Greg Ott, teacher and tech pioneer - December 2009 - Best of Atlanta - Atlanta Magazine

Greg Ott, teacher and tech pioneer


One hundred and six years after publication, The Call of the Wild is still required reading in Greg Ott’s seventh-grade language arts class. Mr. Ott has nothing against antiques. But at Northwestern Middle School in Alpharetta, Ott has become known for something entirely different: a high-tech whiteboard rigged with parts from a video game machine. These interactive whiteboards can be purchased for a high price, but the principal heard about a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who figured out a way to build one for a fraction of the cost. He mentioned this to Ott, who helps implement the school’s new technologies and had already developed a website where students could see his assignments. Ott made the whiteboard work, using a remote controller for the Wii video game system and a regular pen equipped with an infrared emitter. Now, when Ott projects the lessons on the board, his students can write the answers—virtually—using the infrared pen. Why is this a good thing? Motivation. Ott holds daily grammar warm-ups, during which students must break sentences down into their components. This was once seen as a boring chore. Now they compete for the chance to stand before their peers and deconstruct sentences with the light pen. “You’d think they were on TV,” Ott says. “They’re really fighting to understand it.” Ott has helped ten teachers at Northwestern Middle install similar systems. And this fall, with test scores in the 99th percentile, the school held a special assembly in the gym. Georgia school superintendent Kathy Cox stood to announce the winner of the 2009 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, a $25,000 prize that has been called the Oscar for teachers. Only one teacher in Georgia would receive the prize this year. “Drumroll,” Cox said. “Gregory Ott!” Mr. Ott stood up, looking wobbly, and his students stood too. They raised their fists and yelled. —Thomas Lake

Photograph by Joe Martinez