For those of you who didn't know, I was selected as a White House Champion of Change for being a "Connected Educator". Someone who is "taking creative approaches in using technology to enhance learning for students in communities across the country." You can read more about it here.
When I first got the email a little over 3 weeks ago, my first thought was "this is a SPAM email", and I almost deleted it. But it wasn't SPAM! So after sharing the news with my district (Waller ISD), my co-workers, and my friends, a last minute trip to Washington DC got planned.
I was able to bring a few guests along with me, so of course I brought my wife Liz, and I also invited my two best friends, Brad Waid and Drew Minock.
Liz and I flew in Wednesday morning! After leaving at 6am from Houston, we landed at Dulles Airport at about 1:00pm. We grabbed our rental car, and headed the 37 miles to our hotel in Downtown DC.
Of course after all that traveling, what was the first thing we did? Take a nap! Well I couldn't take a nap because I was far too excited about Brad and Drew arriving later that night, but Liz took a nap. After taking a brief break Liz and I decided to head over to Chinatown for dinner. Now I've used public transportation before. When I was in Los Angeles for a few days a few years ago it was easy. Well DC Metro Rail is quite more difficult haha. It was a learning process for sure! But after arriving in Chinatown, We searched and searched for somewhere without an hour wait but finally decided on Las Tasca. It was AMAZING. Probably the best food I ate all week. A great start to the DC experience!
Then we headed over to Reagan International Airport to pick up my two best friends. To say I was excited to see them was an understatement. If I'm being completely honest, I have to admit that I was even more excited to have my three favorite people in my life together for a few days, more so than I was even about the White House. Seriously. Relationships and the people in my life mean the most to me, and I hadn't seen my buddies since June, so the excitement had been building!
We picked them up, then Drew walked us around Downtown DC just showing us around a little. We headed back to the hotel to sleep and get ready for the next day of crazy.
The big day had arrived. We all got up super early, because as a WH Champion we were being given special permission to have a tour of the White House (the wait list is over a year we were told). We checked in with Secret Service (several times, haha), and entered the White House. We weren't allowed to take in any bags or take pictures, so that was a bummer. But walking into that house was mind blowing. Being in the halls of a building where so much of our country's history has taken place was overwhelming. There were several times I just had to stop walking, take it in, and hold back tears. I was so emotionally overwhelmed with the experience. I even told the guys afterwards that I think one of the coolest moments of my DC trip was standing at the front of the White House and looking out the front windows at the lawn and Washington Memorial. It was breathtaking to say the least. We spoke to Secret Service, learned a ton, and even saw the place where the President the night before honored people like Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey. After touring the White House we took far too many pictures out in front of it!
We then headed back to our hotels to get ready for the Champions of Change event. By now I was getting sick to my stomach from nerves. I had bought my very first suit a few days before so I quickly changed and we caught a cab back over to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the event. We checked in, again several times, with Secret Service and headed into the room. The room was fairly small and I quickly spotted my seat with my name on it. To be in a room that was so formal and see a huge sign on the wall and the podium set up, it was surreal. I tried taking it in, and emotionally I just couldn't. The 10 Champions were quickly put into a side room for us to get some last minute details.
Keep in mind, up to this point we knew pretty much nothing. We knew there would be a few guests, we know there would be a time for us to answer questions as part of a panel, and that's about it! So they took us back into a small room, and organized us to get ready for a picture with Valerie Jarrett who is the Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President. Well after organizing us, we kept waiting and waiting. We were told there were some surprises coming. At this point the time was 1:10, which was concerning considering the event was supposed to start at 1:00pm. So Bess Evans, who was organizing the entire event, came up to us Champions and said "ok I have a secret I can't keep any longer. The President is coming and that's why we're running late!".....to say the mood changed is an understatement. All of us got even more nervous, yet super excited about the possibility of meeting the President of the United States. Then Valerie Jarrett showed up, greeted and congratualted us, and took a photo with all 10 of us as a group.
They then ushered us into the room to get the event started (we guessed that meant the President was on his way!). We sat down and the Live Streamed event began. I was soooo nervous. Valerie Jarrett came out and did a quick welcome and then....next....the President came out! Wow talk about the room freaking out. I have to admit though that when he first came out my first thought was "He looks just like that guy on SNL!" hahahaha. Then he started talking and I couldn't believe who was standing in front of my eyes.
I was sitting in the same room, less than 15 feet away from the most powerful man in the United States. Regardless of your politics or how you feel about the President, I have to tell you, to be in the same room as this man I've seen on my TV so many times was emotionally overwhelming. I almost started crying right then. Why?
Because I've always lived in a small town. Up until the last year or so I've never really been that "big of a deal" or recognized for much. I teach in a tiny town in Texas. Yet now, because of my work with kids, or more importantly because of my incredible students, I was sitting in a room with the most powerful man arguably in the WORLD. Who am I, and what did I honestly do to deserve this honor. That is still a question I am asking myself, and I've spent quite a lot of time in tears, thanking God for placing this blessing in front of me, and praying I set an example that my friends, family, and my students can be proud of.
Anyway, after the President welcomed all of us in the room, he invited us Champions on the stage for a photo with him. I was able to shake his hand and introduce myself, and my friends and wife tell me he said "Congratulations Todd" (I don't remember much of the actual experience, I was too overwhelmed). Then we posed for a picture, and for a split second I experienced what it feels like to be a "celebrity" because cameras were flashing EVERYWHERE. It took everything in me not to break down right there on the stage.
We all sat down again and throughout the next two hours we heard congratualitions speeches from
1. Director & Assistant to the President for Economic Policy - Gene Sperling
2. FCC Commissioner - Jessica Rosenworcel
3. Director & Assistant to the President - Cecilia Munoz
In between the guest speakers, we were called up 5 at a time for a Panel session. I was in the first session with Daphne Bradford, Heather Cox, Misa Gonzales, and Brian Walsh. I was sooooooo nervous. I knew the world was watching, and I knew my students were watching and I so badly wanted to make them proud. We each introduced ourselves and then spent some time answering questions about things in education and our classrooms or careers. I don't remember much of what I said but I do know the panel discussions were recorded and are going to be put on YouTube (I'll tweet out the link as soon as they're put up; should be by Sunday). And I hope I really set a great example for my students.
The second panel then went up: Mark Coppin, Dallas Dance, Carolyn Foote (Go Texas!), Bud Hunt, and Jennie Magiera. They spoke so well and made the crowd laugh! I hope my panel went as well!
Then the event ended. It was all and extreme blur. I remember Brad, Liz, and Drew coming up to me and saying "Oh my gosh! You met the President!! He said your name! He shook your hand! You spoke so well!" and so on and so on. But I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't even comprehend what just happened. So we headed out, and ended up leaving right at the West Wing!!! So we took a few pics outside the West Wing and then headed to dinner.
We had a celebratory dinner at Old Ebbit Grill near the White House. Then we headed back to our hotels to change into more comfortable clothes so we could go see some of the historical aspects of DC.
We then headed out and Drew took us around (he'd been here before a few months before). We looked at the Washington Monument, front of the White House, Lincoln Memorial, the WWII Memorial, and Woodrow Wilson Plaza. It was sooooo cool seeing all these mind blowing architectural buildings/memorials and powerful as well. I was standing on so many places where history was made, where moments in our Nation happened. It's a crazy feeling for sure!
We got another bite to eat at The Hamilton restaurant and then headed back to the hotel to get ready for our final day together.
Friday we got up SUPER early so that we could head over and check out the Arlington National Cemetery before Drew's flight left (he flew out before Brad). We got there right after it opened and rushed to see Kennedy's Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Walking up to the Kennedy Memorial something was different. We noticed Secret Service, and some camera crews and we didn't know what was going on. We didn't even realize TODAY was the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination. We saw the Kennedy family arrived and experienced them playing taps in memory of Kennedy. Talk about a powerful moment (we later were in a restaurant watching CNN, and saw that Brad was caught on film! He made national news, haha).
We then went and viewed the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, and seeing a member of the military outside watching and marching was a powerful moment. I've gotta say it was quite sad to see all of the graves of the men and women who've given their live for our freedom and for this country. A reminder of the sacrifices so many have made!
Drew then got on the Metro to go catch his plane. Telling Drew goodbye was incredibly difficult. That man is incredible. If you don't know him, or haven't connected with him, I can't express enough how much you can learn from him. He inspires me every day and has been that constant friend these last few months who has not only kept me sane, but also kept me grounded and reminded me of so many things. He's got the biggest heart, and the best sarcasm and sense of humor. I love that guy and he is such an important part of my life. The only reason I was able to hold myself together when I was telling him goodbye was because Brad was still there. But it was so difficult to tell Drew goodbye knowing I won't see him again until March (and let me tell you March can't come soon enough).
Then Brad, Liz and I headed back down to my hotel to drop some things off, because I was able to "pull a few strings" and get us a personal, private, tour of the Department of Education. Cameron Brenchley, the Director of Digital Strategy for the DOE, invited us over. He showed us around the building. It was pretty cool to see the place where some decisions are made regarding education. We saw the many cubicles, Cameron's office, their meeting room, and even a GLIMPSE into the Secretary's office. I can't say thank you enough to Cameron who gave us the tour. He was so surprised we were impressed, but I just loved the opportunity.
Then Brad, Liz and I headed over to The Renissance Hotel to meet up briefly with Gail Conway and Brian Puerling. Brad knew Brian through Twitter, they heard we were in town, so we briefly met up and talked EdTech, Augmented Reality, and Flipping the Classroom. It was neat to talk with Brian and Gail and share some things, and Brad got quite a few compliments on the INCREDIBLE things he and Drew are doing with Augmented Reality and changing the face of education.
Then we headed off to see several Museums. We visited the National Archives (and saw the Constitution and Decleration of Independence), Museum of Natural History, and The Air & Space Museum.
We then went back to my hotel, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and drove Brad to the airport.
We dropped Brad off and said our goodbyes. Brad is amazing. Let me just say that now. He has been such a source of encouragement and strength for me these last few months. I knew that if anyone was coming to me it had to be Liz, Drew, and Brad. Brad is the most inspirational person I know and I am proud to call him my best friend. I am a better person for having someone like Brad in my life. After already holding it together barely while saying goodbye to Drew, I couldn't do it with Brad. I was tearing up just talking at the airport. As we said our goodbyes and Brad walked through the door, I lost it. I just cried. I had held emotions in all week, and it was overwhelming.
I am so thankful for social media and the relationships I've built like with Drew and Brad. The most difficult part though it only getting to see them every few months. But thank goodness for Google Hangouts, twitter, and cell phones to continue our building our friendships. I can't wait to see those guys again in March for MACUL, and to present with them at MACUL.
Now as I head into our last evening in DC Liz and I plan on seeing a few places tonight and in the morning and then heading home tomorrow, back to our "normal" lives.
This has been an incredible experience. I can't even begin to comprehend what took place this week and I don't think I ever will completely comprehend it.
But I have to say, there are so many educators doing incredible things. There are so many educators changing lives and inspiring kids, yet they never get recognized. They never get noticed. Accepting this award I remembered what it was like never being noticed. Do I feel like I deserve this White House Champion of Change? No way! Do I feel like there are so many other teachers doing just as incredible things as me and my students? Of course. Which is exactly why I tried tweeting as much as possible and writing this blog, to hopefully, virtually, bring you along with me.
Every since getting involved with social media, and more importantly Twitter, my life has changed dramatically. And it's because I now get to surround myself with some of the most INCREDIBLE people in education. Some of the most innovative and caring people in the world. I've chosen to surround myself with awesome people like you. And I don't think it's fair for me to accept this award without telling all of you thank you. Thank you for taking this journey with me, thank you for tweeting me, leaving blog comments, for sharing, for everything. But even more so I have to give credit to my students. They are, and have been, changing my life for years. My students are the most inspiring, innovative, incredible, hard working kids on the planet. They challenge me every day, even as I challenge them. And the rise to the challenge, face it head on, and together we're changing things.
In closing, if you made it this far through this REALLY long post, I have to tell you thank you. I was able to tour a city full of our nation's history, and meet the President of the United States this week. An experience that I don't think can ever be topped and one that I will always remember. I tried to express my experience through this blog, but honestly words can't even describe what happened.