I had a chance to participate in an NPR Ed summit on great teaching at South By Southwest EDU. Yes, it was as cool as it sounds.

I always wanted to meet conservative William F. Buckley, Jr, author Neal Stephenson, and just about anybody from NPR . Buckley died, so that will have to wait. I can’t imagine how Stephenson’s and my paths will ever cross. But last week at the SXSWedu Conference I got to spend a morning with the NPR Ed team

And yes, it was as cool as it sounds.


The morning started one evening last fall with an email from my friend Renee Moore. She had a prior commitment and couldn’t accept an invitation to be on a panel at SXSWedu from Anya Kamenetz, NPR lead education blogger and author of The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed With Standardized Testing – But You Don’t Have to Be . Renee wanted to know if she could offer my name as alternative. I managed to avoid the bears and woods remark, barely, but may have put YES! in all capitals. 

The Summit

The panel was in the third hour of an NPR Ed summit called Insights of Great Teachers. In the first hour correspondents Steve DrummondEric WesterveltClaudio Sanchez, and Kamenetz discussed how NPR covers education. They explained that NPR Ed focuses on teaching and learning as opposed to politics. Check out their 50 Great Teachers and Secret Lives of Teachers series to see what they mean. (On Twitter follow #50greatteachers.)

Note that NPR Ed’s great teachers series is not a hunt for the next Hollywood movie teacher, but rather a telling of the stories that show the kind of great teaching you can find in so many schools in so many places.

From the audience I asked the panel about the teacher leader movement – particularly teachers who want to extend their reach beyond the classroom without having to leave teaching. Sanchez replied that he enjoys the spirit behind the Bad Ass Teachers Association and that teachers who lead in instruction and policy tend to have a rebel spirit. Drummond talked at length about the vital roles teachers have in reforming education.

In the second hour, correspondent Cory Turner interviewed Drumright, Oklahoma math teacher Sarah Hagan, whom he had profiled on All Things Considered earlier in the week. Their talk covered her use of interactive notebooks, speed dating to teach polynomial nomenclature, and the differences between teaching freshmen algebra 1 and upper class students trigonometry. Simply put, Sarah Hagan is the teacher I aspire to be, even though I started teaching math four years before she took her first breath on earth.

Hagan stayed on the daise for the third hour and was joined by Shelley Sanchez Terrell , #Edchat founder and author of The 30 Goal Challenge for Teachers: Small Steps to Transform Your Teaching, and me. Kamenetz led our discussion about what makes a great teacher, how one knows they have an impact, how has the definition of great teaching been defined, and who exemplified great teaching in our lives.

We struck a good balance with Hagan and Turrell speaking mostly about teaching and learning and me talking more about the settings in which great teaching is fostered or dampened. All of us spoke about how teachers can use social media to enlarge our voices and bring educators together.


Participating in the summit lead to two insights and further confirmation of two prior convictions.

The first insight is that effective reporters have identifiable dispositions, just like effective teachers. Before the summit started, Hagan and I had a chance to chat informally with Kamenetz, Sanchez, Turner, Westervel, Drummond, and also reporter/producer Sami Yenigun, visual producer (and doodler) LA Johnson, and digital producer Elissa Nadworny. It came natural to them to make one feel equal, at ease, appreciated, and part of the team. In about a minute I felt we had worked together for years. I don’t think it’s possible to fake the kind of genuine interest they showed in us and our work.

The second insight is more internal. I had some butterflies beforehand but they were no worse than before other presentations I’ve been a part of. However, I had lots of butterflies afterwards, in a kind of a post-performance anxiety. But I would do it all again in a minute… Make that a second.

The first conviction to be confirmed is that nothing is more intellectually stimulating and makes me want to stay in teaching more than interacting with professionals like Hagan, Sanchez Terrell, and the NPR correspondents.

Second, based on comments from the audience, panelists, and correspondents, I also became more convicted than ever that we are nearing a threshold in education in America. If more and more teachers continue to show our expertise to large audiences and learn to advocate the policies and practices we believe in, we will earn the influence and status we deserve and education will wake to a new dawn of innovation and creativity.

Otherwise, the status quo will reign and night will fall.

(Note: Westervelt and Kamenetz tell what they learned at SXSWedu here.)

Update (3/20/2015): Check out Teach 100’s themes and takeaways.of the event.

Photo Credit: LAJohnson/NPR



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