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 29, 2008

Unfortunate Appellation

Denver, CO


I’m in Denver, and my only memory of the Denver airport is from when I was a young lad.  My brother and I were making a layover on our way to somewhere (North Dakota, likely) and we heard the following on the intercom:  “Mr. Greasy… Junior Greasy, please report to a white courtesy telephone.”


Dang, that’s rough.



Monday, June 23, 2008

The Charms are Wearing Off


Seattle, WA


I’m already traveling too much.  How can I tell?  I’ve actually started to turn down complimentary cranberry juice on the plane!  I never understood how people could do that.  Now I do.


Don’t worry, though, I’ll still get enough to be billed as “the healthiest urinary tract in education… Michael Geisen!”


I just fear that it will be like my freshman year at college when I vowed to eat Lucky Charms every morning for breakfast due to my impoverished upbringing on non-sugar cereals.  I only lasted a week and a half.  Hardly touched ‘em since.

(In case you're unfamiliar with what the heck I'm even talking about, here's 35 seconds of science animation to explain.)

Missed connection

San Diego, CA


I’m not sure I like big crowds.  Spoke to a crowd of about a thousand this morning at the National PTA conference, and although the sheer numbers don’t make me nervous at all (I teach middle schoolers, nothing makes me nervous anymore,) the lack of personal connection is hard for me to deal with.  (Although the Oregon delegation did hold up huge letters spelling O-R-E-G-O-N when I came on stage, which was nice.)


But I need some interaction with my students when I’m teaching, and not all of these venues are very conducive to that.  I’m basically speaking about the importance of a 21st century classroom, collaboration, creativity, and the decentralization of knowledge, and what am I doing?  Standing up in front, lecturing, and showing PowerPoint slides.  Granted, they’re dang good slides (average # of words per slide is well under 10, by the way) and my talks are peppered with humor, but it’s still a very traditional way of presenting information.  I think I need to spice it up and do something a bit different.  I mean, that’s what I’m known for, right?  But people aren’t usually comfortable with anything too different, and that plays into it.  We’ll see what I come up with…


Meanwhile, for your viewing enjoyment: 

Not as tight on the editing as my NYC video (see below), but a taste of my new life.  As you can tell, I'm easily entertained.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Atlanta, GA




I feel like a cow.  I’ve been herded through the cattle chute (shoot?) and loaded for transport (and eventual slaughter?)  The Atlanta airport is huuuuuge!  Apparently the busiest in the world, according to locals.  I believe it.  But the airport is pretty darn efficient.


Our little Redmond airport is efficient, too, but I feel a bit more like a human there.  Small scale is kind of nice.  Just a couple weeks ago an older fellow didn’t quite make it through security with his large pocketknife.  I’m guessing he hadn’t traveled since the 70’s, was a bit confused, and was flustered when they said he couldn’t keep his knife (which was obviously special to him.)


One of the TSA agents said “listen, sir, you just can’t bring a pocket knife on a plane anymore, but tell you what…” and then proceeded to take the knife over to the baggage area, found the gentleman’s suitcase, and tucked it into a pocket so it would be at his destination when he got there (I think he had been helping the gentleman earlier, too.)  I have a feeling that in Atlanta the agent would have had to just say “mooooove it, sir.”  Or called in the reinforcements.


Last night, after my presentation at the PAGE conference, a young teacher came up and asked, “I loved your message about the humanity of children and the need for creativity in education, but how do we make that happen on a national level?”  My wise and profound answer as the national spokesperson for educators:  “I don’t know.”


Essentially, she was asking how to make the Atlanta airport feel like the Redmond airport.  To be honest, I’m not sure that’s systematically possible.  But standing in line today, there were many instances of humanity.  A woman who offered me her spot in line because she knew my flight was before hers.  A ticket agent who went the extra mile (or three) for a family who didn’t understand the self-service kiosk.  The smiles exchanged between strangers.  Few and far between, to be sure, but humanity.


How do we make it happen consistently on a large scale?  Well, you just can’t mandate such things.  It really has to be a grass roots effort from the people on the ground: teachers, students, support staff, parents…  It really can’t be legislated any more that you can require a plant to grow.  The only way to make it happen is to provide the ideal conditions for growth and allow the plant to grow itself.  Only then will we see meaningful and effective change in education.


I think this may be my greatest professional challenge this year.  But I’m actually in a unique position to help do something about it.  I better get mooooving on it.



Thursday, June 19, 2008

In the event of a water landing...

San Francisco, CA


Okay, it’s time to rant about airline safety presentations.  They’re pretty lame.  Perhaps as a teacher I’m a little sensitive about how information is presented, but judging by faces of the passengers around me, I’m not the only one.


There are federal guidelines (standards) that specify what must be presented, but airlines all do it a little bit differently.  A little.  Most big planes are now graced with video screens where a nicely produced feature pleasantly welcomes us and smiley, attractive people instruct us what to do if we land in water, don’t understand modern seat belt technology, or gasp for breath due to the loss of cabin pressure.  (The little girl today looked strangely calm while she waited for her mom to affix her own mask before helping her daughter.  Perhaps oxygen wasn’t reaching her brain.)  Attractive attendants, Gershwin in the background… they’re pretty slick productions.  They must take some of the monotony out of the job for the actual flight attendants.


But the question should probably be asked: Do they work?  Does the cinema version work better than the live theater version?  Are we really prepared?  My guess is that we’re probably not, and any of us that are prepared for disaster are only prepared because it’s been drilled into us over dozens of flights.  This is just my guess, which is probably about as good as anyone’s.  No one assesses what we need to know (except for the brief walk-by check of our seat belts.  How can they see those so quickly?  They’re like my mom!  Superhuman sensory perception!)  Have you ever been tested to see if you knew how to use the floating seat cushions or the inflatable life vests?  (I was on a flight recently where they said "most seat cushions can be used as a floatation device."  Most?!?  I hope I paid for one of those seats!)


And perhaps just as important for the average, non-disaster flight: do we feel welcome and valued?  Not yet.  At least not until I’ve got an ice-cold cranberry juice sitting on my tray table (which is currently in the “upright and locked position,” a phrase that flows from the mouth of a traveler like the word “elemenopee” flows from a young child.)


So where is the performance assessment?  Where is the support for the Japanese-speaking family sitting a few rows in front of me?  Where is the relevance?  Where is the community?  Where is the love?


(Gee, I wonder where I’m going with this.)


Do our students board a 10-month long flight each fall, ready to be bored and isolated?  Do we present a sterile smattering of facts and skills that “you might use someday” to the masses, unsure if they are listening or learning?  Will teachers someday be replaced by video presentations?


I flew Southwest airlines about a decade ago to a friend’s wedding and still remember the flight.  Why?  Here’s a sample: “There are two designated smoking areas on the airplane tonight, one located on each wing…” or “In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, affix your own oxygen mask, then assist your children, starting with the one you like the most…”  Classic!  By the end of the flight, my friends and I were assisting with the snacks, collecting garbage, and even got to make the arrival announcement on the PA.  Where’s the love?  Right there.


So why was it so good?  Why do I remember?  Because it was a perfect balance.  A stand-up comedy routine might be funny, but generally contains little useful information.  A safety presentation contains plenty of information, but very little of it will be remembered.  The balance is the key, and I think we’re out of balance.  We are so focused on getting information into kids’ heads that we forget that the same heads need to smile!  Learning is fun, and schools ought to be demonstrating that to kids, not turning them off to it.


So we laugh often in our science classroom, and don’t take ourselves too seriously.  It helps kids learn, but more importantly it reminds me that we are all human, and that we are all equal.



Redmond, OR

Saw three of my former students and selected family this morning as I approached the security checkpoint.  They were streaked with tears.  Sobbing, eyes red.  They had just said goodbye to Maggie, their exchange student friend from Italy.  That’s hard stuff.  I was running a bit late, so we talked for a couple of minutes, gave hugs, exchanged knowing looks, and I headed through the TSA gauntlet.  I wish I knew what to say, but perhaps words were not really worth much this morning anyway.

I had a layover yesterday.  At home.  It was a 24-hour layover, but the connection was tight; I almost missed my plane this morning.  I have a feeling that this year is going to be tough on me, but much tougher on Jen and the kids.  Aspen and I had a good day together yesterday: hugs, laughs, projects, books, snuggles.  When I tucked him in last night, he told me to come into their room in the morning and give him a kiss goodbye.  “If I don’t wake up, give me a little shake on the shoulders,” he requested.  “If I still don’t wake up, just give me another kiss.”  I love that little guy.

Tawnya Layne, the better of the two 7th grade science teachers at my school, remarked once that the hardest part about raising teenagers is that you just don’t get the same daily physical contact; the hugs, kisses and snuggles, that you do when they’re little.  I will never forget that.  (She and her husband, about to become empty nesters, have decided to adopt a couple of youngsters.  Bold move!  She’s amazing.)  So I’m milkin’ it for all it’s worth with Aspen and Johanna, for it might not always be this good.  For any of us.

Perhaps that’s why we marry, or seek intimate companionship.  I know I miss the snuggles already, and I only left home an hour ago.  This is going to be a hard year for all of us.  My eyes are already beginning to feel red, and it’s not from dry airplane air or from wearing my contacts too long.  Haley, Corey, Krissy, Kelsi, I feel your pain this morning.  Probably not as intensely as you, but I’ll be spreading mine over the whole year in little doses.  Thanks for the hugs, I’ll be needing those, too.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Down Brother's advice

Washington, DC

"This dude's a down brother," Reg said.  "This cat is the hero of educators all over the U.S.!"

I had lunch in my honor at the NEA headquarters today, and the president, Reg Weaver, is quite a guy.  I sat next to him and watched him open approximately a dozen packets of sugar and pour them on his plate of rice.  Only rice.  He then hopped up to introduce me, referred to me as a "cat" more times than I have ever previously been compared to a feline, and then gave me a great big bear hug while infecting everyone in the room with his cackling belly laugh.  Wow!  It didn't surprise me when he told me he is a former middle school teacher.  Although all the pictures of him I've seen are pretty serious looking, he's a kick in the pants!

After the lunch, and after my remarks, we had an informal session of Q&A around a table.  A woman asked an interesting question about her own daughter.  The young girl, an 8th grader, has done very well in math and science, but her mom was considering a tutor for this summer.  "Why?" I asked.  "Just to get her more prepared for her future, so she can get a good job," she replied.

I then felt compelled to ask the most important questions we should be asking all of our students:  What is she good at?  What does she want to do?  "She's a talented artist.  She really enjoys graphic design."

Why do we hang onto the idea that math and science will continue to provide the best jobs of the 21st century?  If she's doing well in those subjects already, why not encourage her to follow and value her own passions and talents?  Truly creative people will be worth a great deal in the financial and cultural economy of the 21st century.  Sure, we need mathematicians and scientists, but they better be able to think creatively and globally!  Not to mention the fact that if you're not passionate about what you do, you'll burn out quickly.  My career path to becoming a teacher is a testament to that fact.

So I gave her the best advice I could think of to give to her daughter (inspired, of course, by Napoleon Dynamite's words to his friend, Pedro).  "Just do what I do... follow your heart."

Monday, June 16, 2008

It's summer. Yay.

Redmond, OR

Oops.  I accidentally declared that I had dangerous weapons in my carry-on while checking in this morning at the self-service kiosk.  Luckily, the agent caught it (with a smile) and didn't report me for joking about my hands being deadly weapons.  (Plus, my hands weren't technically in my carry-on.)

So today I'm down to only one job!  Finally.  The school year wrapped up on Thursday, which was a good day.  It's great how kids and teachers all realize how much we care about each other.  Lots of smiles, hugs, tears, laughs, anxiety.  Many of my kids aren't really looking forward to summer.  It often means less friends, more boredom, no experiential input other than tv and video games.  Setbacks to social, emotional and academic life for most kids.  It's tough.

The Oregon Teacher of the Year from a couple of years ago, Steve Wyborney, has seen the reversion that his students go through each summer, and it doing something about it.  He's starting a summer program for students in his small town.  It's more than just babysitting, it's social, emotional and academic.  Kids will appreciate that.

Danielle Ramos, who used to teach next door to me, ran into one of my students on Friday.  She asked if he was excited about summer.  "Kinda, I guess," Dakota replied.  This is a little dude that can't sit still at school, is brimming with ideas, and is basically like a living cartoon character.  I remember that Dakota was the last student to leave the classroom on Thursday.  He lingered, strangely morose.  He shook my hand, then gave me a big hug, then slowly walked out into summer.

I guess these hands really are deadly weapons.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Just west of Salt Lake City, UT

There's a little boy sitting behind us on the plane who must be about three.  Which kind of rhymes with curiosity.  Before we lifted off, he must have asked his mom about 80 questions.

It was awesome.  His mom did a pretty good job of answering some of them (as she was trying to read), but I remember how tiring that can be as a parent.  I hope this little guy just keeps asking and asking, and doesn't lose hope.

Thirty seconds after lift-off: "Are we landing now?"

He's asleep already.  Happened practically mid-question.  I'm guessing he's dreaming of lights and airplanes and being above the clouds.  Which is where a three-year-old should be.  So much to learn from the children...

Clifford's house

Salt Lake City, UT

Yesterday was my first time on a "National Advisory Council".  It was at Clifford the Big Red Dog's house.  (Scholastic headquarters in NYC.)  It went well, and people were pretty darn enthusiastic and grateful for my presentation.  They said that oftentimes Teachers-of-the-Year talk about the importance of teachers and tell some cute stories about kids.

But my presentation was a bit different, they said, and they were pretty stoked about it.  Francoise even told me that it gave her a stomach ache from laughing.  That's a nice compliment.  Ernie Fleishman (VP) said I didn't need to say a word about the value of great teachers, I just demonstrated it.  I had a number of people ask if they could be in my classroom for science, which is also a nice compliment.  But I think they'd have a hard time getting dates in middle school.

Anyways, I think I'll keep pushing a bit and hope to affect some change.  Or at least get people thinking about the bigger issues.  I guess that's kind of a teacher's job, eh?

This is Your New York

New York, NY

I Heart New York.  But I don't heart this airport.  Jen and I went to check in and the lady - without a hint of emotion in her face - told us to use the self-service kiosk.  Which took us about 10 minutes (ah, modern technology.)  She sat behind the empty counter and watched us look for every possible combination of letters and numbers that might identify us.  Emotionless.  Then we checked in with her.  Odd process.  The pre-check show (grumpy driver) and post-check show were equally devoid of humanity.  Sort of depressing.  I'm looking forward to our little airport again.

But I Hearted New York.  In a city so enormous and busy, I was surprised by the humanity of it.  And it was the whole range of humanity.  In the faces of it's people, I saw my human heritage, my extended family.  (I'm not sure they saw that in my face, they were all probably wondering if I missed a spot shaving, or whether that was just a diminutive soul patch.)  People are beautiful, for the most part.

Our first night in New York we decided to head up to the top of the Empire State Building to get an overview of the city.  From up there at night, NY is rather magical, and with a map we were able to get familiar with Manhattan island.  But we didn't really know the city.  At some point you've got to huck the map and just explore on your own.

There were open-top double-decker tour buses all over the city with the slogan "This is your New York!" plastered on the side.  I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but no... it's really not.

Are we doing the same thing in education?  Putting all the kids on a bus together with the slogan "This is your education!" plastered on it, then quickly driving past all the major landmarks and pointing them out... "Conservation of momentum on your left... World War II on your right..."

Wouldn't most students experience their education more fully if they actually participated in it?  Perhaps huck the map and just let them explore what was important to them.  Probably not feasible or even recommendable on a large scale, but what about a balance of approaches?  Give kids a skeleton map - a framework - and let them fill it in with the details that fit, but are actually important to their unique way of experiencing the world.  Give them a few big ideas to search for, but then let them discover "their New York."

Here's my New York:

Friday, June 6, 2008

I'm Awesome

Check out this clip:

I have arrived.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Decisive Factor

Redmond, OR

The teacher may be the most decisive factor in the classroom, but the gate agent is the most decisive factor at the airport gate.  Our agent this morning (and we're talking morning here) was a young gal who was something else.  She joked with passengers, called people by name, and laughed a great deal.  The gate was a happenin' place.

People chatted, smiled and let people go ahead of them into the single restroom.  Even though an older man held up the line at the security checkpoint (he wasn't familiar with the rule "no large pocketknives in carry-on baggage"), there's construction disrupting the normal flow, and it's raining hard outside, she set the tone.  And it was a nice tone.  First thing in the morning.

I love our little airport.