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.)

Friday, October 31, 2008


Denver, CO


Left… left…left, right, left!


That’s what a typical day looks like for most adolescents in American schools.  About 4 out of 5 classes focus on the brain’s left hemisphere, and one might focus on the right.  “That art class is all some kids have to look forward to!” administrators say.  “It’s what keeps those kids in school!”


So we’re asking kids to trudge through five or six hours of hell so they can have 45 minutes of creative time?  I don’t think I’d last 12 years if I was one of “those kids,” either!


The responsibility falls upon each of us (“core” and “exploratory” teachers) to make every class period enjoyable, engaging and creative.  Students need to be using both sides of their brains all day long to analyze and synthesize, to research and create.  They’ll only be half engaged, half motivated, half alive if we continue to teach to half of their brains.

But arts teachers can fall victim to this as well.  I was a pretty good musician when I was younger, but I was a left-brained musician.  I could play the notes, and play them with accuracy and some expression.  I was very good at analyzing and interpreting the mathematical formulas on the sheet of music, and very nice melodies emanated from the piano that I commanded.


But they weren’t my melodies.  I wasn’t my music.  Not until later, after learning a bit of guitar, did I really start to explore on my own and create my own music.  My left-brain musical training helped me, but it wasn’t complete without my right brain creating something new with it.  My hemispheres had to work in concert to produce music that was truly meaningful to me.


Obviously, playing in a band or orchestra at school has benefits that extend well beyond the musical values we hear in a performance: teamwork, dedication, intense focus. These are essential skills in the 21st century world.  But a great music program must go beyond playing someone else’s music, and develop musicians who take risks, improvise and create.  A great science program should do the same.  Or art, math, social science, physical education, language, or any program.


We need people who can march in time and march to the beat of their own drum.  Right…right…right, left, right! will also get you there.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Let's Talk College

Redmond, OR


My daughter went to college this week.  She’s only 9, but she did well!  Built a structure that would withstand a 500-year wave and tested it in the world’s largest tsunami research center, created both endothermic and exothermic reactions in the chemistry laboratory, and even ate with the big kids in the college cafeteria.


Mrs. Renz, Mrs. Zistel and Mr. Morton are taking every 4th grader at Tom McCall Elementary to college this year in the hopes that it will expand the opportunities for many of them for whom college is not a part of their family’s regular vocabulary.  And research seems to back them up: students who visit college campuses early in their education are more likely to attend college when they’re older.


But it’s not just a one day field trip (which, by the way, Mrs. Renz told me didn’t cost them anything except bus costs and meal cards.  Look into it at your local college or university!  OSU was super organized with multiple activities, tour guides and outreach programs! (Perhaps they’ve read the research, too!))  The 4th grade experience is rooted in college themes all year long.  I’m thrilled, not because I worried that Johanna wouldn’t pursue a post-secondary degree, but because many of her classmates would otherwise never be exposed to the possibility.


I sat by the president of a community college at a recent event at which I spoke, and she said that one of the biggest obstacles for many students is their family.  Parents who didn’t attend university are often scared that they will essentially lose their children.  Lose them to a different geographical area, a different socio-economic class, or simply lose the ability to relate to them.


This struck me as an interesting thought, because I assumed that all parents would want the highest possible education for their children.  But it’s not always the case.  This is something that we need to address at the K-12 level as we encourage and prepare students for the 21st century economy in which a college degree is really just the starting point.


I’m convinced, Jen’s convinced, and so were the other 21 parents who helped to chaperone the field trip.  With support like that, the future looks bright for these kids!


Friday, October 24, 2008

No Frothy Punch for You!

Fargo, ND


Scandal!  The new North Dakota teacher of the year isn’t a member of the union!


Beth, who happens to be a remarkable teacher, passionate advocate for students, and a really kind and sincere gal, was the clear choice for ND teacher of the year.  However, when she was in the lobby of the hotel prior to the afternoon reception for the TOY finalists, she was asked not to attend.


“Two members of our leadership team gave her opportunities to join the union today,” I was told, “but she chose not to.  That’s just sad.  I hope she comes around at some point.”


I guess I can understand their disappointment, and I realize that they were paying for the event, but that’s just plain rude.  Can’t we all honor her achievement and hard work on behalf of children?  Can’t we respect the fact that many teachers have a different viewpoint on some issues than union leadership?  Can’t we all just get along?  I kind of thought we were all on the same team, at least.


I hate to put it this way, but as a middle school teacher… let’s grow up a little.


[Editor's note: some relatives of mine saw this on the front page of the Grand Forks paper and forwarded it to my dad, who forwarded it to me.  Scandal! ]


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Feeling Presidential

Washington, D.C.


1736…1737…1739…  Hey, I’m supposed to be in 1738!  Where’d it go?


Here’s where my room is supposed to be, but all it says is “Presidential Suite.”  Bing! (Light bulb.)  Sweet!  I get the suite!  (Second thought: what a waste of money.)


So I enter the room and check out my new pad for the next two nights.  Large dining table, bar (unstocked), several couches and chairs, giant TV, top-floor views… nice place.


But one minor problem.  I’ve looked everywhere, checked the adjoining rooms, and finally had to call the front desk: “Hi, this is Mr. Geisen in room 1738.  I have a slightly embarrassing situation… I can’t find my bed.”  “Oh, yes, your room must have a Murphy bed, sir.  It pulls down from the wall.”  “Nope, don’t see it.”  “Okay, check the couch.”


Sure enough.  Hide-a-bed.


I'm certainly not complaining.  I actually slept just fine, because I was exhausted and I’m used to sleeping on the ground.  I was just struck by the irony of the situation.


This is where I should probably make an educational analogy here, something along the lines of  “people say they really value teachers, but when we step into the room they’ve reserved for us, all get is a hide-a-bed.”  But the analogy doesn’t quite work.  We don’t have a giant TV, trendy couches, nice views, or anything else, either.  Just a sign on the door that says “Highly Valued Member of Society.”


Oh well.  We’re used to sleeping on the ground.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Expert = Teacher?

Norfolk, VA


Where do folks get the idea that if you’re an expert on something, you’d be a good teacher?  In the final presidential debate, McCain was talking about how we ought to have more programs like Teach for America and Troops to Teachers and less certification to become a teacher.  We should basically just take them from the battlefield, or the boardroom, or wherever, straight to the classroom.  We need teachers now!


What a ridiculous idea.  Most of these people would be eaten alive, wouldn’t last more than a couple of years, and the kids would suffer the most.  The idea that we can “fast-track” people into the classroom is seriously flawed.  When people say that an expert in their field would make a great teacher, they’re ignoring what research and experience tell us is most important to their success: good pedagogy, passion for learning, and a love for children.


I met Chauncey Veatch, the 2002 National Teacher of the Year, last weekend at a task force on the arts in New York.  What an incredible guy.  Each day, he teaches high school, middle school, 4th grade, and pre-school kids.  Most of them don’t speak much English, are from extremely poor families, yet their success rate in school is remarkable.  Many of them go to top colleges.  Chauncey is a product of Troops to Teachers, and goes to show that career folks can make highly effective teachers.  I had a similar path from professional forestry, but went through a more traditional masters degree program.  TFA and TTT are great programs, but they are the minimum we should expect in teacher prep.  And many of these new teachers don't last long, or are ineffective in the classroom.


Good teaching can be learned, but it usually takes time and guidance.  Programs that minimize the time as a student teacher under the guidance of a master teacher, or that aren’t providing enough educational theory and research to fully prepare people for the rigors of the classroom are doing a great disservice to the pre-service teachers and to the students.  There are exceptional people who will make great teachers no matter how they get there, but in general, the idea that we need less rigorous certification processes will not benefit our educational system or our children.


It’s a slap in the face to educators to imply that any expert in a field can teach, because we know that teaching is so much more than imparting content knowledge.  Great teaching is art, science, pedagogy, passion, love, expertise, patience, and hard work.


What you teach is not nearly as important as how you teach.


[For another excellent response to this debate question (in fact, questioning the question), please check out my colleague Mike Smart’s commentary at  Good stuff.]

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Do the Math

New York, NY


Delta Air Lines has done the math.  They had two employees working through the TSA screening line checking to see when each traveler’s flight departed.  Those who were in danger of not making it through security in time were escorted to the express line.  They must figure that rescheduling a flight and shifting folks from one itinerary to another is too costly.  Costly enough to hire people (or at least shift people around) to expedite the security screening process.


Have we done the math for our students?  When will we realize that the cost of a student dropping out of school is substantial enough that we ought to invest early to prevent it from happening in the first place.  The costs of lost productivity, lost income revenue, retraining, social services, and possible incarceration are enormous and would easily pay for the needed staff and resources to ensure that they make their flight in the first place.


Not to mention the enormous lifelong cost to each individual traveler who may never make it to his or her destination.


In a system that so heavily values mathematics, why don’t we do a little math ourselves?  I think we would find that the investment would be worth it.  I’ll even let you use a calculator.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Surfing in South Dakota

Denver, CO


South Dakota reminded me a bit of North Dakota, except it was a bit further south.  My folks both grew up in a little farming town in northeastern North Dakota and we used to visit every couple of summers.  We never could talk them into a Christmas visit for some reason.   Hmmmm.


Yesterday, as I walked the streets of Pierre (pronounced “Peer,” by the way), it had a similar feeling to some of the small towns in North Dakota that I’ve visited.  That “slowly drying up” feeling.  Kinda sad.  Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon, but it didn’t have that vibrant bustle that many towns do.


I remember my cousins in N. Dakota talking about how the culture always took a few years to get there from the rest of the country.  Movies, fashion, ideas, they all had a lag time.  And it seems that is still somewhat the case, but I think that the time is diminishing rapidly.


As I wandered the streets, I wondered how applicable a talk about teaching skills for the future would be.  But I think it might be even more applicable in some ways for small towns across this land.  The future is coming a bit faster because technology is catching them up all that much quicker.


Will they rear end the rest of us?  (I say “they” as if I’m from a big city, which I’m not.)  Will they survive the acceleration?  Will they grab onto this charging bull and harness it’s power?  Will they pop up and surf this tsunami of changes?  Will they…


Time will tell, and with the exponential growth rate of technology, culture, ideas, commerce and e-communities, it may not take us very long to find out.


Rapid City, SD


John Candy and Steve Martin, eat your heart out.  I think it’s about time for me to rent Planes, Trains and Automobiles again, although this time it might hit a little close to home.


I’ve been traveling for over 10 hours already today, and I’m only now about to take off on a plane.  I haven’t even left South Dakota yet!  Thankfully, I haven’t had a rental car catch on fire, no one sang the Flintstones theme song on our bus trip, and I haven’t had to room with any large men who leave their enormous underwear in the sink.  So I should be thankful.


Unfortunately, now I won’t be getting the Perfect Attendance Award at the end of the school year.  Due to my flight cancellation today, I won’t be able to make it to Pennsylvania for the Teacher Forum in time to speak.  So I’m heading home.


If all goes well, I’ll be home by 10pm tonight, a full 18 hours after I started my journey.  It might have been quicker to drive!  Unless, of course, I let John Candy take the wheel.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

I've been replaced by a science teacher named Michael

Redmond, OR


“…and the new Oregon Teacher of the Year is… (envelope please)… a science teacher named Michael!”  What a kawinkydink!  Except our 2009 representative, Michael Lampert, teaches high school in West Salem.  And he’s been to Antarctica.


I’m thrilled for him, and look forward to meeting and working with him.  From what I’ve read and seen, he sounds like a remarkable guy!  When they announced his selection at a surprise assembly, his students definitely thought so!


But I also feel a slight twinge of pain for him, for his life will never quite be the same.  He will meet new people, be exposed to ideas, and be asked to step into a new role that will stretch him like never before.  I think he’ll handle it marvelously.


Each state handles their Teacher of the Year program a bit differently.  Some teachers have a yearlong sabbatical (about a dozen states and the national teacher,) while others, like Oregon, remain full-time in the classroom.  Some receive large cash prizes and a car for the year, while others, like Oregon, are more modest (we receive $3,000 dollars from Intel.)  Some are highly scheduled, sought after, and publicized, while others, like Oregon, each make what they want of the position.


From the little I know about Michael Lampert, he’ll make the most of it, and I will encourage him to do so.  Teachers and students need to make their voices, stories and ideas heard, and Michael will have an attentive audience this year!


Congratulations, Michael, and be bold!