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, " 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 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 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'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 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."