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Riding A Story: Our Conversation With Teacher Of The Year Jason Edwards



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When Jason Edwards learned he was awarded Newtown’s latest Teacher of the Year title, friends, colleagues and administrators paired the surprising news with a massive succulent — “like 18, 20 pounds,” in lieu of flowers, referring to it as a “masculine plant,” and selected especially for him as the first male Newtown recipient of the honor.

“It’s perfect, because I went on [a] long motorcycle trip, and it grew spectacularly while I was away,” said the history educator of his new succulent and referring to his yearly (yes, yearly) summer excursions that have taken him all around the country.

In order to receive the honor, educators are nominated by colleagues, according to Edwards. The nominee may then decide to apply for Teacher of the Year.

After an interview, Edwards was selected from more than two dozen nominees being considered. He referred to the title as “a humbling honor,” insisting there were “plenty of more deserving candidates.”

Edwards said he takes pride in moments throughout his career where he is recognized — particularly from students — and detailed some of those honors.

In 1997, Edwards’ second year of teaching, students at Newtown Middle School voted him teacher of the year, and he was one of the inaugural recipients of a Profiles in Professionalism acknowledgement in 2014.

He has also been named in student superlatives many times. This year it was “most likely to win a rap battle.” He has also been chosen to speak at graduation, and to be a graduation marshal.

Methods And Connections

Edwards’ passion for history is rooted in an interaction during a special “artifact fair” assignment in school, which encouraged students to speak with older relatives about their life and family history.

Sixteen at the time, he turned to his grandfather George, a World War II veteran. After hours of conversation, reaching way into the depths of his family’s past, Edwards called his mom and asked if he could stay longer into the evening.

“It was a marathon five- or six-hour session of stories I had never heard before,” said Edwards, who employs the assignment in his American history classes to this day. “There are seeds in that conversation I still use ... every year.”

The history teacher mentioned his grandfather never taught “at” him, instead discussing the news with him from a young age.

Today, Edwards said his distinctive methods in the classroom involve connecting lessons to the real world and current events. By incorporating the real world in regular assignments, Edwards said his government class and curriculum change every year.

Reflecting on that method and his experiences with his grandfather, Edwards recounted something he tells each of his classes: “Our collective history is a series of individual stories.” He added he is not afraid to share “bits of himself” with students about his family history because it is something that makes his class unique.

“My identity is a teacher, but my identity is also reflecting my family and all that I’ve learned from them,” added Edwards. “I don’t shy away from that whatsoever.”

The educator said students can get “engrossed” in current event assignments. According to Edwards, his students are encouraged to pursue different sources outside of their comfort zone to become aware of the range of opinions on a given subject, and how people engage with their own knowledge, sense of self, and vision of the world.

“You may find what happens this year or what you learn this year subtly tweaks what you believe, or you may find that it radically alters it,” said Edwards, revisiting a message he relates to students. “All of that is okay, because there’s no prescription for what you have to think.”

‘Individual Stories’

In 2016, Edwards embarked on his first long motorcycle journey with “big-brotherish” NHS History Educator Ed Obloj, who introduced him to the hobby, and who wanted to tour the country on his bike one more time.

Eventually the pair embarked on a 26-day trip to the West Coast. The next year, Edwards traveled himself to Hollywood, to Denver, to Tennessee, and then home. He has been making each cross-country trip different from the last ever since in honor of his grandfather, who ignited Edwards’ passion for history.

He recalled his grandfather expressing regrets for not seeing more of the country. So, after his death, the educator resolved he was going to bring him along by wearing his grandfather’s military dog tags on every trip.

“I made a vow that I was going to see all the lower 48 states and take Gramps to all of them,” said Edwards. “I got to the Pacific Ocean and I dipped him in the sand and the surf. I took him to Yosemite and walked up Half Moon as far as I could and put him up there.”

Edwards’ list continued accompanied in spirit by his Gramps through salt flats, Death Valley, Mount Evans, and beyond. Last year, the educator tracked the lyrics of a favorite artist and went to all places mentioned in his songs, taking detours to thoroughly explore historic sites.

“I went to Selma, because I teach about civil rights. I went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where Bloody Sunday happened. I walked from the church to the bridge. I stood where John Lewis stood,” said Edwards in one recollection, adding he uses footage from the historical expeditions in his classes.

Edwards affirmed even the very act of riding facilitates deep thinking, adding that his longest rides are best for having various “epiphanies.”

“You are so focused on everything here and around you,” he said. “Other parts of your brain that are normally shackled are free to roam and free to get creative. Some of the clearest and most creative thinking for teaching has come on these rides in the last ten years.”

Edwards said he was able to envision the entirety of a convocation speech in the beginning of one trek in Nebraska over the course of 15 minutes, stopping to journal the transcript after the “epiphany” ran its course.

The trajectory of his trips, represented in different colors on his map, reveal calculated routes for a seemingly maximized experience. But Edwards said he would stop if he saw an interesting detour, or he would end up forgoing certain experiences — typically being rewarded by discovering something else worthwhile to see or do — or having unexpected, meaningful encounters with locals or fellow travelers.

Weather and mechanical difficulties also played a role in influencing experiences for Edwards more than once, leading to more chance connections with strangers and conversations that enriched his perspective about the country.

A Unique Trip

Over the course of ten years, he achieved visiting all 48 states. This year, Edwards had a unique adventure planned: attending and participating in a cattle drive from Wyoming to Montana. Serendipitously, the horse he rode was called “Gramps.”

“I saw City Slickers in high school and thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Edwards said, revealing what prompted the trip.

“It was the most physically challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done,” said Edwards. “Luckily, being saddle-sore on the bike, helps you on the horse. Being on the horse kept me from being saddle-sore on the bike coming home.”

Edwards shared a teepee and woke early in the morning to assist in driving the cattle into Montana. It was a special trip, which was meant to be taken the year of his 50th birthday. But it actually occurred one year earlier because of an unexpected opening in the program.

According to Edwards, his key takeaway was the depth of technical knowledge professional cowboys possessed about the economics, biology, and logistics of ranching culture — depth to concepts he may not have otherwise learned had he not experienced it directly.

“It helped me grow as a person, and what I know about this world and our nation and its history,” said Edwards. “I can bring all of that back to my classes.”

Pictures and videos of deep valleys and soaring mountains in succession seemed to serve as a multi-media journal for the unique trip. According to Edwards, the Pony Express cut the trails on a route that had been historically traveled for 130 years by the cattle herders who hosted him.

“Get along, get along, hey! Hey!” called Edwards’ voice in one video on horseback in the middle of the herd, the cattle trotting ahead of him.

“Welcome to Blue and Gold Stadium, tonight we have a nice inter-conference matchup with the Fairfield Warde Mustangs,” the video continued, prompting the interviewing Edwards to add “they really responded to the sportsmanship announcements.”

Concluding the interview, the Teacher of the Year shared a few words of advice about travel for recently graduated seniors.

“Do it. The world is a fantastic place. See all you can, but don’t forget the beauty, wonder, and variety of seeing our own country,” Edwards said.

Edwards indicated he will apply for Connecticut Teacher of the Year, and if he is awarded the honor, he will consider aiming for the national title.

Reporter Noelle Veillette can be reached at noelle@thebee.com.

Jason Edwards holds his grandfather’s World War II dog tags and stands with Gramps the horse, his trusty steed for part of the cattle driving trip. Also pictured is the history teacher’s view amidst the 400-strong herd. His bike is pictured in front of Devil’s Tower National Monument. Jason Edwards sits on top of Crackerjack, his horse for the second part of the excursion. — photos courtesy Jason Edwards
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