When I interview folks, I periodically like to follow-up and get suggestions for other people they think I should interview. That’s how I landed an interview with Zak Champagne, a fellow music nut (in a good way) and a fourth grade math teacher at Mandarin Oaks Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida. Shelby Miller of the Shifted Sound podcast recommended that I pick Champagne’s brain for his thoughts on teaching math and enjoying music. My thanks to Champagne for his time and Miller for the suggestion.
Tim O’Shea: What attracted you to teaching in the first place and math in particular?
Zak Champagne: First and foremost, I was going to be a rock star. Teaching wasn’t really in the plans until college. You see I had everything ready for rock superstardom except for the talent of playing or singing music. Now I was in a band…but we were much more into the superficial things about being in a band rather than actually being a band. But…I sort of knew towards the end of high school that I wanted to teach. Once I got into college (University of North Florida) I thought I wanted to teach high school. It seemed rather logical to me. But while I was preparing to become a teacher, I took a job at a youth center here in town and ended up working with K-2nd grade students. And it was during that time I had found my calling.
Now the math thing is a bit more interesting. Once in elementary school I saw a need to make mathematics meaningful to my students. I encountered so many young students who already hated mathematics. And to me that was not okay. I have to find a way to inspire my students to love mathematics for what it is. And I found one of the best ways to do that is to make it meaningful and fun.
O’Shea: In a Florida Times-Union article written about you last year at Jacksonville.com. it was said that “students are taught to explore and build their own understanding of mathematics” in your class. What do you do that you find makes your classroom an effective environment for teaching?
Champagne: Well I think it starts with trying to break down some barriers in mathematics. So many students come in with an attitude that mathematics is not accessible to them for whatever reason. I’ve heard them all…And after we get past some perception issues about why they find mathematics so horrible, I try to make it meaningful and accessible to them. As far as allowing them to explore and build their own understanding…I believe it begins with understanding that ALL students bring something to the table about every concept. It is the teacher’s job to understand what that something is and how to assess where that student is and then getting them to the next level. A good example of this is solving multiplication problems. When I start a unit on multiplication, I allow students to solve a problem in whatever way makes sense to them. So if they wanted to solve 32 X 12 by adding 32 twelve times…well it may be inefficient but it can be successful. And after all the essence of multiplication is just repeated addition. So after I find that a student wants to add that long strand of numbers I carefully guide them into understanding the next steps in solving that problem in a more efficient way. It’s tough when you’ve got 22 students to work with and they all are at different stages of their understanding, but I believe it is part of the profession and it should be an expectation of all teachers.
O’Shea: Back in 2007, you received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. In addition to meeting President Bush and the First Lady, you participated in a series of events in Washington for a week. What were some of the highlights of the week (other than meeting the president, I mean)?
Champagne: Wow…what an experience this was. My wife and I spent a week in Washington D.C. with 97 other awardees from around the country (The award is given to up to 108 teachers…two from each state) and it was singlehandedly the most important week in my professional life. And barring the birth of my children and marriage to my wife, probably one of the most amazing personally as well. I met some of the most amazing mathematics and science teachers from around the country and still keep in regular contact with many of them. I spent a day at the National Science Foundation and was privileged to work with the world’s leading mathematicians and scientists. I meet with government agencies, heard from the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, had a private tour of the Air and Space Museum, went on a private tour of the White House (no ropes!), and of course met with the President and the First Lady. We also got to watch the President and First Lady leave on Marine One from the balcony of the White House. Oh and I received a $10,000 check in addition.
O’Shea: Every year, you start with a new group of students each with their own skillsets–some who love math and some who fear it, and by the end of the year you’ve been able to convert those who feared it and to those who loved it. Can you describe how gratifying it is to see the transformation a child in your classroom undergoes in the course of the year?
Champagne: Quite frankly, its the very reason that I continue doing what I do. I really don’t think I have the ability to put it into words. Perhaps the most gratifying part of it is simply seeing them at the end of the year or a few years later. And sometimes it’s the parents who come back and make it all worthwhile. I’ve heard from parents who credit their child’s love of mathematics to my class (and one of those kids is now on his way to becoming an architect!). It is the most important goal I have when I start a new school year…I want those students to leave understanding and loving mathematics.
O’Shea: What are the biggest challenges you face in the classroom in particular or the teaching experience in general?
Champagne: Probably the biggest challenge for me comes from the public opinion about teachers. In my mind (at least generally speaking) there is a lack of respect for classroom teachers. And I’m not necessarily talking about pay (although that is of great concern). I cannot tell you how many people have asked me when I’m coming out of the classroom to become an adminstrator, college professor, mathematics specialist, etc. It’s like being a classroom teacher isn’t good enough. In other’s minds they think I’m selling myself short. When in fact, I know that I have the most important and amazing job I could ever want. And why would I want to leave that?
O’Shea: Since receiving the award last year, am I correct in thinking that you’ve had the opportunity to give speeches about teaching around the country–can you talk about that experience?
Champagne: Yeah, its been a little trying to travel so much…I never intended on that part of this job. I really don’t enjoy leaving my family as much as I have been…so that part’s been a bit drab. But on the flipside, I’ve been able to work with many other schools, districts, and states to share my experiences in the mathematics classroom and hopefully inspire them to become better teachers. There is a part of me that really does enjoy working with other teachers…but my true passion remains in the classroom.
O’Shea: In the past you’ve been involved in two blogs that supported music, The Two Mirrors and A Better Offer. How much new music did you become aware of through the blogging? Do you plan to return to blogging about music at some point?
Champagne: Now you see why the rock star comment was so important. My other passion in life is music. I love listening to, reading about, writing about, and talking about music. I absolutely loved writing for both of those blogs…in fact I miss it quite a bit. But, because of time demands in work and my family I had to let those go. It hurt…but it was for the best. The Two Mirrors began when a friend of mine, Richard Dudley, and I decided that we had enough to say about music that we should write for a blog. However, Richard and I are very different when it comes to our personal lives. I had a family with kids, and steady job, etc…and Richard is sort of the opposite of that. He is a musician…he writes and composes music, but he is not married, and still wants to be a rock star (and I am a bit jealous about his dedication). But we thought it would be interesting to write from those two perspectives about music. And it worked for about a year. Then we realized that we were just like every other blog…we were constantly on the lookout for the “next big thing” only to move on to the “next next big thing” a few days later. It was like independent musicians had become disposable…the very thing that those guys don’t need. It was like you could watch a band pop up on all the big blogs with glowing reviews and they maybe only recorded two or three songs and they were going to change the world…so we decided to go another route. I decided (and Richard contributed some) to start a blog that focused on covering a band exclusively for two weeks. That is all I would write about. I strove to get some exclusives from those bands, like interviews, contests, etc. And I absolutely loved it. And I think the musicians did too. It was sort of how I grew up listening to music. Once you found a band you loved, you did everything you could to get everything they ever put out and know everything about those musicians. And I feel like that is missing from today’s music fan…
As far as new music. I certainly found a lot more when writing for The Two Mirrrors…just because of the nature of that blog. And I certainly hope to return to blogging one day…but I can’t quite see it happening anytime soon…unfortunately.
O’Shea: Can you give us a glimpse of your “love of music” history? (For me, it started in the mid-1970s when I first heard Loggins & Messina’s Your Mama Don’t Dance and continues to today with music like Griffin House’s The Guy that Says Goodbye)?
Champagne: So I am a product of the early 1990s independent music scene. That is what I grew up with. I mean my parents had REALLY great taste in music. I grew up surrounded by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc..but at the time that stuff didn’t interest me. What did in fact interest me was independent bands who worked their tales off to get there music heard and did it in unique ways. I remember Fugazi shows for $5 and countless shows at a little club at Jax Beach (Einsteins-A-Go-Go). But something happened when I first heard Diary from Sunny Day Real Estate. It was late 1993 and I heard that record, before sup pop picked it up and it was like I understood life a bit differently. I still remember just listening to it over and over again. And that passion still resonates with me today.
O’Shea: What music have you been listening to lately–and in a larger sense, what’s the best music of 2008 and/or music that you wish was getting more attention?
Champagne: Currently I can’t stop listening to the Fleet Foxes record, as well as the Conor Oberst solo LP, Wild Sweet Orange, Tokyo Police Club, and The Dodos. I really wish people would just turn off the radio stations, go into a record store and buy some music. There is so much good stuff out there…people just need to wake up and realize they are being force fed a bunch of crap on the radio…okay so that’s a bit harsh…but it seems so true.
O’Shea: Where do you discover new music mostly? (I’m a product of my time, so I still love to wander into a CD store and chat up a good music store employee–sure I have an ipod and a computer, but for me nothing beats good old human interaction)
Champagne: I LOVE RECORD STORES. However, I do find a lot of tunes on good blogs and websites, and podcasts too. But one of my favorite indulgences is to walk into an independent record store find someone with good taste in music and let them pick out a few cds that I have never heard of. I do have a set of bands that I just love and I follow them, and many times I’ll find other bands that are stellar just by association with bands I already enjoy. But the most important thing to me is to go a record store and just talk…
O’Shea: Will the convenience of digital music ultimately put brick and mortar music stores out of business?
Champagne: I don’t know how to say this other than yes. I don’t think it’s too far off either. If I had my way I’d never buy anything digitally. Unfortunately you and I are the minority here. Unless something is released only digitally I will always buy a physical copy of the cd or lp. Now I own an IPOD and I have a computer full of music. But it will be a sad day if my son can’t walk into a store a store and buy a cd. I love the experience of opening the cd and reading the linear notes, reading the lyrics, looking at the artwork, seeing who the band thanked, and then putting that cd in the player and waiting…waiting for that moment where your life sort of stands still and the music just sort of washes over you. My wife refers to it as an IV. It’s like you are hooked up to an IV and the music just flows through your veins. I can’t see that love transpiring while you are impatiently waiting for it to download.
O’Shea: Do you see any particular new successful trends or technology on the horizon for digital music?
Champagne: The only trend that I really find exciting with digital music is the free digital download with some LPs that you purchase. I know a few record labels are doing this with their vinyl purchases and I think it’s a brilliant idea. I mean as much as I complain about digital music…I love my IPOD. I really do. And love the convenience of being able to listen to just about anything in my music library at any given time. I mean that’s amazing. I remember carrying the CD case around and having 20 or so CDs to choose from. And now I’ve got hundreds of albums to listen to. Currently I could play my IPOD for 20.7 days and never hear the same song. That kind of freedom is amazing to me.