inspirational speaker, best-selling author and, of course, as the subject of this summer’s next blockbuster will begin.  Just kidding.  We’re going to Wyoming.)


I’ve been home for the past few days doing normal-guy stuff again: chaperoning my daughter’s field trip, doing volunteer work, working in the yard… It’s been good for me.  Of course, now it’s hard to get motivated to hit the road again and live in this other world I’ve inhabited for the past year.  I’m ready to be normal again.


So a few more events in May, then a fairly busy travel schedule in June, and then some normalcy will return for a few weeks in July and August.


After that, back to the classroom, and the real work begins.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Heroes

Hartford, CT


I finally got to see two of my heroes teach!  Yesterday: Mike Flynn, 2008 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.  Today: Joan Hurley, 2008 Connecticut Teacher of the Year.  (The 2009 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, Anthony Mullen, was just announced as the 2009 National Teacher of the Year!  I’m old news now.  Finally.)


Mike is a 2nd grade teacher, but this year is a teacher in residence at Westfield State College in Massachusetts working with pre-service teachers and teaching undergraduate education courses.  He’s phenomenal.  [And he looks pretty suave in a tux, too.]


Yesterday, we explored the “muck around” technique for teaching elementary math.  Instead of teaching just the procedures for how to do a problem and then giving practice problems for students to practice, Mike gave us one story problem and let us “muck around,” develop our own method to solve it, and then facilitated a deeper-level discourse as we attempted to discover the answer together from the 5 different answers that we came up with.  And the correct answer was… not revealed to us that day.  By that afternoon, college students were reporting back that they had discussed it with roommates, family and friends.   A short class period suddenly grows much longer when the curiosity is aroused!  And a teacher’s class quickly grows into the whole community.  Nice.


This morning, I visited Joan’s 3rd grade class at Hartford University Magnet School.  Students come from all over the city to attend this arts-infused multiple-intelligences elementary school.  The students are diverse, needy, and beautiful.  And they are growing by leaps and bounds.


I was especially impressed with the literary discussion we had this morning, and the way that students presented evidence for their views, agreed or disagreed with each other, and discussed symbolism, metaphor, and the deeper themes under the surface.


Joan is a thoughtful and skilled facilitator, helping students to use their heads, hearts, and bodies to understand literature at a deeper level.  There was some squirming, inappropriate behavior, and blurting out, but Joan dealt with it all with kindness, efficiency and a deep respect for the humanity of her students.


What do Joan and Mike have in common?  A great deal.  But most evident is the way they listen to their students, allow them to express their ideas in creative ways, and ask meaningful questions to challenge them to think deeper thoughts.  Mike and Joan are kind, funny, and fully human.  They’re my heroes.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Neck and Neck

Salt Lake City, UT

It’s neck and neck! (Strange expression.)

My numbers of glasses of cranberry juice, bars of soap liberated from hotel rooms, and thank you cards written are all in the high 150’s. If I add up all the presentations, talks, and interviews I’ve done, they’d be in a close fourth place.

All of this record keeping to say that I fly too much, am gone from home too much, and talk too much. But that I am indebted to many wonderful people for how they have taken such good care of me this year.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

An Open Guitar Case

San Diego, CA


I spent the day today with people whose primary function is to give away money.  (No, not the federal government.)  It’s an organization of small, mostly family-based, foundations whose philanthropic interests include education.  I was there to kick off the day with an overview of public education from a teacher’s perspective.  I left my guitar case open, but no big tips.


Grant writing and seeking out private donations has never been a forte of mine, but I wish it were something at which I was better.  Many districts have a full-time person devoted to the task.


Today we visited a charter school in a rough San Diego neighborhood where they had a young woman whose primary job was seeking out funding.  They were able to hire an additional four teachers at their middle school, which has undergone a major transition in the past few years since it went charter.  I had a few mixed feelings about the school, but clearly it has made huge improvements not only in the lives of it’s students, but in the community, as well.


The changes are not directly related to the money they’ve raised, they’re more structural, systematic, and cultural.  But a little extra dough can certainly help.


[On a similar theme, it looks like I’m finally going to get paid for last summer.  I guess the open guitar case finally worked.]


Monday, April 20, 2009

Weather or not

Redmond, OR


Mid-80’s in central Oregon today!  Feels like summer!  (Snow a few day ago, though.  Felt like winter.)


What cracks me up is when people look at their thermostat and say “yep, global warming!”  Or even better, when it snows: “Those liberal scientists don’t know what they’re talking about!  Global warming?!?  It’s snowing in April!”


Of course, both people are wrong.  They are not describing global climate change (which is, by the way, a much more accurate description of the phenomenon than global warming.)  They’re describing local weather change.  Perhaps their current weather is a result of larger-scale and longer-term fluctuations in the climate, but the data set they are dealing with is miniscule compared to the decades worth of data covering nearly the entire earth that climate scientists use in their models.


Anecdotal evidence and personal stories are powerful and can be very persuasive, but must be well balanced with a bigger-picture view.  When we view education through the lens of our individual classroom, school or district, we are only seeing a tiny fraction of the picture.  It’s an important part of the picture for us, but it’s not even close to the whole thing.


This year in my travels, I’ve been able to experience how big and how complicated that big picture is.  And like weather and the climate, the big picture influences what happens at the local level.


We can’t change the weather, and we know that some of the changes we are experiencing are part of natural cycles that we can only respond to.  But our collective actions certainly can change the climate.  It’s a big, complicated system, but we all must do our part.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

San Antonio, TX


Somebody didn’t get enough sleep last night!  And I’m not talking about me (although I didn’t, of course.)  Our flight attendant woke up and put on her grumpy pants this morning.


My first flight was delayed this morning because the crew got in late last night and federal regulations stipulate a certain amount of rest for them.  I suppose that’s a good idea, but unfortunately it means that I’ll get home five hours later tonight.  (It was looking like ten hours later until I pressed the ticket agent and stood waiting for her to figure it out for over 30 minutes.  And then I had to listen to country music blaring throughout the terminal for an hour and a half.  Okay, maybe I’m a little grumpy, too.)


I’ve never had a flight attendant be quite so snippy, though, while asking people to turn off phones and stow carry-ons.  She said to the people in the exit row, “don’t you realize that everyone on this plane is depending on you?  You need to listen to me!  If you want us all to get out of here on time, pay attention!”  (Quick update: we’re not on time.)  She then loudly hushed two girls who were talking quietly during the riveting safety presentation.  Ah, the friendly skies.


Unfortunately, we see some of this same behavior from teachers when kids are running in the hall, forget to turn off a cell phone, or are talking during a riveting lesson.  It happens to me occasionally, but I really work to address children’s behavior in a positive and understanding way.  We don’t have to be snippy about it; we don’t have to be rude.  We’re interacting with human beings here.


I know that being a flight attendant, a ticket agent, or a teacher can be taxing.  But for everyone’s sake, let’s put on a happier face and make the skies a little friendlier.