Gary Thomsen '72: Big plans, real lessons

By Mary Boone

He's played professional baseball, photographed supermodels and done consulting work for the Academy Awards. So when Gary Thomsen '72 became a high school teacher five years ago, no one expected him to settle for conventional classroom lesson plans.

"For students, relevancy is the issue," says Thomsen, a sports and events marketing teacher at West Seattle's Sealth High School. "They're always asking, why do I need to know about Shakespeare? Or, why do I need to know about some complicated calculus problem? If there's not a compelling reason, they're not going to remember it or care about it. Caring is the key to getting them to pay attention."

Thomsen's classes encourage students to conceive, develop and produce a major event each year. Emphasis on "major," as in a 3,000-mile cross-country in-line skating adventure, a bike trip from Seattle to Iowa's Field of Dreams that raised $20,000 for the John Stanford Book Fund, and a 4,400-mile combination bicycle trip-baseball tournament that traveled to 32 cities where Negro League teams once played.

The class' current project is its biggest yet: traveling to the International Peace Forum and Festival in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, where they'll present to world leaders their plans for the International High School Games, an Olympic-style event to be held in Seattle in 2003.

Producing these events-selected by the students themselves-teaches students a broad range of skills. They conduct research, write business letters and press releases, develop marketing plans, make phone calls, design Web sites, create budgets, design logos and more.

"Most people wouldn't believe how many students graduate from high school without learning to use the phone," says Thomsen, noting that the Negro League project alone required students to make about 22,000 long-distance calls. "I mean, they can talk to their friends, but they don't have any idea how to make a business call, or that they need to say please and thank you, or how to leave a message."

Thomsen's students finance their projects through sponsorships.

"We don't want grants, which is how most companies deal with educational institutions," says Thomsen, whose Puget Sound degree is in business and marketing. "Our students prepare sponsorship packages that provide corporations with a certain number of logo opportunities or inclusion in advertising. Then, those companies hold our students responsible for upholding their part of the deal-just as they would with any other sponsorship."

As they handle budgets worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the students include an actual payroll element for work done after school. Students set up a pay structure and rules governing deductions for tardiness, failure to complete assignments and absences.

"When we started this, other teachers told me the kids would run wild and try to pay themselves outlandish amounts of money, but they always come in at about $7 or $8 an hour," says Thomsen.

The monetary deductions provide what Thomsen calls a "painful real-life experience. Here are these kids who work maybe 75 hours per month for $7 an hour, so I pay them their $525 in cash, and I always bring $100 bills since most of the kids have never seen one," he says. "Then you've got a kid in the same class but he has deductions for being absent and for not turning something in on time and he's making $40 for $50 for the month.

"All of the sudden these kids realize they're not losing extra credit, this is cold, hard cash," he says. "At the McDonald's down the street if you are late two times you get fired. Well, we can't fire anybody from the class, but we can make deductions, and we do. Lessons don't get any more realistic than that."

Thomsen provides guidance, but the projects are the students' responsibility.

"One of the biggest obstacles we face when we're doing these projects is the low expectations people have of high school kids," he says. "When a kid calls and says my high school is doing a project, people automatically think about candy sales and car washes. It takes some real talking to get them to understand the stuff we're doing is bigger than that.

"The second part of the challenge is to get people to understand that, if they're challenged and motivated, high school kids can carry through on things," he says.

"On the barnstorming tour I was amazed the number of small town mayors along the way who said 'We didn't think you'd make it this far.' That's just not right. If we expect more, kids will expect more out of themselves, and they'll ultimately do more."