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.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Toxic shock

Cleveland, OH


The mood is changing at the Dept. of Education in Washington, D.C.  My friend and colleague, Stephanie, who is a teacher ambassador at the DOE this year had described the climate this fall and winter as “toxic.”


But she said that this past week, the cloud has dramatically lifted, and there is great hope and optimism among the permanent staff.  Here are some notes from an employee there that she forwarded to me (you may have seen this already):  You can call me Arne


The changes will not come easily, and they will not come quickly.  But the years of closed-door decision making and blindness to the reality on the ground appear to be changing.  It’s a massive system, and one that changes at a glacial pace, but it is at least starting down the right track.


[editors note: Michelle Obama made it to the Dept. of Ed within her first two weeks as First Lady and met with a few hundred people to recognize about a dozen long-time employees.  Our former first lady (whose agenda was education) didn’t make it to the Dept. of Ed until her last year, and according to my sources, only met with a few.  Again, not earth-shattering news, but signs of change, nonetheless.]


Monday, January 26, 2009

Loan Approval?

Redmond, OR


Imagine that your parents, in their later years, decide that they need to make a few upgrades to their home.  A new driveway, fencing, high-speed cable line, etc.  And imagine that they borrow it from you, even though the chances of them paying it back before they pass away are slim to none.  And what if you didn’t really have a say in it?


Now it’s true that without some key upgrades, your folks will have a hard time surviving at a comfortable level in their home.  And granted, you’ll probably inherit this home, whether upgraded or not.


But doesn’t it seem fair that if someone were borrowing money and it was going to significantly impact your future well being, that a good chunk of it should be invested in something that will impact you in a clear and positive way?


I would propose, in spite of some critics, that the economic stimulus package should include a significant investment in the citizens who will eventually be paying for it: today’s children.  Let’s stimulate the economy by investing in children’s health care, education, and social programs that truly look out for ‘the least of these.’


Interestingly enough, many people are complaining that the stimulus package is too much.  I agree that we are shelling out inordinate amounts of our children’s money, but for the past several years we’ve been spending unprecedented amounts on ‘neighborhood squabbles.’  One neighbor’s dog got loose and attacked us, so we sicked our pack of dogs on them.  We also attacked another neighbor that had nothing to do with it, erected tall fences around our property, and pissed off the whole neighborhood.  All this while incurring record amounts of debt to finance it.


Sorry, kids, for setting a poor example and then sticking you with the bill.  Hopefully, you’ll at least get something beneficial from the whole fiasco.


Friday, January 23, 2009


Redmond, OR


I have never been so lost.  A few nights ago, after sitting on the tarmac for a couple of hours in Scranton, PA (nope, didn’t see Jim or Dwight or anyone else), we finally landed in White Plains, NY (they had to shovel off the runway.)  I waited another half an hour for the car rental person to appear behind the desk, scraped off my windshield, and headed out into the night armed with the MapQuest directions that Andy always attaches to my trip info.  I’d finally be at my hotel in a just a few short minutes.


It ended up being over an hour.


The first problem was that the MapQuest directions were worthless.  This is actually fairly common, as street signs are not always accurate or readable (or present), there’s construction, traffic, roads don’t actually exist, etc.  But this time it was worse: Andy didn’t have the correct starting address, it was just the geographic center 

of the zip code!


“No problem, I’ll just use the map that came with the rental car.”  Except it was of the entire state of New York, which didn’t help me much.


“Okay, I’ll just head south and I’ll run into a populated area, and find it from there.”  (I wasn’t actually talking to myself, by the way.  That came later, mostly in the form of four letter words.)  Unfortunately, there wasn’t really a populated area; it was all just large estates and corporate campuses.  It was after 10pm, foggy, snowy, and there wasn’t a soul to be seen.  Even I was considering asking for help if I could find someone!


As I toured randomly around rural roads, strange merging “expressways,” and icy driveways, I thought of how we teach kids to solve problems.  It’s a lot like trying to get to a destination, and there are multiple ways to approach it.  Last spring, I had developed this “diamond of knowing” (or as one new colleague refers to it: The Geisometer.)  I’ve drawn myself on there as an example.



In trying to solve my current problem, I’d hoped that the factual would be enough (the MapQuest directions.)  But as is often the case, real life problems don’t always fit nicely in to neat packages or formulas.  Normally, I would rely on my analytical skills to navigate places quickly (my friends refer to me as “MapMan!” for this reason.)  But the map was woefully inadequate.


I have a colleague and friend in Japan who never uses a map or directions, Keiko uses an approach that is very practical on the streets of Tokyo: she simply asks people how to get everywhere.  This works great for her, but wasn’t an option for me this night.


This left me to simply explore creatively to create my own mental map of the area.  Not the quickest way to get places, but you really learn the area and find things that you normally wouldn’t find.  I generally prefer this approach (combined with a basic map), but not after 12 hours of traveling, while in the fog and snow, and on a very empty stomach.  (see my NYC video for more on this analogy.)


I eventually turned to technology, and using the map feature on my BlackBerry (which showed a not very helpful jumble of overlapping roads), the Google directions feature (it took me quite a while to figure out an address to use for a start location), and a bit of luck, I finally made it to my hotel.  I’m sure there were other solutions, but in my fatigued, hungry, confused state it just wasn’t happenin’.


In the current version of education, we’re focusing heavily on MapQuest directions and a little bit of map analysis, but rarely do kids get a chance to explore more practical and creative solutions.  When we need to reach a goal quickly, it’s easiest to just say “here, follow these directions.”  Unfortunately, life isn’t always so tidy.  And students need to know more than just how to get from point A to point B.  They need to get familiar with the whole intellectual landscape.


A combination of all approaches is needed, and balancing them is the job of the professional educator.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Guide to DC

Washington, D.C.

I've been in DC quite a bit this year, and now have a pretty solid knowledge of the town.  Check it out here:

Hire Ed

Springfield, IL


I’m becoming like Ed.  He drove the “limousine” (what I would probably refer to as a “15 passenger van”) with just little ol’ me in it from the airport to the hotel last night, and then this morning from the hotel back to the airport.  He was a friendly old feller, so I sat in the front seat so we could talk.  And he liked to talk.


On the 20 minute drive back to the airport this morning, Ed repeated 8 of the stories he had told me the night before.  I was pretty sure he recognized me, and I even started asking the same follow-up questions to jog his memory.  But he kept going, telling of an ice storm, his philosophy on freeway speeds, and about his career owning a flower shop, all with the same mellow and simple enthusiasm.


I’m starting to feel a bit like Ed, in that I tell the same basic things to the groups I talk to.  Sure, I change up the details, tailor each talk to the audience, and add new things each time.  But I’m losing the Ed-like ability to keep it fresh for myself.


The difficult thing is that what I’m doing and saying seems to strike a chord with people, and they want me to talk about creativity, whole-brain learning, 21st century skills, and so on.  In fact, the description of my talk gets sent out at least a couple of months ahead of time so people can print programs, flyers, and plan accordingly.


Andrea Peterson, the 2007 NTOY, says that when people call her up now to come speak, they specifically ask her to “tell the pencil sharpener story.”  It’s a great story (and continuing to evolve in amazing ways), but I imagine it’s tough to keep it fresh after telling it 80 or 90 times.


Maybe I’ll hire Ed to fill in as my stunt double.  He could tell the one about how the wind blew him across the ice when he went to go warm up his van – I mean… limousine.  I’m sure there’s a great educational analogy in there somewhere.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Spice it up!

Chicago, IL


“The flight attendants who spice it up usually get in trouble,” Rachel replied to an elderly woman who was giggling at the speed and monotony at which Rachel had finished her safety presentation.  “Especially after last week’s crash.”


I know what you mean, Rachel.  I just came from a teacher prep college where students seem to be a little apprehensive about “spicing it up,” especially after this year’s financial crash.  The job market is a bit tight, so taking risks becomes that much tougher when you’re new.


But with a little experience, passion, and creativity, it gets easier to do what’s best for kids.  It doesn’t have to be about “spice,” but it can certainly help!  Be brave, young teachers, and spice it up a little!  Just make sure you’re putting the spice on a good, nutritional, research-backed meal.  Bon appetit!




Roll ‘Em if You Got ‘Em

White Plains, NY

Yesterday was a big day.  After eight long years, we have a new President of the United States.  For most children, all they can recall are the Bush years.  That’s all they've really known!  For them, this truly is change.


As someone who tends to be mildly cynical, especially when it comes to politics, I have been inspired by Barack Obama and his historic rise to the Presidency.  I don’t think I am alone, as I have heard countless individuals (from disheartened and forgotten members of society to jaded political pundits) say things like “Even though it may sound hokey, those words, coming from this man, seem to carry an incredible amount of weight,” or “On paper it might look like rhetoric, but Obama breathes new life, energy and hope into the words he speaks.”  He is a symbol of hope for so many.


President Obama has inspired in me a new love for my country, a pride that I have never felt before.  I’m not a generally patriotic guy, but the symbolism and hope of the past year’s events have inspired me.  I’m not going to hang plastic flags from my car, sing “Proud to Be An American,” or blindly follow the U.S. and it's every policy, but I have been changed at a deeper level.  A level of optimism, a level of service, a level of hope.


In the next few days and months, we will see what kind of power is behind those words.  The power will not come from President Obama, though.  It will come from us, and our willingness to roll up our sleeves and work beside him, and work together, to make this world a more beautiful place for our children and grandchildren.


(Okay, that sounds pretty hokey on paper.  But I really mean it.)


Monday, January 19, 2009


Salt Lake City, UT


I actually touched soil in Salt Lake City!  I’ve flown through the SLC airport probably 40 times this year (it’s a Delta hub,) but have never been outside the security checkpoint.  Until now.


ING, who is the primary supporter of the National Teacher of the Year program, also supports The Creative Coalition, a group of filmmakers, artists, producers, and others who work to promote social change through various creative media.  They are also very active at the Sundance Film Festival.  So I was invited to come give a few remarks and enjoy a bit of time in Park City, Utah.  With Jen!


This was one of the highlights of the year so far (probably top ten,) because Jen was here to experience it with me.  We skied on Friday (for free!), attended a few events on Saturday, and took in three films on Sunday (not free, but oh so worth it).  Basic progression:  Physical Friday, Social Saturday, Emotional and Intellectual Sunday.  My usual trips are basically social, with a dash of intellectual, and book-ended by reclusiveness during travel.  So this was a nice change.


But we parted ways at the airport, Jen to head back home, and me to head east for the rest of the week.


[editor’s note: no major celebrity sightings, although I did get to hang out for a bit with Laurence O’Donnell (or McConnell?  I can’t remember), Nick Cannon (hubby of Mariah Carey and apparently a star in his own right), and Tim Daly (who is a really nice guy, and who Jen mistakenly thinks is no better looking than I.  Ah… blind love.)]


Friday, January 16, 2009

My Kind of Date

Redmond, OR


Jen is sitting next to me, on a plane!  This weekend is one of the perks of being teacher of the year (the other, of course, is being able to expense Odwalla juice at the airports.)  We’re heading to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah!  Together!


I’m not sure we’ll actually get to see many films, but we’re going skiing today (Jen found free day-passes online), going to a couple of release parties with celebrities that we should probably learn to recognize (we don’t get out much), and attending a luncheon to honor teachers who inspired the stars (I’m not one of them… yet!  I have no doubt that my students won’t let me down!)


It’ll be a nice three-day date for us, sponsored by ING.  I need to find a corporate sponsor for our local dating life, too!  We might have a better chance of actually recognizing a celebrity if we got out and saw a movie once in a while!


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Skip Intro

Seattle, WA


Ya know those websites with the fancy Flash animation sequences before you get to the main homepage or menu of the site?  And you know how they usually have a little button you can click that says “Skip Intro”?  I wonder where you can get those little buttons.


Susan, the assistant dean at the college of education at Seattle University, was introducing me before my talk last night, and decided to hit the “skip intro” button.  I almost hugged her right then and there.


It’s not that the intro is that bad, it’s just that I’ve heard it probably close to fifty times.  It details my life journey, the basics of my educational philosophy, and what my class might look like on a given day.  Susan asked if she was supposed to read the whole thing.  I told she didn’t have read any of it.  It was her introduction.


So she told everyone that the details were available up front afterwards, or that they could find them online later.  Instead, she told them something more meaningful, something she noticed when she first met me two hours before.


“I asked him if he missed the classroom and the kids,” she told the audience.  “And then his face lit up, and he said ‘Yeah, but I stopped by to see them last week!’  That look told me more about his teaching than any bio statement ever could.  This guy is a teacher!”


Maybe we ought to just send a picture of that face instead of the bio from now on.


[editor's note: I figured out which face it was...]

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hugs and Cuts

Redmond, OR


On Friday, I visited my school for the first time this school year.  I live half-an-hour away from Crook County Middle School, and I’m usually not home for more than a few short days at a time, so it just hasn’t happened.  I wish it would have earlier.


I was overwhelmed with hugs, smiles and questions from my former students (“Where all have you been?”) and my colleagues (“What are your plans for next year?”)


Sammy, Kim and Kylie urged me to come by the choir room after lunch because there were a bunch of other students there that caught word of a Geisen-sighting and really wanted to see me.  After a huge group hug / mob scene / mosh pit, a song for me, and sharing a few stories, Gerardo (who is the entire bass section (Austin is the tenor section)) raised his hand (he’s always so polite.)  “Yes, Gerardo?”  “Can I have my own hug, Mr. G.?”  “You bet, Gerardo.”


But there was an undercurrent of sadness permeating the school and the community, too.  Budget cuts will result in a school year that is at least two weeks shorter than normal, our forward-thinking technology program is facing huge cuts, the community is focused on banning an award winning book at the high school, unemployment is rising quickly in our little town, and next year we’re looking at a 10-20% reduction in staffing (we’ll lose several teachers at our school alone, which may mean the end of our vitally important team schedule at the middle school.)


There are tough times ahead, and ultimately it’s hurting the kids.  Unfortunately, there’s only so much a hug can do. 


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Productive Day

Portland, OR


I had make-up on by 4am this morning, but by noon today I’ll be hanging from the side of a cliff (on purpose.)


Yes, I realize that Sylvester Stallone got to have make-up and climbing at the same time, but as the nametag says: “Be Patient, I’m New.”


[here's Jen in the afternoon on the second pitch of an unnamed route at Smith Rock; much more natural for us...]

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

People... and fruit smoothies, too.

Providence, RI


I forgot that I was heading to the coastal Northeast: the rubber chicken circuit is actually the rubber fish circuit here.  Except the fish is really good.


Had a casual dinner with the Governor and his wife, Sue, last night.  Well, casual in that there were just five of us.  Not my usual casual, as in barefoot-in-front-of-the-campfire casual.


The five of us (also included the president of the Rhode Island Retired Teachers Association, Norm, and his wife, Nancy) were all teachers at some point, so the conversation was lively and filled with great stories.  We didn’t talk policy much, but I think the important parts of teaching and learning surfaced quite clearly:  Inspiration, Balance, Humanity, Relevant Skills for Real Life…


I was also lucky enough to see my friends, George Goodfellow (2008 RI Teacher of the Year) and Kathy Mellor (2004 National Teacher of the Year) at lunch today, who both give me a great deal of inspiration.


Someone asked me today at lunch what the best part of this unique year has been.  Without doubt, right after those tasty Odwalla natural fruit juice smoothies I can expense while traveling through airports, it’s gotta be the people.  I have been so fortunate to hang out with some incredible people, many of whom have become good friends, mentors, and colleagues.


Whether barefoot around the fire, or wearing suits and ties around a formal dining table, I’ve been able to connect with real people, and talk about real life.


[here's some local news coverage of the event:  news10education]

Monday, January 5, 2009

On the Road Again

Portland, OR


On the road again… I really could have waited to get back on the road again…


I’m pretty sure I prefer life on a remote beach to this complicated life we’ve created for ourselves.


I was pretty down this morning.  Getting up at 4:30 in the darkness and freezing rain, leaving my family that I’ve spent the last three weeks with, and returning to the rubber chicken circuit just didn’t do it for me.


But things are looking up already: I get to sit next to Miley and Kai for the next 4 ½ hours!  They’re both well under three feet tall, friendly, and asking good questions.  That makes me happy.  I may be on the road again, but the skies are looking pretty friendly.