Inside Education: Mr. Christian (4 of 4)

Welcome to our Inside Education Series!

Inside Education is a four-part series where we have students (present & past) talk about teachers that made a profound impact in their lives.

Murray Baker profile picture.
Murray Baker, writer.


Mr. Christian taught Honors English at Prairie High School. Enrolled in Honors English as a freshman, we would bring all of our uncertainty and eagerness to his first period class. His serious, straightforward approach to curriculum and willingness to notice students’ voice in lecture made every student aware that his class was going to be memorable (whether they liked it or not). Juan Christian, commonly referred to as ‘Juan’ in the lunchroom, boasting a Reed degree, always cut a couple minutes out of his class to let us know how his personal life was going with his woodworking projects, relationships with prior students, and perceptions of current events.

Why teacher was different

Mr. Christian modified curriculum to improve students’ writing capabilities. Every Friday there was a vocabulary test, based on a personally recommended book. He chose books from our curriculum, and after many lectures discusses concepts such as themes, motifs, and character foils, came his literary analysis essays. He famously emphasized that, ‘Every sentence must contribute to the thesis’. A powerful and specific thesis gave our essays strength.

Powerful verbs can really pack a punch. Later, I read a book about writing by Steven King emphasizing the same concept. Adverbs are weak, and tense should always be as forward as possible. A large vocabulary can never be underestimated, word choice regarding tense and appropriate usage make a piece of writing what it is.


Example of a project

Given an opportunity to do a research essay, we picked out a figure from American history and wrote a detailed research analysis of their life and work. I chose the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. Noting a couple books about his life, the news of his bombings, as well as his manifesto, my thesis examined the Unabomber’s turn from Columbia University education to his disgruntled Colorado hermitude explaining where he lost his will and why he did what he did.


Impact on me

I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without this man’s guidance. He emphasised concision, achieved with a strong vocabulary and familiarity with what not to do. The concepts of tense, vocabulary, and redundancy transformed my writing.


Why we need more teachers like this

This teacher demanded that goals would be met on a weekly and project to project basis. Given a curriculum, bigger goals were met while easily adhering to guidelines. Offering his time after class, he would sit down with his students and explain what could make their papers better.


How we can help teachers be like this

This teacher reworked existing curriculum to challenge and engage students, impressing faculty/staff and parents/students. Emphasizing fundamentals and nailing concepts into students’ heads made us reborn approaching his subject, English.

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Inside Education: Mr. Waldsmith (3 of 4)

Welcome to our Inside Education Series!

Inside Education is a four-part series where we have students (present & past) talk about teachers that made a profound impact in their lives.


Jenny Berkedal in the 4th grade.
Jenny Berkedal in the 4th grade.


Mr. Waldsmith taught the only split grade-level classroom at our school, half fourth-graders and half fifth-graders. The unconventionality suited him and supported his teaching methods. Led more by his personal interests than school curriculum, Mr Waldsmith brought the outside world into the classroom. During that year, as a fourth-grader, I skinned and grilled a fish, held a rifle, interviewed a sheriff (who I was reintroduced to years later under a different circumstance!), and established my own currency. Yes, we all had money featuring our own faces. Incidentally, money DID grow on trees in Mr Waldsmith’s class and you earned it by taking on extra projects and going above and beyond the normal call of duty for a student in an incentive program called “The Money Tree”.

Mr. Waldsmith really knew how to play to students’ strengths. While my former teachers may have struggled with my lack of patience and tendency to rush through projects, Mr. Waldsmith used it to my advantage. When I finished work that the 4th graders were doing, I was allowed to jump in with the fifth graders. I’m sure we were all allowed to do so, but I definitely felt special at the time.

On the flip side, when I struggled with my multiplication facts tests, he assigned me a fifth grade mentor who dedicated time to drill me on flash cards and proctor mock quizzes. It wasn’t a big deal to have faults in his class, we supported each other. He created an atmosphere that many teachers dream of.

More than anything, Mr. Waldsmith brought his own humanity into his teaching methods. He had so many passions and interests in his life. A lover of the outdoors, he won a grant to build hiking trails behind our school and then made the students clear and maintain themselves. He brought in his freshly caught fish in the classroom. We had more guest speakers in our class than any other as he understood that the best thing to pass on to the future generation was the find passion, to find inspiration, and then to dedicate yourself to it.


Impact on me

Mr. Waldsmith was different than any other teacher I’ve had. He played by his own rules. He challenged us with weekly cryptoquips–one of his great joys in life. He listened to talk-radio. When my sisters and I were featured in a local newspaper article, he laminated a copy for me and wrote a loving message on the back. He wasn’t scared of showing affection to his students. He took time to have conversations with us.

When I took a fourth-grade teaching position, I often thought about Mr. Waldsmith. I even brought the “Money Tree” to my classroom! He taught me that the best curriculum you can teach is one that inspires students to be interested in the world around them. I certainly hope that I paid adequate homage to his legacy through my own teaching.

I have the laminated copy of my article on my fridge to this day, with his hand-written note on the back.

Waldsmith's fridge note
Waldsmith’s fridge note


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Inside Education: Mrs. Brewer (Teacher 2 of 4)

Welcome to our Inside Education Series!

Inside Education is a four-part series where we have students (present & past) talk about teachers that made a profound impact in their lives.

Dana (writer) back in the 70s.


A Memorable Experience

We were a Navy family and in the 1970’s and 80’s. As was common for most Navy families, we moved about once every year. By the time I arrived at Glorietta Elementary in Coronado, California as a fifth grader I had attended five schools in five different communities, from San Francisco to the suburbs of Washington D.C. That year at Glorietta stands out easily as the best school-based education experience I had from Kindergarten through tenth grade. We left Coronado after my fifth grade year and moved to New Orleans, where I had a very different educational experience. The contrast between the two schools and teachers was stunning. The experience added to my already developing understanding of the diversity of school cultures and the inequities in public education, much of which remains true today.

So it is with the perspective of a child who experienced an array of school cultures and teaching styles, – that I remember Mrs. Brewer. Mrs. Brewer was my fifth grade teacher and my absolute favorite teacher from my childhood years. I remember many things about Mrs. Brewer, but mostly I recall the experience I had as a result of her efforts. Ms. Brewer used a cross-curriculum approach to instruction in a center-based classroom structure. She valued experiential, project-based learning and blended a constructivist approach to individualized, child-centered instruction with one that drew on a socio-cultural perspective for collaborative learning. Mrs. Brewer respected and enjoyed children, enjoyed teaching, and gave her teaching and her students a great deal of time and thought.

A child’s perspective and adventure in learning

I remember Mrs. Brewer as a teacher who was mostly very nice. Of course she sometimes annoyed me as well, particularly when she pestered me about my project deadlines. However, what I remember most is what how enabled her students the freedom to learn and explore in fun and creative ways, as well as the responsibilities with which she entrusted us and the rewards we received. Here are a few examples of what we got to do:

  • Make pinhole cameras and use them to track the cycle of the moon at night over time (homework). In so doing we learned about the properties of light and the night sky.
  • Go to the beach and log our observations of the rocky shore and the little crabs and other creatures that lived there. We saw these things with our own eyes.
  • Write screen plays, work in teams to make them into short films, and edit them ourselves (pre-computers, splicing of film strips, etc.).
  • Use our earned free time to climb into the little reading cubby to read a book of our choice or to have quiet time.
  • Crack an unhatched egg from our chicken embryology project to see what it looked like and identify what stage of development it was during the twenty-day cycle. (This was a specific request of mine. The answer was day 14, and while what I saw was a little sad and rather gross, it was also fascinating.)
  • Listen to our teacher read to us (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – hooray!)
  • Write silly stories and share and swap them with others in our writing group (“The Mystery of the Woman with a Lily Pad on Her Head” was one of my favorites. I kept it for years.)
  • Use the monopoly money we received for completing our weekly assignments to buy things such as pencils at the store we ran as a class.

A lasting impression and impact

My class of fifth graders from that time and place was empowered to explore, discover, struggle with little matters (why is it so hard to spell business?) and bigger ones (Why are boys so mean one minute and nice the next?) and grow into sixth graders. While we had textbooks, they didn’t dominate our daily instructional experiences. There was structure and discipline. Without it all that experiential learning would have resulted in chaos and confusion. Perhaps, most importantly though, there was a caring, engaged teacher at the helm.

At the conclusion of fifth grade, I felt as though curiosity was rewarded more times than not and that learning was about exploring the world around you and finding ways to effectively communicate what you learned about the world.

Supporting the Mrs. Brewers of the world


The quality and availability of instructional resources matter – from incubators to software and print materials. They matter as components of a curriculum that includes project-based, experiential learning. Unfortunately, many public schools still do not have access to the sorts of instructional resources, technical or otherwise, needed for experiential learning. The school I attended for sixth grade, in New Orleans, Louisiana, for example, had none of the things I describe from Mrs. Brewer’s class and likely didn’t have the human resources to support the use of them either. However, as we well know by now, what we think of as high-quality instructional resources are not much use without teachers who understand what their students need to grow as learners and who know how to use the resources at their disposal to the greatest effect.

Supporting the Mrs. Brewers of the world means supporting teachers as experiential learners themselves and providing them will all the resources, human and material, we can muster. How to facilitate such support is clearly a broad, involved topic. So, to keep it simple I’ll close with two links, one of which draws on research to provide a means for collaborative learning among teachers, and another that offers a teacher’s perspective on the value of experiential learning.

Margaret Riel’s work on learning circles is informed by a pedagogical approach that values collaborative, experiential learning. Learning circles provide an approach to collaborative learning that teachers may use to support their ongoing professional development.


A recent post in EdWeek outlines a master teacher’s thoughts on the value of experiential learning.

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Inside Education: Dr. Scott Shrake (Teacher 1 of 4)

Welcome to our Inside Education Series!

Inside Education is a four-part series where we have students (present & past) talk about teachers that made a profound impact in their lives.


Dr. Scott Shrake
Dr. Scott Shrake (right) of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona with our writer, Shardul Golwalkar (left)


Dr. Shrake was my professor in an elective course called Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS for short) at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Dr. Shrake became the EPICS director in 2012 and immediately invigorated the program with his young, vibrant personality and attention to detail to experiential engineering and getting things done. Most of my college professors were old-fashioned, had some industry experience, and were generally accustomed to their set ways. They’d lecture about a theory and then test us on memorization of facts for the test and then rinse and repeat until the end of the term. Scott was not like any of them – he encouraged feedback and experiential engineering at every turn.

Now let me explain the format a bit to give you some context. The class worked on a community service projects for the year. At the beginning of the year (around August/September), students would get a project list and Dr. Shrake would tell the students to rank their top three choices for what project they wanted to work on for the class. Projects ranged widely from local civil engineering work on a park to international work in Bangladesh around clean water. What made EPICS different was that it was real world, real-impact, and, most important, real people coming together to solve problems. In all my other classes, I’d learn about this theory, these physics laws, and then take a test about it and forget it. EPICS allowed me to put everything I was learning and apply it to a real-world problem with real people. It allowed me to prototype, validate, and iterate on products as a college student. It taught me how to present in front of a large audience. It gave me a platform to gain skills on presentation and application that no other class offered. I can definitively say I learned more in the EPICS program than I did in any of my other classes at ASU.

What Made Teacher Different

Dr. Shrake was different than every teacher I’ve ever had. He got to know students personally and would often spend time after class time helping students with their projects. In his first year of being a director, I don’t think he got much sleep, because he would spend evening hours with students going over presentations, giving advice on pitching, reviewing grant & business proposals, and demonstrating the importance of networking.

Project Examples

I spent about three years in the program where I worked on about five different projects. I co-founded three of them and the other two were projects I contributed to. My favorite was called 33 Buckets, a project around implementing a clean water distribution model in rural Bangladesh.  33 Buckets just launched a new Indiegogo funding campaign for their new project in the Dominican Republic!

Donate to the 33 Buckets project here:


After about a year, I had the pleasure of getting to know Dr. Shrake personally. I quickly found out that we both mutually love basketball, so we would play often and eventually I started playing with other faculty. It’s amazing how many opportunities I was given just by the goodness of Scott’s heart. I got to know the Dean of ASU Engineering personally along with the Dean of K-12 Education in Engineering at ASU through Dr. Shrake. Shrake taught me how to pitch ideas and convince others to join a team. He taught me life-long skills about networking, helping & enabling others, and life that I could never have learned in my other college classes or in life.

Why We Need More Teachers Like Dr. Scott Shrake

Experiential engineering. It’s a term that I love and should apply to all facets of life. We need more teachers like Dr. Shrake, because we need teachers that embrace experiential learning, and understand the benefits of teaching through action. Experiential learning enables students to understand that failure is not final, and allows them to do something that they love rather than passing up on opportunities for fear of failure. Experiential learning makes students get out of their comfort zone and embrace the unknown to find some success amongst the rubble. Experiential learning should be taught to all students world-wide.

How We Can Help Teachers Like Dr. Scott Shrake

Teach teachers to embrace ideas and have students try and iterate on prototypes rather than simply teaching theory. Want students to learn computer science? Have them build their own website from scratch, talk thru their ideas, and nurture engineering. Engineering, and life, is all about trying new things and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s about teaching yourself how to learn and hoping that others learn how to learn in the process.

Read more about Dr. Scott Shrake here:

Read more about the EPICS program here:

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