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, November 30, 2008

Workin' Stiff

Redmond, OR


Well, back to the ol’ grind.  Today, just a quick little overnighter to Connecticut, then another to Texas later in the week.  No international intrigue, no language difficulties, no free little socks that don’t actually fit very well on trans-oceanic flights.  Just regular ol’ domestic travel, domestic accommodations, and domestic bliss (I got to see my family for three whole days in a row!)


But if I can survive a few more short trips, I’ll be on a beach in Mexico with my family.  Granted, there probably won’t be Margaritas, and definitely not a heated pool.  There won’t be running water or even a town within 50 miles.  Or a solid roof to sleep under, for that matter.


I’ll be hundreds of miles from my nearest suit, my computer, my phone, or an airplane, with nothing to do but hang out with my family, surf, play music around the fire, and cook good food.  That vision is getting me through right now.  I’m ready for a break.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

This Week's (Japanese) Top 40

Tokyo, Japan

Holy Shinto! What a week!

I am forever indebted to the Baba Foundation, Nakajima-san sensei, my guide Endo-san, and all of the wonderful people I met while in Japan this past week. I was very well taken care of and learned an incredible amount about Japanese culture, education, history, food and people. And one day I was a big boy and navigated Tokyo all by myself. In Japanese.

I'm scheduled to arrive home today, a couple of hours ago. Gotta love crossing the date line! (Of course, Jennifer would say that I haven't crossed the date line in over a decade.) But before I leave Japan (and technically after I land at home, too) I'll sum up what I learned this week in a handy list.

1. When traveling to a non-Western country, secure a local guide. Try to get one who specializes in rail-travel and local food, like I did.

2. Don't take a guided bus tour in Japan unless someone gives it to you as a gift. You'll feel like a stereotypical Japanese tourist. In Japan. This will be true even if your local guide comes along with you.

3. The Japanese have nearly perfected the science of public transportation. We should do that.

4. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road, and usually walk on the left, too. But not always. This anomaly seems to appear randomly. Dodge and deal with it.

5. Middle school students are middle school students wherever you go.

6. When a Japanese store clerk hands you your change and you reply with "good morning," she will smile and graciously bow to accept your sorry linguistic offering.

7. Even the uniformed workers who seem to have no apparent job other than standing on the sidewalk, bowing, and occasionally gesturing in a general direction take great pride in their work. They usually wear hard hats for safety, too.

8. No one leans on a shovel in Japan. If you're not hustling, you're not contributing to the greater good.

9. Japanese are proud of their country. And they should be.

10. I'm almost tall.

11. Check your socks for holes before leaving the states, and check to make sure your socks match before leaving your hotel room. Oops.

12. It's handy to like fish.

13. It's honorable to like highly fermented soybeans wrapped in straw.

14. It's handy to have copious amounts of sake to chase the soybeans down. This is also honorable.

15. A little sake goes a long way. A lot of sake goes even further. This is also honorable.

16. There will be more garbage cans in your hotel room than in an average Japanese city, but the city will have less garbage laying around.

17. Don't bother trying to learn written Japanese for your visit. It takes years.

18. Most Japanese homes have heated toilet seats. Hotels have even crazier toilets.

19. All Japanese students take Engrish crasses during junior and senior high, but they never practice actuarry speaking in Engrish. They just read it and study it. This strikes me as rudicrous.

20. Something like 99% of Japanese are literate. This strikes me as really impressive.

21. When Japanese educators ask what you will lecture on for your guest lecture, "lecture" is the key word.

22. I can't hold still enough to lecture for very long.

23. It's difficult to teach with 50 adults and four TV news crews in your classroom. It's also difficult when you don't speak or understand more than a dozen words of the native language.

(Also, see the news coverage of the class at this link. Open it in a new tab and be patient, it takes a minute to load.)

24. It feels pretty good when every student asks for your autograph after class.

25. Bring lots of business cards to Japan.

26. When handing a small gift to someone, tell them what it is before they open it. This is customary. "It's chopsticks."

27. When grocery shopping in Japan, be prepared to be yelled at by dozens of store employees soliciting you loudly to buy interesting foods that you won't recognize. (If you can't find a grocery store, try looking in the basement of any department store, right below the floor with women's makeup and jewelry.)

28. If a Japanese person sucks in through their teeth and clutches their nose as if they had just eaten a liter of green tea ice cream way too fast, they're telling you "no." But they won't actually say no.

29. No one says "sayonara" in Japan, either. At least not that I could understand.

30. If you slur a bunch of words together and end with "mossss...," it passes for "thank you" and other various greetings, and it mildly impresses people. But then they might start speaking Japanese really fast to you.

31. College roommates living abroad can be a great source of entertainment and insight.

32. There are something like 80 million Shintoists in Japan, 90 million Buddhists in Japan, and 120 million people in Japan. Do the math. That's pretty cool.

33. Most Japanese celebrate Christmas, too. It's a good excuse to drink and give people presents.

34. Obesity is not a common problem in Japan. It is a national sport, however.

35. U.S. Ambassadors are from Texas. At least, both of the ones that I met this month are. Interesting coincidence?

36. Japanese children are dang cute.

37. When Japanese are on the phone and repeatedly say "Hi! Hi! Hi!," they're not just excited to hear from someone, nor do they have a bad connection. "Hai!" means "yes."

38. When obtaining food from a communal dish or plate, use the other end of your chopsticks. Unless you've eaten with a person a few times, then it's okay to spread germs.

39. People wearing face masks around town are not Ninjas. And they're probably not even trying to protect themselves from viruses. They're most likely trying to protect everyone else.

40. After three weeks of international travel, I'm ready to be home with my family. I will definitely go back to both Japan and Switzerland. Next time, though, I'd like to take my family with me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mike Geisen Does Japan

San Francisco, CA


Konichiwa!  I’m about to hop over the other pond and land in the hamlet of Tokyo.  And while I’m understating things… I’ll be staying under a thatched roof and eating some rice and fish.


The Baba Foundation has hosted the National Teacher of the Year for many years now, and so I will have the unique opportunity to tour Japanese schools, a science museum, a high-energy particle accelerator (KEK), meet with the Vice Minister of Education, sightsee in Tokyo and Kyoto, drop in on the U.S. Ambassador, and even teach a couple of science classes to Japanese junior high students!  I wish I was feeling remotely prepared.


I’ve been cramming a bit after returning from Switzerland two days ago: memorizing a few phrases (“My futon is too short, may I please have a longer bed?” and so on,) reading up on Japanese culture and history, and listening to a book-on-tape to hone my diplomatic skills (Dave Barry Does Japan (which is actually a pretty good primer on touring in Japan.  Really.))


This should be an interesting week.  And that may be the biggest understatement yet.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

What I Learned in Switzerland

Zurich, Switzerland


While in Switzerland, I attempted to steal a Rolex executive’s watch, dozed off during lecture by one of the world’s top scientists, and introduced my imaginary friend to an audience of Ambassadors, members of Parliament, and top-level executives of multi-national corporations.  I’d say my diplomatic mission was a success.


I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of about 20 American “Young Leaders” to join about 20 of our Swiss counterparts for a week of dialogue, Swiss culture, personal diplomacy, panels, presentations, tours, and some of the exquisite food and wine I’ve tasted on either side of the Mississippi.  Most of the participants were politicians, executives, analysts, entrepreneurs, or writers.  I was the first K-12 teacher they’ve had in the 19 year history of the conference, although there were a couple of university professors there, too.  Overall, just a remarkable group of accomplished young human beings.  And me.


Our mission this week was to better understand each other as individuals, as cultures, and as economic and political players on the world stage.  I think we succeeded, and forged some new opportunities, partnerships and friendships.  It was an incredible week.


There were too many unique experiences to write about, so I’ll just share the top 20 things I learned:


  1. Fly business class on trans-oceanic flights if at all possible (special thank you to Swiss International Air Lines for generously donating flights to all participants!)


  1. To blend in on the streets of Europe, wear dark stylish clothing and smoke a cigarette.  A scarf will help, too.


  1. A large majority of Europeans were very relieved about the U.S. presidential election, and very hopeful.


  1. Even some U.S. Republicans are hopeful, too.


  1. The Swiss are generally modest and somewhat reserved compared to Americans, but open up quite a bit once they get to know you.  Drinking helps accelerate this process.


  1. Americans tend to open up a little too much when drinking.


  1. There’s a reason why Swiss watches are world renowned for quality.  Too bad I’ll never own one.


  1. I like Switzerland even more than I used to, and that was a lot.


  1. I have many new friends in Switzerland.


  1. Numbers 8 and 9 (see above) work quite nicely together.


  1. Five-star hotels use up a tremendous amount of natural resources.  But they’re pretty comfy.


  1. People have more commonalities than they have differences.


  1. Being a gentleman crosses cultural boundaries and never goes out of style.


  1. Going out dancing is a great way to improve bi-lateral relationships.


  1. Swiss would generally like to emulate America’s creativity and spirit.


  1. Americans would generally like to emulate the Swiss’s craftsmanship, financial market success, and attention to detail.


  1. Pride, tradition and patriotism could make numbers 15 and 16 (see above) difficult.


  1. Dignitaries seem to enjoy being formally and repeatedly recognized at gatherings, which I find time-consuming and mind-numbing.


  1. PowerPoint presentations are not any better on the other side of the Atlantic.


  1. Wherever you go, people are people.  I like that.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Acquisition de l'anguage

New York, NY


Le dang!  I wish I had paid closer attention during French class in high school.  I would have known just enough to be dangerous, and given the flight attendants something to chuckle about.  (As I write, I just said “gracias” for the menu.  Le doh!)


I actually do know just enough French to be dangerous (c’est trop dangeroux!)  When I was last in Europe, I was able to roughly interpret the instructions on the hotel room door for escaping a fire.  They went like this: “In case of fire in  your room, guard Sigmund Freud, and cry out ‘Ah! Fool!’  In case the fire alarm sounds, leave your room after a brief delay.  Do not put your mattress on the flames immediately, leave your room saying ‘good-night’ as you reform the door.”


Good thing there wasn’t a fire.


The Swiss attendees at the conference I will be attending speak a minimum of three languages, many of them even more.  In fact, there are four official languages in Switzerland, and many Swiss also choose to learn English.


Unfortunately, we in America don’t place the same value on multiple language acquisition.  We have a great deal of linguistic diversity in the U.S., like the Swiss do, but we tend to take a more arrogant approach with our dominant language.  I wonder how long our nation will be able to get away with that in a truly global society?


I’ll be able to survive this week thanks to the generosity of others who will be speaking about complex issues not in their primary language.  (Then it’s on to Japan, where I know even less!)  But it’s never too late to learn.  I’m looking forward to assimilating a bit more of their language and culture into my own.  Maybe I’ll even pick up a cool accent while I’m there.


An Historic Night

Washington, D.C.


(Sigh of relief…)


The results are in, and history has been made.  Barack Obama will be the first African-American President of the United States.  But more important than the color of his skin is the content of his character.  While both candidates were men of exceptional character, I am excited to have a president who takes a bigger picture view and longer-term approach to solving complex issues we face as a nation.  I look forward to the level of respect we will return to in the world, the intelligent and reasonable discourse in which I hope to participate, and the hope for more optimistic future for my children.  We’ll see what can be done.


I was highly impressed by both McCain’s concession speech and Obama’s acceptance speech.  They were gracious, civil, hopeful and optimistic.  I’m not normally moved by politician’s words, but that night was an exception.  After an oftentimes ugly campaign, I was proud to be an American.


I was less proud, however, the following day when I heard of the same bickering, finger-pointing, and blatant racism that we heard during the past months.  On talk radio, TV, and in opinion letters, many Americans took the low road and opted for low levels of civility.  I hope that both Obama and McCain continue to model grace, respect and optimism about the results.


I also hope that, given my position of Teacher of the Year, I’ll get a chance to meet our new President.  We’ll see what I can do.  I’ll have my people start working on it…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Portland, OR


Election day.  Finally.


It’s been an interesting and exciting few months (the campaigns were much longer, I know, but I don’t start paying too much attention until the pre-season games are over.)  But I’m ready to be done with it.  I want to know whether we should stay in Mexico this winter and extend our beach camping and surfing trip by a few years.


As National Teacher of the Year, I’m not actually allowed to support any particular candidate, ballot measure or product.  So no hemorrhoid cream ads for me!  But it allows me to present my message without having it tainted by political affiliation.  It also gives me an air of mystery and intrigue, which is nice.


I’ll actually be in DC tonight as the results come in, which may be interesting.  I’ll be leaving for Switzerland on Thursday, which may be convenient.


Monday, November 3, 2008

College Interrupted

Redmond, OR


I ran into Jett’s dad at the airport this morning, and was excited to hear how my former student was doing at college this fall.  Except he isn’t.


Jett, the inventor of the Shock-a-Dog (that’s a hot dog cooker), who used to bounce off the walls of my classroom, managed to graduate last spring.  He was not one of the kids that many people would have expected to graduate, and indeed, he barely made it.


His plan was to start at our community college this fall, though, and become… a science teacher!  (Pinnacle of all humanity.)  This is still his plan, his dad told me, he’s just put it on hold until next quarter.  I hope.


I’ve talked about Jett quite a bit this year during my presentations.  I was able to connect with Jett and inspire him because I really valued and appreciated his unique intelligence.  Not everyone did.


So do I keep telling Jett’s not-quite-as-inspirational-as-it-used-to-be story?  I think I will.  Regardless of the eventual outcome (do we ever really arrive, anyway?), I did something to inspire him.  And even if he never reaches the fully enlightened state called “Science Teacher,” I was successful with him.


I also need to remind myself that I’ve spent far less than even 1% of Jett’s life with him.  A teacher can only do so much.  But I think I’ll give him a call one of these days and see if I can do a little more to encourage him.  After all, I’m a teacher.  I’m used to working overtime.