Because of Teacher Carter Godwin Woodson, We Celebrate Black History Month

Socially conscious teachers all over the United States are gearing up for Black History Month, an annual celebration of the many outstanding contributions African Americans have made to our country. But did you know that Black History Month, itself, was the brainchild of a brilliant American teacher?

Educator Carter Godwin Woodson is credited with organizing and advocating annual Black History Month celebrations in American schools. He is also recognized as the first African American of slave parents to earn a doctorate in History. Admittedly, these are noteworthy accomplishments. But there is so much more to this brilliant man’s life story than is usually publicized. Did you know that, as a youngster, Carter was forced to work on the family farm rather than attend school? Nevertheless, he taught himself to read using the Bible and local newspapers. He didn’t finish high school until he was 20 years old. Did you know that he once worked as a coal miner in Fayette County, West Virginia, and then later went back there to teach school to the children of black coal miners, serving as a model for using education to get out of the mines? And did you know that Carter taught school in the Philippines, and then became the supervisor of schools, which included duties as a trainer of teachers, there?

To read more about this fascinating historical figure, check out my book, Chalkboard Champions.

Journalist Barbara Demick tells the story of Mi-ran, the North Korean Kindergarten Teacher who Defected

The country of North Korea and its quarrelsome Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un have taken top billing in the news quite a bit recently, and with the upcoming Winter Olympic Games scheduled in Pyeong Chang, South Korea, we’re likely to hear a lot more. You can learn a great deal about the political climate of the two Koreas, as told by the citizens themselves, by reading a fascinating book entitled Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, written by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick.

The volume traces the lives of six ordinary North Korean citizens who were raised to accept without question the totalitarianism of the Kim regime. One by one, each of these citizens experiences a life-altering disillusionment with their Supreme Leader, and each ultimately feels compelled to attempt defection from their inhuman conditions. Eventually, each one escapes into the welcoming arms of South Korea.

One of these individuals was Mi-ran, a neophyte kindergarten teacher assigned to a school near her girlhood home of Chongjin. Mi-ran dearly loved her little students, but although she faced her class each day with the most cheerful attitude she could muster, she soon became embittered by her government’s expectation that she systematically brainwash her kids into believing they had “nothing to envy” while she watched them die a slow, agonizing death from starvation. The riveting story of Mi-ran’s defection, and the sweetheart she left behind, make fascinating reading. Equally engrossing are the stories of the other five defectors included in the book, one of whom is Mi-ran’s lost love.

Up to now, when Americans think of North Korea, we see only the menacing visage of Kim Jong-Un. The stories of these six ordinary citizens who have survived in, and escaped from, one of the most repressive governments in the world bring a humanizing perspective to that nation.

The book, first published in 2009, was named a National Book Award finalist and was similarly recognized by the National Book Critics Circle. You can find Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick on

San Francisco Teacher Ninive Clements Calegari and Her Innovative Educational Program

One of the most pleasurable aspects of teaching is the vast opportunity the profession provides for innovation and creativity. Here is an inspirational video about a visionary teacher from San Francisco, Ninive Clements Calegari. Among Ninive’s wonderful accomplishments is the co-founding of a program called 826 Valencia, a nonprofit organization which supports writing skills and literary arts for under-resourced students age 6-18. Watch this presentation to learn more about this remarkable teacher and her leading-edge educational program.

Chicago’s Colby Burnett, winner of Jeopardy Teachers’ Tournament (2012)

There are many brilliant teachers working in many American schools, and each year the nation gets to meet several of them on the annual competition known as the “Teachers’ Tournament” featured on the game show Jeopardy. One such educator is Colby Burnett, who garnered first place in both the Jeopardy Teachers Tournament in 2012 and the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions in 2013.

Colby grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. As a teen, he attended Fenwick High School, a prestigious private college preparatory school located in Oak Park, Illinois. Illustrious alumni of Fenwick include Illinois state senators Daniel Cronin and Chris Nybo, NASA astronaut Joseph Kerwin, author Philip Caputo, Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Twomey, Chicago Bears player Mike Rabold, Chicago White Sox player Mike Heathcott, and Olympic gold medalist Ken Sitzberger.

After his graduation from Fenwick, Colby enrolled in Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in both history and political science. Following his college graduation, Colby accepted a position as an Advanced Placement History teacher at his alma mater, Fenwick High School.

After Colby’s success on Jeopardy, he was honored by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who designated December 18 as “Colby Burnett Day.” In his declaration, Governor Quinn described the talented teacher as, “a dedicated Illinois educator who demonstrated a passion for lifelong learning,” and said that Colby “has represented the State of Illinois admirably, and established himself as a role model to his students.”

Way to go, Colby!

You can read more about Colby’s Jeopardy win at this Huffington Post article, Colby Burnett Wins Jeopardy. You can also read the transcript of a Jeopardy interview of Colby at this link: J!

Teacher Lorene Harrison: Alaska’s Cultural Pioneer

I love to share stories of courageous teachers who have earned a name for themselves as intrepid pioneers. One such teacher is Lorene Cuthberton Harrison, a music teacher and singer who ventured to Alaska while it was still a territory.

Lorene Cuthberton was born in March 7, 1905, in Sterling, Kansas. After her high school graduation in 1922, she enrolled in Sterling College in Kansas, where she majored in home economics. She earned her bachelor’s degree and her teaching certificate in 1928. She was 23 years old.

The same year she graduated, this pioneering lady traveled to Alaska Territory, where she became the first music teacher in Anchorage schools. She also taught courses in home economics, general science, and geography. When she arrived, Anchorage had only 2,500 residents and the high school had only six teachers. Her salary was $180 a month, compared to the $60 per month that her friends were paid as teachers in Kansas.

Two years after her arrival, the pioneer educator married Jack Harrison, a local railroad engineer. The couple had two daughters. While raising her children, Lorene continued to teach music and theater. She also continued to sing for others, performing at private and public events such as weddings and funerals. When World War II erupted, Lorene worked for the United Service Organizations (USO).

After her beloved husband passed away in 1968, Lorene opened her own boutique which she called Hat Box. The store sold clothing and hats that she personally designed. The former teacher ran her store for 30 years. She also launched herself into various cultural activities in Anchorage. She organized the United Choir of All Faiths, which was the forerunner of the Anchorage Community Chorus; she served as the first president of the Anchorage Concert Association; she was on the founding boards of the Anchorage Arts Council, the Anchorage Civic Opera, and the Anchorage Little Theatre, and she served as the director of the First Presbyterian Church Choir for 29 years. You can read more about Lorene’s amazing life

This amazing chalkboard champion passed away at the age of 100 in 2005 in Anchorage, Alaska, and was interred in the pioneer tract of the Anchorage Memorial Park. In 2009, Lorene Harrison was inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame. You can read more about this intrepid lady at the link You can also purchase Mostly Music: The Biography of Alaskan Cultural Pioneer Lorene Harrison, which can be found on