Behind every phenomenon is a genesis story: this one includes Terry Shay, a creative educator from Iowa who connected the dots with FableVision and the Reynolds brothers ten years ago. Known as “the Ambassador of Ambassadors,” International Dot Day founder Terry started the worldwide phenomenon, which now has over five million participants using their talents, gifts, and energy to help move the world to a better place.

Terry is a passionate music teacher who coaches, inspires, and mentors K-12 students in Traer, Iowa. When he’s not teaching up a storm, he’s continuing his mission to teach creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking as Lead Ambassador for FableVision Learning. As the originator of International Dot Day and the Celebri-Dots blog, Terry helps educators develop, discover, and share creative tools for the journey, and get the word out about Dot Day.

In this special edition FableFriday, we sat with Terry to talk about how it all began, his famous literary pals, where to find the best pizza, and the Better-Than-Broadway Swing Show!

It all started with an idea and turned into an international phenomenon. How did Dot Day come to be?
The idea for Dot Day sprouted from the focus on testing in schools. I made the suggestion to Peter H. Reynolds that we have a day where kids set aside some time to get creative and make dots that would inspire them to make their mark. Peter added “International” to Dot Day and the spirit of the day was launched. It started very small with light social media buzz about the day—and then a few friends joined in.

I think the idea of the return to creativity was very important for teachers. In 2011, some superstar librarians, Shannon M. Miller and John Schumacher, took up the cause, shared with their followers, and suddenly the idea for Dot Day had grown very large and started traveling around the world.

There are so many ways that people have “made their mark” on September 15-ish for Dot Day. What are some ways someone can celebrate Dot Day?
The ways to celebrate Dot Day are entirely up to the individual leading the celebration, which has helped make the day what it is. I have my junior high and high school chorus kids paint a canvas that hangs in my room all year long. It’s a great reminder to be creative. Some schools have added a service learning component and have kids work to “make their mark” with people in their area who need help. Truly, you can throw down butcher paper and crayons and just let kids create.

How are you celebrating Dot Day this year?
This year will be the most epic year ever at my school! Peter H. Reynolds is going to visit and Discovery Education is going to live stream from the place where Dot Day began (you can join by registering here). The teachers at my school are wildly creative, so there will be classroom projects around the entire school: math dots, reading dots, and dots just for fun. 

You rub shoulders with lots of talented and famous people! Who are Celebri-dots?
Celebri-dots started in 2011 when Newbery Medalist, Sharon Creech sent me a dot on Dot Day. I was amazed by her dot and it started me thinking about what dots other famous people would make. I have been so lucky to make friends with extremely talented people who are the best in their field on top of being extremely kind and giving people. Newbery Medalists, Caldecott winners, New York Times Best Sellers, and people who are widely respected in publishing and other fields have made dots. They are truly the best people in the world.

You’re the Lead Ambassador for FableVision Learning. What’s your favorite thing about being in that role?
I feel like being Lead Ambassador makes me the luckiest teacher on earth. I get to interact with very talented educators. I get to watch their projects unfold and see how they are changing their part of the world. I am truly blessed to be in the stands interacting and learning from the best of the best.

FableVision is celebrating our 20th anniversary this year and you’ve been a wonderful part of that journey. Do you have a FableVision memory that you’re particularly fond of?
There are truly so many memories that go with my time with FableVision, but my favorite involves Peter and Paul Reynolds. We were in Philadelphia for the ISTE conference and hosting an ambassador get-together at our hotel. There came a time when everyone was looking for Peter and he had disappeared. I asked Paul where he was and he pointed outside.

Sure enough, Peter was sitting on the curb talking to someone I didn’t recognize. Paul said, “Peter saw the woman fall, so he went out to make sure she was okay. I had better get out there.” Soon an ambulance came and took the lady away.

When they came back in, Paul said, “the poor soul was afraid to take the ambulance because she didn’t know how she would get back to her hotel. I gave her our business cards and told her to call and we would bring a cab and make sure she got to her hotel.” This experience cemented everything I already knew about Peter and Paul: they are kindness and compassion in human form.

You’ve been a teacher for over 30 years! How did you know that education was your calling?
I had good teachers who inspired me. I believe that being a teacher is truly a calling and I felt compelled to become a music teacher. I am sure it will seem corny, but when my high school chorus is performing, it’s very sweet to me. I know how far they’ve come and I know how hard they’re working. It’s always a very sweet sound to me.

You’re a great fan of music—both inside and outside the classroom. What are some of your favorite things to listen to?
I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I love Broadway shows and listen to them a lot. My mowing-the-yard jam is currently “Something Rotten” which I was lucky to see on Broadway last year. It makes me smile (mowing does not). In the car, we usually listen to ‘80s. I do not enjoy country music.

What is Swing Show?
Swing Show is a tradition at my school. It’s a huge variety show where the chorus sings and dances, the band plays, the dance team dances, and there are funny skits. It’s the best time of the year because kids are so focused on making a great show. So many awesome moments promise to occur during Swing Show.

Do you have a favorite teaching moment or memory?
I have a recurring favorite teaching moment. Almost every year at our Swing Show there is a student who quietly comes in and auditions. As the rehearsals progress, I get to watch them grow and develop and become a star. It’s magical.

Terry and Ellen Shay with Peter H. Reynolds

Terry and Ellen Shay with Peter H. Reynolds

More about Terry!

Favorite thing about Iowa: I grew up here. I enjoy visiting other places, but this feels like home. It’s centrally located, just a few hours from many great cities.

What makes the perfect pizza? This is not so much a what…but a who: Giordano’s in Chicago. Thick, stuffed, and heavenly.

The best movie ever made: The best movie ever made hasn’t been made yet, but I’ve seen the ones leading up to it. When I taught computer classes, I challenged kids to make movies and I called them “creativity assignments.” They were so new and different; I just know that the best is yet to come. If I have to choose one currently out there, I’d choose The Wizard of Oz because of when it was made.

World’s best summer vacation spot: New York City, it’s my wife’s favorite place and, like they say, “happy wife, happy life.” We’ve been able to see some amazing Broadway shows….and of course there is banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery!!

What’s on your reading list this summer? I have read so many books this summer!! I read mostly middle grade books and the most recent was The Thing About Leftovers by C.C, Payne and it was wonderful and important! I highly recommend it.

In another lifetime, what else would you be doing? I often think about what my life would be like if I hadn’t gone to that conference and seen Stationery Studio. What if I hadn’t called FableVision Learning and reached Bill Norris? What if I hadn’t met Peter H. Reynolds? I was lucky to see the right things at the right time with the right people. Maybe in another lifetime I would be a gambler. (I am pretty lucky, after all.)

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