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.)

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.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'm a Geek

Redmond, OR


I’m such a science geek.  I voluntarily sat in on an science symposium at Western Oregon University with presentations such as “Retention of sorbed nile red by manufactured organoclay in the presence of hydrocarbon-degrading bacterial isolates,” “The effects of varied ambient glucose concentrations on the intracellular glucose levels of human retinal pigment epithelial cells,” and “An examination of the effect of quercetin and bromelain on raw 264.7 macrophage function staphylococcus epidermidis and escherichia coli measured by cell demise and optical density.”


And that was just the high school student presenters!  (I’m not kidding.  Really.)  The next day we heard from the university researchers and some of their students.


I chose to participate in sessions on biological evolution, psychology, emergence in economic and natural systems, Tibetan Diaspora, and measuring the processes of group creativity.  Some fascinating ideas and good discussion.  I need that kind of stimulus, especially when it doesn’t directly apply to education.


I’ve never been one to read books on education, instead preferring to formulate my educational philosophy from personal experience, collegial relationships, action research, and reading in other areas such as psychology, philosophy, culture, economy, and developing science.  I find that my ideas tend to be more original, personally meaningful, and locally pragmatic when I’m the one developing them by synthesizing ideas from many fields.


The input from these presentations and discussions was enough to keep my inquisitive mind busy for a few days, opened up some ideas for me to research, and may eventually yield some new insights.


And all this on a weekend!  I’m such a geek.