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.



Thursday, April 16, 2009

Was It Worth It?

Redmond, OR


As we were hiking yesterday, a good friend of mine asked me about the pros and cons of this past year.  “Overall, was it worth it?”


My answer:  “I’m not sure.”


It has been a year of ups and downs, of incredible opportunities and tremendous pain.  It has led to personal growth, and hopefully some good in the world of education.  But it has taken it’s toll on me, and especially my family.


Has it been worth it?  I’m not sure yet.  Perhaps time will tell.  Or perhaps that’s not a question that can adequately be answered.



Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Ceremonial Blanket

Las Vegas, NV


I got to hang out with Robert Kelty, the 2008 Arizona Teacher of the Year this weekend in Flagstaff.  My family was able to join me for a few days there also, since I had a bit of a break after a couple of events there, and Jen’s sister lives in Flag, too.  It was the mini-spring break we didn’t get this year.  ‘Twas nice.


Robert came to education via Teach for America on his way to med school to become a doctor.  He taught for three years on the Navajo reservation where he connected strongly with his students and the community.  On his last day of his third year, just before getting ready to head back to the university to study medicine, the community members presented him with a ceremonial blanket.


At that moment, Robert smiled and said to himself, “Well damn.  Med school is out.  Looks like now I’m in this for the long haul!”


Since then, he has continued to teach and to fight passionately for the rights of the underprivileged and oppressed, especially native peoples.  He’s working on becoming a doctor now, but his doctorate will be in education.  His goal is social justice through quality and culturally appropriate education, and he’s the kind of guy that is making it happen on a small scale in his classroom, and a large scale in his state.  He’s an amazing fellow.


Although I personally never considered a high-paying job in medicine, I can’t say that I’ve always been committed to a 30-year career in teaching, either.  But my “ceremonial blanket” was given to me nearly one year ago (unfortunately in the form of a crystal apple, which isn’t nearly as cool as a hand-woven, traditional, native, spiritual work of art.)


So I’m in it for the long haul now.  I probably would have been, anyway, but there’s no backing out now.  I’m a public voice for social justice through education.  I’m a voice for civil rights.  I’m a voice for children everywhere.  It doesn’t really get much more important than that.

[Here's a short video of Robert explaining why he teaches.  Powerful stuff.]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

March Madness and the Final Four

Detroit, MI


Each year, the NCAA Rules Committee produces a nearly 200 page document of the rules for college basketball.  It is a somewhat cumbersome attempt to account for the complexity of the game we have come to love.  But the committee is planning to make some major changes for the 2009-2010 season.


Just this week, Rules Committee Secretary Ed Bilik released a statement that due to the monetary cost and amount of time of playing full season schedule, complaints about the subjectivity of officiating, and an ever-present cry to get back to the fundamentals of the game, NCAA basketball will look radically different next year.  In order to determine the top teams, and indeed the NCAA champion, the process needs to be much more objective.


Here’s how it will work.  Each week, athletes from each team will be measured and ranked according four criteria that have been determined to be fundamental to the success of the overwhelming majority of the best basketball players:

  1. Outside shooting
  2. Speed (while dribbling a basketball)
  3. Knowledge of the rules of the game
  4. Height

Teams with the highest score ranking will be the winner of that week’s contest.  The season will progress in this manner, all the way through the championship, when this much more scientific process will determine the best team.  No travel will be necessary, subjective officiating will not be a problem, and it will lead to athletes who are solid in the fundamentals of the game, which will allow them to be more successful in their futures on the court.


Critics like Arizona interim coach, Russ Pennell, immediately asked “what will become of our athletes and coaches?  Most will quit playing the game, because ‘the game’ will have no meaning or relevance to them any more!”  He also contends that although a few great coaches will still teach basketball by actually having athletes play the game, others, less courageous, will resort to “running lines, shooting free-throws, drilling the rules, and – in an effort to increase height – what?  The rack?”


The NCAA Rules Committee was quick to respond, stating that other fundamental skills are important, too, such as passing, rebounding, defense, and teamwork.  “Coaches should focus on all of these!” Bilik stated emphatically.  “But we can’t test all of them, and these are much harder to measure.  So from now on, games will be won or lost based on The Four Criteria.”



Okay, so I made this up.  This scenario is fictitious.  And probably for good reason: people would be rioting in the streets.  (I hope I didn’t already cause that.  Luckily, based on the size of my readership, they would small riots.)


But this is exactly the scenario we’ve created in public education.


We put an inordinate amount of value on measures of knowledge and skills in isolation from the real game of life.  Students and educators are having a difficult time staying inspired because we are being asked to substitute what amounts to glorified practice for the real game.  The passion is gone from most teams, and although there are still a few ‘coaches’ who know that inspiring their mental athletes with a love of the game, and practicing not just repetitive drills but scenarios and scrimmage, most are feeling tremendous pressure to focus on a narrow set of fundamentals.


These fundamentals are important, of course, but they are not everything.  They are not why we play the game, they are not the only reason teams win games.  We need to balance it out, not just in our practices, but also in the games we use to measure how good we are.


If we keep telling our kids “hey, just keep practicing these fundamentals, and maybe you’ll use them in about thirteen years when you get out of this school league,” we’ll lose them.  Our ‘athletes’ will either quit (like they’re doing at the rate of about one million per year), or stick with it thinking that they are becoming real ‘basketball players’, when in fact they are wholly unprepared for real life after this league.  The NBA wouldn’t give one of these kids a second look.


In the world of education, we need to look at how we are setting up the game.  We need to measure what matters in the 21st century.  We need to ask ourselves and our stakeholders, “what does the game look like now?”  The answers I repeatedly hear from the real world are

1.     Fundamentals, but also…

2.     Teamwork/Collaboration

3.     Creativity

4.     Technological literacy

5.     Civic engagement

6.     Global awareness

7.     Critical, integrated, and holistic thinking

8.     Passion


Are these a bit more subjective than ‘the fundamentals’?  To some extent.  But the great students, teachers and schools will still rise to the top.

A bit more costly?  Perhaps.  But only in the short term.

A bit more inspiring?  Absolutely.  And that’s what keeps the players in the game.


Antoine de Saint Exupery said it nicely: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."


Be the coach that inspires that yearning.  The fundamentals will come.  Your athletes will put in hour after hour, training and practicing on their own.  And when it’s time to play the game, they’ll rise to the occasion.


Friday, April 3, 2009


Redmond, OR


Amazing scheduling anomaly!  My next three gigs are all west of the Mississippi river.  (This is a bit like the fact that on a multiple-choice test, there are always three of the same letters in a row somewhere on the test.  It’s statistically unlikely, but it always seems to show up.)


Tomorrow morning I’m at the National School Board Association’s annual convention in San Diego.  I have a tough assignment ahead of me: address several thousand school board members during the general assembly.  That’s not the tough part though.  The tough part is that I only get 3-4 minutes for my remarks.  That’s barely enough time to be funny!  I’m hosed.


So I must distill my message down to what amounts to a haiku.  This is good, though.  I need a challenge.  And I enjoy poetry.


I also get my first chance to meet with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  Again, I have a strange feeling that I won’t get to sit down and have a heart to heart with him, but that I’ll have to keep it fairly poetic.  The words “photo op” seem to be the point of the meeting backstage.  I knew I was becoming well-known in the education world, but I haven’t had too many high-ranking officials beating down my door to get their picture taken with me.  Must be my boyish good looks…


Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Jackson, MS


When I was in 4th or 5th grade, I did a report on Mississippi.  I remember only two things about the state (the fact that Jackson is the capitol isn’t one of those things.)


First, I remember the shape of the state, and especially it’s coastline.  I made a pretty nice looking map of Mississippi and Alabama, and remember the rough symmetry between them.  And I seem to recall drawing lots of cotton plants on the map.


Second, I distinctly remember the state logo for Mississippi ,because I though it was so cool.  I saw that logo twice yesterday while driving into downtown Jackson, and I vividly remember drawing it.  Nearly three decades ago.


Unfortunately, that’s about all I remember.  But having now been to Mississippi twice this year, I have a much more complete and more human picture of this place, it’s people, its culture, it’s landscape, and it’s mood.  These are things that one cannot really get from simply researching a place.  And while I certainly don’t know much, I know and understand significantly more than I used to about what life is like in the south.


Obviously, my primary teacher could not have possibly sent each of us to our respective states to experience them firsthand.  But learning must be experiential and allow students to create something if we ever want it to be meaningful and memorable.  And it must be relevant to our lives.  Mississippi wasn’t for me.


I’m proud to say that now my hard work has finally paid off.  Almost thirty years later, it’s all coming back to me!  In fact, I’ve been mistaken by several native Mississippians for a southerner several times now.  At least until I open my mouth.  Or enter their field of view.


But I do remember a couple of things, and I just remembered one more: there’s a big river named after this state, too!  I even recognized it from 30,000 feet in the air!  I feel so smart.


Monday, March 30, 2009

Monday mornings

St. Louis, MO


Mental note: try not to accept speaking engagements on Monday mornings.  Especially in large gymnasiums with hard chairs and bad sound systems.  I might have been more popular if I had simply inserted pliers into people’s mouths and started pulling.


Perhaps Mondays should just be cancelled.  But then, Tuesdays would be Tuesdays.  Kind of like if babies had red eyes and giant ears, we would consider that to be “cute.”  It’s a survival mechanism that is bred into us.  It couldn’t really be any different.


Anyway, I usually don’t have a problem with teaching on a Monday.  Most of my students are actually either excited or relieved to be back at school.  For most of them, it is a safe, stimulating and social place, especially compared to their weekends.


But this morning was tough.  I had quite a few of those (tap tap) “is this thing on?” moments.  Ouch.  Not used to that.  I had people up and moving and tried to include interaction, but finally just gave up on that, opting to just plow through and give the rest of the presentation lecture-style.


With my students, I would have had a couple of advantages that I didn’t have today:  1.) a personal relationship with each of them to draw upon, 2.) more flexibility with how I presented concepts, and 3.) about 320 less people.


There are plenty of things about this year that I won’t miss too much.  These are a few of them.


Friday, March 27, 2009

When I grow up...

Jacksonville, FL


I had another chance to speak to “Future Educators” this morning.  These are middle- and high-school students who have expressed interest in teaching as a career.  That wasn’t me at that age.


I worked through a few career options ranging from graphic design to geology before finally settling on a major in Forest Resource Management.  Teaching wasn’t even on the radar screen for me.


So how did I end up here?  I think it was a combination of things ranging from the energy I get from being with kids, to the desire to more fully utilize all of my varied skills, to a work schedule that is more concentrated to allow for travel and adventures with my young family.  I basically needed to do something every day that made a difference in people’s lives.  I think I found my calling.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Improv in the Zone

Redmond, OR

Oh, I hurt.

Went skiing on Tuesday with Jen, my brother (David), and another friend (Troy).  This was my third ski day this year, which is two or three times more than I usually get in a year!  I’ve managed to space them out perfectly, though, so my muscles re-atrophy between each outing, ensuring a few days of good pain to remind me of the fun I had.

There was a time (long ago) when I was actually in great shape for skiing, when David and I would ski nearly every weekend.  A time when the steep and deep were common, when we would throw ourselves off cornices and cliff bands over and over, and float through the trees with coolness and grace.

We relived those days together this week (except for the large cliff bands… we’re getting too old for those.)  But it felt so good to launch ourselves into the trees and ski with confidence and speed, not knowing what was ahead, but knowing that whatever came our way, we could handle it.  Usually.  (See video.)

I think that whenever one becomes truly skilled at something, there is a creative confidence that allows for improvisation, play, and true joy.  I experience it occasionally while playing music, frequently while teaching, and every once in a while during other activities like photography, mountain biking and climbing.  It’s when your just “in the zone,” and your skills and creativity work together perfectly to allow for play that is beautiful and inspiring.  [Ken Robinson describes this in his new book, "The Element."  Here he is talking about it.]

Although it may take a little while to return to this level for me in the classroom, I’ve been experiencing the joy of tree skiing during many of my presentations.  I just sort of get in the zone, and launch into unknown territory, knowing that my knowledge and creativity will make something beautiful out of it.  Or at least keep me from crashing too hard. 

I miss this experience in the classroom, because it used to happen every day.  Not every minute, but at least every day.  And I got in good shape because of it.  I could ski hard, launch into unknown territory, and create something inspiring for my students.  Every once in a while, we’d just ski the groomers, but once one gets a taste for tree-skiing (and gets in shape!) it’s tough to stay away.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Chicago, IL


Got some much needed rest my first night in Chicago.  Slept in until 11am.  Back to my normal 3 ½ hours last night, though.


I have this pesky habit of procrastinating the preparation of my presentations until the pm previous.  (Holy alliteration, Batman!  Didn’t mean to do that until halfway through, at which time there arose a moral imperative to plow onward.)  And then when I realize that I’m getting tired of saying the same things for a few presentations, or that this particular group is unique in what they might need to hear, I start on a new direction, theme or idea.  And since I’m a bit of a perfectionist, this leads to some late nights.


But the presentations stay fresh this way, and each group ends up with something fairly unique, and the only one who really suffers is me.  Luckily, I’ve only got a few months left, and then it’s back to teaching middle school.  I’ll get more sleep then.  Or perhaps I can sleep when I die.


In other news, I met a beautiful lady today who is 91 years old.  And she is still teaching!  Mary Beth has been teaching young children for 70 years now, and from what I could tell of her, she’s still effective in the classroom.  That’s incredible!


If I’m ever going to make it that long, I’m going to need to get more sleep.  I’ve got a 49-minute flight ahead of me.  Looks like it’s time to make yet another small deposit in my sleep account…


Thursday, March 19, 2009

On Weariness

Columbus, GA


Must… sleep…


Too many events, too much jet lag, too much Southern food.  Must… sleep…


I feel like I’m going soft, though.  I did three speaking engagements and a forum yesterday, and two more talks this morning.  And I’m beat.

True, it’s about 4am in Japan right now, and I’ve been up way too late working on some new ideas, but shoot, I should be able to teach a few… [editor’s note: the scribbles in my journal become unintelligible for the next few words, and then completely trail off.  I guess sleep won.]


Monday, March 16, 2009


Washington, DC


I just spent a long night in DC (long because sleep did not come easily after my evening nap).  It was sort of a transition day between my time in Japan and my next series of gigs in Columbus, Georgia.  Perhaps it will cushion the culture shock a bit.  Perhaps.


Jen and I have begun to really consider what our next year will be like, and last night as we Skyped, and emailed calendar items back and forth, and generally geeked out together online from across the country, we discussed how we might find some balance in our lives.


Next fall, Jen is heading back to school to work on a nursing degree, and I’ll be heading back to the classroom.  Aspen will be in 2nd grade, and Johanna in 5th (yikes!)  It’s going to be a busy year, even before the extra speaking engagements and panels I’ve already been asked to serve on.


What it comes down to is this: if I’m going to be gone from home, it better be something I’m passionate about, and it’s got to be financially worth our while.  This year, I’ve received my normal teacher’s salary, thanks to the generous support of Intel (based here in Oregon.)  I have occasionally received honoraria from various groups, and certainly been treated to some remarkable experiences, but compared to the sacrifices that my family and I have had to make this year, the monetary compensation has been, well, teacher-like.


After my official reign ends at the end of the school year, I have several organizations that have asked me to come speak at their events.  At this point, I’ll be able to charge a speaking fee and act as an independent consultant.  It feels a bit strange to be asking for decent sums of money in exchange for an hour of my thoughts.  But I need to remember that my thoughts are valuable, and have been shaped by some unique experiences.  And that an hour-long talk is actually years in the making, many hours in the preparation, and days in travel.  And finally, I need to honor my family and the sacrifices they have made this year on my behalf, and on behalf of other children.


I’ll be experiencing culture shock this fall as I settle back into a more “normal” life.  But I’ll bring parts of my new life with me, too.  Somewhat analogous to eating sushi in Georgia, I suppose.  It’s going to be an interesting transition.



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Japan II

Tokyo, Japan


Life is beautiful.


Japan is a beautiful and fascinating country, but the true beauty is in its people.  Although publicly reserved, most of them tend to open up a bit in private.  After spending a bit of time together, and after a bit of sake, they’re downright hilarious.  Or should I say “hirarious”?


The Japanese people and culture are very complex, perhaps especially to the Western mind.  Japan is a land of paradoxes, and therefore I find it fascinating.


I was there as an honored guest of the RealScience foundation, an NPO working to help bring more experience-based science into public schools.  In just one year, they have made great strides and valuable partnerships.  After my visit last November, they asked me to return to Japan to teach a class and present at a symposium.  I was truly their honored guest, and was overwhelmed with their generosity, service and friendship.


I got to spend more time with many of the friends and colleagues that I met in November, including Nakajima sensei, Endo, Keiko, Kazu, professor Matsuda, and a dozen more.  I was introduced and made friends with many new people, too, including students, teachers, principals, professors, the most famous mathematician in Japan, the CEO of Toshiba, the mayor of Tokai City, and many people from the ministry of education.  We were even served in a traditional tea ceremony by a wrinkly little woman who couldn’t have been over 4 feet tall (yes, I'm sitting in this photograph.)  She was spunky and inspiring!  But each of these people showed each other and me the utmost in honor and respect.  I like that.  And it brought out the same attitude in me.


From the media coverage of my classes, they say I am now “famous in Japan.”  I was also awarded the Toshiba Innovation in Teaching award, a surprise to me on Saturday.  But much more than these things, I will cherish the people I have met, the meals we shared together, and the ideas we have exchanged.


I wish every person could experience the same level of kindness and respect I have been lavished with the past few days.  I’ve learned a tremendous amount about human nature, and am a better person because of it.


[For a video review of my November trip, and my top 40 insights into the Japanese culture (well, sort of) check here.  You won't be disappointed.  Well, unless you're from Japan.]



Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Washington, DC


Addressed the Chiefs today in DC.  Not the team, but the heads of all the states’ departments of education.  (Some are “Superintendents,” some are “Secretaries of Education,” and so on, so they’re just collectively called “The Chiefs.”  That’s pretty cool.)  They were in town for a legislative conference, and I was asked to share with them a teacher's perspective.


I didn’t pull any punches.


But they seemed to enjoy the beating, for the most part.  I guess I have a fun way of tearing apart the status quo, which many of them are heavily invested in.


I made an impassioned case for redefining “achievement” to encompass what we know about the complex and varied nature of intelligence.  Measuring math and reading scores alone doesn’t do justice to our children or the complex and global world they are growing into and creating.


I told them what teachers across the country would want to tell them: we’re living in a climate of fear, and fear inhibits innovation, great teaching, and effective learning.  Something needs to change, and we are now standing at that pivotal crossroads.


“So what are you going to do about it?” I asked on behalf of the 50 million students and 3 million teachers that are seeing these policies played out at the ground level in their very lives.


Bold move?  Perhaps.  But the Chiefs seemed to take it well.  The delivery is nearly as important as the message, I’ve found.


Plus, now I’m on a plane out of the country.  That helps, too.



Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Risky behavior

Savannah, GA


When people hear that I'm a climber, they generally respond in a similar way to when they hear that I'm a middle school teacher.  "Wow, you must be insane."  People generally consider rock climbing to be an extremely risky endeavor.  But I would argue that the seemingly conservative act of staying home on the couch is actually more risky.  Hear me out...


Climbers do everything in their power to take the risk out of rock climbing.  We use specialized shoes, chalk, and the info in guidebooks to minimize the chances that we will fall.  We use ropes, protective hardware, and harnesses to catch us in case we do.

Lazy boys in La-Z-Boys take no such precautions.  They use potato chips, various carbonated beverages, and a sedentary lifestyle, all of which endanger their very lives.  As far as health and life is concerned, climbing carries an extremely miniscule short-term risk.  Couching it carries a near-certain long-term risk.  I know where I prefer to live.  And live fully.


When teachers or administrators force kids to do “seat time” instead of participate in an active, inquisitive, and rigorous education, we are putting them at extreme and unnecessary risk.  What seems like a safe bet in a climate of high-stakes testing is actually dooming our children to the educational equivalent of heart disease!  Due to an imbalanced educational diet of pre-packaged junk food and overhyped red meat, their hearts are giving out after only a few years.  Their hearts are literally not in it for the long haul.


Now, before I go on, I know there are still many people who think anyone who climbs has a death wish.  Indeed, there are a few aspects of climbing that carry more risk than others.  Every year there are a few elite climbers who keep pushing the envelope on harder climbs, in more extreme locations, with a minimal margin for error.  A small handful of them never come back.  But the enormous majority of climbers focus on well-protected routes that have been well developed and shared in the climbing community through researched guidebooks and word of mouth.


Newcomers to the sport usually spend months or years learning under an experienced guide on “top-rope,” a setup that insures any fall will only be a slip of a few inches.  Only later will he or she begin to “lead climb,” working on more difficult routes with more intrinsic reward (and leading to bigger muscles, too!)  The risk level increases slightly, but not much at all, because the safety equipment and good judgement are there.  It is certainly not as risky as the certain premature death that will result from a sedentary lifestyle.


Very few climbers ever truly develop entirely new routes, instead focusing on improving their skills and repeatedly working on tough sections of routes they hope to master.  There is creative expression in working to figure out how your particular climbing style and body type can successfully ascend an established route.  Your partners can give you advice, and will protect you in case of a fall, but they can’t solve the problem for you.  You must try, and fall, and try, and fall, and try again.  As the expression goes at the crags: “If you’re not falling, you’re not improving.”  You might as well just sit on the couch.


There are educators at the edge of our profession who are boldly pioneering new routes.  A few of them don’t make it back, but most of these brave explorers return with glorious stories, grand adventures, and experience to share.  And climbing routes that were at the cutting edge in the past are now safely accessible to average climbers who are experienced and willing to fall occasionally.


As educators, we can all push ourselves at whatever level of skill and risk that we are comfortable with.  Maybe it starts with just going for a hike.  Just get your butt off the couch (and certain death), grab a guide, and live a little!


Oh, and don’t forget to bring the kids.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The blank page, structure, and novelty

Washington, DC


I’m enjoying this new journal that my cousin, Becky, gave me.  Not only does it have a watercolor of Mt. Hood on the front, it also has blank pages!  My previous journal, which had more of a Mediterranean faux leather cover, had rule-lined pages.  I was a little worried that a lack of lines would lead to a lack of straightness of print, but it hasn’t been a problem for me.  And would it really be a problem if my lines weren’t straight, anyway?


But the blank pages immediately appealed to my creative tendencies, and I started by drawing.  Hopefully I’ll break free of the need to only write in order to reflect on my experiences.


On a related note, last night, while presenting some of my ideas at American University in DC, an education student asked me about structure.  He said that he’s learning in his ed classes that students do best with lots of structure, but that my classroom as I described it didn’t seem all that structured.  Here are my thoughts:


First of all, my class is actually quite structured, but it’s a more casual, fun structure, and students help develop it.  We have actually developed detailed procedures for turning in work, cleaning up, working in groups, what to do when you’re absent, etc. (all the stuff Harry Wong so effectively promotes in his book.)


But clean-up time, for instance, is signaled not by my voice or a noise-maker, it’s Barney’s clean up song (with a fitting plot twist for the annoying dinosaur.)  Students groove around, cleaning up, and are back to their assigned seats by the end of the song.  It’s highly structured, but it’s groovy structure.  Having high expectations and an orderly class that benefits students needing structure doesn’t necessitate a strict teacher, or students who work quietly in their seats.


In the same way, stability in a home doesn’t necessarily mean financial stability, or staying in the same house without moving.  Stability can (and should) be built on the relationships within the home, however temporal the location or shaky the income.  The same holds true in a classroom: true structure and stability can only arise from the relationships therein.  Since these relationships are between human beings, we need to treat each other as such, and not as mechanistic drones that need to do everything in a mundane or traditional way.


Which brings me my second point: human beings actually crave novelty.  This is obvious from observation, and neuroscience backs it up.  Engagement and learning occur from novel situations, and we need to provide these situations as often as possible for our students.  Kids generally aren’t quite sure what might happen on a given day in our science classroom (sometimes I’m not sure where things might go, either!), and that’s a good thing.


Not only does it help kids get excited about coming to class, it actually helps them learn.  For students who need lots of structure, make sure it’s there at a fundamental level, but never allow it to become too routine.  That’s when boredom sets in, and learning for most students (especially "at-risk" students) ends.


The blank pages of my journal actually have quite a bit of structure, and I would argue that they are fairly limited and don’t actually present me with the possibility for truly novel reflection.  They are only 6”x9”, two-dimensional, and bound into a book.  I can overcome these boundaries, and try to do so with the more freeform structure of the web, my short films, and in the interactions I have with other people.  I have yet to start tearing pages out of the journal to make an origami piece, but perhaps it’s a future possibility!


Structure is not synonymous with routine, drudgery, or strict authority.  It can exist in the same time and place as novelty.  The human brain needs both, and it’s our job to facilitate that balance.