Grow With The Flow

For twenty years, Scott Oberg has been keeping Mounds View High School students engaged with his creative and openminded teaching style.

Taralei Griffin
Sep 1, 2019 · 8 min read
image via MVHS

*After I decided to release sneak peeks of my upcoming travel memoir on the first of each month, I found out that my ten year high school reunion was happening on September 1st, and knew that this was the perfect excerpt to post today.
Here’s to Mr. Oberg & the Class of 2009! ❤

It appeared that nothing had changed since my time as a student ten years ago — except current students were lounging in the lobby, playing Lizzo and Chance the Rapper from the speakers on their smart phones. Ten years ago, we would crowd together with our heads tilted close over one set of headphones, David Guetta’s latest hit playing from brick-like iPods or Zunes set at their maximum volume.

Aside from the nostalgia, walking through the halls of my old high school was also stirring up a whole lot of emotions and anxiety. “Just focus on your interview with Mr. Oberg,” I thought to myself.

Then I remembered that my former government teacher had signed his email confirming our meeting as “Scott” and groaned out loud. “I am not adult enough for this.”

Scott Oberg clearly thought otherwise.

As I walked into his classroom, he took one look at my face, grinned, and asked, “So, what’s it like being back?”

I shook my head slowly, and said, “It’s weird. Very weird.”

“Well, yeah, you’re approaching thirty. It should be.”

My mouth dropped open, ready to protest, but I found myself unable to speak. I stared at Mr. Oberg in horror as the realization that I truly was only two years from 30 hit me like a ton of bricks. I sank into the chair attached to one of the desks at the front of the class as he laughed and reminded me, “There’s no stopping it.”

That blunt yet good-natured honesty and easy sense of humor was classic Oberg, and despite the reality check, I felt myself relaxing.

We chatted a bit about what the past ten years had been like for each of us, and when I told him about how involved I had become in politics, marching, organizing, and even getting arrested at a protest in Washington, D.C., demanding that the Citizens United ruling be overturned and voting rights restored, he yelled, “Good for you! I mean, I teach that in my class, civil disobedience.”

I tell him that I remember, and that I also remember how he helped me learn that I was not a conservative, despite the fact that much of my family voted that way.

“That’s honestly one of my favorite pieces of teaching.” he said. “Because that’s so eye-opening for 18, 17 year old kids to start to find out who they are. You know now, you’re into your late 20s. You’ve discovered who you are as a political being, what your beliefs are, what your morals are, what your ethics are, and you’ve taken action on what you believe, which is way more than the average adult wandering around out there does. And that’s awesome, that brings me satisfaction knowing that I had a tiny little piece of that, in getting you involved in that.”

December 2008, making gingerbread houses in Mr. Oberg’s US Government class because “there’s no way I’m getting any of you to focus the day before holiday break.”

Whether it was history or government, I always looked forward to Mr. Oberg’s class — and I’m not alone in that.

In 2007, the Facebook group “Everything I need to know in life I can learn from Mr. Oberg” was created. Around friends from high school, I frequently hear, “Remember in Oberg’s class when…?” This guy is the stuff of legend. But really, what else could the teacher who once rapped the entirety of “Ice, Ice Baby” in the school lobby be?

Scott Oberg has been a social studies teacher in the Mounds View School District since 1997. He started at Highview Middle School for 3 years, then moved to Mounds View High School, where he’s been ever since.

“I went to college initially as a history major, thinking I really enjoy history, I’d love to study it, and after 2 years of being a history major, I began to realize at 20 years old… what do you do with a history degree?” he explained when asked about how he decided to be a teacher. “You could work at a museum, which didn’t sound all that interesting to me. You could go to law school, which was kind of intriguing to me, but at the same time I wasn’t sure that as a trade it was something I’d be satisfied with. So then I started thinking, what do I really, really enjoy?”

After some thought, his answer was that he enjoyed being around kids, playing baseball, and teaching baseball to younger kids — so he decided to take some education classes at the local junior college.

“If I go to work, I don’t want to get up every Tuesday dreading going to work. I want to enjoy what I do, I want to have fun doing it,” Oberg stated. “I enjoy being around the kids, they’re fun, and they’re different every year — they’re different every semester! And now I’ve got former students here asking me questions and that’s rewarding, it makes me feel like what I’m doing here is… you know, I know it’s worthwhile, but this is proof that it’s worthwhile.”

One of the things that kept coming up as we talked was that with each generation, he’s had to change up his teaching style. Recently, incorporating technology into his lessons has been hugely important. Ten years ago, barely any of us had cell phones, and those of us that did certainly didn’t have smart phones. Now, kids have the world at their fingertips.

“You can’t really combat it, nor is it worth the time and effort to combat it, so you just try to find a way to incorporate it in the class,” Oberg explained.

“You need to get creative, get the kids up and moving around, but at the same time incorporate the technology without losing the face to face discussion that’s so important to politics. These are kids in high school, they should be able to have some civil discourse, talk with each other about what they believe in a polite and informed fashion, understand that even when people don’t believe the exact same thing they believe, it’s okay. You’re incorporating a lot of different things into the classroom, whereas 20 years ago you could just stand up and lecture for the entire hour, and that was okay. You can’t do that with this generation.”

After interviewing the legend himself on September 19, 2018

Tests were one of the things I dreaded most about school — yet I always looked forward to them in Government because it meant we got to play Red Card, Green Card.

“I call it my analog test review, because so much test review is now online.”

The class is split into teams, and each team sends a representative to the front of the class. They are given questions from the upcoming test, and three possible answers. The students that answer correctly are given 3 points, represented by a green card, to take back to their team, and a red card, representing one point, if they answer the follow-up question correctly.

“It’s a creative way of preparing for a test that moves away from everything else I’m doing, which is incorporation of technology, and the kids love it because it’s a change of pace.”

Getting nostalgic, I had to ask, “Do you still do the Super…?”

“The Super Double Bonus Question?” he interrupted enthusiastically. “Look at you remembering all this!”

“I do still do that from time to time. Most of those are just random questions I think of, and the kids get super excited. I show my old age, I’ll try to ask a question about some music artist that I’ve got no clue about, like ‘Wiz Khalifa, I think…’ They’re like ‘ha, look at this old guy’ and I’m like ‘look at you, you’re engaged, you’re paying attention, and you’re getting the answers you need for the upcoming test, so you’re good’.”

Fully on the nostalgia train now, I also had to ask, “Do you still have the same hatred for geese? I’m curious. You used to talk about that all the time.”

Oberg laughs. “We have since moved to a different house, so my hatred for geese has subsided because they are no longer a menace to my lawn.”

“My new nemesis are deer. They eat all the bird food — because I’m old so I like to feed the birds — and they eat all of my plants, like my hostas and my day lilies — I’m old, I like to plant things and grow things — so the deer eat all of those and they really bother me, so now I don’t like deer.” Still laughing, he said, “I just switched my hatred from geese to deer. They keep getting bigger, next it’ll be like elephants or something.”

I laugh with him, but am also inwardly questioning my views on my own age again. Feeding the birds and tending to my many houseplants are personal hobbies of my own that I never thought of as being for “old people”.

Moving away from the subject of age, I ask if there’s anything specific he would want readers to know about why creativity is important to him.

“I’m no artist, I’m no musician, I’m not creating sculptures and paintings, but I still think you can be creative in your work life or your every day life regardless if there’s nothing that’s super tangible, no end product from it.”

I tell him that many of his students would disagree that there’s no tangible result from taking his classes, and find myself thinking back to something he’d said earlier about why he teaches.

“This is a way for me to still give back and earn a pay check and make the mortgage payment, you know, do all that kind of stuff as well.

“It’s the best of both worlds.”

The full interview and more on my visit to MVHS can be found in THE GREAT MEANDER, available January 1st, 2020. Public schools are not the only form of education discussed — the book will also feature a discussion with the staff and students at Gaia Democratic School, an interview with Devon the Nature Guy of The Wild Life blog & podcast, stories about the vastly different roles religion & other forms of spirituality have on communities all along the Mississippi River, and more.

For more stories from my road trip of the Great River Road,
click the “The Great Meander” tab on the
Meridian Creators page for more excerpts from my upcoming travel memoir,
THE GREAT MEANDER, available January 1st, 2020!
As of this post, the countdown to the release of my debut book has only 4 months left to go. We’ve got three more sneak peeks coming your way, so stay tuned!

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