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.)

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Measuring and Teaching 21st Century Skills

Here's a report worth reading on the measurement and teaching of 21st century skills (a.k.a. non-cognitive skills, "soft" skills, "higher-order" skills, etc., that can include creativity, critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, technological literacy, synthesis, and so on).  Produced by the Education Sector, it does a fair job of looking at the balance we ought to be striving for in our schools.  Check it out...


Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Long Ways from the Action

Dallas, TX


I wonder if it’s frustrating working for a national organization trying to make a difference in children’s lives.  It just seems like it’s often a long ways from the action.


I’ve been serving on a task force to help make recommendations to the board of this major national organization for how to increase and promote the role of the arts in education.  The topic of Sunday’s particular sub-group’s focus was supposed to be “Directly Affecting Students.”  I was hopeful that we might somehow actually focus on this.


Unfortunately, with no clear funding, no real authority, a "facilitator" that dominated the morning's discussions with negativity and elitism, and a limited scope of which schools might be affected, I have little hope that much practical value for students will come of it.  Perhaps our focus group should have been called “Hopefully Indirectly Affecting Some Generally Privileged Students.”


When it comes to directly affecting students, I think I’ll stick to teaching.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

We're Free!

Redmond, OR


Here’s an interesting idea: let’s have teachers work for free!


Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, in an effort to keep schools open, has asked teachers to finish out the school year on a volunteer basis.  In our case, that would be at least half a month’s salary (although the latest talk in Prineville is of 10-20 more days cut, in addition to the 10 we’re cutting already.  Worst case scenario: school ends at the end of April.)


But that’s where teachers would prove their undying commitment to children by donating a few thousand dollars worth of labor to keep the doors open.  Teaching has often been compared to missionary work, and now the comparison might become more valid.  Many teachers already have to find supplemental employment in the summertime to support their teaching habit (and take continuing education classes, as well.)  New teachers with young families often qualify for free or reduced lunch in the district in which they teach (and many even qualify for food stamps.)


To his credit, Kulongoski has agreed to take a 5% pay cut, and is encouraging other state employees to do the same.  The Governor is a great guy and has generally been an advocate for children and their education.  He has told me personally that his top three priorities are education, education, and education.  (I didn’t fully believe him, but education is probably in his top three.)


But I find his statement about teachers working for free to be a bit difficult to understand and digest.  Almost certainly, unions will protest.  And the public will be divided further between those who see teachers as overpaid, underworked whiners, and those who regard them as professionals who shape the future of our world.


Unfortunately, educators will again be caught in the trap between doing what’s best for children and doing what’s best for their own family’s livelihood.  It’s becoming tougher and tougher to achieve balance.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

News Flash: Teacher of the Year Interacts with Live Adolescents!

Tulsa, OK – In a rare move Thursday, National Teacher of the Year, Michael Geisen, was allowed to interact with actual public school students.  Witnesses report seeing brief conversations and even physical contact such as handshakes and pats on backs.  There were no injuries, but students were advised to have their doctor or psychiatrist evaluate them for unseen damage.


In a break with protocol, Geisen, 35, eschewed his position at the reserved table and instead sat with a group of 6th grade students who had come to hear him speak.  Lunch consisted of pasta, salad and bread.


“We took a big risk inviting adolescents to a celebration of learning,” remarked Dr. Debbie Landry of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.  “But it seemed to pay off, as there were no major incidents.”


When asked to comment on Geisen’s interactions, Dr. Landry was pleased.  “We had interpreters on hand, but Mike seemed to speak their language, and understand them, as well.”


“I was a bit nervous about it,” admits Geisen, who is on a yearlong sabbatical as a spokesperson for education.  “But I guess it’s a bit like riding a bike.  It comes back to you when you need it.”


Geisen is at home in central Oregon for the next day, recuperating with his family.  He will resume his travels on Saturday.

Monday, February 16, 2009


Dallas, TX


Spoke to pre-service teachers this morning, then college faculty (teacher educators) this afternoon.  After outlining my grand plan to save the world through creative, rigorous, balanced teaching, a concern came up.


“Many of our teacher candidates want to teach like this, but the administration at the school they are working in has mandated the use of highly scripted teaching materials and programs.  They want to know what they can do.”


Tough one.  This hasn’t been the case for me (my school has been very supportive of my creative teaching style), and I’m guessing that it won’t be an issue in the future.  I would either utilize my now-amplified voice to make change happen, or just find a different district in which to work.


But what was my advice to young teachers without these options?  “If you have to, then you have to, at least for the first few years of your career.  Make the most of it, be as creative as possible, and find what is good about the curriculum.  Learn from it.  Once you’ve been there a while, and had some success in your classroom and the community, work to change the system.”


Patience, young grasshoppers.  Change takes time.


Sunday, February 15, 2009


Redmond, OR


Things are looking grim around here for kids.  Prineville schools have now cut all spring sports, outdoor school, music positions, and are likely going to cut even more days off the school year (we’re currently cutting ten.)  

Redmond schools (where my own children go) are closing the alternative high school because the students haven’t met test benchmarks, shifting principals out of schools because test scores are purportedly not rising fast enough, and have apparently even floated the idea of cutting all other classes besides “core” classes (like physical education, art, music, etc.) and letting students out early to balance their budget next year.


Who knows what it will look like, or what mitigating effects the stimulus bill might have, but whatever happens, it’s not looking good for children, parents, educators, or our collective future.


[editor’s note: congress just passed the stimulus package, which will hopefully infuse money to ameliorate some of these cuts.  It’s unclear at this point what will happen.  In the meantime, Prineville has rallied around the sports program and is determined to have at least something available for their kids.]


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Southern Hospitality

Myrtle Beach, SC


Hush puppies, sweet tea, soap dispensers, Depends undergarments, and dial-up internet!  Ah, Southern hospitality…


Jen was bummin’ when she saw where I was staying this week: a resort on the beach in South Carolina.  Expected highs in the 70’s.


I was bummin’ when I checked in: the only thing in the 70’s was the d├ęcor.  “Budget cuts,” I was told with a sweet southern accent and a smile.


After dropping my bags in my room and getting introduced to the CERRA staff, they promptly kidnapped me for a night on the town.  After a dinner featuring hush puppies (I always thought they were a brand of shoes,) “she crab soup” (now usually made with both genders, however,) and Jambalaya (okay, technically more of a Cajun dish, but it was the only thing that wasn’t deep fried,) the real adventure began.  No one in this deserted resort town heard my cries for help.


After a 45 minute drive around town to find just the right shaped ice to crunch on, we visited the local WalMart to get some real shampoo, some disinfectant spray, and other products that seemed to go nicely in the basket of my electric cart.  It was a rather unique evening, to say the least.  My cheeks were sore from laughing when I finally (and cautiously) slid into the sheets.


This is a group of educators that loves to laugh, but I also learned that they are passionate and committed advocates for children.  They are active in the schoolhouse and the state house, educating teachers, the public, and their elected officials about the needs of children and the importance of public education. 


I was honored to be their hostage for a couple of days!


Sunday, February 8, 2009


Washington, DC


Jen and I got to attend the NEA Foundation’s Celebration of Excellence Gala this weekend (“the Emmys for teachers”) to honor a handful of outstanding educators from around the country.  Several of my Teacher of the Year colleagues were being recognized, and two of them – Mike Flynn from Massachusetts and Rich Ognibene from New York – were among the five finalists.  It was a fun and celebratory event, complete with formal wear, musical performances, and a beautiful banquet hall.


Plus, Elmo and Cookie Monster were there.


After the event, LeAnn, a sweet friend of ours from Nevada, went up to get a photo with the two furry muppets, but was turned away… by Elmo’s bodyguard!  Apparently Elmo and his blue, baked-goods-loving pal were getting a few publicity shots with the choir, then whisked offstage by their security detail.


As lovable and approachable as the muppets are, the logistical realities of a big event preclude the opportunity to meet with the masses, I guess.  Or maybe their union didn’t want them being overworked for too little pay.  Whatever the reason, our furry friends only met with a few folks before the event in the VIP room (pictured here is my friend Rich from NY), and a few folks after the event for a photo op.


As furry and approachable as our new ed leaders seem (see this post), I wonder how the realities of this massive system called ‘education’ will play out.  Rest assured, if I ever get another pass to the VIP room, I’ll make the most of it.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tinted, Not Tainted

Dallas, TX


Eight distinguished teachers pile into an airport shuttle with their luggage, but I get my own Lincoln Town Car (with tinted windows.)  We’re going to the same destination.  At the same time.


I was fortunate enough to attend the 2009 Teacher of the Year conference in Dallas this week, one year after I attended it as a participant and new honoree.  This year I was there as a facilitator/moderator/wiley-old-veteran guy.


What a remarkable group of people, each with their own stories and passions, taking on a new challenge in their careers with humility.  I was honored to be among them.


They were honored to have me there, too, apparently, as they showered me with compliments, sometimes bordering on reverence.  I don’t do well with reverence.  I assured them that I am just a man, and that they are every bit as worthy of the award as I.


But I still got a private car to the airport.  And although I had a wonderful conversation with the driver about this children and his family’s passion to care for the next generation, it felt awkward to be separated from my colleagues.  I felt much more comfortable reunited with them at the airport gate, sitting on the floor at their feet, sharing stories and laughing together.  No separation, no tinted windows, just sharing in our humanity.