Our Stories

The Teacher Everyone Wants

The 27 third-graders noisily walk into Larry Conley's classroom, but they quickly quiet down as they take their seats in a circle, facing him in his rocking chair.

Conley's voice remains even and calm as he reviews the activity of the day -- making prints as part of a lesson on Americana and the art of Andy Warhol. He commands the attention of every student and has complete control over the room -- something he is accustomed to from his first career as a Russian translator in the Air Force -- but he is not stern. He doesn't "dumb down" his terms as he kindly explains the lesson, instead speaking as if to a room of adults.

The students thrive on the equal treatment. As they choose the pictures they will use for their prints -- the boys arguing over the tiger, the girls debating who will get the butterfly -- they remain on task, for the most part. They are anxious to get started and to show Conley their progress. Even a perfectionist student who has a mini-meltdown receives respect and kindness from Conley, who constantly delivers praise to the beaming children. "It's a good thing Andy Warhol was born before you," he tells one girl who shows him her print, "because if you had done this first, he would have just been a copycat and you would have been famous."

No wonder Conley MAT'99 received a prestigious $25,000 national teaching award. He is the model of the excellent teacher. "The kids are so capable," he says as he shows off his students' projects adorning the classroom walls. "They come up with such great ideas if we just listen to them instead of saying, 'What do you know? You're 9.'"

Conley was one of two Oregon teachers to receive a Milken National Educator Award this fall. Called the "Oscars of Teaching" by Teacher Magazine, the awards make up the nation's largest teacher recognition program and honor up to 100 outstanding elementary educators every year.

The Milken Family Foundation has a tradition of giving out the awards by surprise assembly. Conley's campus, Heritage Elementary School in Woodburn, gathered one morning in late September for their assembly, although no one but the principal knew the reason. Oregon Superintendent Susan Castillo was there, as was former pro football great Rosey Grier. Soon foundation chairman and co-founder Lowell Milken spoke about a teacher at the school deserving an award. "My honest reaction was that it could be just about anyone in the room," Conley says. "The caliber of people working in Woodburn and at Heritage is just so high."

Woodburn schools, which have extremely high percentages of English-language learners, are not easy teaching grounds. Heritage has a special bilingual program that works with most of the Russian-speakers in the district. Eighty-two percent of Heritage students are Latino or Russian, and 86 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Conley student-taught at Heritage while working on his MAT at Willamette and chose Woodburn, in part, because of the language challenge. He hoped to make use of his Russian skills from his military days.

It's a long way from preparing morning briefings for Air Force officers to teaching art, social studies and reading to third-graders, but it's a transition Conley made successfully. He volunteered in his children's schools while in the military, and he enjoyed it so much that he knew he wanted to pursue teaching once he left the Air Force. Conley previously taught adults and high school students, but he feels that third-graders are the best fit for his teaching talents. "They're young enough where that sense of wonder is still strong," he says, "yet they're still willing to do things like homework."

Conley still is highly involved with Willamette's School of Education, both by working with new student teachers in the classroom and taking classes to get his administrative license through the Center for Excellence in Teaching program. "I love Willamette," he says. "I think the preparation that goes into the program is unmatched in the state."

Student teachers view Conley's innovative teaching style as a model. Conley follows a method called "storyline" that uses story-making to get the students actively involved in the lesson, help them reflect on what they're learning and give them ownership in their projects. For example, he teaches a parallel science and social studies unit where the youngsters create a fictional community and government that has to decide whether to allow a book-binding or a salmon-farming industry to come to town. Their decision is based on the community's resources and already existing industries. Even in third grade, the students learn about taxes.

The key part of the lesson is that students spend time developing their "character" in the town and analyzing how each industry might be good or bad for that character's life. "The kids are so engaged. They are part of the whole process," Conley says. "It's about contextual relevance; the lesson has meaning to them because of it."

This teaching method is particularly successful for English-language learners, Conley says, because it allows him to make concepts more understandable. "The lessons are rich in oral language development. It allows students to engage in the content in a non-threatening way."

Every wall of Conley's classroom is another story about how his students are engaged in learning. One wall is covered with paper collage self-portraits, with Conley's in a prominent place in the middle. In making the portraits, first the students colored pieces of blank paper in various peaches and browns to represent skin tones, then all the papers were put in the middle of the room so students could pick one they felt most closely matched their own skin. When they made their portrait, they often were using paper created by another classmate -- yet another way Conley involved the students in each other's learning.

During the print-making project, each student has a unique take on his or her picture, using different colors or different patterns. Soon it is time for class to end. "Artists, we're going to have about five more minutes," Conley says.

One student laments that he never made it to the painting part of the project. Conley deftly counters by putting the boy in charge of making sure his group puts away all the materials, a role the boy relishes. Conley continues handing out praise as students show him their paintings.

"Now for the fun part," he says, with a chuckle. "Cleanup."