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Eighth in a series—What makes teachers good?



KERRY RICE.  One of the department’s most senior faculty members, Dr. Rice specializes in online teaching and project-based learning. 

Best—I was lucky to have the most wonderful, supportive, loving teacher in both 5th and 6th grades. I credit her with my love of lifelong learning. It’s hard to describe what makes teachers good. Is it how they teach? Is it their love of children? Is it their generous commitment of time and energy? Probably all those things. What I remember most, though, is feeling welcome, secure, and valued in her presence. I never heard an unkind word or rebuke, even for my most rambunctious classmates. Part of her success was in developing a sense of teamwork and comradery. We almost always completed our work in groups or teams. I remember learning long division in the 6th grade—what I would consider now the most tedious task on the face of the earth. But it didn’t feel that way in her class. She made learning fun and acknowledged even the smallest successes. I ran into her when I was waitressing in college. She came in and sat at my table. She said she remembered me after I told her my name, but that didn’t really matter to me. I gave her the biggest hug and am so grateful I had the opportunity to thank her for sending me into the world with a passion for learning.

Worst—Oh my, what can I say about 10th grade geometry? This was, I think, the first time I ever encountered a teacher who just did not care at all. I remember receiving some instruction, but the majority of my memories of this class have to do with how blatant his lack of caring was. He was always late for class. We might receive some instruction but most of our work was done out of assigned pages in the textbook. About 20 minutes before the end of class, everyday, the chip cart would come and he would usher them in, resulting in a mad, chaotic rush of purchases followed by crackling and crunching as packages were opened and potato chips consumed. I would usually slip out of class and go play tennis. The teacher never looked up from his desk, if he was there at all. I skipped that class a lot—what a waste of time it was—and I still got an A.

To lecture or not to lecture: That is the continuing question




EdTech Professor Norm Friesen is in Great Britain this week, where on Friday he will tilt his lance in defense of 800 years of university lecturing when he, yes, lectures at Hope University in Liverpool.

There are many reasons for hating lectures. They’re uninteresting. They epitomize passive learning. Some speakers are hard to understand. And students often can’t take notes fast enough.

Two years ago, Scott Freeman and several University of Washington colleagues analyzed 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods. Their meta-analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that 55 percent more students fail in lecture courses than those in courses that employ active learning pedagogies (1).

Harvard physicist Eric Mazur, who has opposed lecturing for almost 30 years, said it is “almost unethical” to lecture, considering the data published by Freeman and his team (2).

Some would say that Friesen is tilting against a pretty big windmill because he not only says that lectures indeed are ethical, but he asserts that the ongoing importance of this pedagogical form remains relevant in the face of a range of technological and epistemological permutations.

He says the lecture remains important because certain types of direct instruction are very relevant and widely used today.

  • TED Talks are lectures.
  • Inspirational keynote addresses are lectures.
  • Many MOOCs are based on video lectures, combined with activities, tests, etc.
  • Kahn Academy has “repurposed” the lecture/demonstration into a successful teaching model.
  • Flipped classrooms typically are video lectures and demonstrations at home, followed by questions and answers and teacher-facilitated learning activities at school.

Those are compelling reasons because TED Talks and conference keynote addresses are seldom dull, and Kahn Academy is roundly respected. Yet the perception of university lectures is often negative. What’s the difference? Is it the person or the pedagogy? And what needs to change? Lectures or poor lecturers?

Friesen does not suggest that lectures are necessarily good or efficient. He does contend, though, that lecturing is an important and even indispensable pedagogical tool, and we should figure out what makes them so, rather than reflexively criticizing them.

You might be surprised to learn that we’re not the first generation to look askance at lecturing. “In his 1869 inaugural address as president of Harvard University, Charles Eliot warned that “the lecturer pumps laboriously into sieves. The water may be wholesome, but it runs through. A mind must work to grow” (3).

I haven’t asked Friesen about Eliot’s comment, but I suspect he would point his lance toward MOOCs, Kahn Academy, and flipped classrooms as examples where the lecture is enshrined as a key part of cutting edge educational innovations. Each mixes a measure of lecture with learning activities, demonstrations, and discussions and labs in the classroom. It is those activities that work the mind.

But that’s not all.

Writing in The New York Times last year, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asserted that, “Lectures are essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship” (3).

She recounts a discussion with Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University. He told her that holding student attention is not easy. “I lecture from detailed notes, which I rehearse before each class until I know the script well enough to riff when inspiration strikes. I pace around, wave my arms, and call out questions to which I expect an answer. When the hour is done, I’m hot and sweaty. A good lecturer is someone who conveys that there’s something at stake in what you’re talking about” (3).

It is ironic that I should say this, as I have long been a champion of technology tools for improved student engagement and personally relevant active learning. Yet, I’m telling you that my all-time favorite teacher was a lecturer at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Oregon. His name was Mr. Katz and his strategy was to tell fascinating back-stories to what we had read, or would read, in our U.S. history textbook. When he got wound-up, which was most of the time, he talked too fast for detailed note taking, so we’d sit back and soak up the excitement of American history. Sometimes, he would laugh himself to tears at some twist of political fate. I don’t remember any of the details—my goodness, it’s been 45 years—but I certainly remember how he inspired me to read my assignments and to search for the stories and interesting characters in history. His lectures polished the dullness off of history and sparked a life-long interest.

I conceded to Friesen that good lectures could be an important, even motivating, part of an effective pedagogy. His only response was a smile, but I knew what he was thinking. Another windmill down!

Seventh in a series: Praises for a kind and caring principal

CANDACE McGREGOR has been the educational technology candacemcgregor-
coordinator for Denver Public Schools since 1999, serving 4,000
teachers in 156 urban schools. She has taught Boise State EdTech’s course in Managing Technology Integration in Schools and Online Course Design.

The Great—My second memory is of the elementary school principal.  I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that when I was in first grade, some family troubles threw my world into a small spin.  I was scared and didn’t know where to turn.  One day, she called me down to her office.  I sat with fear in the outside lobby until she opened her gigantic door and I was ushered in.  She was a very large woman with an even bigger smile.  She asked me to join her behind her desk, and when I arrived, she scooped me up into the folds of her lap, wrapped her arms around me and held me close, telling me that life was filled with adventures and this was just one of them and things would work out.  It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten and have often had to draw upon.  I wish you knew how much you mattered to me.

 The Not-So-Great—First grade was so exciting to me!  My teacher was joy, love, and laughter.  She loved reading almost as much as I did.  And every week, we had a spelling test, ten words to be drawn to demonstrate mastery of vocabulary.  I loved those spelling tests—the paper was divided into neat boxes, filled with our own pictures made using razor sharp colored pencils.  I had as much fun drawing as I took pride in my word knowledge.  Then, one day, the assessed spelling test was returned with a huge red check mark in the lower right-hand box.  I was devastated and ashamed, hiding my tears behind my desktop.  The word was sandwich.  I had given great detail in drawing a witch made of sand.  I’m not sure what I learned from that experience–maybe humility.  But as a teacher, I never graded a paper in red and I never summarily dismissed student ideas.

Sixth in a series: Too many questions = unsuitable student???

KIMBERLY DIANE HALL is an Diane Halladjunct instructor for five universities and has worked for Boise State EdTech for seven years, teaching three different core and three different electives in that time. She enjoyed reflecting on her best and worst teachers because teachers can have so much influence on our lives and we, as teachers, need to remember that. 
Worst—When I returned to college at age 35, I wanted to major in computer science. I love technology and knew I wanted to be in a technology field. The teacher I had for a beginning programming course caused me to change my major. I had some problems understanding the concepts of programming and asked many questions in class and outside of class. She ultimately told me I asked too many questions and should not have taken the class if I did not already understand how to program. Since then, I have earned a bachelor’s degree, two master’s, and a doctorate. I now teach college students and welcome questions from them.

Best—For the most part, I have been blessed with many wonderful teachers down through the years. My most memorable is a communications professor during my first master’s degree. I had him for many classes and he was also my thesis chair. He not only cared about the subject matter, he cared about his students and made learning interesting. I still use the notes I took in a research class he taught. He made things clear and encouraged questions. He was accessible to us not only during class, but also through email and by phone. It was not unusual for students to call him at his home. He is now a provost at Texas A&M University and I keep in contact with him through Facebook.

5th in a series: First day of first grade–and too excited to wait

CANDACE McGREGOR has been the educational technology coordinator for Denver Public Schools since 1999, serving 4,000 teachers in 156 urban schools. She has taught Boise State EdTech’s course in Managing Technology Integration in Schools and Online Course Design. We sometimes forget to appreciate our first teachers, our mothers, so McGregor ends our series with introspection on her mom, who was also a public school teacher.

My education has been filled with empowering, motivating teachers.  I was cared for, loved, and encouraged from the moment I dreamed of school.  In fact, my excitement for starting to school began when I was four.  Every time my parents drove by a school, I would ask “Is that my school?”  After a grueling year of one constant question, the first day of Kindergarten arrived.  Dressed in my hand-made, smocked red and black plaid dress (complete with a lace ruffle), my mother (also a teacher heading for her first day back to school), took me to the front porch for our five block walk to South Elementary–my school!  At the last minute, mom exclaimed that she needed a picture, instructed me to wait on the porch, and ran inside for the Polaroid.  But I couldn’t wait any longer.  So, I set out for that school.  When my panicked mother finally found me, I had safely maneuvered my walk to the school, searched the massive bulletin board to locate my name among the class lists, walked to the classroom, sat down in the front row and asked the teacher to teach me to read.  Thanks, mom, for teaching me to be independent–and I’m sorry I scared you!


The Great—No reflection would be complete without thoughts of Jim Fleet.  He was at the end of his career as I was just starting mine.  But the passing of our paths defined the course of my teaching.  Jim was smart, creative, innovative, dynamic, and the students and parents absolutely loved him.  So much so that he tried to retire twice and they wouldn’t let him.  I worshiped him—he was everything I wanted to be in a teacher.  At the end of the year, Jim would retire and I would be caught in a district-wide reduction-in-force of all first and second year teachers.  It took me several days to get the courage to ask Jim for a letter of recommendation.  He wrote one, but left it in my school mailbox on his final departure.  I took the letter home and when I read it, my tears reflected the highest of honors anyone could ever bestow.  His words gave me a confidence to move on with my career and to develop skills and relationships to carry on his work.  Thanks, Jim.

The Not-So-Great—In third grade, I was drawing a map when an announcement blared over the all-school intercom.  Along with five other students, I heard MY name called to the main office.  With terror in my heart, I went to the office and our small group was met with a nice woman who shared with us that we all had been identified to have a speech impediment.  I was mortified–I didn’t know what that meant.  We were all escorted to a dark, dank basement with rattling pipes and active mice traps.  We sat around a tiny table and were told to repeat certain words and sounds over and over.  All I wanted was to go back to my classroom.  This interruption would continue for a number of months until one day, it was declared we were fixed.  I never told anyone–I was embarrassed and confused.  The lesson I took to my teaching from those days is that adults have an enormous power over children and without a common understanding, the kindest of intentions can result in very negative experiences.

EdTech’s Norm Friesen to present three lectures in Europe

Jerry Foster

At Hope University in Liverpool (Sept. 30), EdTech Professor Norm Friesen will argue for the validity of an 800-year-old academic practice, the lecture. (See my expanded blog: The Lecture: 800-year-old pedagogy reborn.) In his presentation—”The Academic Lecture (1800-2016): Subject, Medium & Performance”—he argues that university lecturing is an important means of direct instruction for large classes. He further argues that lectures are not unethical, as asserted in widely published accounts by Harvard physicist Eric Mazur.  Friesen will suggest that lecturing, in its many forms, remains relevant in the face of a range of recent technological and epistemological permutations.

At Strathclyde University in Glasgow (Oct. 5), Friesen will lecture on “Hermeneutic Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning as Understanding.” Friesen will frame this presentation with the writings of Franz Kafka and Klaus Mollenhauer to illustrate that the broader task of interpretation and remembrance, and in this sense, of education itself, is as much one of difficulty and paradox as it is of recuperation and clarification.

And, in Loccum, Germany (Oct. 8), he will speak at an international colloquium on the social and cultural implications of reformation. His presentation is entitled Reading Reformed: The Textbook and Educational Reformation.”

4th in a series—Because it’s in the book, that’s why!




NORM FRIESEN is a Canadian citizen who has been a full-time faculty member in Boise State’s EdTech Department for the past three years.

Best— My sixth grade teacher was awesome! She would always greet her students with a big smile in the hallway, and would sing to us when we were lined up at the doorway at the end of the day. She would let us read the fiction books of our choice and write up and discuss creative reports on them. I would read books about space aliens, famous inventors and many other topics that I found absolutely fascinating. The first Star Wars movie played that year, so I would come up with drawings and descriptions of robots, space ships and all kinds of futuristic things, and would tell my teacher all about them!

Worst—My fourth grade teacher was not exactly the worst ever; in retrospect, she seems like an unhappy person who favored a few students and did not really care for the rest. Needless to say, I belonged to “the rest.” She would always tell us that “teaching is not a popularity contest,” but of course, I know now that unpopularity as a teacher should not exactly be worn as a badge of honor. I still remember when, during a spelling quiz, I used the American spelling instead of Canadian spelling (yes, there is such a thing) for the word “gray”  The (Canadian) way that it was spelled in our speller was “grey.” I asked her why it was wrong, and she said: “Well. that’s what it says in the book, so that’s what’s right.”

 EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to share your best-and-worst teacher story, please email it to .

3rd in a series: Let’s back up until we find solid ground

Mary Ann ParlinMARY ANN PARLIN has taught Technology-Supported Project-Based Learning for Boise State EdTech for the past couple of years. This semester, she is teaching Interactive Courseware Development, which focuses on digital animation.

Worst— I earned a degree in both Math (minor) and Computer Science (B.S.). In one of my higher-level math classes, there were only 4 girls out of about 75 students. The very first day of class, the very first few minutes of class, the professor, a male, asked the “girls” to stand up and tell why they were in the class. He did not ask the males to do this. All four of us stood up, looked at each other, walked out, and promptly dropped the course. That was the only time in my college career(s) or any job that I ever felt in any way discriminated against with regard to gender. I don’t think he even realized what he was doing to us, and I can tell you he didn’t slow any of us down. We went on to succeed in the hard sciences and became friends in school.

Best—Nancy Petty, math teacher. I was really struggling in her calculus course. I went to see her, very upset about my assignment and the fact that I didn’t understand at all what she was talking about. I was ready to drop out of the math program altogether. She sat me down, pulled out a fresh piece of paper, and gave me a really good, but inexpensive eraser. She told me we were going to have a fresh start. She backed-up in the material until she figured out what I DID know, and then she proceeded to pull me forward and teach me what I didn’t know. I left her office with a new outlook on life, literally.

To this day, whenever a class or a student is struggling with material, instructions, etc., I say, “Ok. Let’s back-up until we find some solid ground to stand on.” Then we back-up and then we can move forward. This technique has never failed me even in my personal studies. And it is extremely reassuring to students that are struggling. I view teaching very much as a partnership with each and every student.

I have earned four college degrees, including a Ph.D. If Nancy Petty is out there and ever sees this post, I credit my success to her!

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you would like to share your best-and-worst teacher story, please email it to .

2nd in a series: Why would they be surprised?

JERRY FOSTER. My fourth-grade teachers may be surprised to know that I have edited award-winning newspapers, hold two writing-related master’s degrees, and, or more than 15 years, have advised graduate students in Boise State’s online master’s program in educational technology, which is the largest of its kind in the nation, and therefore influences a lot of teachers and students around the world.

As a forward to my best-and-worst story, I should mention that I was always a mediocre student because I didn’t learn how to apply myself, nor did I learn how to study, until I enrolled provisionally at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon. Afraid that I might flunk out, I imposed a rigid regimen of study and, for the first time in my life, truly appreciated getting good grades. Why? Because I had worked hard for them. I later chose to become a teacher because I wanted other struggling students to enjoy learning.

 Worst—I think my first fourth-grade teacher might have been a troubled adult. There is no question that I was a troubled child, and the two of us became a troublesome combination. My parents were migrants, moving from seasonal summer jobs to scraping by on unemployment insurance every winter. My mother’s husband was an abusive drunk, so all I could think about was running away. Instead, I escaped by reading dozens of Hardy Boys adventures. My fourth grade teacher never counseled me or showed concern, and I don’t believe we ever talked one-on-one. Near the end of the school year, she asked me in class to respond to a math question on the blackboard. My answer was wrong and she said, “I’m glad you’re not my banker,” which only reinforced my indifference toward school.

Best—The following year, when I repeated the fourth grade, my teacher sensed something was awry in my life, so she invited me to stay after school every night and do my homework while she graded papers. She helped me when I needed it, but I loved knowing that help was there, even when I didn’t need it. My mother never helped me with home work or participated in school events because school had been rough on her and she didn’t want any part of it. I am not ashamed to say that I loved my second fourth-grade teacher because she cared enough to work with me. I responded and blossomed as a student. In my adult mind, she epitomizes what it means to be a teacher. Subsequent teachers, however, were not as helpful and I fell back into academic apathy until my first year of community college, where I learned how to learn without someone standing over me. Since then, I’ve earned a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees and have been a strong proponent of active learning and second chances.

A New Series: Best-and-worst teacher stories

Today, I begin a series of daily blogs (and Dixie will re-publish in social media) that, at times, will make you laugh or feel proud of your profession. At other times, well, wait and see. Just remember that we can all learn something from these best-and-worst vignettes of real life in the classroom.

Many educators enter the profession because they loved school. I became a teacher because I had been a mediocre student and thought I could empathize with and help struggling students.

I’ve gathered personal stories from the EdTech faculty and staff, and all of them illustrate the significant difference a teacher can make in a student’s life.

Today’s post is from a staff member who experienced the best and worst examples of teaching in a single year.

Tomorrow, I will share the first of my two best-and-worst stories, and you may be surprised (as I was) at the thread of similarity found in today’s story of opposites.

If you want to contribute best-and-worst teacher stories, I encourage you to do so. Please email them to me at I would love to share them.


From an EdTech Staff Member

Worst—My 9th grade math teacher was near the end of her career.  She did not like most of the students, including me, in our class.  Every time we made a mistake, she took it as a personal affront.

She criticized and demeaned students who scored less than 90 percent in front of the class.  She made humiliating comments that created a stressful class environment and destroyed the self esteem of many students. I began to believe I would never be able to do Algebra and my grades suffered in all classes.

She told us there were two roads in life, a high road for successful people and a low road for failures. Then she reserved a space on the board called The L-Road, where she listed the names of all of us who did not meet her A-level performance standard.

No one ever suggested that teachers shouldn’t treat students that way, so, for months, my name was on the list—with others. I was so stressed out that I developed severe test anxiety. Like other kids in the class, I never got a grade higher than C.

She told us we were lucky she came to class because no other teacher would. But, we came to class one day and she wasn’t there, and we never saw her again. Nor did we know why.

It was a sad situation.  I blamed myself. I thought that if I would have been smarter and tried harder that maybe she would have stayed and not given up on us.

After several weeks with a substitute, we got a new teacher who became my favorite teacher.

Best—Mr. Benton was the permanent replacement and he understood how awful the class had been and how far behind many of us were when he took over. He loved teaching math and wanted us to love learning how to use it.

He knew that many of us struggled to learn math, and that our minds were so full of anxiety that we had no room for confidence, so he took a totally opposite approach. He taught us how to build our learning skills because he knew that learning skills create self esteem. It was two weeks before we even talked about math.

He told us everyday our class would focus on joy, that math was meant to be fun and how we were winners—not because we got everything right—but because we were willing to try.

He set up a math club and sent invitations to our homes to join him after school for popcorn and coaching.  We would be a team, he said, and he would be the “math coach.” He brought in a popcorn popper and we all stayed after school every day to get his help with math and hear his advice on life. He told us we could not go to high school with the math anxiety because it would limit us in many ways for the rest of our lives.

He was so excited each time one of us “got” a concept or did a problem correctly. That was reason enough to stay after school for his tutoring.

He put a big piece of paper on the wall that he called the Galaxy of Math All Stars, and he put a star on it every time one of the kids excelled—no names—just stars, and every day we watched the galaxy fill with new stars. At the end of the year, he cut that chart into pieces and gave us each a piece of the galaxy as a “graduation” memento to remind us of what we accomplished as we headed for high school.

I still have my piece of the galaxy. Even after more than 30 years, it reminds me that I can still achieve more if I find help and work hard. It’s amazing to go from the L-Road to the galaxy in the span of one school year.