Skip to Content

3, 2, 1...Blast Off!

Dee Gibson gets a bang out of teaching, but her vacation is a real blast.

Not many teachers have to tack on a safety-oriented “Kids, don’t try this at home” disclaimer when they tell their students what they did over the summer. But then, not many teachers are like Gibson, a first-grade teacher in Rockford, Illinois, who spends the summer setting off massive explosions.

As a member of a wife-and-husband-led pyrotechnics team, Gibson entertains thousands of people at air shows around the world each summer by setting off choreographed detonations. Using a carefully controlled mixture of dynamite, gasoline, and other explosives, her crew creates special effects on the ground that appear to air show viewers to be coming from the military planes flying overhead. She does everything from detonation to safety supervision while another blasting crew wows fans.

Several times Gibson helped the team break the Guinness World Record for the longest wall of fire.

Adventure has been a mainstay in Gibson’s life. Raised in Milwaukee, she joined the Women’s Army Corps after high school to see the world. She re-enlisted to earn enough money to fund her skydiving passion. Gibson ultimately ended up in the Army Combat Engineers, where she worked on bulldozers and blasted rocks with explosives to build roads in rural Honduras.

Once all in a day’s work, the 20-year teaching veteran now shares her explosive summer vacation stories judiciously.

“When I taught second grade, I told the kids what I did and they asked, ‘Can you bring in some bombs, Mrs. Gibson?’ I got some interesting calls from parents,” she laughs. “Now I explain it a little differently.”

Pat Terry

Seeing History for the Trees

Once a logger, always a logger, says retired educator Merv Johnson of Beaverton, Oregon.

Johnson grew up in Oregon logging camps in the 1940s, an era when giant “steam donkeys” powered the winches that dragged huge felled timbers from the forest by steel cable. Johnson, like his father, worked as a choker-setter, the logger assigned the hazardous task of cinching the end of a moving cable to a fallen tree.

“The old steam donkeys worked at only one speed, so when you set the choker on a tree, the donkey didn’t wait for you to get your hands free of the cinch,” says Johnson, a member of NEA-Retired-Oregon. “You worked on its schedule, so you worked fast.”

But just as he came of age, the steam donkey was being replaced by gas-powered equipment. The donkey’s disappearance led Johnson to change careers.

“I was traumatized,” says Johnson. “I was in love with steam engines. I wanted to be a railroad engineer or to run a steam donkey. When steam went out, I had no more interest in working as a logger.”

Johnson eventually became a high school industrial education teacher, but never lost his love for the steam era in logging. “Even before I retired, I started writing a book about the old equipment, and began to track down Oregon’s remaining steam donkeys.”

Today, preserving logging history is his full-time activity. He published his book, In Search of Steam Donkeys, has written numerous magazine articles, and has located 45 antique steam donkeys in old Oregon lumber camps.

Johnson has also compiled oral histories of dozens of loggers. Once a year, he demonstrates a working steam donkey for spectators.           

“The old days of logging are an important part of Oregon history,” says Johnson. “I want to see that history preserved.”

Matt Simon

The Need for Speed

It’s all about the thrill of speed for Camas, Washington, teacher Alisa Wise.

As if being a high school math teacher, a mother of four sons, and a football and track team coach isn’t enough, even Wise’s hobby makes the pace of James Bond’s life pale in comparison. She spends her downtime racing vintage and modern motocross bikes.

 Safety is her middle name though, not danger. While modern motocross racing can be dangerous, vintage racing is anything but, thanks to the older bikes and safer trails, she says.

Her husband piqued Wise’s interest in the hobby when they were dating, and it remains a family affair to this day. She brings her sons to racing events so they can enjoy some quality time together. “We all hang out, eat food, and watch each other ride,” says Wise. “Plus, I’m a firm believer in the fact that a family that plays together stays together.” It’s a deliberate effort to create long-lasting family memories, she says. “I lost my mom at a young age,  so I have a really strong value for memories.”

 But sometimes it’s just about the adrenaline, right?

“It’s a rush,” Wise says. “It’s addicting and I love the competitive spirit of it all.”

While many of her students are also riders (Washington’s rugged terrain is too tempting for many to resist), they are still often surprised to hear that their 38-year-old math teacher shares their passion. “I love to see their reaction,” Wise says, adding that she doesn’t expect time to dull her motocross escapades. “I see myself doing this for a very long time.”

Ritu Sharma

Educator Hip Hops To Help Students

South Carolina teacher Nikki Hunter turns social studies into a rapper’s (and students’) delight.

What would happen if hip hop artist Will Smith had a sideline seat at the Declaration of Independence’s signing? Or if Kanye West recorded a soundtrack for the Industrial Revolution? Hunter, an elementary school teacher in Newberry, South Carolina, thought her students might be intrigued by her take on the answers.

She recorded an educational compact disc called “Hip Hop Hooks on American History,” embracing the popular music genre. Her approach: make learning social studies fun by setting it to beats. Her songs on the CD include lessons on the three branches of government, the Industrial Revolution, expansion into the American West, and the civil rights movement. Call it School House Rock for the 21st century.

Two years ago, 87 percent of Hunter’s class scored below grade level on the social studies portion of the state’s standardized tests. She realized that while students loved hip hop music, they were less enchanted by social studies.

“I knew I had to do something,” Hunter says. “I created it out of my own frustration. I figured if I could hook them on a catchy beat and chorus, I would be able to hook them on information as well.”

Last year, she began testing songs with students while recording the CD after work. Even though it was only partially finished, 51 percent of her students scored at or above grade level during last year’s standardized tests.

Now the CD is complete, and Hunter uses it in class. It’s not meant as a substitute for other good teaching, but Hunter hopes the CD entices students to pay more attention to textbook readings, research, lectures, and discussions.

 “It’s definitely made a difference in my classroom,” she says. “My students are now hooked on history.”

Want to buy a copy? Email Hunter at They’re $15.

Cecil Cahoon


Got a Tip?

Do you have an interesting story idea? Contact section editor Cynthia Kopkowski at

Photos: David Coss; Craig Mitchelldyer; Jim Wise; Cecil Cahoon

Published in:

Published In