National Writing Project

NWP Teacher Named the 2011 Kansas Teacher of the Year

Date: June 2, 2011

Summary: Curtis Chandler, a teacher-consultant with the Flint Hills Writing Project, was named the 2011 Kansas Teacher of the Year for his creative use of technology in his eighth grade classroom.


For middle school teacher Curtis Chandler, working with the Flint Hills Writing Project in Manhattan, Kansas, "was a truly powerful, challenging professional development experience that reawakened me to the need to find time to write and reflect."

Chandler's reflections led him to develop an eighth grade course to teach students the math, science, and programming skills necessary to design their own video games. For demonstrating such creativity in the classroom, the language arts teacher from Wamego Middle School was named the 2011 Kansas Teacher of the Year.

Chandler received a $4,000 cash award, the use of a 2010 Silver Dodge Avenger for one year, and a $1,500 ethanol fuel allowance. The fuel and the car have already come in handy as he fulfills his duties by traveling thousands of miles statewide to discuss education-related issues with teachers, community groups, and legislators.

Recently, NWP interviewed Chandler about his unique approach to sparking students' creativity.

NWP: Did you have a special interest in video games before you began working with students?

Curtis Chandler: To be honest, I am not much of a gamer or video game enthusiast. This past year I took an interest in this type of media because so many of my students are into it. My question as a teacher was how to use our students' interest in video games to help them learn.

As a result, I have spent quite a bit of time exploring how to use video games, simulations, and the principles behind them to improve instruction. I am currently visiting different universities and school districts with a message entitled "What Every Student (and Teacher) Can Learn from a Video Game."

NWP: What skills do your students learn from creating these games?

Chandler: The philosophy of "students as creators" is truly the lesson that applies to the classroom. The program I use with my students, Scratch , was designed by an MIT affiliate known as Lifelong Kindergarten. Essentially, it is programming language for creating and sharing stories, animations, games, music, and art.

While everything we do in the classroom can't all be fun and games, more of what we do in schools should be.

Most of my middle school students create basic Pong, Pac-Man, and interactive stories. Some of them, however, have created some much more complex simulations. Whether they are beginning or advanced, they learn important mathematical and computational ideas such as percentages, fractions, decimals, x- and y-axis, and part-to-whole relationships.

NWP: How else do you use writing in your classroom?

Chandler: Writing is proving to be the medium for creativity in our classroom activities. For example, when we are reading Robert Louis Stevenson and the characters arrive at Treasure Island, I ask the student to brainstorm and create a description of what their own private island might look like. As the teacher, I help set the parameters, provide examples, make suggestions about what writing traits we should focus on, and provide feedback.

I'm finding that, like most teachers across the country, many of our students resist writing, but few can resist a chance to create something novel and unique. When designed correctly, writing gives them a chance to do just that.

NWP: In your work as Teacher of the Year, you are traveling throughout Kansas talking with teachers and other groups. What are some of the most common and perplexing questions you get from your audiences, and what answers do you have for them?

Chandler: Whether the teachers I visit with are new, experienced, or somewhere in between, they all seem to be asking the same question: How do we take our teaching-and our students-to the next level? As educators, we all seem to realize that it isn't enough to just provide essential skills and content. And while everything we do in the classroom can't all be fun and games, more of what we do in schools should be. Our classes need to be training grounds for reading, writing, and thinking, but they also need to be hubs for creativity, novelty, and problem solving.

NWP: What is the single most important message you want to get across to these groups?

Chandler: The most important thing we can do in education is to provide a learning environment that inspires our young people and fosters their creativity.

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