Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Forever Young

On September 12, 2001, I started class by telling my students that thousands of people woke up the day before with no indication that their lives would be very different in a few hours. Many actually lost their lives; others were left to deal with the aftermath, the loss of loved ones and the loss of security that changed so many forever. Such it was with my former student Eric last Thursday morning. He woke up, got ready for school, and started his day like any other this year. But an hour into the school day his world would change. As students jumped out of their cars and off of their buses to start classes that day, a popular football player, Anthony, was losing his life in a car accident a block from the school. Eric heard the news soon after, and unable to contain his grief, turned and put his hand through a window. This particular window was reinforced with a shatter resistant mesh, but it was no match for Eric's anger.

The next day, I received this message from my former student:

"Mrs. Rigsbee,
I don't know what to do..I'm so confused right now...I'm so confused and can't believe that he is gone...I talked to him two days ago, gave him a handshake, and chilled with him."

I thought about how Eric, like those folks on 9/11, had no warning. It seems so cruel to wake up and look at the day ahead and not know that something is going to bring you to your knees. I wondered if some type of warning would allow us time to brace ourselves for the blow, or if the pain would be just as sharp.

After corresponding with Eric, I promised to go to the high school to see him. I had the opportunity to do that today, a few hours before the funeral. The school arranged to transport the students to the church so I had to manuever around the buses lined up for the football team. But once I got in the building, I was able to pick Eric out of the crowd. Even though I taught him when he was twelve years old, and he now is seventeen, he's the same Eric, only a foot taller. We hugged and he showed me his stitches. I gave him my fastest version of "How to deal with grief and anger in ways that won't hurt you physically" as he walked me down the hall to reconnect me with some other former students.

When Steve walked out of his Spanish class, I couldn't believe how big he was! He looked like a professional football player. I said, "What in the world do you eat?!" His answer was simple - "Everything," he said. Still in shock over how tall Steve was, I barely heard Eric say, "There's Tyrell." I thought Little Tyrell - he was so small in seventh grade - surely he's not so big now - only to turn and see that he's taller than I am.

It's a strange feeling. My students will always be seventh graders to me. In my memory the boys are forever goofy and short and have squeaky little voices. These men standing before me today were a shock to behold. But the scenario made me think: although these guys will always be seventh graders in my mind, in reality they are getting older and bigger and taller.

But Anthony will forever be a 17 year old senior in high school. And that's why Eric is mad.

Eric, Tyrell, and Steve

Friday, December 5, 2008

Energy Crisis

I teach middle school, which on any given day, is equivalent to the game Whack-a-Mole. I used to call it a simmering pot. I would stand in front of agitated seventh graders who at any moment would erupt to boiling. Boiling mad, boiling in love, boiling loud...just boiling. But now I believe it's definitely whack-a-mole. Whack...sit down Bradley, whack...here's a pencil, Darryl...whack...why are you crying, Lauren? Whack, whack, whack.
One day recently I had to attend a meeting held in a high school. Without thinking, I arrived just at dismissal time and placed my hand on the door as the bell rang. I froze, knowing for sure that I was about to be trampled. I turned slightly to return to my car, or perhaps to RUN. And then I saw them. High School students. Not running. Instead I stood in shock as children taller than me sauntered toward me. "Excuse me, Ma'am," one polite gentleman said as he held the door for me to enter. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I pictured what my own school must look like at that exact moment: the moles were most likely running, bumping, hitting, kicking, and screaming their way to the buses. Frantic teachers were in the halls whacking - "Slow downnnnn!" whack "Stop pushing!" whack, whack, whack....

Today I had the opportunity to visit the same high school again. There they were...sauntering seniors. The classroom I observed had varied examples of students slumping in seats. There was no simmering...no eruptions were scheduled. I even commented to the teacher about the lack of urgency in the halls as we watched the students change classes. "Yea," she said, "It's almost like they're walking backwards."

I have to wonder what happens to middle school kids when they get to high school. Where does all that energy go? Do they expend it during athletic practices, chemistry homework, the Prom? Or did the three years they were whacked in middle school break their spirits? Did we middle school teachers beat them down to this puddle of sludge? I left depressed and tired.

My friend, the eighth grade teacher, was complaining today. "These kids are too WILD," he yelled in frustration.

"Get thee to a high school," I encouraged him. "They saunter over there."

But while I was there, I was eager to get back to my goofy little moles. They're so much more fun...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Melee in the Middle

My dictionary defines "melee" as "confusion, turmoil, or jumble." Sure sounds like the hallways during class change at my school. I love to stand out there and shout like the town crier: "Get in your classrooms and fill your hungry minds with knowledge!" Some of the students look my way briefly and then dismiss me with a slight jerk of the head: "Oh, it's just Mrs. Rigsbee." And off they go.

I've been reading with interest Beginning in the Middle: Critical Steps in Secondary School Reform, a report released by the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) last month. NASBE acknowledges that the focus in the past several years has been on America's high schools. Basically, the report tells us what we already know - that high school graduation requirements have become more rigorous, curriculum standards require higher levels of thinking, and students are being pushed harder to meet 21st Century global expectations. Because the bar has been raised in the high schools, students must leave middle school better prepared to perform. But are they?

Interestingly, I had a conversation on this subject today with a second year teacher. Jenny is one of the best new teachers I've ever worked with. Her classroom runs like a perfectly timed machine; all procedures and expectations are clear and in place. She delivers instruction based on our state's Standard Course of Study and collaborates in a Professional Learning Community in order to plan engaging lessons and to design formative assessments that drive her instruction. She's so good that she was named chair of her grade level in her second year of teaching. But today she told me that she doesn't think the "learning" is happening. While she was talking, my mind started rewinding, as it's prone to do, and I shared with her some musings of my past. I remember teaching seventh graders in the early 90's and thinking, too, that the "learning wasn't happening." It seemed that I was using every research-based strategy I knew and a week after my instruction, my students didn't remember a thing I had taught them.

At that time I wondered if, developmentally, they were unable to retain the information I was sharing with them. There were days when I thought that I was there for one reason - to prepare my students for high school. And that preparation, to me, went well beyond mastering standards. I felt that I also must teach my students organizational and study skills as well as social skills. I knew that I was spending the majority of my time helping kids understand how to get along with each other and how to bring a pencil to class. Although these behaviors were not listed in our standards, the "learning" couldn't happen without them. But since my early years in teaching, I have learned that I also must teach my students to think critically, to question everything, and to take risks as learners, even as early as middle school.

So what does NASBE say? Most of the report's recommendations are related to what school districts and states need to do in reference to school configuration and transition programs for students entering high school. However, as far as what we as teachers can do that will impact our middle school students, NASBE makes it very clear: classrooms must be engaging. According to Jack Berckemeyer of the National Middle School Association, "You cannot forget the art of teaching. The human element is important in that kids have to be important as people first. Adolescents will engage when they know the teacher cares about them and can relate to them."

The recommendations given by the panel for state leaders include:

-Review the current status of early secondary education.
-Require all teachers to receive training in the psycho-social development of students.
-Consider new transition models such as flexible scheduling, virtual schools, vertical teaming, and peer connections in orientations.
-Begin early interventions in the sixth grade.

My recommendations for student engagement include:
-Establish an atmosphere of family within the classroom.
(My students know I LOVE them and that I expect them to treat each other with respect even if they don't consider themselves friends.)

-Integrate humor into every lesson.
(If your mind wanders in my classroom, you will get smacked - gently - with the Focus Flower or zapped by the Focus Fairy's wand. And the Focus Fairy - the teacher - may put on any number of layers of Focus Fairy clothing, including wings, a veil, and a boa.)

-Celebrate EVERY day!
(Some days celebrating means eating. Other days it means the teacher is doing cheerleader kicks when students get the answers right.)

-Make the classroom a place where students want to be.
(There is an atmosphere of acceptance in my class. And the students know that I'm happy to be there with them every day. They cannot, no matter how hard they try, see me in a nasty mood. Also, I spend my days in there, too, so the actual layout and decoration of the room is pleasant and has an "I'm at home" feel - including comfy chairs and beanbags, curtains, and attractive wall displays of student work.)

The report released by NASBE provides recommendations for school districts and states that could impact the way middle schools operate across the country. Meanwhile, those of us in those middle school classrooms need to ensure that we are heeding Mr. Berckemeyer's advice and relating to our kids. With that foundation in place, we'll be on our way to the "learning happening."

Monday, November 17, 2008

Driving Mrs. Rigsbee

One of the joys of being the Teacher of the Year for the state of North Carolina is that I get to travel all over the place, making presentations, talking to educators, attending meetings, and representing teachers as an ambassador for education. Because of this amazing honor, I have a "state car" to drive from hither to yon, and it's a cute little Toyota Prius that is saving the state some gas money because it's so efficient. It was new when I picked it up, and it now has over 8,000 miles on it. That's about 2,000 miles per month so far. Those miles don't include any personal trips, which I don't make in the state car, even to the grocery store or bank. Those are all "Teacher of the Year" miles.

I knew ahead of time that it would be part of the job requirement to travel the state. I continue to be very excited about that. But it does look a little different than I imagined. First, I envisioned that my elderly Mama would accompany me on some trips. She's just sitting at home by herself so why couldn't she ride with me to the mountains, and while we're there, maybe we could mosey on in to a little craft shop, do a little browsing. Well, what I didn't anticipate is that my schedule is so packed that I literally am running from one event to the next, and shopping hasn't even been a gleam in my eye.

One thing I started out doing is taking the smaller back roads occasionally so that I could really see and enjoy my state. I soon noticed that I was chugging right along, glancing out the window, saying, "Oh, there's a horse. Pretty horse. Gotta go..." and I'd keep right on driving in order to get to my next destination in time.

I love my little car and have spent a good deal of time in it, but there was one traumatic situation. Once I was on the road to a school, and I saw two school buses coming toward me. I thought, "Awwww...school buses...I love school buses, I love schools, I love..." My next thought was "Why is that car in front of me swerving?" And then I saw it - a deer. No, not a prancing and beautiful trying-to-get-across-the-road deer, but a projectile deer. This animal had been hit by the bus and had been thrown at me. I hit it. But I don't know where or how. I don't know if I ran over it, or if it hit the side of my car. My eyes were closed. I slammed on brakes at precisely the same time I slammed my eyes shut. I heard "bump-bump-bump-bump" but to this day have no idea what happened. The buses stopped. Other cars stopped. The deputy said he didn't see any damage to my car. Just some fur. Great.

If you don't know me, you don't know that I'm the one who stops any time I see deer, even ones on the roadside. I stop, roll down my window, and yell, "Go away, little deer. Run in the woods! Be safe! Be safe!" That day I didn't have a chance (and neither did the deer.)

The most traumatic experience happened last week, though. I had a five hour drive through the rain to get from point A to point B. I was hungry and tired, having spoken to 350 people at lunchtime. My end destination, where I would speak to principals the next day, happened to be at the beach where peaceful ocean waters were waiting. But getting there was difficult. Upon leaving the biggest city in the state, I encountered red lights every 500 yards. There was an incessant stop-and-go that provoked me to the point of feeling less than pleasant toward the Department of Transportation. I finally broke free of that and found myself on a beautiful four lane highway with nary a car on it (except mine.) I continued to puttputtputt right along, probably at about 65 mph when I noticed a sign saying "Speed Limit 45."

I slowed down as any good driver would do. However, I was already in trouble and didn't even know it. You see my car has a nice 1-800 number on the back. I say the numbers are a good five inches tall, but my husband says they're only two. (I've told him a million times that I don't exaggerate.) Anyway, the next day I received a call and here's what I heard: "A citizen has filed a complaint against you." I was HORRIFIED! I really was. But all I could think about was the episode of The Andy Griffith Show where someone (maybe Barney) is yelling, "Citizen's Arrest! Citizen's Arrest!" I thought it must be some mistake, but when the caller named the city, I felt like the Von Trapp family trying to dodge those huge spotlights as I backed up to a concrete wall. Because, yes, I was there at the time indicated, and just maybe I was going a little fast. And, oh my gosh, I'm so sorry...I know I represent the teachers of North Carolina and the state in general, and I would never break a law.

Needless to say, after my presentation to the principals, I drove home like a Driver's Ed student - hands on 10 and 2, checking the mirror every three seconds, and setting the cruise control for five miles below the speed limit.

Now... there's really no time to stop and pet the horses. Which is fine with me...as long as they stay out of the road and away from school buses.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What Our Students Need to Know

There are some folks who don't understand the significance of our country electing its first Black President. But it's a conversation that should be happening in classrooms all over America. Regardless of party affiliation, political opinion, or the color of our states on that big interactive map (my state is one of three that hasn't been designated red or blue yet), we should recognize and explain to children the reasons why this election, and the outcome, is so important.

Maybe you don't understand if you didn't grow up in the South in the 60's. But I did. And not only do I understand it, I feel it. I attended an all white elementary school until forced desegregation was mandated in 1969. But my neighborhood was an inner city mixture of Black and White. So all through my elementary years, I got on my bus and rode to a White school while my Black neighbors got on their buses and rode in the other direction. There was no discussion of whether or not it was "fair." It's just the way it was.

As a seventh grader, I attended school with Black students for the first time. Three girls approached me in the bathroom on the first day of school and asked me how it felt to be White. I told them I'd never been anything else so I wasn't sure how to answer that question. One day a White boy stood in the front of my school bus, just as it stopped to let him off. He sang a few lines of "Dixie" and jumped out the door. I watched ten Black boys chase after him down the street. As alarming as that incident was, I think I was the most nervous about the fact that we had police escorts to and from schools for awhile. These motorcades began because of rock-throwing...at the school buses. The folks throwing the rocks? Adults in protest of desegregation. They lined the streets from my neighborhood to my school.

I grew up in a city rich in African American history. During the 1930's, Durham, North Carolina quickly developed a vibrant Black community, the center of which was an area known as Hayti (pronounced HAY-tie), just south of the center of town, where some of the most prominent and successful Black-owned businesses in the country during the early 20th century were established. These businesses — the best known of which are North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company and Mechanics & Farmers' Bank — were centered on Parrish Street, which would come to be known as "Black Wall Street." Durham is proud to be the home of North Carolina Central University, a prominent historically Black university.

But regardless of the history of the city, we still felt the same pains of racism that other Southern towns felt. And although I've never seen "Whites Only" restaurants or water fountains in my lifetime, I have only to think of the sound of those rocks hitting my school bus, and I know those inequities took place.

So now we have a Black President. And when I stand in front of my students, especially my African American ones, I can say, "You can be anything you want to be. You can even be President" and know that it's true. As Maya Angelou said today, "My country has grown up, and we have decided not to be defined by ignorance."

And others across the world are taking notice, too. An Italian woman wrote to ABC news: "Your country has taught us all that anything is possible. Welcome back, American Dream!"

And to those who didn't vote for our next President, he himself sent out a special message today: "I hear your voices. I need your help. I will be your President, too."

It is time that all Americans function in the spirit of unity. We must put down our rocks and work together to make this country great.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Stopping Time

If you've read any of my previous blog entries, you probably won't be surprised to learn that my Myers Briggs Type Indicator shows that I am extremely emotional. But you may be surprised to know that I cried at my school today. It's not so much that I cried...it's why I cried. You see, Lauren got her braces off.

I have now been away from the classroom, and my school, for almost five months. As North Carolina's Teacher of the Year, I have been zigzagging the state in my role as Teacher Ambassador. But my principal made sure to get on my calendar, and I go back to my school every other week to work with teachers and to stay connected to my students. But middle school kids change very quickly, so every other week isn't enough.

Last year we started class with five minutes of "Issues and Celebrations." Lauren would always start - "I have an issue!" she would pronounce. Then Matthew would tell us who he was mad at that day, and Nicole would tell us who she was in love with...it would go on and on.

So today when Lauren showed me her perfectly straight teeth, I felt like a mother who missed her child's first step, and tears did sting my eyes. Lauren's announcement came after I noticed that Dominique is taller than me now, and after Tevin told me that Jamie is moving three states away. Jamie was standing there, too, but he stared at the floor unable to look at me. I stood before him and tried to swallow what I knew: the divorce that I had tried so hard to help Jamie deal with last spring was about to culminate in a difficult move to another state.

Tevin and Jamie..."Betty and Wilma" I called them last year because they giggled together constantly. I started my days with Lauren's issues and ended my days with Tevin and Jamie's giggles.

I love my job as North Carolina Teacher Ambassador. But I have an issue. I miss my kids. And every time I return to them, something else, however small, has changed. I know it's for the best. But sometimes I wish, just like I did with my own children, that I could make time stand still if only for a moment. Because I know in a couple of weeks I'm going to long to hear the sound of giggles. But it will be too late.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Reading Rocks!

Today I had the opportunity to participate in a Walk for Reading. Those words may seem like an oxymoron in that it is very difficult to read and walk at the same time (although I have seen this feat accomplished on a treadmill - personally, I can't read words that are bouncing up and down in my hands.) As a literacy specialist, I completed that walk today and thought of some of the most common literacy activities I see in classrooms that I visit.

Drop Everything and Read
I love when entire schools set aside a time for silent reading in classrooms. We have the responsibilty as educators to provide time for students to read. Silent reading builds vocabulary as students use context clues and activates and builds prior knowledge as readers learn more about the world outside of their own experiences. However, just providing the time and place, and even the book, does not necessarily mean that students are reading effectively. First of all, teachers must monitor the choice of reading material. Students will often choose a book that is too difficult for them (or too easy if they can get by with it.) Once I was working with Jasmine, a second grader. When I entered the classroom the entire class was engaged in SURF - Silent, Uninterrupted Reading Fun - and Jasmine was intently reading and turning pages. When I asked her later to tell me about the book, she "couldn't remember" what she had read. She had literally comprehended nothing. The book was too hard. Although there are numerous diagnostic tests available for teachers, the easiest routine for kids is the "five finger rule." Students choose a book, read one page, and count the words they don't know on that page. Four fingers indicate "challenge" level and five fingers indicate frustration level. Three unknown words or less is the key when students choose their own books.

And the reason I asked Jasmine about her reading is one of the most important components of silent reading. Teachers must be conferencing with the students in order to monitor progress. It doesn't take long for kids to learn how to stare at a page and turn periodically, without having read a word. Only a purposeful conversation about the reading will encourage reluctant readers to push forward.

Here's Jasmine writing about her reading.

Oral Reading
There is little value to "round robin" or "popcorn" reading that is predictable. In other words, students will rarely listen to their classmates read aloud, especially if they are counting to see which paragraph they themselves will have to read. It is important to hear kids read aloud, but again, this activity works better in a conference setting or in small groups.

Teacher Read Aloud
Students should hear expressive reading every day. Not only should teachers be modeling the correct cadence and intonation, they also should be modeling "thinking aloud" as they read. I once had the opportunity to ask every student in my school one question - "What do you do when you read?" Ninety percent of them had the same answer - "I look at words." I told them that if I place a book in front of my cat's face, she would "look at words." Is that reading?

Reading has to be interactive for comprehension to take place. Good readers do it without effort. For example, let's say I read about a girl who loves her pink dress. I should automatically think something like "I had a pink dress when I was little. It had little white flowers on it." There. Not only have I heard the "voice in my head" talking about the book, I've also made a connection. Both of these strategies aid in comprehension. But our poor readers don't do this skill automatically. That's why it's good practice to make our read alouds interactive. Let's say we read the same book aloud, and the little girl loves her pink dress. As teachers, we need to interrupt the reading and ask "Girls, does anyone have a pink dress/remember having a pink dress?" etc. By thinking aloud OUT LOUD, we are training our young readers to use this strategy silently.

Another strategy to make reading interactive is called Annotating the Text. Students can write their questions while reading, list unknown words, and make comments on the text. This practice helps to make reading "hands-on" and interactive....more than merely "looking at words."

Watch the Movie (Visualizing the Text)
I tell my students that they should be "seeing" the movie version of what they're reading in their minds as they read. Some of the most reluctant readers can "see" an entire basketball game when someone describes it play-by-play. I tell them that they should do that for their reading as well. Take the author's description and make a mental picture of it. This type of interaction not only increases comprehension but helps the student remember what was read.

These are the thoughts I had while Walking for Reading today. My dream is that someday the Jasmines that we teach will be fluent readers who read for pleasure as well as for information and not, as 25% of my students indicated in a recent survey, "because my teacher makes me."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mama's Birthday

I know I'm not alone in recognizing that mothers are our first teachers. In honor of my mother, who will be 81 on October 25th, here is a true story of her birthday from three years ago:

Mama’s Birthday

I often realize that in a room full of women, I am the one with the most makeup on. I also realize that I always have makeup on…from two minutes after I step out of the shower in the morning until two seconds before I jump into bed at night. When my daughter was born, my obstetrician told me he had never walked into a room during morning rounds and found a new mother sitting in a hospital bed with a full face of makeup. But that’s how he found me. Many boyfriends of my past, including one who became a husband – the first one – complained that they like the natural look better. All those complaints fell on deaf ears, strategically positioned behind a cheek full of blush – Clinique Pink to be exact.

Many have questioned my excessive use of face paint. Am I attempting to cover some horrific flaws, some ask? Maybe I’ve never shared the reason until now. But it’s quite simple. During my elementary school years, my mother was, in fact, the Avon Lady. Yep, as in “Ding Dong, Avon calling.” I spent hours upon hours playing in her sample bag as a child. I can still feel the texture of the bag, the blue burlap feeling ridged and uneven under my small fingertips. My favorite items in the bag were the little white lipstick samples. They were perfectly pointed, shiny pieces of color that served as lipstick for me, lipstick for my cats, blush for my baby dolls, and crayons for my color books. Sometimes even now at flea markets and antique stores, I see the bottles from different types of Avon scents. My mother’s bag smelled of them: Skin So Soft, Somewhere, Occur, Topaz, and others – names that mean nothing to most folks today – but names that have the ability to pick me up where I am and throw me back into second grade.

My mother hasn’t sold Avon in over forty years. This was a job she could do with my sister and me in tow when we were little; we would sit in customers’ homes and try to remain quiet. If we were lucky, there would be children there, which meant toys, or there would be a dog or a cat, and we would be entertained. But after we reached middle school age, my mother went to work in a real estate office, and that’s where she’s remained, until her retirement this month.

Retirement has been a big adjustment for her. We knew it would be. Still reeling from Daddy’s death a little over a year ago, and with no job to occupy her time, my mother has become a little depressed. I have encouraged her to hop on a little old lady bus to Branson, Missouri, or somewhere comparable, but it has been really difficult to get her off of her couch for the past few weeks. A couple of times I’ve stopped by to visit late in the afternoon, only to find her still in her pajamas.

So today my sister, our husbands, and I visited my mother’s house to participate in what we always call a “work day.” There are so many adventures at my mother’s house that require physical exertion. Last week, a huge tree limb, which could have been mistaken for the entire tree because of its size, fell and landed just in front of the porch. That needed to be taken care of. Also, her refrigerator light burned out, almost simultaneously with her microwave oven light and her dryer light. But my mother’s most urgent request was that we help her clean under her kitchen sink and up in her highest cabinets. With her seventy-eighth birthday approaching, she knew that she would be unable to do the bending, kneeling, and climbing necessary to do the cleaning. So the only birthday present she wanted was for us to assist in her post-retirement fall chores.

We immediately knew what we had gotten ourselves into when we peered under the sink. One thing we have forgotten: my father was alone in the house, while my mother worked, for the entire six years that he was sick. We know that he had an interesting storage system as we have found many of his treasures boxed here and there and wrapped in old newspapers held together with black electrical tape. We didn’t know that he was seemingly collecting various types of cleaning fluids: the lack of storage room under my mother’s kitchen sink was mostly due to the fact that there were multiple bottles of Windex, Fantastic, and Comet accumulating there. We tossed, we arranged, and we rearranged. Finishing that chore, we moved on to the cabinets.

The higher ones have always been a problem; it’s just impossible to reach them from the floor. Without hesitating, I hoisted myself up to walk on the counter, just as I always did as a child. I immediately noticed that my knees didn’t seem quite as interested in pushing me up there as they did when I was sixteen, but I made it, and I turned to see what adventure waited. We hadn’t looked at those top shelves in years.

What I saw took a while to process. While it seems that I felt puzzled for several minutes; at the same time my brain said one word to me – “Daddy.”

His handiwork lay before me, I knew, but what I was looking at eluded me. Lying on top of, and around, a couple of random bowls and mugs were twenty or so “packages” of various shapes. Some were wrapped in aluminum foil, and some were wrapped in plastic wrap. Some of the plastic wrap was clear, and some of it was pink. It was a bizarre spectacle, a contemporary art project gone wrong, one of those sculptures made of trash that some famous artist gets thousands of dollars for, while we normal people think I could’ve made that.

I said, “Guys, I’m not sure what’s up here, but I’m sure I know who’s responsible.” My mother and my sister spoke together, “Daddy.” That word means so much when we discover things…

I began handing my sister the wrapped objects one by one. My mother got up from her chair and came to join us.

“What’s in those?” she asked.

My sister began unwrapping the foil, slowly….somehow we were all thinking, If he wrapped them, maybe we shouldn’t unwrap…he’s not here…maybe we should just leave them.

As the first one was unwrapped, we knew what he had done. He had tried to preserve history and safeguard pieces of our beginnings; he had taken precious items, items that people now sell for profit, and placed them in the only wrappings available to a homebound cancer patient. One by one, as I handed, my sister pulled wrappings off of forty-year-old Avon bottles. The actual bottles were not that much of a surprise. What was surprising was my mother’s reaction. She was smiling, laughing, almost childlike in her response to each separate surprise.

“Oh, that’s Cotillion,” she squealed. “That’s Here’s My Heart.”

I watched her smiling for the first time in days and thought that maybe this was her birthday present. Once again, my Daddy had figured out a way to send a message, to show us that he’s not really gone. I stood on that counter, unable to move, and watched my sister open the last one. I tried to memorize the moment, to spin between picturing my sick father pulling off bits of aluminum foil and wrapping them around these treasures and this moment when my mother looked almost like the mother I remember, the mother who carried the blue Avon bag. When the wrapping fell off, I gasped silently and said nothing as I looked at the bottle that held the perfume. This one, like many others, had a name that included only one word, but this word was the most meaningful of them all – an old Avon fragrance called Unforgettable.

I made my way to the last cabinet and found one aluminum wrapped gift sitting in the middle of some spices. I lifted it out and handed it to my sister. She opened it, laughed, and showed it to me - a box of birthday candles.

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.

Happy Birthday, Mama.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Who Believes in Dallas?

Is there anyone in the education world who wasn't motivated to tears at the beginning of this school year by a fifth grader named Dalton Sherman? The words "Do you believe in me?" were evangelically shouted over the cheering audience of 17,000 educators in the Dallas Independent School District at their beginning of school convocation. The YouTube video of the inspiring speech has been shown all over the country in schools and board meetings. Teachers from Maine to New Mexico have asked themselves "do we really believe in our students?" Dalton has continued to inspire, even sharing the stage with Maya Angelou, appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show, and being interviewed by numerous news outlets.

But in an emotional twist of fate, some teachers in Dallas may have to find something else to believe in besides students. Today 460 teachers are scheduled to be laid off due to the budget shortfall. Originally, 560 teachers were to be let go until a couple of hundred were "bought out." It is painfully apparent that more is at stake here than the fact that there will be 460 people packing up rooms and leaving. I picture bewildered children having to sever relationships that have been built since August. I see remaining teachers struggling to move their own classrooms in order to spread human resources around the district. And, although I'm aware that we're in a budget crisis, is this really the best time for this type of disruption?

All I can think of is Dalton's face, and the hope that school system began the year with, and I have to wonder...who's left to believe in the children of the Dallas ISD now?

Update: Dallas didn't fire the predicted 460 teachers today. Instead 375 were given the bad news . The stories of crying teachers and students, teachers returning to pack up classrooms, and distressed children who are unsure about what will happen on Monday when they return to school are heartbreaking. How can this be the answer?!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Boys Will Be Boys

My Assistant Superintendent and I were having a discussion recently about a former baseball coach we both remember from our school days. Curtis Young was a larger-than-life, foul mouth, tobacco spitting man who used to yell obscenities on the ball field while I hung my head out of my school bus window to hear them. Later, when I was a senior in high school, Coach Young grabbed my arm as I entered the school auditorium for West Side Story dance auditions and asked me if I would keep the score book for the baseball team. I momentarily looked toward the stage, thought about high school boys in baseball uniforms, and enthusiastically agreed to take the job.

I was telling my Assistant Superintendent that I was the first girl to letter in baseball at my high school, but he had another story...about the time he played against Coach Young while in junior high. He went on to explain that he played ball in a rival county and had one of the best games of his life the day he played Coach Young's team. I stood there listening as he recounted every ball, strike, and hit he got that day. He provided information about his fielding also, and then went on to say that he thinks that game was the reason he was named All Conference that year. When he was finished with his story, I asked him if he ever forgot to pick something up at the grocery story for his wife. He grinned and walked away, knowing exactly what I meant.

My husband cannot remember the butter if I ask him to pick up milk, eggs, and butter. He'll come home, proud to have milk and eggs, and say, "You didn't want anything else, did you?" But he can tell me every play of a high school football game that occurred in 1967. He doesn't know what we did on our first date, but he can recount every golf shot from a game several years ago. "Well, I placed the ball on the tee on number one..." he'll start.

These men in my life have helped me to understand the boys that I teach. In my classroom, I can stir up immense interest if I just make everything a game. It begins like this: "Okay, we're going to get into two teams..." and I'll watch as the girls look distressed (will my friends be on my team?) and the boys start jumping around the room, unable to contain their excitement.

So all we have to do is figure out a way to make everything that happens in a classroom a competition. I have found in my experience that boys don't even need prizes for the winners. They just want to strut out of the room at the end of the class, chanting, "We BEAT 'em, we BEAT 'em!"

Oh, if only we could award All Conference for most pages read or Most Valuable Player for the most math problems done correctly, all of our boys would achieve. And if only I could say what Coach Young used to say: "If you ain't gonna give me all you got, get off my ball field!"

Wow, would schools be different!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Goin' to Bo's!

I recently presented an overview on Classroom Instruction that Works based on research by Marzano and others at McRel. As I reviewed the Nine High Yield Strategies, I was reminded of McRel's findings on reinforcement. I felt really good about these two ideas:

Providing rewards to students does not negatively impact their intrinsic motivation.

Students respond more to reinforcement that is not tangible (for example, a hug or a "good job") than they do to food or money.

The latter finding may be true at that research lab in Colorado, but it is absolutely not the case in my classroom. My students will hang from the ceiling if I offer them a biscuit from Bojangle's. And although ceiling-hanging is not on our Standard Course of Study, I have found that this tasty incentive will encourage students to bring materials to class and actually use those materials to produce work.

In the event you aren't from the South - Bo's started in Charlotte, N.C. back in the seventies. Bojangle's prepares Cajun chicken biscuits and seasoned fries that will pucker your entire mouth. There was a time, I'm not proud to admit, when my own children would refuse homecooked food and rush for a Filet Biscuit Combo at any hour of the day or night. Once they were legally able to drive, they would head by there on the way to school, go back again during "free lunch" (off campus) and turn up their noses at a nice pot roast at dinner. One Christmas I purchased four bottles of the special French Fry Seasoning and placed one in each of their stockings. They said it was the "best gift ever." Two of my children have moved away from North Carolina, and they miss Bojangle's more than they miss me. But I have been known to pack a chicken biscuit in my carry-on bag when I've gone to visit...

So, back to my classes. I can tell Jamal and Jalen "good job" and they will be good boys. But if I tell them I'm going by Bojangle's on the way to school, they will be good, and they will see to it that every student in the class is good. I cannot tell you how many times I've heard, "Shhhhh...if we be quiet, we'll get Bojangle's!"

Tomorrow's the day. They know I just got paid so I'll be in the drive-through at 7AM. I'll be ordering enough Filet Biscuit Combos to make a big dent in my paycheck.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the sweet tea. It'll make you smack your Granny!

I bet Jamal and Jalen are sitting at home thinking about it right now...come to think of it - I am, too.


As it turns out Jamal was nice enough to let Darryl (Lil D) have his combo. Here are Jalen and Lil D enjoying their Bo's before school. The boys are definitely partial to their sweet tea.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

How Did You Use Your Two Million Minutes?

Kelli is a professional cheerleader and a PhD student, studying clinical health psychology.

I recently had the opportunity to view Two Million Minutes (see the trailer), a documentary on high school students from the United States, China, and India and how they use their two million minutes in high school to prepare for college and beyond.

I watched and squirmed in my seat as the film shared statistics that were troubling: 40% of US students never take a science higher than biology; 55% take only two maths - geometry and algebra. Meanwhile, I watched the students from China and India as they participated in rigorous plans of study, including getting up early to attend a 7:00 AM study group on a Saturday morning. Also, they laughed at the notion of majoring in music and said that their counterparts in America spend too much time socializing. (All this while Brittany from Indiana talks about wanting to join a sorority and "party and have some fun" while majoring in pre-med.)

While watching the film, I thought back to my own high school days and the two million minutes I spent preparing for college. Certainly there was a great deal of extracurricular activity going on. I took dance lessons twice a week and sometimes cheered at three games a week during my senior year. I was also a member of Junior Civinettes, the Service Club, and the Pep Club, and I was active in my Youth Group at church. At first I felt a little ashamed while watching the film and thought maybe I should have attended study groups on Saturdays. But then I remembered the work ethic I learned in those days.

Okay, I know what some say about cheerleading - like another teacher told me once: "Cheerleaders are fluff." And then a student's parent remarked to hearing that my daughter is a professional cheerleader, "Oh, you're one of those people." But I can tell you that I learned so much the year I was captain - so much about dealing with people with conflicting personalities, so much about being organized, and even a little about working with a budget. I developed leadership skills at the age of 17 that I've used my entire life. I scheduled practices, made decisions about game responsibilities and uniforms, worked with area businesses on fundraising and advertising...it was like running a little business, all while promoting school spirit and smiling. And I had to balance these responsibilities with studying and doing chores at home.

Okay, maybe the Chinese student who is a talented violin player will make it farther than I have, but as I continued to watch the documentary, I became more and more stressed at the lack of free time the students from the other countries have available to them. A boy from Shanghai remarked, "Studying is our top priority. I'm either in school or home. I may go to karaoke at Christmas."

Should we be so concerned about academics that we forget to live our lives? Or will using those two million minutes in a different way make our lives more meaningful? Watch the video and decide.

Meanwhile, these facts communicated in the video worry me:

American students spend 900 hours in a classroom a year, but 1500 hours in front of a television.

American students rank 24th out of 29th in math. (Finland ranks 1st.)

One commentator is quoted as saying, "Structurally the American educational system is broken."

I hate to think that I am contributing to a broken system...but tomorrow I'll be in Charlotte watching the Carolina Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons. My daughter will be doing something she loves and getting paid for it. I just can't believe that's all bad.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and The Really Ugly!

I love to write. I have pieces of journals, old college notebooks, and scraps of paper all over my house with varied essays, poems, thoughts and quotes. I'm currently trying to keep up with several projects that may at some point become published work. So I'm constantly working through my feelings on paper. Once I was introduced to blogging, I knew I had a found a world just made for someone like me. Finally a place where my writing can be kept; instead of pieces everywhere, all I have to do is log on to read what I think. And one perk is that others can read what I think, too. I've been able to share my thoughts with people all over the world. Sometimes people will ask me a question when I'm pressed for time. "Just read my blog," I tell them as I run to my next responsibility. It's a perfect situation. Well...almost.

The world has gotten smaller. Because of the internet, folks can read my blog in their jammies in the middle of the night. But because of the internet, I'm getting some strange correspondence in reference to my blogging. Of course, I have gotten comments from teachers and administrators all over the country. Some say they have printed out my blog post to share with their faculties. I couldn't be happier about that!

But sometimes I get an email from someone who wants me to allow them to be a "guest blogger" on my blog. My first thought? "I don't know you!" How can I let someone else represent their thoughts and feelings as part of my sacred writing experience? I'm always hesitant to allow this type of activity. Today, however, I received an email that really represents the "ugly" part of the internet's ability to allow just anyone in.

In exchange for supporting this stranger's efforts as a blogger, I can choose to be paid or I can select to receive a product instead. The product? A penis enlarger.

So...folks who read my blog, I'm only interested in representing myself as a writer and thinker. And I don't have a penis. Thanks anyway.


Saturday, September 6, 2008

Finding Mrs. Warnecke

Mrs. Warnecke has always been a mythological creature to me. Since I haven't seen her in over 40 years, my mind surely has fluctuated between what may be reality and what may be memories of being six years old. But I do remember that I arrived in first grade to have a teacher who loved one little girl in the class, and it wasn't me. Mrs. Riley didn't try to hide the fact that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Shelia was her favorite. Shelia was my friend, too; we all loved her, and I loved to visit her house because she had all the Barbie stuff. And when I say all, I mean ALL! She had the Barbie car and the Barbie pool and the Barbie mansion. And the teacher loved her. She was the luckiest girl in the world!

Mrs. Riley wasn't mean or abusive to me, but I felt invisible in that room. When it became obvious that she had an errand to be run, I would slide to the edge of my desk and raise my hand as high as I could. But Shelia always went. Always.

One month into school, the principal came to tell us that some of us would be moved to another class. You would think that first graders may be somewhat anxious about that announcement, but I wasn't. It sounded like an adventure to me. Half of us were led to our new classroom, but we were surprised when he led us outside! We marched in a pretty little line out the door, around between the gym and main building, and down the steps, into a hole actually, that led to a basement door. As many times as I had walked by those steps, on the way to the gym to do the Hokey Pokey, I had never even known that a room existed down there. Suffice it to say that, as a teacher, I cannot imagine what the new teacher must have thought when the principal showed her the damp, dark place that would be her classroom. But as students, we were all giddy with excitement. We had been "chosen" to be in a new class, and we had left Mrs. Riley upstairs. (We also left Shelia there, but she and I continued to be best friends, and I played "Barbie" often at her house.)

What happened in the next few months in that classroom can only be described as MAGICAL. Our new teacher, Mrs. Barbara Warnecke, showed up with a big smile on her face, and she loved each of us unconditionally while teaching us to read from the Dick and Jane books. We thought the fact that we believed we saw beady little eyeballs staring at us from the closet when we hung up our coats made our classroom more exciting than any other room. We had pet rats! Also, that year, I wrote my first poem. It was entitled "Stars" and it wasn't even grammatically correct. But my new teacher loved it. She encouraged me so much that throughout the years I would continue to write little poems and trot my second and third grade little legs down to her classroom to let her read them. During those visits, she always treated me as if she didn't have a class of her own to teach, as if I were the most important student in the world.

She eventually moved away, as so many of our teachers did (living in Durham, most of our teachers were there while their husbands attended school at Duke University; we lost teachers after Duke's graduation every year) but we stayed in touch for awhile. Somehow I lost her in 1970. Today I found her again. And the years between seem like only a moment.

Let me begin by saying that I don't usually get too nervous about speaking in public. As a teacher, I speak "in public" daily, even if the audience is a room full of seventh graders. But on this morning, I was terrified! I was wide awake at 3:30 AM and I never got anywhere close to sleep after that. A car picked us up at 6:30, and I barely remember the ride to the Good Morning America studio. I felt so much pressure - I wanted to represent the teachers of North Carolina and the staff and students of Gravelly Hill Middle School well. I had heard that the Central Office of Orange County Schools would be gathered around a television as well as a fifth grade class at Belville Elementary School in Brunswick County. I had spoken to that class last week, and they have become my "adopted" class.

Once in the studio, I was met by Katie, the "live producer." (This role, as I understand it, is different from Brian the Producer's role - he actually came to my house to film and then he wrote and edited the piece.) Katie welcomed me and told me that I would be on national television making a plea for someone to come forward with the whereabouts of Mrs. Warnecke. In other words, they hadn't found her. But I was so nervous I could barely hear Katie speaking...I just followed her around like a little puppy. She took me to my dressing room, and we briefly discussed clothes; I actually changed from the suit I was wearing to another one with "more color" that Katie liked better. Next I passed Kate Snow, the GMA weekend anchor, as I walked to hair and makeup. Kate had huge rollers in her hair but was as beautiful as ever. After my hair and makeup were done, I felt like I didn't look like, well, me. But I was assured that I looked the way I needed to look for the lights on the set, and I was too stressed out to argue.

Katie, the "Live Producer," watches me get my hair and make up done.

Katie stayed with me almost non-stop and continually texted on her phone. I thought her friends must be up early! Later I would learn that she was "guarding" me to keep me from leaving the dressing room and that she was texting the other "live producer" who was with Mrs. Warnecke in another room. During this time I caught a quick glimpse of Sally Field who was on the show, too, but she was surrounded by people (body guards?) so she was difficult to see. And Lord knows I was too nervous to speak so it's probably a good thing I didn't try to talk to her. I'm sure I was so focused on little Cindy the first grader that I would've called her Gidget. I've always wanted to ask, "How is it possible that Gidget has osteoporosis?" But not today.

Next I was led to the studio and I walked right into Sam Champion who flashed the biggest smile at me, stuck out his hand to grab mine, and acted like he had known me forever. We made the turn to step in behind the cameras, and I think the biggest surprise was that there were so many people in the room. There was a studio audience there but also numerous crew members that took up a great deal of space. Katie kept pointing out places for my husband and me to stand; we ended up beside the table of chef Sarah Moulton who had prepared Back to School snacks on a long table in the studio.

Here's me just before my interview. It is possible that this is a picture of me being the most terrified I've ever been in my life...

I waited, shaking, and finally was pointed to a chair beside Chris Cuomo, the morning anchor. (Robin Roberts was originally to do the interview, but she had joined Diane Sawyer at the Republican National Convention.) Chris Cuomo was a complete gentleman, and he made me feel at ease immediately. Suddenly I felt more at peace; I think I knew that the worst was over - the waiting and anticipation! Chris began talking and I listened, in a surreal state, as he talked about my life. I glanced over at the monitor, afraid for the emotional surge that may come, and saw the picture of my elementary school that burned to the ground in 1991. I began fighting tears at that moment. Chris started talking to me - I don't remember a thing he said - but he diverted me from paying attention to the narrative that was on the teleprompter. I saw my sister talking on the monitor and then I saw my mother. I said to Chris, "There's my mama..." and I surely thought I would lose it then. But I held on and by the time he started talking to me again, I was okay. I said what I needed to say, without stammering too much, and then he told me that "someone" was going to help me find Mrs. Warnecke. I remember thinking, "If someone can help me find her, why can't they just go find her and tell her I'm looking for her?" Then I heard the studio audience begin to clap, and I knew she must be there!

Here we are waiting, and they're counting "five seconds to air, four, three..."

For the next few seconds, as the video footage is showing me gasp and run to hug her, I am no longer Cindi Rigsbee, Teacher of the Year. Instead I am Cindy Cole, first grader at Bragtown Elementary, and my emotions are no longer contained, even if all America is watching! To me, Mrs. Warnecke looked the very same, and I felt like it hadn't been forty years since I'd seen her. I was shocked to hear that when Brian called her house, she guessed the student looking for her was me. However, I was not surprised that she was funny and making jokes about hoping that this wasn't a show about a former student-turned-prisoner who wanted to blame her for ruining her life.

One thing I want to remember forever: during the piece and after - there were very few people in that room who weren't crying. From the studio audience to the crew to my big manly husband, there was barely a dry eye in the studio! And as I tried to manuever my way back to the dressing room to get my things, I was stopped repeatedly by folks from the editing room and other places in the building who were crying and wanting to tell me about their special teachers.

Next Dr. and Mrs. Warnecke and David and I had breakfast to catch up. It was so interesting to hear about my first grade year from my teacher's perspective. Most amazing, I think, is that this phenomenal teacher who made such an impact on me was only twenty-three years old that year! I asked her how she could possibly have been so nurturing when she didn't even have children of her own then. I said, "How is it that you were such a good teacher even though you were so young?" She answered, "I thought I wasn't. I was trying to teach reading out of those Dick and Jane books, and I thought I didn't know what I was doing."

Mrs. Warnecke...at least for this little girl, you did.

We exchanged contact information and hugged one last time. And now I hope to share with teachers something that we hear often but maybe forget to think about - the tremendous impact we have on the lives of children. I hope that my story of Mrs. Warnecke will be a reminder of the importance of our jobs and that we must understand that impact with every lesson we plan and every comment we make to a student. Someday we could be someone's Mrs. Warnecke. And what an enormous responsibilty.

We've had several celebrity sightings since our arrival in New York. Last night we got in a chaotic mass of paparazzi and turned to see Miley Cyrus on one side of us and Rhianna on the other. This morning David came face-to-face with Hilary Clinton while walking on Fifth Avenue. But the only celebrity I wanted to see was Mrs. Barbara Warnecke. To little Cindy Cole, she's a mythological rock star...

Our last stop in New York was a trip to the Disney store to buy gifts for our grandchildren. I looked up and saw a quote on the wall that summed up the past two days:

"It's just as I always dreamed it would be."

Yes, it was...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Saving D

I've written about D on here before. He's one of those students that you look at and know - there's something good in there. Maybe others can't see it, but it's there, and you may be the only one who can keep him from falling through the cracks that appear to be getting wider and wider the older he gets...

D came to me as a seventh grader the year that I missed the entire first week of school with a hateful kidney stone. By the time I started, the second week, the substitute gave me quite an earful about D. He had certainly made himself known that early in the year. As I got to know my students, I grew very attached to D. His big, goofy grin made me smile no matter how much trouble he could get himself into in other places. And he was in trouble OFTEN! Most of the time it would be something silly, like talking and not staying in his seat, but occasionally he would be kicked off the bus for mouthing off at the driver. When that would happen, D couldn't come to school. Although he was an inner city kid, the school sits out in a rural tobacco field. He didn't have a ride. Several times he missed school for ten consecutive days.

When I asked about his mother, he told me that she had just had a baby (that made five) and that she sometimes stole money from him for drugs. I asked if he could live with a grandparent. He told me that his grandmother stole money from his mother for drugs. Once he was suspended from the bus, and we were to go on a field trip to the zoo. I called D's mother and told her that I would pick him up and take him to school so he wouldn't miss the trip. When I got my breakfast that morning, I picked up one extra biscuit just in case he hadn't eaten. D got in the car, and I asked, "Did you eat breakfast?" He said he didn't because his mother was asleep and he didn't want to wake her. I gave him the biscuit and asked if he brought his lunch for the field trip, and he replied that "there was no food in the house." I gave him $10 to buy lunch and off we went. I've written about my problems with this type of parenting before. But it never gets any easier to understand.

After that year, I left that school but D kept in touch. One day back when I was teaching him, he grabbed my cell phone off of my desk and called his friend JoJo's number. When he got to JoJo's phone, he had my number on the caller ID. He wrote it down and has now had it for three years. Periodically he'll call me. This year he called me to tell me "Happy Mother's Day." Once he called to tell me that "they" had sent him to a group home. His reasons were vague, but one thing was clear - he was miserable.

Today I passed by the high school that D attends. I walked right in there and asked if they would let me see him. At the mention of his name, the four adults standing in the office turned and looked at me. The receptionist smiled, "Well, he's already been in the office today. I think he's in In School Suspension." I couldn't believe it - the sixth day of school! I was led out to the ISS trailer. I haven't seen D since June of 2006, but I'd know that boy anywhere! And when we walked in that trailer...well...I cannot even explain the way he looked when he saw me. It was a mixture of Christmas morning and Happy Birthday all rolled into one. And by the time he got to me, his eyes were moist and so were mine.

We sat a minute to talk (he was to be released to class in six minutes) and in that time he told me that he has "anger issues." I explained that in seventh grade he was only silly, not mad, and that I was concerned about that. I asked him what he's mad about. He told me he hates the group home, his mother went to jail but is now in a halfway house because she just had baby #7, his brother is in prison, and there's the issue about "T." There was a scuffle at the group home between D and T and when it was over, T complained that he couldn't breathe. D said he asked, "You alright, man?" and T said he was. A while later, he collapsed in the yard and never regained consciousness. A senior in college, ready to graduate in three weeks, T was working at the group home when he died. D told me that the invesigation is still continuing and that he hasn't been charged. "But they think I killed him," he said. There has been some discussion of meningitis, but the autopsy was inconclusive. Regardless, it's a big burden for D to bear.

The bell rang at this point, and I had to walk D to class (although it was a struggle to move after that news.) He hugged me at the classroom door and told me he loved me, and I fought tears all the way to the car. Once there, I drove in a crazy circle, losing my way home because I was so upset. Then the tears came. And I thought How are we letting this kid fail? What can I do to stop this madness so that D can make something of himself? Of course, I've said all the things to him that need to be said. And he's heard them all before. He hears them every day from someone.

The Fray has a song entitled "How to Save a Life." I'm listening carefully to these lyrics:

Let him know that you know best
Cause after all you do know best
Try to slip past his defense
Without granting innocence
Lay down a list of what is wrong
The things you've told him all along
And pray to God he hears you
And pray to God he hears you

There's another line - "drive until you lose the road" - I believe I did that. Now I need to get back on track...doing what has to be done to save D. If I don't do it, who will?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Different World

I, of course, think that educators have the hardest job there is. The hours are long and seep over into time for family and time for rest. The stress is palpable - from the second the kids hit the building until the buses get them home - there is an "energy" in a school; I've often called it a "simmering pot." Will it erupt? Or can we effectively keep it just at the boiling point? So, yes, teaching is strenuous and stressful, but at the same time rewarding and wonderful. And I'm glad I've never done anything else! But yesterday I found out that there are other stressful jobs out there. And I was able to watch one in action.

Because of some exciting, and surprising, circumstances, I will be appearing on Good Morning America next week, one day after my 51st birthday. Yesterday the production crew pulled up in front of my house with so much equipment that my neighbor came out and asked, "Whatcha doin'? Making a movie?" It took over an hour to set up the camera, lights, screens, monitors, and other equipment that I can't name. Not only did they have to organize their stuff; they also organized mine - they were moving furniture while picking up pictures and plants to place "in the frame" of the shot. There were so many decisions about details - should this plant go here? Is there too much light coming in the window? My den was unrecognizable quickly, and here's what I couldn't believe: they changed the scenery for every interview.

The transformation begins in the den...

An overhead view of Lisa before the interview. (We weren't allowed in the room during the interviews.)

They interviewed my sister first. Then they moved things around and interviewed my mother. Next we changed rooms; my granddaughter Taylor and I made cookies in the kitchen for an "at home" kind of shot. Then they took time to move the entire set to the kitchen - it was my turn to interview. Next, after a few prop changes (moving things from my kitchen that haven't been moved in the fifteen years I've lived in the house), it was my daughter Kelli's turn. Last, we hopped in the car and rode to the site of my elementary school where we got some footage. Finally, we returned home at almost 3:00, having started the process at 9:30 AM! The crew was dripping with sweat (I was, too!) and no one had eaten except to nibble on some muffins and doughnuts I had out when they got there. These guys work hard!

Here I am goofing around for a shot on the monitor.

And there is stress involved. Every noise had to be dealt with. For example, I was surprised to find a set of keys in my refrigerator! I was enlightened to a common routine: they turn the refrigerator off so as not to hear the noise during the interview. They put their keys in the frig so they'll remember to turn it back on (they can't leave without their keys!) The producer also nicely asked my neighbors to postpone their yardwork and home improvement projects until we were done. Unfortunately, due to remnants of Tropical Storm Fay, everyone's grass had grown really high, and everyone needed to mow on a Saturday! But neighbors were happy to cooperate, and it was an exciting adventure.

The story? GMA is trying to reunite me with my first grade teacher (from 45 years ago!) I won't give away the story yet...I'll wait until it airs and then write again. But if you get the chance, watch on Friday morning, September 5th, so that you can see the results of a day's worth of work. The entire piece will probably take about ten minutes! But it was an exciting day for me and the girls in my family!

Here I am on the site of my elementary school (it burned to the ground in 1991) with GMA producer Brian O'Keefe. Last week he was at the Democratic National Convention and the week before that he was interviewing Christina Applegate. While we were filming he asked me to "stare pensively into space." He then told me about the time he asked Cheryl Crowe to do the same thing. Those types of conversations made this entire experience surreal!

This shot with me in a blue blouse reminds me that I changed clothes three times until they got the color they liked. I started with white, but that's a no-no. I changed to black (to look thinner, of course) but that doesn't work either (black sucks in all the light and pulls it away from the face.) I ended up with this blue one but really like my white blouse better!

Stay tuned for the story of my trip to New York. Will I see Mrs. Warnecke again? (I don't know - they say they haven't found her yet...) Watch if you can!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Dreams Do Come True..

Cindi and Lisa, around 1967 (Lisa's the cute one on the right.)

I have made no secret of the fact that I never planned to become a teacher. That epiphany hit me around my sophomore year of college. Up until that point I was busy trying to hone my cheerleading skills so that I could travel to Dallas and audition to wear a vest with fringe. My sister, though, now she's another story.

Lisa had one of those horrid first grade teachers that make children cry when they wake up in the morning; they don't want to go to school! Among other things, Lisa, an extremely left-handed left-hander, was made to write with her right hand - and was ridiculed when she tried otherwise. (She is now a fifty-year-old left-hander; the teacher did not win this one!) After many complaints for various reasons (I remember my mother heading to the school on more than one occasion to talk to the principal), Miss White left the building. Enter Miss Kilpatrick. She was so lovable that after a couple of years the principal married her. But she also had an impact on my sister: for more years than I can recall, Lisa has wanted to be a teacher.

While I was being scolded by my daddy for doing cheers in front of the one television set in the house, Lisa was lining up her baby dolls to play "Miss Kilpatrick." Whenever I decided to play, too, I was always Miss White, and the baby dolls hated me. It was clear that my sister would become a teacher long before I even had a clue as to my career aspirations.

But as fate would have it, Lisa didn't become a teacher; I did. Although she took course after course in early childhood education, it wasn't to be. Instead she married her high school sweetheart and delivered early, under very scary circumstances, my nephew Cole. Her life took a turn here, and she became the epitome of stay-at-home mom, although she was never at home. Her minivan had about 200,000 miles on it when she finally got rid of it last year, Cole's freshman year in college. Between his birth and college entrance, Lisa was soccer mom and school volunteer, fundraising and answering phones for thirteen years. There were some babies that weren't to be during that time, too...sad circumstances that are still very difficult for her to talk about.

But fast forward to a happier time. Lisa has started her new (and first) teaching job. She will be a preschool teacher in charge of a class of four-year-olds. I just hung up the phone after a conversation with her about the contents of a first day letter to parents. And last week we talked about curriculum. She said things like, "I just want to get on the floor with them and play and learn," and "They're just like sponges at this age. I want to teach them everything!"

They say when one door closes, another one opens. My classroom door is closed this year as I participate in my Teacher of the Year duties. But Lisa's is open. And just three months before her 50th birthday, "Miss Kilpatrick" will finally be in class.

Good luck, Lisa. I've spent my entire career thinking you should take my place. And now you are. Line up those dolls and have a blast! The best is yet to come...

Here we are before the North Carolina Teacher of the Year banquet. See...she's still cute!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

And so it begins...

My favorite tiny person in the world is named Taylor. Taylorbug, as she's known to her family, has been a joy ever since she was delivered by my stepdaughter in March of 2006. Although I'm not biologically related to her, we have had a strong connection since those first few nights when I walked the floor with her so her parents could get some sleep. As she grew, it was apparent that she would be a mild tempered child, very easy-going and loving, and just entertaining to be around. At her first birthday party, she sat in the floor (she had not taken an interest in walking at the time) and looked around the room at other children like what are you doing? why are you loud? why are you running around? Taylor preferred always to sit quietly, take it all in, and watch the world around her...just happen.

Taylor's two now, and now, she is what's happening. Rarely still for long, she loves to play pretend - she'll take your order just like a trained waitress, she'll shop and use her imaginary debit card, and she'll march in a room and announce, "I have to check my email!"
Actually, Taylor's almost 2 1/2...which means one thing. She's about to start preschool. Her parents have prepared her for this new adventure in her life; basically they've been talking about it for several months. Back last Christmas, someone could ask, "Taylor, when are you going to big girl school?" She would politely answer, "In August." She would talk about how excited she was to go to school like her neighbor Haley. She would chatter about making new friends. I bought her a little tshirt that says, "What happens in preschool stays in preschool," and she was excited to wear it.

But last week, the wind changed direction a little bit. "Taylorbug," I said. "Are you ready for big girl school?"

"No," she answered. "I not going."

"Yes, you are," I said. "It's August. Time to go to school."

"No, I not going now," she answered. "I go in a little bit."

Since it seems that Taylor is now feeling some reservations about becoming a student, her mom has been pumping her up. One of her first ideas was to tell Taylor her new teacher's name - Nicole. That should be easy. Taylor has an Aunt Nicole. She calls her "NicNac."

Erin says, "Taylor, your new teacher's name is Miss Nicole." Taylor replies "NicNac!"

Hmmm. Erin tries again. "You can call her Miss Utley." Taylor responds, "Miss Ugly."

Oh my.

Nevertheless, my favorite little person will start her school life two weeks from today. She will never be the same. And neither will we.

Please take care of Taylorbug, Miss NicNac Ugly.

Nana's little girl is growing up...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Oops, I think I may be in trouble. Well, at least I would be if I taught in Lamar County, Mississippi. According to an article entitled "Teacher-Student Web Friendships Restricted by Lamar School Board," teachers will no longer be allowed to have student "friends" on social websites like MySpace and Facebook.

So I guess it's time to fess up. I have accounts on both of those sites. I have all kinds of "friends" on those sites, and it is true - some of my friends are students. First, let's talk about the word "friend." Although social networks refer to online contacts as "friends," it doesn't necessarily mean that I go out to dinner with them. I have a MySpace friend in Oregon that I haven't seen face-to-face for twelve years. So to say that I am "friends" with my students is not the message that I'm trying to send. However, having said that, let me speak to the reasons why I am a member of these social networks and how it works with my students.

I joined MySpace a few years ago because someone had put up a fake page pretending to be my daughter. In order to get on the site and search around, I had to have a page of my own. Well, let's just say I signed up as quickly as I could to get on there and try to find out who was impersonating my child! (And so did a private investigator, a couple of law enforcement agencies, the Attorney General's office, and the National Football League.) Yes, someone was representing herself, on a MySpace page and reportedly during phone conversations, as my daughter who is a professional cheerleader. She had "stolen" pictures from an NFL webpage; her MySpace "friends" were talking to the imposter on the phone but trying to continue their conversations with my puzzled daughter at football games. So you can believe that I understand some of the problems connected to these sites.

However, since I had a page, I figured I may as well have fun with it. So I answered all of the "about me" questions, uploaded some pictures, and basically personalized it. I soon found that I enjoyed playing with it - it's a nice internet hobby and a fun way for me to communicate with my children who don't live at home any more. I also caught up with some of my former colleagues, some relatives I never get to see, and so on.

Soon one of my students found my page and did what's called a "friend request." It was a good student, one who wouldn't use this kind of situation in a negative way, so I clicked "accept." Days became months, and before I knew it, I had "friends" of all ages from all over the country. Students at school would look at me in disbelief - "YOU have a MySpace page?!" they would ask. Suddenly, I was cooler than the Monkees were when I was their age. I even began using MySpace entries while teaching writing as I described in an article I wrote for Teacher Magazine.

In addition, my participation with students on social websites has helped me stay connected to them and their interests, which of course enables me to be a better teacher. I'm afraid that once my own children left home, my finger was removed from the pulse of teenager music, fashion, and activities. Now all I have to do is click on a seventh grader's page, and I'm right back in the game!

I do have some rules for my interaction with students, and there are no exceptions. Here is a list of guidelines that I believe are imperative if teachers are to have a positive social networking experience:

1. I NEVER send out a request for a student to be my "friend." If they see my page, and send me a request, I first click on the student's page. If it doesn't appear to include profanity or anything else inappropriate, I merely click "accept."

2. I NEVER send a message to a student or post a comment that is unsolicited. And I rarely return a comment. If a student sends me, "How's your summer going?" I may write back, "Great! I hope you're having a great summer, too." If that student tries to continue the conversation, I don't reply. Kids are so busy sending messages to everyone; they eventually forget the last message, and the conversation ends. I don't believe it's appropriate to carry on long, drawn out online conversations with my students. A short "hello" is all that's necessary.

3. I WILL talk, in private, to a student if I happen to see something inappropriate on a page. I have had to have a couple of these conversations, and the students have been receptive. At the beginning of the last school year, I read some negative comments by several students about one of our new teachers. I was able to pull these students aside, at different intervals during the year, and talk about their posts. I believe I was able to effectively listen to their concerns while at the same time advocating for the new teacher. Again, I believe the fact that I have a page of my own helps me connect with my students in ways that are positive.

4. I WILL seek higher authority if I see anything illegal or dangerous. I once saw a student's profile picture - he was pointing a gun to his head. After I spoke with him about how horrified I was, I talked to the principal, who had a good relationship with the student. The principal asked him to take down the picture, and he contacted the boy's parents. For me, this rule is the same as the one I have for journal entries in my classroom. I tell students that what they write is entirely confidential unless they write about anything illegal or dangerous to themselves or anyone else. The same goes for anything I see on a webpage.

I do understand that students could get the wrong message if teachers are too "friendly" online. But for that matter, students could get the wrong message if a teacher is too "friendly" at school. This high tech environment is the world that our students are living in. A teacher wouldn't hesitate to sit down and write a handwritten note to a student. Could a handwritten letter contain an inappropriate message to a student? Absolutely. It is up to the individual teacher to be professional and appropriate whether the communication is written on paper or sent via the internet.

Unfortunately, if a teacher has bad intentions, a school board policy is not going to change that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Expressions for Excellence in Education

I've always felt young, like I just got out of college. It hit me a few years ago when I delivered my daughter to "my" college campus, that it was now "her" college campus, and my days of celebrating basketball championships in the middle of the street there were probably over. And in a school, as the average birth year of the teaching staff begins to dip below the year I began teaching, it becomes apparent that I am what some would call an "experienced teacher." As the years continue, I realize that there are expressions that I use, over and over, when giving advice to beginning teachers. So here, in no particular order, are my "Expressions for Excellence in Education:"

1. Hit the floor running, and breathe when you leave.
I have always been one of the first teachers to pull into the parking lot in the mornings. I believe that getting to work a good twenty to thirty minutes before the "official" start time is necessary for me. First of all, it gives me time to think quietly about my day. Also, it alleviates the problem of standing in line at a copy machine or finding a jammed copy machine that was left blinking wildly by a teacher who didn't attempt to fix it. After the copies are made, the agenda and goals are on the board, and the room is ready, there's time for having nice morning adult conversations (there may not be another opportunity until after school) and time for student relationship building that can happen as students arrive into the building.

Let me say that I do understand that there are sometimes circumstances. The year my son was a senior in high school, I flew into the school parking lot on two wheels every morning just as the second hand on the office clock was announcing that I was late. But if I didn't stay at home until he was safely belted into his car to drive to school, he wouldn't go. Not that he was a rebellious kid; he just kept falling asleep - in the bathtub, on the breakfast table...basically he slept on any flat surface. He just admitted about a month ago, at the age of 24, that during his senior year he was always up half the night practicing his newly acquired skill of Instant Messaging. (Now he tells me!) So I do know that it may be difficult to get to the building early. However, the earlier, the better is my suggestion for starting the day off relaxed and ready.

I feel the same way about the end of the school day. I tell beginning teachers to beware of the 3:30 Club. The 3:30 Club is made up of teachers who walk to the bus parking lot (if they have bus duty) with their purses and bookbags on their shoulders. Here's the warning: if you get between them and the door at 3:30 (or whatever time school is out,) it's over. And for goodness sakes, don't risk your life walking across the faculty parking lot at that time!

I prefer to take my time in the afternoons, grade a few papers, look over some lesson plans, straighten up my classroom from the day's activities, and get it ready for the next day. Again, after school is a great time to catch up with colleagues; I believe we are the happiest in our jobs when we work with our best friends! We have to nurture those relationships. Also, I like to wander around the school in the afternoons to see what my students are up to. There's nothing better than grading a few papers outside on the bleachers on a warm fall day during football season. My students, who should be paying attention to their coaches, always wave wildly when they see me in those stands like they didn't just see me in class thirty minutes before! My goal every day is to leave ready for the morning. Of course, I usually think of something to add to my lesson at night while I'm at home, which is why I also like to arrive early.

The "breathe when you leave" part? That means that teachers need to take care of themselves and relax during their hours out of school. This doesn't mean they can't grade the occasional paper or do schoolwork. For me, it's very relaxing to do my lesson plans on Sunday afternoons. Turn on a little professional football, and plan the week! But this routine may not work for some teachers. I tell new teachers to figure out what works for them, but to make sure they take care of themselves; in other words, BREATHE.

2. Always remember, the show must go on.
I have always said that teaching is a performance. Standing in front of (or facilitating around) a classroom of kids of any age requires energy and enthusiasm. We don't work behind a computer screen at a desk all day so we can't just slump in our seats if we feel like it. There have been many days in my career when I have looked at the clock to see that it was time for my next group to come to me. I can't do it, I would think. But I would take a deep breath, put a smile on my face (it's okay if it's fake at first) and start slapping some fives when those kids entered the room. Pretty soon their energy level would match mine, my smile would be real, and we would go from there. I'm not saying that teachers can't ever be sick; instead, the idea is to prepare ourselves for the "audience" and be the best we can be when we're with them. Our students deserve no less.

3. Put on your cheerleading uniform.
Yes, we have to encourage and inspire. We know that. Some of our students come to us from dismal situations. I often wonder how some of them can even put one foot in front of the other to get to the bus stop. But they do, and while they're with me, I'm going to do what I can to make their school day the best it can be.

But I'm not only talking about students. We need to cheer each other on, too. Schools can be negative, toxic places. The job is stressful, and hopefully we aren't complaining to kids all day. So when teachers get together, there can be some "venting." That's when I put on my metaphorical cheerleading uniform and go at it. Don't worry - I don't act like Little Mary Sunshine. I do understand, and many times agree with, the stresses that are discussed in team rooms and school hallways. But I do try to listen to my colleagues and, hopefully, put a positive spin on things if I can.

Also, I feel strongly that it's important to be cheerleaders for our profession. I am weary from hearing "if you can't do...teach..." and other misrepresentations of what we do every day. We have to market ourselves as the professionals that we are. Some have the idea that teachers are still Charlie Brown's wa-wa-wa-ing lecturers, whacking kids with yard sticks if they misbehave. Instead, we are committed professionals who believe in purposeful instruction and who have our students' best interests at heart. Many of us hold advanced degrees and national certification. And as we speak to others, in the grocery store or by the neighborhood pool, we must embody that professionalism instead of feeding fuel to the negative fire that surrounds many of our neighborhood schools.

4. If you make them the enemy, you will lose.
The rest of this expression goes like this: there are more of them, and they have an audience. As a middle school teacher, this is one saying that I share with teachers often. Teaching cannot be an "us" and "them" situation. In the community of a school, we are all family, and when the students know this (and FEEL this,) they are much more likely to cooperate, be pleasant, and LEARN. If instead they are aware of the animosity a teacher feels toward them, they will push back, and it probably won't be pretty. Being in this thing together is much more productive and much less stressful. A student on your side can be the difference between loving your job and dreading getting up in the morning. Do what needs to be done to ensure they're on your side...by being on theirs.

5. Don't hide your light under a bushel.
I can't take credit for this one. I believe it was mentioned in the Bible in reference to the Sermon on the Mount. Also, it was mentioned by my Mama about once a week as I was growing up. Basically, it means "don't hide your talent." I share this one with new teachers as I encourage them to use their talents, maybe some that aren't always so obvious, to make their teaching experience more enjoyable. For example, I love to write poetry. I'm not a published poet, but I don't need to be. I have a captive audience every day! By sharing my poetry, and bits of my personal life, I'm able to connect to my students in a way that may be difficult otherwise. Other teachers use their athletic talents to inspire students; I've worked with two Ultimate Frisbee playing teachers (in two different schools) who have taught their students these skills while at the same time teaching teamwork and perseverance. One of my dearest teacher friends teaches math and clogging at the same time; if only she had been my math teacher!

Another way I hope new teachers will shine their lights is by marketing themselves as professionals. Each parent who has a child sitting in a classroom should know the credentials that got that teacher there - college degrees, honors and awards received, types of experiences (not necessarily years of experience but types - has the teacher worked with different grade levels before or taught other subjects?) I believe teachers should have a pamphlet ready to hand to classroom visitors that includes all the highlights of the teaching career. And don't forget that all important webpage. In this technological world, we should be marketing ourselves as professional educators for all the world (wide web) to see.

These are the expressions that I find myself saying to teachers over and over. There are others, shorter versions than these, that I throw out every now and again. "He IS the boss of you" is one I use when teachers are complaining about the principal's expectations. But that story is for another day. For now, I'll just continue to look back over the years I've been teaching and wonder when I stopped asking so many questions and somehow got so old that I started answering a few. And I'll continue to rejoice in the fact that my daughter has now graduated from my university. Basketball season is not that far away...