Sunday, December 26, 2010

Snow Day!

Christmas brought the gift of snow this year, not a commonplace occurrence in the South. Being trapped inside (I'm not much of a sledder or skater or bundle-er-upper), brings the opportunity to read and write, activities that have to be pushed aside during regular life routines. I've pulled out some "snow pieces" that I've written in the past couple of years. Maybe this year's snow will inspire me to write some more....

This one won me a fourth place nod one year in the Carolina Women's Writing Contest:


"There's snow on the beach,"

he announced, walking in.

I turned to see him,

a mixture of ice shaving on eyelash,

salt spray on skin,

and, somehow, the words don't connect -


the two images in an abrasvie refusal

to meet as one.

I looked at him...puzzled...

seeing pictures of a younger man

by the ocean,

forgotten images

working to share

the same scrapbook

with this picture, this man,

the one with the snow peppered hair.

The image now warms me -

snow - and - beach.

Morning Snowbird

A bird

was heard.

Snow was falling


Snow was falling.

Bird was calling,

making spring-like


Making spring,

flapping wings;

Bird protests the


Bird protests;

I can't rest.

I'll just get up and


(That one is a true story about a bird waking me up a few winters ago...)

Precipitation Alliteration

spring brings

luminous lightning,

threatening thunder,


rhythmic rain.


winter brings


the weather whisperer.

(I hope you all are enjoying the quiet of snow today. Take some time to read...and write!)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Not My Great-Grandmother's Teacher Working Conditions

In my early years as a teacher, the words “working conditions” would take me to thoughts of lower level needs: access to adult bathrooms, telephones to call parents, adequate planning time, and reasonable workloads (and my great-grandmother's duties of filling the woodstove and scrubbing the floors of the classroom in 1903). But a new report released by the Center for Teaching Quality has continued to change my way of thinking; the phrase “teacher working conditions” represents a more global perspective of teaching, what teachers need in order to be effective in a larger sense. Yes, teacher working conditions are much more complex than bathroom access.

Transforming School Conditions: Building Bridges to the Education System that Students and Teachers Deserve is the latest TeacherSolutions report released by the Center and written by fourteen accomplished teachers from urban districts across the country. The report focuses on research-based principles that will “undergird sustainable and effective teaching reforms.”

With recommendations on areas where schools, districts, teachers, as well as school administrators need to focus, this team of accomplished teachers has covered everything from student learning growth to how to embrace school communities as partners.

The report begins with a look at teacher education programs and how well they are preparing teachers for the realities of the classroom. It is not surprising to read that teachers are entering the profession unprepared to teach the second language learner and unprepared to become “student assessment experts.”

Other tidbits aren’t shocking: “Teacher attrition has always been an issue and research shows that the decision to stay or leave is directly related to teacher working conditions” while others are: “Teacher turnover is costing the country 7.3 billion each year.”

I was delighted to see a reference to the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey, a process that empowers me, as a North Carolina educator, to have my voice heard on everything from how supportive my administrators are to how helpful my professional development is. I'm not surprised that this team of teachers agrees that we must provide a way for teachers to share concerns about the workplace.

In addition, the report points to “five ways in which conditions in schools, state and local education agencies, and preparation programs are holding back student learning and a 21st century teaching profession:

1. Recruitment and preparation pathways for teacher candidates;
2. Assessment and evaluation systems for students and teachers;
3. Development of professional networks within and across schools to support teaching and learning;
4. Empowerment and professional leadership for teachers; and
5. Investment of community resources to develop and support effective schools."

This report is written by teachers who truly understand the obstacles to effective teaching and who also recognize what is right about schools today. For example, teacher residencies are touted as meaningful to pre-service teachers who are given time to understand the job from top to bottom and beginning to end as they are training “on the job” during an entire school year. There are also discussions on the importance of mentoring, the need for multiple measures of teacher evaluation, and the strength that comes from working in Professional Learning Communities.

Invest a little time into some meaningful professional development and read what fourteen of America’s great teachers are saying about working conditions in our schools. We, as educators, are lucky to have the Center for Teaching Quality who continues to utilize the talents of teacher leaders and impact education policy in our country.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Saving D, Part 2

I'm in a movie. That's it - I'm reading from a script. I must be playing a character because I can hear the words I'm saying, but I don't recognize "parole officer" and "turn yourself in" and "house arrest" as words I would ever need to say.

My former student D is eighteen now. He called me a week ago to tell me many things, all of them troubling:

1. He was just released from prison.

2. He has a four-month-old son who's in foster care.

3. He currently owns only three articles of clothing.

4. He wants to go back to school and graduate, but it would be too embarrassing (see #3).

5. He really wants a job to the point that he's harrassing people, but no one will hire him.

His last words at the end of the call - "Mrs. Rigsbee, can you help me?"

I wrote about some of D's troubles two years ago. Whenever I see him or talk to him, I cry. It's so sad to witness the stereotype of the young, smart kid growing up in poverty and heading in the wrong direction. I cry because I always thought if I cared enough, if I encouraged him enough, he would beat the odds.

He didn't.

And I cry because I don't know what to do to help him now. But this time I start by doing a Google search - I find that he was arrested in April for armed robbery. Later I learn that he was there but had no weapon; two others actually carried out the crime. D was convicted of "accessory after the fact."

Next I do a Department of Corrections Offender search. There's his name, just like it used to sit in my grade book, on his rarely turned in papers, and on the suspension list. I now know his DOC number, his age, his offense, and the fact that he's out of prison...on parole.

That leads me to my next step. I call my county's parole office and find the name of the officer I need in seconds. He returns my call within an hour.

When I have health issues, I pride myself on being educated on what may or may not be going on with my body. I do research to the point that I feel confident that I can converse with a medical doctor to communicate what I need. Not so much with a parole officer.

I know that I don't have the language I need to articulate what I want - some ideas about resources for helping D. As it turns out, it doesn't matter. Halfway into my first sentence, the officer interrupts me: "The thing is....he's at large." I have to think about that one a minute, but finally I get it. He's out there somewhere, they can't find him, and they want him. My heart sinks.

The officer tells me that there are three warrants for D, and he better get in touch before it's too late. I had called because I wanted to help D get a job and some clothes and a place to live. Instead I find myself asking for time...time to find him so I can encourage him to turn himself in. The parole officer gives me one day.

I call D's phone, but it's turned off. I go through my phone frantically and find the number he used when he called me last week. I have no idea whose phone I'm calling, and I'm terrified. A girl answers. I tell her who I am and what I want. She mumbles, barely audible, "Hold on." Another girl comes to the phone. Same scenario.

Finally, "Mrs. Rigsbee?" I talk, words tumbling out of my mouth one after another - "turn yourself in"..."do the right thing"..."I'll help you through this...."

He says, "You don't know how they do. They lie."

I say, "Don't talk without a lawyer. You have a right to have a lawyer present." (I shake my head at the phone. Since when am I Kate Beckett on Castle?)

He resists.

I continue, "D, you've hit rock bottom. You have two ways you can go. You can make something of your life, or you can go to jail. What's it gonna be?"

One thing he wants me to know: "Mrs. Rigsbee," he says quietly. "About my armed robbery know I could never hurt anybody, right?"

"I know, D," I answer, choking on tears again. We hang up so D can make his call. Soon he calls me back to tell me he's going to turn himself in.

And now I wait. I wait for the ending to this movie I'm in. Years ago, I signed up to teach middle school kids, and now I'm the one getting "schooled" on life. I tell D I don't know anything about this world he lives in...all I know about what he's into is what I've seen on tv. He turns his face away from the phone and yells, "Hey, Mrs. Rigsbee thinks my life is a movie!"

Yea, D, and I just pray for a happy ending.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Givin' Halloween a Chance

I used to proclaim that Halloween was my least favorite holiday. First, as a single parent of young children, the celebration was yet another thing I did alone, from costume gathering to trick-or-treating to stomach soothing after too much sugar ingesting.

Also, as a young mother, it seemed to me that there was an unspoken competition when it came to putting costumes together. If I dared to show up to a pre-school party with my kids decked out in pre-fab costumes (some type of vinyl body cover and a plastic mask so popular in the 80's) there would be looks of pity and then whispers as one-by-one the other moms would shake their heads at my kids and then walk away, dragging their child-model in a handsewn costume with them. I'm not much of a competitor when it comes to things I don't know how to do. I decided then to hate Halloween and all the tricks and treats that went with it.

But perhaps the biggest reason I began to dread the orange holiday as soon as the first leaf yellowed is obvious - I TEACH MIDDLE SCHOOL! Are you kidding me? It seems my fate was incredibly twisted. 11-13 year olds are unteachable at Halloween! Right up there with Valentine's Day and Winter Break, the days surrounding that ghastly day have always been difficult. Candy gathered in the 'hood the night before means candy in the school the day after. And kids aren't even sneaky about it! A question about a character in a story was once drowned out by an across-the-classroom trade: "I'll give you my candy corn for your malted milk balls." Let's just say the rest of the class missed the "malted milk" part, and it took me the remainder of the period to settle them down.

But one year someone talked me into participating in our school-wide Halloween celebration. I resisted, but then she brought me the costume. Our school mascot was the Red Devils (since changed to Cardinals due to the hellish nature of the name), and the costume was a bright red, lycra unitard with matching headband/horns and a tail. It was so beautiful I couldn't resist. It looked like this, only sans the flames and wings:

There was a contest - one money prize for a teacher and one for a student. And we wore our costumes to school on Halloween Day. I absolutely cannot believe that I wore that skin-tight outfit to school. Yes, I was a 30-year-old very skinny teacher at the time. But STILL! What were my 7th graders thinking?

I tell you what they were thinking...that their teacher won $50 for the best costume! From then on, I was hooked. Halloween is awesome!! I even began to incorporate Halloween into our classroom activities. The students love our Fright Fair project; they all write scary stories, and then they're assigned projects that match their interests and skills. Some kids design, make, and deliver the invitations. Others design and then decorate the room.

On Halloween Day teachers come to hear story readings. The room is dark except for one small light in the middle of a story-telling circle and the orange lights that are weaved through the spiderwebs hanging on the walls and the whiteboard. Carrot cake is served to the visitors and a ghoulish time is had by all.

Last night as I sat on a hayride and watched my granddaughter (Cinderella) treat-or-treat, I thought Halloween is my favorite holiday!

Also known as....if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

To a Farmer Dying Young (with thanks to A.E. Housman)

...Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high to bring you home
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears...

excerpt from "To An Athlete Dying Young"
A.E. Housman

I met him when we were both college freshmen. We graduated high school the same year in towns eight miles apart, and he was the kind of person who immediately made others feel they'd always known him. The freshman year is when the circle of friends widens - high school friends of dormmates come to visit, and soon the world is bigger and better. Such it was with Rob.

I was reading Housman poems in Freshman English back then, picking them apart, every word holding more meaning than a nineteen-year-old would originally think. I worked at learning how to get inside the mind of a poet...while Rob was across campus, learning how to breed cattle. Animal Husbandry he called his major. This city girl had never heard of it.

One weekend the future farmer took me to his family's farm. So many cows in one place! It was a dairy farm then, and Rob called me over to see the special cow, being milked just at that time. He said, "Look, this cow has a square hole." Just as I bent over to look at the hole, I got a face full of fresh milk. He laughed himself silly over that one, although I'm sure he'd pulled that trick thousands of times.

Later that afternoon, he took me for a ride through the country on his motorcycle, my first ride out in the open air like that. I was reminded of an Anne Morrow Lindbergh book I had recently read. She described her first airplane flight with her future husband, Charles. She talked about feeling so free, seeing everything from a different perspective...with the wind in her hair.

That's how that ride felt to me...and that day on the farm. I had a renewed perspective, one altogether different the next day when I poured milk on my cereal.

The years went by, like that wind on that day, and Rob and I went on with our lives, our marriages, and our families. But Rob Hogan taught me the meaning of simpler things, the love of farm animals, and what being kind to people is all about. I've seen him a couple of times over the years. We've laughed at how far we've come - with ever-growing families and responsibilities.

But yesterday when he died, I felt like we were still there - nineteen years old with our lives before us. To me, Rob will always be that college kid with the beautiful smile, even though now he's somewhere in a dreamy pasture, playing the square hole joke on angels.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Waiting for check his sources...

The title of this blog changed along the way - it started as "Waiting for Pinocchio to SHUT UP!" But the seething anger I've been carrying around is so toxic I had to temper it lest I come across as short and snippy with friends, colleagues, and worst-of-all, the students in my school.

"Pinocchio" refers to the propaganda pushers who are speaking of public schools as if they themselves sit in the front row of Miss Kilpatrick's classroom every day and therefore are experts on the issues of education. In the process there is misinformation (read: lies) being broadcast across the country.

Educators have been speaking out, for example, about the movie Waiting for Superman (I won't include the link to the trailer because I refuse to promote it.) I did watch the preview...once...and will not watch it again. Basically it says that schools and teachers are failing and that charter schools are the answer to all of public education's problems.

I'm sure there are some amazing charter schools. There are also some lousy ones. Sound familiar? Can we not say that about non-charter public schools, private schools, churches, restaurants, medical facilities, and on and on?

Oprah even hung on to Waiting for Superman's cape and made sure her audience was made aware of how difficult it is to get "bad" teachers out of schools. Did you know that teachers receive tenure after two years? That's what Pinocchio said that day. Well, guess what? It takes four years in my state. Four. At the end of years one, two, and three, a principal can decide to "non-renew" a contract. It seems to be a secret that poor teachers can be let go.

Teachers have been weary for awhile now...taking the blame for the alleged "failure" in schools. We're not weary any more. We're mad.

But what can we do about a movie that says "Our schools are failing. Our teachers are failing"? I heard a principal yesterday say, "We're always the punching bag...always on our heels...we're never on our toes, punching ourselves..."

I think it's time to punch Pinocchio. Let's make our own movies. Grab a video camera and record a success story, a student talking about the public school experience that kept him in school, another talking about the teacher who made a difference. Let's edit all the clips together and make our own movie - Superman is HERE. I have my camera ready? Do you?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

With the End in Sight...

If you're in any way connected to education, you're beginning to feel a simmering force field of energy around you, and you know it's coming: the First Day of School.

I've been noticing it for awhile; I once was a Year-Round Calendar teacher, and I know how it feels to get those little prickles of excitement well before now. And as I've written before, the First Day is the BEST day (which is why I capitalize it like a holiday!) Blogs this time of year will be full of First Day activities and tips, and teachers all around are anxious with expectations on this the Happy New Year of Teaching.

This year, as you hand out insurance forms and Free/Reduced Lunch applications, I hope you'll think about another exciting time of a school year - the Last Day of School. As you look at your freshly scrubbed darlings sitting quietly (which is a good thing because you don't really know their names yet), think about what they'll look like, who they'll be, on the last day of school.

Chances are they'll be worn down and weary, many who worked dilligently but still failed standardized tests, many who've endured life-changing circumstances in their home lives - separation, divorce, domestic abuse, some who haven't fit in this year and are hoping for better things ahead...

I've written about Jamie who began the school year as a sixth grader, giddy with excitement, happy as a bird as my mother-in-law used to say. Fast forward to the end - Jamie was sullen, even weepy at times, over his parents' separation and pending divorce. He acted out in an effort to get attention of any kind, even negative. I didn't let him down. There were just days when he would push my buttons, and I'd end up calling his dad. Most days I was a listener and an advice-giver. But some days he wore me to the brink of exhaustion.

Teachers get worn down, too...tired of working extra hours for less pay, tired of health insurance costing more, but covering less, and tired of hanging from the ceiling fan to teach standards to kids, some who still don't pass standardized tests.

Last week I was on a beach vacation. I rode my bike just by a marshy area beautiful with blue water and green marsh reflections. I wrote the following about one particular morning:

Oak Island Goodbye

The pelican
has a choreographed

The pattern
is not a chance
of wind and wing.

Instead he flaps
just inches
above the water
then glides
on that glassy surface
until gravity
persuades the wings
to move again.

I watch
through sea oats
and grassy marsh,
looking over
sun-dotted water
and then make a vow:

Once I’m back
to my racetrack life...
speeding in circles
and getting nowhere...

I’ll remember
this place
and that bird
and this moment.

I’ll hold it
and think yet again
to slow down
and glide.


I challenge you to cherish those First Day children all year long. On the last day, look at them again and assess what your impact has been on their lives. In between...when you're weary and they're pushing buttons, think of that day and remember the freshly scrubbed darlings of nine months ago. Hold them like that as long as you can...

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On Teaching "Broken" Children

My son is getting married next month. In the whirlwind that is wedding planning, I find that I have to work through one more step than most mothers-of-the-groom. The fact that I'm no longer married to my son's father means that every decision involves a call or an email; I can't simply turn to my husband over in his recliner and ask him a question. He is not my children's father so he doesn't feel that his opinions on who-sits-where at the rehearsal dinner are needed.

All of this extra thinking and consideration for my ex and his wife have catapulted me straight into a period of reflection. As my son is about to marry, I wonder if he is damaged any by the life we chose for him, the every-other-weekend, changing-of-the-guard, who-am-I-with-for-Christmas-this-year existence that began for him when he was three.

As I think back about his life, I also think about my students in similar situations. Following is a plea to teachers who have students from what someone, at some point, coined "broken homes."

Dear Teachers,

I know it's annoying when your students don't bring in homework. I also know it's highly suspect when they claim to have left it at Mom's while they were spending the night with Dad. But I hope you'll be sensitive to this situation. It's a challenge to pack up kids - for the night and for school the next day - and deliver them halfway between two places at a previously determined time. Not only is it a challenge, but it hurts. Handing children off to the other parent is a situation that leaves one parent driving home feeling like someone's delivered a swift kick to the gut. And returning to the house to find it empty, except for toys on the floor and, oops, a homework paper on the kitchen table, is heartbreaking. Kids sense, and feel, the heartbreak, too. Unfortunately those feelings interrupt the organization process, and things are forgotten. Please think of that scenario whenever homework is missing from kids who live in two places. It'll get turned soon as the guard changes again.

Also, be sure to do all the research you need to help you better understand which parent the student actually lives with (if not both), how often he/she sees the other parent, and which parent is the one you should contact about school related issues. I ask my students to write their own names and addresses on a note card on the first day of school and the names of their parents. I then ask them to circle the name(s) of the parent(s) with whom they live. I learned this lesson the hard way. Once a student wrote both parents' names on a card. After trying unsuccessfully to call the mother, I dialed the number beside the father's name. After I mentioned my student, the parent began screaming at me over the phone, telling me he hadn't seen the child in seven years. Yikes! I should've done my homework.

Last, although you should be sensitive and flexible when circumstances occur that are out of a child's control, don't let them play the "broken home" card every time they think they deserve more time, more attention, or lower expectations. I taught my kids that they had to work twice as hard at school because they received two sets of birthday presents. Okay, not really...but I did tell them that our home situation would one day make them stronger and would enable them to be loved by many more people - extended families, step-parents and step-siblings, half-siblings, etc.

Still, think about your "back and forth" students as you make decisions in your classroom. One day, one of them will be getting married, and someone will be working overtime to make sure everything runs smoothly.


One Who Knows

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Outsiders...Or Fitting Right In?

Our eighth graders read the novel The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. When it was first released in 1967, the book shocked young readers with its violence and lack of accepted family structure. The students at my school love it. They can't put it down until they're done reading it, and they sit on the edges of their seats watching the 1983 movie version that boasts stars-of-the-future like Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane.

When I first taught the book, years ago, I thought my students would whine and complain...maybe call the fifties setting old-fashioned and boring. Instead, they sat enthralled and pondered romanticized versions of boys who live without parents and who run around the town with knives while smoking cigarettes non-stop.

Fast forward to last week. Another teacher asked me if I'd seen the YouTube video of a former student fighting in the middle of the street in her neighborhood. I couldn't believe such a thing was possible - that a student fight was recorded and placed on YouTube for the world to see - so I looked it up. I was suprised to find thousands of videos featuring student fights, and, yes, one of them included my former student.

What I saw on that video clip was horrifying. There's my student, who is being referred to as MadDawg, bouncing around like a boxer-in-training, air punching around another teenager's head. The other teen, referred to as "New Girl," was standing there, arms folded, telling my student that she doesn't want to fight. It's apparent that a crowd has gathered to watch the violence, obviously knowing ahead of time that the fight was scheduled. (This wasn't a situation where two teens got angry and fought in the heat of the moment.)

I was horrified as I watched the other girl say over and over that she's not there to fight and everyone should just go home. But the crowd wasn't having it. They continued to encourage the girls, saying things like, "I left my house for THIS? I was eating chicken!" Students in the crowd even push the two girls together several times, continuing to egg them on.

Finally New Girl had had enough. She picked up my student and slammed her onto the street. Then she pummeled her in the head a few times while yelling at her to go the ----- home! Finally she climbs off of her - meanwhile I can hear the crowd bullying my student about her lack of fighting skills. Apparently, that is just enough to encourage her to air-box the new girl again...who promptly slams her to the pavement again, this time putting her face close to my student's ear and repeating, "This is over. We're going home. This is over."

I watched as cell phones recorded the entire event and listened as the onlookers talked of being nervous because it appeared a neighbor had called the police. My student's sister, also a former student, then came into camera range; she's a beautiful girl with so much potential, and I watched her look right at home in the middle of this display of violence and stupidity.

It's no wonder eighth graders love The Outsiders - they aren't shocked by anything in it; instead they're comfortable. This is a world they understand.

In the movie Valentine's Day, Ashton Kutcher's character makes this comment: "Love is the only shocking thing left in the world." Apparently he's right. Violence is commonplace and accepted, even entertaining. Those participating aren't outsiders. They're part of our current culture.

But I think of my students and wish instead they were being shocked by love. And I wish YouTube would ban uploaded videos by underage kids. Somehow we have to stop giving kids, who aren't old enough to make responsible decisions, the opportunities to promote violence and to use it as entertainment. To me....that's what's shocking...

Sunday, May 30, 2010


He was twelve once. With a grin as big as the classroom he sat in, he'd rather hold a football than a girl's hand. I think he laid awake at night figuring out ways to torment the teacher. Once at school, he carried out his plans, bringing his friends Barry and Kris along for the ride.

His favorite ploy was to get the teacher off the subject. He'd ask about her children...try to get information about her love life, grinning all the while. One day the teacher saw him throw a football the length of the middle school field and thought This is a very special young man.

Brian Anderson was a special young man indeed. Continuing on to high school, he became a football and wrestling star. His infectious smile permeated the high school classrooms, football field, and wrestling mat. "A real character" is how his football coach described him. "Never a dull moment with Brian around," he said.

After high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps and asked to be among the first of the troops to descend on Iraq in 2003. He didn't want his buddy, who had orders to go, to be alone. He kissed his mother goodbye and traveled halfway across the world...only to lose his life on April 2, 2003. By then he was a man, but to his teacher, he was still twelve and sitting in that last seat in the middle row...

He was in his early twenties once. He grew up on a farm in a rural North Carolina county, digging in the soil that produced the meals for his mother, four sisters, and two brothers. He was the oldest, the man of the family. A good-looking guy, he had a smile that made some country girls swoon.

Riddick Blackwood joined the Army in August of 1944, taking the same course as so many men in those days. He reported to Germany, leaving a young wife behind, to travel to a country he'd only heard about, a land altogether different from his rural homeplace.

He would lose his life in the single largest and bloodiest battle of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge. The War Department would deliver an official message to his wife and mother, and he would be buried in Holland. His family was never able to bring him home, focused now on his two brothers still serving - Truett, who was lying wounded in an English hospital and Bob, stationed in India.

Riddick Blackwood would never meet his nephew (his baby sister's boy) or his nephew's wife who thinks about him often...especially on days like today.

Thank you, Brian and Riddick, for what you represent and for what you sacrificed. I continue to pray for the peace that you died for.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Remember that part in the movie Arachnophobia when the character played by Jeff Daniels mentions that there's no noise from the crickets? All of a sudden it's so quiet outside that the main character takes notice, oblivious to the fact that some creepy crawly creatures have snacked on all the insects in the land.

One day this past week I walked the halls of my school and noticed that same eerie sound. It rang out more loudly than the usual halls full of bustling children...the "he saids/she saids" of middle school class change, the laughter and joking, the "stop running, keep-to-the-right" characteristics of a school hallway.

Our huge eight-legged critter?


I heard once that a first grader returned home from school one day during my state's End of Grade Tests (which we call EOG's) and announced, "The school was really quiet today. We had E-I-E-I-O's."

More like just O's....line after line of O's as in, "Fill in your circle completely. Be sure your mark is heavy and dark. If you erase your circle, do not try to redraw it."

Today I completed my fourteenth day of standardized testing. Next week there are makeups and retests and on and on - an army of arachnids taking over the schoolhouse and silencing the happy noises of the children.

Where's Jeff Daniels when you need him?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I LOVE sports. LOVE 'em. From little league to middle and high school, college and doesn't matter. I enjoy the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat as much as anyone. I still get chillbumps when I ride by our county's high school football stadium on a Friday night. I can smell the grass on the field, the popcorn at the concession stand, and the sweaty players running to the locker room at the end of the game. I hear the band playing Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" and can still remember the dance I used to do on the sidelines. I have season tickets to NFL football games and Triple A famous in my town that a movie, Bull Durham, was filmed here.

I also love the Division I university that I attended. My daughter graduated from there 24 years after I did, and coincidentally, that was the same year I earned my master's degree there. She was a captain on the cheerleading squad and traveled the country when "our" team played in the NCAA tournament. To say I'm a fan is an understatement. In my area of the state the basketball rivalry is so intense that it can break up a marriage and everyone would understand.

I love my profession, too. This week my heart broke when I read about the local teacher who is half a paycheck away from homelessness and who is in danger of losing her job. Just as I was wiping away my tears, I read the following:

"With 11% unemployment in NC that includes 5400 educator jobs, the Senate's budget continues $14 million funding of our-of-state athletes' tuition. Out-of-state athletes cost upwards of $42,000 annually, mostly at taxpayer's expense. A starting teacher in NC makes $30,000 annually."

Did you just hear a needle scratch violently across a record (you have to be my age to understand that reference.) Seriously? Seriously? I can barely summon a response.

My husband says, "Yea, but how much do those athletes bring to our state?" And to that I say, "Not a damn thing if they hadn't had thirteen years of teachers and coaches training them to do what they do and be who they are."

I'm so mad I don't even have words...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Pushing Buttons

I was in an airport bathroom recently...specifically, I was in a stall. I could hear a little girl somewhere near the sinks squealing, "I wanna push the button!" over and over and over. And over. The squeals escalated from a post-toddler whine to a pre-school shrill.

From my perspective, it was apparent that the little girl wanted to push the automatic hand dryer button. So I waited to hear the machine start up and pictured the air blowing across the little girl's head; surely, she would be just the right height for a new wind-blown hairstyle.

I never heard the hand dryer come on, but I did hear the little girl squeal her request repeatedly. But what I didn't hear was any acknowledgement from her mother. She had turned her little girl off.

The entire scenario reminded me of the summer of 1989, a month before my son's kindergarten year. By chance we ran into his first ever public school teacher in the shopping mall, just before school started. Coincidentally, the teacher had a son the same age as mine. And interestingly he was banging her on the head with a balloon the whole time we chatted.

It went something like this: "Yes, he'll need paper, pencils, a box of tissues, a glue stick..." BOP! "Oh, and don't forget about Open House...." BOP! "I'm so happy to have your son in my class this year..." BOP BOP!!!

The teacher never said a word to her son, and I decided she was accustomed to him, somewhat desensitized to his antics. During my restroom stall retreat, I thought back to that teacher and that little boy and thought about how my buddy out by the hand dryer was turned off, too. It was as if her mother didn't even notice her squeals, desensitized to shrill requests because she most likely hears them all day.

All of a sudden, in a bathroom stall in Baltimore, Maryland, it hit me. Lawmakers are turning the same deaf ear to educators. We've squealed about working conditions, salaries, and layoffs. Recently, we've taken to marching, walking out, protesting, and letter and editorial writing. But it's as if policymakers have their fingers stuffed in their ears, singing, "I can't hear you. I can't hear you..." Apparently, they are desensitized to our pleas.

So, finally on the plane and ascending upward and over Washington, DC, where so much of what impacts us as teachers is decided, I thought about how to get our message across in ways that are more difficult to "turn off."

First, I truly believe you get more with honey than vinegar. Angry outbursts and name-calling are the best ways to ensure that they won't hear what you say; they'll hear how you say it. Remain calm, state the facts, and have data to back it up. No squealing or whining allowed.

Next...learn from history. Dr. Martin Luther King's peaceful protests changed our country. Walk to the capitol if you like; carry a sign displaying your message. But don't communicate threats or yell obscenities. Hang on to your self control by thinking about the message you're sending to your students or your own children. We should all be role models for peace.

Also, use your 21st century technology skills and get your messsage out there so you can drum up support. Have you heard of California teacher Anthony Cody's Letters to Obama that got him an audience with Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education? Mr. Cody's use of social networking helped him connect with educators all over the country and thus send a message to policymakers that can't be turned off.

Last, it's necessary to hit 'em where it's important, with stories of our students and our children. For example, my sixth grade student Jake has almost learned how to say his "r's" during this school year. But if the speech teacher's position is cut, he'll move on to high school sounding much younger than his actual age. Perla, my English Language Learner, will continue to struggle in school if her ESL teacher is moved elsewhere. And Andre and JoeJoe will have a difficult time learning in a classroom with 38 other kids. They've told me they do better in small groups. But fewer teachers mean crowded classrooms and less learning for Andre and JoeJoe.

So, yes, we do want to push their buttons. But first they have to hear our requests. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Teachers Who Make a Difference

I've just completed my first ever Book Tour which included four states, six television interviews, a radio interview, and three book signings. But after all of that excitement, I was inspired when I checked my email after my trip. At the end of my book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke, I ask for readers to write me and tell me about their own "Mrs. Warnecke," the teacher who made a difference. I returned from my trip to hear from Susan, a teacher in the Virgin Islands:

Hey Cindi,
I tore through your book lent to me by my boss, Edney Freeman, Virgin Islands Teacher of the Year, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My Mrs. Warnecke was a teaching nun, Sister Mary Remy Revor, who I didn't encounter until I was 30 years old. She taught fabric arts at Arrowmont School of the Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and in two weeks was able to undo all the negative messages I had received over the years about what art is supposed to be. "Never use pink and yellow together," was the rule according to my elementary school art teacher. The unspoken lesson in college was that men are the artists and women are the models. I dropped out of college after three years because I couldn't see the point.

Sister Remy taught me to take pride in my own work and to believe in myself. She shared everything she knew, no holding back secret tricks. With that positive experience under my belt, I continued taking art classes during the summer and eventually returned to college where I earned BFA Honors, was accepted into the MFA program as a teaching assistant (they paid me!) and started teaching high school art. Certification courses led to an MAE, but all the pedagogy in the world pales in comparison to the example set by Sister Remy. This is what I bring to my students.

Susan Edwards
Charlotte Amalie High School
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

(Thank you, Mrs. Warnecke and Sister Mary Remy Revor!)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Forgotten Middle

Once I was told I had to attend a workshop on reading instruction. Having just earned my master's degree in K-12 literacy, I was looking forward to the opportunity. Soon the text for the training arrived, and it was subtitled "Strategies for K-5 Reading," and somehow I knew - this would not the best workshop for a middle school teacher.

It happens time and time again. Middle school teachers continue to attend trainings that are geared toward elementary readers. I sat through another one today...learning about cute little phonics activities that aren't appropriate for eighth graders. Interestingly, the International Reading Association lists Adolescent Readers as a "very hot" topic. So why can't we go to a conference and find more than one "very hot" breakout session?

Today I returned home from the conference to find an interesting brochure in my mailbox; I saw the title "Units of Study for Teaching Reading." Then I saw the subtitle: "A Curriculum for the Reading Workshop: Grades 3-5." Ahhh. Again.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to look at the President's blueprint for the reauthorization of ESEA - aka NCLB. I have been looking forward to a new version of this legislation, a version that wouldn't be punitive to the hard-working teachers of this country. What I wasn't looking forward to is that during the discussion of preparing students for college and beyond ("all students graduate high school on time prepared for at least one year of post-secondary") middle school students are lumped together with high school students in a group called "Secondary 6-12."

I'd like to offer that a sixth grader and a twelfth grader have drastically different needs when it comes to graduation preparation and college readiness. A sixth grader is more concerned with remembering a locker combination than remembering to complete a college application. And although we are certainly focusing on the "pre" part of "preparing" our students for college, our focus is more on the organizational and study skills needed to master the rigorous coursework that will enable kids to be competitive when it comes to college acceptance in the future.

So for that reason I'd like to ask for the middle school to have its own category: "Middle School 6-8" so that we can focus on what needs to be done during those all important years, those three years when children change the most - from loving, sweet elementary independent, thriving adolescents excited about high school. Add to my list of requests some breakout sessions at a reading conference that relate to adolescent readers.

It's a hot topic to the International Reading Association...but only lukewarm to the rest of the world.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shades of Teaching

I first heard the word "hybrid" in biology class in tenth grade. For some reason, there is a pea in my memory that has two different hues of green. But have I ever heard of a "hybrid pea"? Maybe hybrid corn? And more recently...hybrid car?

But as an educator I never thought about a hybrid position, until this year, when I was assigned to do two jobs at once. Back to that later...

The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher: Collaborating for Student Success has released the third part, "Teaching as a Career." In it, more than half of the teachers (56%) surveyed and half of the principals (49%) report that teachers in their schools combine part-time classroom teaching with other roles in their school or district and four in ten teachers say they are interested in such a position. Hybrid teaching roles are particularly appealing to new teachers (46%) and those who are less than satisfied with their current careers (42%).

I have been a strong advocate for looking at schools differently. We need to think about scheduling, grading, and school calendars in a way that doesn't replicate the past one hundred years of public school. In the same way, we need to look at teaching in ways that capitalize on the strengths of our educators without overburdening them with too many duties. Here are my thoughts on hybrid positions in education:

On the positive side, any job in education, from the school custodian to the superintendent, would be more meaningful if part of the day is spent with kids. Plain and simple. They're the reason we're all there, and they make it worth the long hours. Spending time in a classroom of students also is the best way to maintain credibility with other educators. How many times have we heard teachers say that Central Office staff members don't "get it" because they aren't in a classroom? In addition to credibility, being in a classroom also is important so that the educator's views are authentic and not based on what they remember about teaching or hear from colleagues.

At the same time, hybrid roles can be difficult. Take mine, for example. I am currently the Literacy Coach for my school and the Beginning Teacher Mentor for my district. Suffice it to say that my two 50% jobs are really two 100% (or more) jobs and that I feel that neither the teachers I should be coaching nor the teachers I should be mentoring are being served as they should. Luckily, my administrators are eager to look at ways to make my "jobs" more doable next year.

A common mistake I see when hybrid roles are developed occurs when teachers are pulled to do administrative/Central Office-type jobs but are paid teacher salaries. I have seen numerous "teacher-on-loan" style positions where the work is overwhelming, but the pay isn't higher. Educators must be compensated for the work they do as professionals, and school districts need to resist the urge to get "cheap help" from teachers they can pull from classrooms.

As for my job... it's true, my roles do utilize two of my passions - literacy and beginning teacher support; so in that way, it's perfect for me. That's what we should focus on when it comes to hybrid positions: begin by looking at educator strengths....then continue by planning a schedule that's feasible and capitalizes on what's best for kids. And the finishing touch is a salary that's commensurate with the work.

It should be like that pea - different shades...but still a pea.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Realizing Dreams

My Daddy was a hard working man. He was also brilliant when it came to ideas that required common sense. (My mother always said he could hold an entire Chevrolet engine together with electrical tape.) He was no academian, though, and was actually a junior high school dropout. I remember every year I would take home the Student Data Sheet that my mother would complete on the first day of school. It always had a category for "highest education of parents." My mother would check "associate's degree" for herself and whatever random school year she would decide on for my Daddy. Sometimes she'd check 11th grade, sometimes another one, but she knew better than to check the box beside "high school graduate."

It wasn't until one of Daddy's many hospital stays on the cancer floor of Duke University Medical Center that we finally learned the truth. The nurse methodically asked each question on the patient intake form, and when she got to "highest level of education," my very sick father answered, "Seventh."

Had I not been so concerned over his health and totally committed to his care, I may have fallen out the door of that extremely small hospital room. Seventh grade. The very ages of the students I was teaching that year! I imagined my students, any one of them, being on their own at that moment. It was beyond imagination.

I've heard romanticized stories of my Daddy having to drop out of school to help support the family (not unheard of back in the 1940's), riding on the back of a milk truck, delivering milk to rural North Carolina. However, truth be told, I bet my Daddy left that junior high hooping and hollering, happy to be away from the requirements of school work.

I have more than one memory of Daddy handing me the newspaper and asking me a word or two. I tell my reading students about him, about how he worked hard to compensate for what he didn't have in book smarts, and how surprised I am that I grew up loving to read and write.

But I didn't grow up with an extensive vocabulary or skill in writing technique - I've tried to pick up a few things along the way to my master's degree. That's why today, when my book hit the shelf at Barnes and Noble, it was a special type of dream come true.

From my first essay (on the Vietnam War) that won an honorable mention when I was, myself, in seventh the personal writing I share with my students, including lamentations over my father's this blog, I have always loved to write as a way to express my feelings...but I'm no J.K. Rowling. What I do is write what I know, stories about my students, my family, and me...topics that don't require too much imagination because I lived them.

So it'll definitely be a dream come true when I see my book on that shelf. It's a long way from that seventh grade essay...

Friday, February 19, 2010

Teacher Collaboration Past to Present...

Teacher voice. We've been complaining about the lack of it for so long: I just spent a year traveling the country to speak on behalf of teachers, and there were many times when I felt that my message fell on deaf ears, that I was merely the "token teacher" in the room. However, I'm encouraged today at the release of the results of the Metlife Survey of the American Teacher. This year's title is Collaboration for Student Success, and like the North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey in my state, the Metlife Survey provides feedback on what's going on in schools so that all stakeholders, and policymakers, can gain a better understanding of what we, as educators, experience every day.

Last night I had the opportunity to speak to a room full of future school principals on the topic of beginning teacher support. Not suprisingly, the subject of this year's survey was at the top of my list of how to support beginning teachers: foster an atmosphere of collaboration. The first part of the Collaboration for Student Success survey is entitled "Effective Teaching and Leadership," and one point we discussed as a group last night comes up again: "While we are meeting with other teachers, we aren't observing other teachers." Less than 1/3 of the teachers who responded to the survey indicated that the practice of observing other teachers occurs at their schools.

I told the group about an opportunity I had once to cover a classroom for a beginning teacher so that she could observe her mentor. All agreed that this is a good practice. But I ventured on into the conversation to say that not only should beginning teachers be observing others, the rest of us could learn a little something from the practice as well. Not only could we pick up management tips and ideas for what works with certain students (students we may teach as well), we could also be more informed about what others are teaching so that we can plan collaboratively.

Oh, there's that word...the one in the title of the survey..."increased collaboration."

Last night I shared the story of my first year teaching - 1979 - and how in that high school every classroom door was closed. Every teacher taught in isolation - there was no sharing of plans or resources, no discussions of student needs, no back and forth on what was working or wasn't. I spent my days talking only with children and found little avenues for getting any better at what I was doing.

As the years went by, those doors opened a little, but for the majority of my career there was still a mentality in the hallways and common areas of "I'm only going to address my own students, the ones I know, and leave the others to the teachers who teach them."

But now, according to the Survey of the American Teacher, 67% of the educators who completed the survey believe that increased collaboration has a direct effect on student success. And 80% strongly agree that teachers share responsibility for achievement of all students. We're in this together, folks, and I'm delighted to see that a majority of those questioned agree.

And although in many schools, there's still some "door closing" and collaborative planning is not a seamless part of the day, we have come so far in our understanding of purposeful instruction. My school has 1 1/2 hours of common grade-level planning daily and fully equipped team rooms for meetings (fully equipped = tables, chairs, and internet access...there are also bathrooms and a functional stove, but we don't seem to fit "cooking" in to the planning meetings).

At my school, collaboration is such a part of the culture that I see discussions about instruction everywhere - the halls, the cafeteria, the car rider line - and just last summer, while my entire faculty attended a graveside funeral, the math teacher I was talking to after the service excused herself on the lawn of the cemetery: "I have to plan a math lesson," she said as she walked across the grass to meet with her grade-level teaching partner.

I looked at my principal and said, "We're having PLC meetings in a the summer...when school's out."

I know this type of collaboration is the exception and not the rule, but I can tell you that it works, it's the best for students, and it fosters an atmosphere of family in a school.

The Metlife Survey of the American Teacher can tell you that, too.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Teachers!

The Super Bowl is on - a huge event that's being broadcast all over the world. Last weekend I attended the Pro Bowl, another exciting football game where professional athletes were celebrated and honored.

I watched them on the practice field and during the game, paparazzi flashing, and tried to picture them all as seventh graders, the ages of my students. I thought about them before they became football heroes, before they earned million dollar salaries and bought million dollar houses. I thought of them as middle school football players, dragging their practice clothes around school in bags, like my students do, working hard to balance practices and school assignments (and sometimes not making that work at all.)

And then I thought of their teachers. They all had them. Julius Peppers, for example, a defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, made 18 million dollars last year. But once he was sitting in classrooms in smalltown Bailey, N.C. He probably had an elementary school art teacher, a middle school algebra teacher, and maybe a high school chemistry teacher. Kurt Warner, retired quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals, once looked shy at a school dance in Iowa, a middle school kid from an abusive family who beat the odds and made it big. He surely had a teacher, or several, who encouraged him to pursue his dreams, who pushed him to greatness.

It was at the Pro Bowl last week that I looked at all of those heroes on the field and thought of my own students. Who are the future professional athletes, scientists, soldiers, and even teachers sitting in my classroom every day? What words can I say that will make a difference in the direction their lives take?

It's a tremendous responsibility we have, as teachers, to say and do what needs to be done to ensure that our students go on to greatness.

My hope is that I say it tomorrow...and do it the next day...and say it again the next...what an amazing honor...

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is Technology the Most Efficient Way?

My husband just bought a new truck. He's really proud of all the bells and whistles. There are read-outs to tell him how much gas he has left, what the oil is up to, and which way he's going. I told him that while all the technology in automobiles today is impressive, gone are the days your Uncle Floyd can walk over with a screwdriver and fix your car in your own driveway. Technology like this requires a more sophisticated means of repair. My mother used to say that Daddy could hold an entire car engine in place with electrical tape. That wouldn't work now.

Last week I visited a school that had more technology than I've ever seen. Recipients of a grant, the teachers all had document cameras (that looked like reading lamps) in their classrooms. There were interactive white boards and hand-held touch devices meant to make learning fun. I observed as students plugged headsets into the devices and watched and listened to podcasts about World War II.

I wondered who loaded all of those little movies onto the devices. And I thought that it would have been just as easy, and a great deal faster, for the class to watch the movie on the whiteboard...just pull it up on the computer and project it. There would be no need to take the time required to load the movies, pass out headsets, and wait for individual students to finish the same movie. A teacher could even pause the clip at different intervals and elicit classroom discussion.

I don't know - call me a fuddy-duddy, but as impressive as technology it always the best means of instruction? I saw 30 kids sit like zombies and watch their own personal movies. Sure, there was no misbehaving and no talking. But the room was dark and the students (and this observer) seemed sleepy.

And what about the three hours it took me to develop a compelling PowerPoint lesson on writing a couple of years ago? I kept thinking that I could've written the same information on the board in about five minutes.

So I have to ask, is the use of technology, with all its bells and whistles, always the best way ?

Monday, January 4, 2010

A Shiny New Day

I so love the first day back in school after a break. I can barely sleep the night before as I lay and wonder which students will show up at school: the sleepy ones who aren't accustomed to getting up so early or the rested ones who are too excited to focus on schoolwork.

Today I drove to school and thought of each group. I remembered the years I had to walk desk to desk and grab up kids by the nape of the neck...just to keep them from snoring. I also thought of a return after spring break a couple of years ago. Those students were so distracted I had to fight for attention and eventually gave up.

So today I watched the first wave of students come down the hallway - the sixth graders. Immediately I knew which group had arrived - the sleepy type! They came down the hall in slow motion, like a prepubescent gelatin gradually released from its mold, these kids were sleepwalking out of the gym, down the hallway, and into their homerooms.

Glazed eyes walked by me; I couldn't even grab a hug or get a hello. It was too cute! A sixth grade teacher called for some of us to come look at her class - we peeked in to see twenty-nine little zombies staring straight ahead.

As the day wore on, of course, one by one our students woke up. As I worked with children throughout the day, walking up and down the aisles of the classroom, I noticed my own distraction: my eyes were drawn to the floor. And then I realized - almost every student had on new shoes, gifts from Santa visits during break. New sneakers were everywhere and every color of furry boot you can imagine.

I started thinking about sleepy children in shiny new shoes and got excited about a new year and new possibilities. Happy New Year to teachers and students sleepy and awake. Welcome to a shiny new year!