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.)

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.