Wayzata West Middle School math teacher Seth Brown likes to keep students on their toes. This year, that mission took a literal twist.

In an effort to harness some of their adolescent energy and try something new in the classroom, they are standing instead of sitting at their desks.

On Monday, Brown was surprised with a $25,000 national award for excellent teaching. His principal said Brown, the only teacher in the state to win the Milken Educator Award this year, is an innovator and that she talks with him often, if only to find out what he's going to try before parents start calling.

"This year he has a chairless classroom; every year it's something different," said Principal Susan Sommerfeld.

The Milken Family Foundation likes to surprise its winners. Brown sat among hundreds of staff and students in the school gym on Monday morning, his jaw dropping when his name was announced. Students hugged him, fellow teachers reached for his hand, and he jumped up off the bleachers with a big grin and lifted both arms in the air.

"What an honor. This is awesome," he told the crowd.

Brown, 31, can use his cash award for anything he wants. He is a graduate of St. John's University and has taught in Wayzata schools for his entire 10-year career. He said he decided to teach math partly because it is a subject a lot of students struggle with.

"I ask a lot of questions," he said. "It's not really instructing; it's a lot of inquiry. We talk about what students might need to solve a problem and how to do it differently."

Last year, the middle school got a grant to use iPods in the classroom. Sommerfeld said Brown is often the first to try new technology: He used the iPods to get kids to watch lectures and videos about math and to try other algebra apps. He said he taught about note-taking, too, something he said the kids will need in college.

Sommerfeld said students like Brown's positive attitude, energy and willingness to help them before or after school. Rima Torgerson, said her son, an eighth-grader in Brown's class, came home the second week of school and said, "Mr. Brown is the coolest, Mom."

"The great thing is that he now equates math with coolness," Torgerson said. "It's just the vibe. These are eighth-graders -- technology suits their learning."

Brown said he will use the $25,000 to help pay for the masters degree in educational leadership he's working on at St. Paul's Concordia University.

He said some of it also will go to the Parent Teacher Association, which helped support the school's iPod project.

The Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif., has distributed more than $63 million to more than 2,500 teachers over the past 24 years. The awards were developed in 1987 to recognize outstanding teachers and to encourage young people to enter the profession.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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