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.