During his freshman year, a message scrawled across the Quad with some sidewalk chalk led Zac Chase ’03 to become one of the first members of Improv Mafia. The student organization is a troupe of improvisational comedians still performing on Illinois State’s campus. The dialogue is most often successful when the actors find unique ways to “follow the fun” in every scene.
Almost 20 years later, the same principle guides many of his decisions, both personally and professionally. Chase serves as the English language arts curriculum coordinator and district librarian for the St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado. Other stops in his career have included Washington, D.C.; Sarasota, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; areas of South Africa; and Kenya.
Growing up in a small town outside Springfield, Chase developed an early passion for writing. Though his high school was too small for a student newspaper, he wrote for the “Voice,” a section in The State-Journal Register. At Illinois State, he pursued English teacher education and joined The Vidette’s staff. He served as editor-in-chief his junior year.
“The way I think about the world and teaching English and teaching kids was developed by the process of a newsroom,” said Chase, who was a writing intern at Forbes.com the summer after graduation. Although dedicated to becoming a teacher, he was not sure if he was leaving behind a career in writing.
“I was passionate about writing stories and answering, ‘How do I best take care of the story of this person as a journalist, but also as a teacher?’” Chase said. “I was a little uncertain as to whether those two paths were connected.”
Reconstituting his career
In his third year of teaching, his interests began to merge. Chase left a school in a middle-class area to pursue a new challenge. He took a teaching position at Phoenix Academy, a high-needs environment with a diverse student population in Sarasota. The building had opened just one year prior to his arrival. After a rough first year, it was already being reconstituted.
Everyone had to re-interview for their positions, meaning the teachers, facility workers, and principal. Instead of deterring Chase, the situation inspired him. What’s more, his outside-the-box thinking was met with support from day one.
“I was not used to that,” Chase said. “So I asked my principal why he was basically letting me do whatever I want. He told me, ‘Traditional instruction did not work for these students; that’s why they’re here. We need to try something different to re-engage them, and learn how to be effective in helping them learn and grow.’”
The experience spurred Chase to pen firsthand accounts of Phoenix Academy’s rebirth for a recurring column in Sarasota’s Herald-Tribune. He also discovered blogging, which helped him transcend silos in education and scratch his writing itch.
“I thought, ‘Wait a minute. I can do both?’ That lined up with the theme of ‘How do we elevate the teacher’s voice?’ and ‘How do we teach in a way that will keep a school connected?’ Blogging and Twitter showed us that there are so many people you can connect with across the field.”
His blog quickly caught the eye of a teacher in New Zealand, and the two classes interacted online through a classroom blog and using Skype.
Learning from others
In 2005 Chase met Erin Gruwell, a California teacher whose students authored The Freedom Writers Diary. The Diary, which was adapted into a major motion picture in 2007, detailed how Gruwell helped 150 “unteachable, at-risk” students discover their voices by learning to respect the struggles of others. Some of the original freedom writers accompanied Gruwell when she spoke in Florida. Chase recognized a parallel between their life experiences and those of his own students.
“So my focus became, how do I learn from this success story?” he said.
In addition to adapting some of Gruwell’s approaches to meet his students’ needs, Chase collaborated with the nonprofit Freedom Writers Foundation on a writing project to compile the contributions of 150 teachers from across the U.S. The result was Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell. It documents a year in the lives of teachers.
Writing new chapters
The next stop in Chase’s career was the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, where he met friend and principal Chris Lehmann. The two began writing Building School 2.0: Creating the Schools We Need, a book with 95 theses. Each details a practical approach to inquiry-driven, project-based, tech-enabled learning and teaching.
“We attempted to write a book that was responsive to the structure of most schools,” Chase said. “It moves from theory to practice. If you like the idea of a chapter, at the end there are questions to help you think about applying that idea to your own context. We also shared ways to execute the ideas. It’s designed to also be consumable in a faculty meeting.”
The best policy
While in Philadelphia, Chase became increasingly interested in righting some of the wrongs taking place in the education policy arena. To that end, he earned a master’s in educational policy and management from Harvard in 2012.
“I was frustrated by folks who had never been in a classroom making decisions about the classroom and what happens in schools,” he said. “To me that was silly. But I also didn’t want to be hypocritical. I pursued that degree to learn the language so I could be a part of the conversation.”
After graduating, Chase became the instructional technology coordinator at St. Vrain. Within a year, he received a meeting request from the deputy director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology. The government official had heard about Chase through a mutual colleague.
“We had a great conversation discussing educational technology,” Chase said. “Then he paused and asked, ‘So, would you be interested in coming out to Washington to join our team?’” The department was in need of a writer to lead the revision of the National Education Technology Plan.
After his shock wore off, Chase thought, “These two paths are merging, yet again. This is awesome.” He relocated to Washington, D.C., for the next two years to complete the plan. The work was collaborative in nature, but those closest to the project pegged Chase as its quarterback.
A grand plan
Like any writer, his first step was to identify the audience for the plan.
“When the answer to that question is ‘the entire country’ that’s somewhat troublesome,” he said. “So to make this practical at all levels, we needed to talk to as many experts as we could.”
Chase traveled the country to education conferences and conducted in-person and online focus groups with librarians, higher education faculty, principals, and teachers. Recognizing there were approximately 14,000 school districts across the U.S., he and the team spent an entire year listening to as many educators as they could.
Their goal was to create a document with practical steps toward equity in education for all students. The team found themes, discussed the solutions to the problems, and determined what was needed for revision.
The project’s revisions were handled by a working group of 12 experts from all areas of the field. Among them was one of the inventors of the internet, Vince Cerf, who now serves as Google’s chief internet evangelist.
“Together we found the biggest themes, and focused on making every¬thing as concise and accessible as possible,” Chase said. “I think we did it.”
When Chase returned to St. Vrain, he earned his principal certification. Though an administrative role may be his next step, he is open to any other avenue that can continue his journey in a way that sparks fun for him, his colleagues, and learners.
“I want to always go where I can do the most good, and right now, that’s in Longmont,” he said.
Reflecting on Illinois State
In addition to Improv Mafia and The Vidette, Illinois State was also where Chase discovered Samuel Johnson. The author was introduced to him in a foundations course taught by English Professor Emeritus Richard Dammers, who previously served as the assistant to the university president.
Johnson wrote, “Make your choice and be content.” Chase has read the full text associated with that quotation, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, almost every year since he graduated from Illinois State.
“Life means choosing one thing, knowing that you have to give up something else,” Chase said. “That quotation has become foundational for how I think about all of the decisions I’ve made since then.”
While he is unsure whether his path may eventually take him back to education policy, a doctoral program, school administration, or a return to the classroom, Chase will always be indebted to Illinois State for helping make his career opportunities a possibility.
“Ninety-seven percent of Americans go through public education, so what better way to create change that can support democracy? Being an educator is one of my ultimate acts of citizenship.”