Standards, Not Standardization: An Interview with National Teacher of the Year Michael Geisen
A few weeks ago, we were excited to learn that Crook County Middle School's Michael Geisen, a forester-turned-science teacher, was named by the Council of Chief State School Officers as the 2008 National Teacher of the Year. Selected for an innovative teaching approach that focuses on the individual needs of students, school/community connections, and collaboration with his colleagues, Geisen is now spending a year traveling nationally and internationally as a spokesperson for education.
He recently spoke with Public School Insights about a variety of topics including what he hopes to achieve as teacher of the year, his belief in the need to redefine "basic skills" and "intelligence," the support teachers receive (or should receive), and how he personalizes teaching to foster a life-long love of learning while increasing standardized test scores.
Listen to 5 minutes of highlights from our interview (or read through the transcript below):
Listen to specific segments of the conversation:
- Big Goals as National Teacher of the Year (49 sec.)
- Mastering the New Basics: Not Just the Three "R's" (4:48)
- Making Learning Personal (3:44)
- High Standards, Not Standardization (3:00)
- A Teacher of Communities (3:39)
- Support for Teachers/Support for Students (2:57)
- Parting Thoughts: A New Vision of Intelligence (1:07)
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: What goals do you hope to achieve as National Teacher of the Year?
GEISEN: We need to start with restoring some balance. We are in a system where I think we've really enshrined certain aspects of intelligence and really focused on those to the exclusion of developing the whole child. So I really want to try and help not only teachers at the classroom level but all the way up through policymakers to find a better balance in education. Because we need to start really viewing intelligence as multi-faceted and unique to each child, and help them develop their own unique way of how they're going to thrive in the world.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: How do you ensure that you can then address all these different kinds of needs in a classroom, so that you really personalize your attention?
GEISEN: I think that's one of the most difficult things in teaching-you've got a roomful of 30 kids and then they all have different interests and different learning styles.
My general approach is to really take a multitude of approaches to learn a particular concept. We may act it out. We do a lot of computer simulations. We do discussions. Some students are very musical, and so I write songs and music about science concepts.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You've managed in this way to raise, or help your department raise, the assessment results in the last few years. How do you find the time to engage in all these personal strategies while hitting standards?
GEISEN: It's really about...It's kind of narrowing the curriculum actually, and in some senses that can be a good thing. I post one or two critical things that we're trying to learn for that unit in a prominent place in the classroom, in front of the class. I share with students, "Here's what we're trying to learn," and I post it up there for a couple of weeks.
Not only does it help the students focus on what they're trying to learn, but it also helps me. I need to look up there and say, "Hey, is what I'm doing right now related to that content standard?" I call them the "SAPSBATDOs." It's just a silly acronym that stands for "stuff all people should be able to do." But it's kind of evolved into this strange martial arts theme and people become SAPSBATDO masters and it's just really...But anyway. It's up there, and it keeps us focused on what we're trying to learn.
In some senses, it really narrows the curriculum a little bit and excludes certain things that children are really interested in, unfortunately. But it also, I think, allows us to kind of focus on some standards and go deeper into them, and try and get to them all. I think as a school and as a science department, we've really done that-and it's paid off. Like you say, our science scores...[A few years ago], we had just barely over half of our students meeting state standards, and now this year we're up over 80 percent. Which is pretty impressive for a school of our socio-economic status.
It is about really having the courage to teach kids in the way that they learn best-to know that if we do this, they will learn the thing that they're supposed to learn, according to state.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You've also said that you started your education career as a teacher of science, and you quickly became a teacher of students, and that you ended up as a teacher of communities. What has this meant for your practice?
GEISEN: I chose to teach science really because I'm passionate about science. I quickly realized that, okay, I'm not just teaching science, I'm dealing with human beings. I think I've focused more on developing our classroom into community, and not been so concerned with getting through what we're supposed to get through.
Because [a student is] not going to be learning that day if dad has left them, or-I've got kids who have parents who are in jail and they're concerned because he's about to get out. These are real issues. And you can't learn when that's pressing on you. So sometimes I just need to back off and realize, okay, probably not the most important thing for this student right now to focus on what's the difference between a plant and animal cell.
I've said I've ended up really the teacher of the community, realizing that these students aren't living in a vacuum. They really live in this larger community. We strive to reach, not just the kids, but also their parents through the kids. Because [in] the community we live in, education is not a real high value. Of 36 counties in Oregon, our county is right around 34th in percentage of parents who have any college experience. So why should my job stop at just 7th graders? I think I really need to realize that we live in a community that needs to be educated as well.
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: If you had a thought that you would want to leave the public education community with, what would that be?
GEISEN: I think what we really need in education is to stop enshrining this very narrow view of intelligence, and we need to start to formally value other forms of intelligence that are going to be essential in the 21st century.
Click here to browse dozens of Public School Insights interviews with extraordinary education advocates, including:
- Actress/Mathematician Danica McKellar on girls and math
- Best Selling Author Kenneth C. Davis on engaging with history
- Nurse Practitioner Jennifer Danielson on providing health care at school
The views expressed in this website's interviews do not necessarily represent those of the Learning First Alliance or its members.
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