Friday, November 18, 2011

Educators Make a Difference!

At the end of my book, Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make, I asked readers to email me stories of the educators who've changed their lives, and I promised to share them on my blog. I hear these amazing stories every time I deliver a keynote speech, every time I talk to a class of pre-service teachers, every time I lead a workshop. But rarely do educators actually write their stories and send them to me. Mostly I hear, "It was my kindergarten teacher Mrs. So-and-so!" as they're shaking my hand on the way out of an auditorium. These stories are difficult to capture, told in passing, in the middle of others told in passing. They're all amazing and wonderful, and I wish I could remember the details enough to bring them all back to this blog, but it's not realistic that I would be able to do them justice.

This week, however, an educator shared a story with me that's so inspiring that I did remember details, memorable enough that I want to share it with my readers. Two days ago I spoke to 1500 educators at the Educators are Essential Celebration, a recognition of American Education Week that honored the public school teachers of Columbus Municipal Schools, the Lowndes County Schools, and numerous private school educators from Columbus, Mississippi. After I shared my story about the difference my own first grade teacher had on my life, I was whisked away by a local reporter who interviewed me briefly. I returned to the auditorium to gather my things just as the audience was released, and so I became the official door-holder and ended up talking to almost each and every one of the 1,500. So many of them wanted to share their "Mrs. Warnecke" with me, and I was inspired by each one.

But toward the end of the crowd spilling out of the auditorium, a gentleman in a suit and tie stopped in front of me and told a brief story: "I was a high school dropout. I was going nowhere. And one night the high school assistant principal saw me at a basketball game at the school. He literally dragged me out of the stands and to his office. There he handed me the GED booklet. I'm now an assistant principal myself, and soon I'll receive my doctorate in education."

My mouth fell open. From high school dropout to school administrator soon to be called "Dr." The success of this man can be traced back to one MOMENT, one moment in time when an educator refused to give up on a kid, a moment when everything changed.

Don't ever let anyone tell you that we don't make a difference in this profession. We're doing it. Moment by moment.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Real World of Teachers

That November morning when I learned that I had been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards I was such a wreck I probably didn't appear to be the "accomplished teacher" that the NBPTS honors. I had been given the time for the online announcement, and I logged on a few minutes before that time, hitting "reload" every few seconds. Once the news went live, the website was jammed with traffic, and only half the page loaded. I didn't see "Congratulations! You are a National Board Certified Teacher" anywhere. But I did see my overall score. Because I was so agitated, I couldn't for the life of me remember what a passing score was. I called my district's National Board Certification Coordinator to ask that very question, but couldn't reach her. So I returned to my computer, reloaded again, and this time I saw that word that would change me as a teacher: "Congratulations...."

I was alone in my classroom when I visited the website that day so I immediately called my husband, and then my mother, and then printed out the congratulatory letter and took it to my principal. I just felt that I needed to tell someone the amazing news. After nine long months of planning, writing, videotaping, testing, and reflecting, the day turned into everything I'd dreamed of: verification that I was impacting student learning in the classroom, the initials "NBCT" behind my name, a 12% raise provided by the state of North Carolina, and the ability to breathe again since sometime back in the fall over a year before.

Now as a National Board Certification coach, I relive this experience every November; only this time I'm pulling for several different teachers, representatives from all curricular areas and grade levels. Last year in my school I traveled from room to room watching each teacher I had mentored check that same webpage. My favorite reaction came from Vicki, the art teacher, as she left me there with her students and took off running out of the classroom. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Vicki ran from hallway to hallway...I could hear her screams descend as she ran down a hall; I could tell the exact moment she turned to run back...the volume would turn up.

One of Vicki's students looked at me and asked, "What in the world did she win? A million dollars?"

"Same thing," I thought.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch a screening of Mitchell 20, a documentary about 20 teachers who committed to change their teaching, each of them agreeing to participate in the National Board Certification process, either the full certification journey or the "Take One" opportunity that allows them to complete one entry of the process. I watched as these teachers struggled with obstacles, both at school and at home; some were unable to complete the process, others completed but didn't certify, and still others faced hardships that were both shocking and inspiring at the same time.

Yes, this film was inspirational, an answer to last year's Waiting for Superman, a documentary that intimated that the only way to receive a great education is to participate in a charter school lottery. The Mitchell 20 are dedicated teachers who work tirelessly to become better at what they do, all in front of scrutinizing cameras and microphones. The audience is able to take the journey with them, step-by-step, and experience the joys and the disappointments that accompany a journey like this.

We all sat on the edges of our seats as we watched the Mitchell 20 log in and look for that congratulatory letter. And those of us who've been there before wiped the sweat from our brows, memories of our own experiences flooding back.

It is again November. This month thousands of teachers across the country will soon learn if they are National Board Certified Teachers. And because of the Mitchell 20 many others will understand what those teachers have sacrificed and what those teachers will experience as they sit in front of a computer, most likely hitting "reload" over and over.

As for me, I'll be hitting the halls again, checking scores with my colleagues and remembering a day in 2004 when everything changed. Maybe, because of the Mitchell 20, perspectives on teaching will change, too.

Thank you to that group of brave teachers in Arizona. You've documented the "real world" of teaching.

Friday, September 23, 2011

And That's The Way It Is....

I grew up hearing those words - "that's the way it is" - as the CBS Evening News ended each night. Walter Cronkite's soothing voice would tell my parents what had happened that day, while this little skinny girl tried to stay out of the way of the television even though the path to anywhere in the entire house meant walking right in front of it. I heard that voice describe the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And I heard that voice give play-by-play of numerous episodes of space travel. During Walter Cronkite's last newscast, my college roommate and I made sure to tune in, just to hear him say those words one last time.

I was reminded of that this week as I listened to my principal do the afternoon announcements just before he walked out of the school to head to another educational adventure. I wrote about my principal's decision to accept another position and lamented on the emotions my colleagues and I were feeling. And the month he remained in the school after he shared his decision to leave was, as I heard someone describe it, the longest goodbye ever.

We wrote him notes, brought him gifts, emailed how much he meant to us, talked to him nonstop about his impact on our school (and on us, personally); we threw him a huge party, complete with skits and interpretive dances and PowerPoint presentations with pictures of our boss and funny captions. We thought we were ready. I thought I was ready.

But then those last announcements came on that last day, and they sounded so normal, so this-is-just-a-regular-day: The football team did this, school pictures are on that date, etc. But in my head I was hearing words that I've heard for six years during many other renditions of afternoon announcements - "I love each and every one of you," for example. Then he ended with the words I was whispering quietly to myself because I'd heard them so many times: "I hope you have a great Grizzly afternoon."

Those simple words reminded me of so many others, like the synchronized phone calls to my home phone: "Good evening. This is Mr. Johnson, your principal at the almighty Gravelly Hill Middle School" and his words to the students -"I love you before the standardized tests, and I'll love you after the standardized tests."

Although he's gone now, and his office is empty except for hooks on the wall that will hold someone else's family pictures and diplomas, there are so many words that will forever ring in my ears: "How will this get results?," "It's all about the kids," and, most importantly, "Once a Grizzly; Always a Grizzly."

And that's just the way it is.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My 9-11 Story

Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day?
Teaching a class of innocent children.... Alan Jackson

I was standing in front of a middle school classroom on September 11, 2001, administering a standardized test. I can't for the life of me remember what test it was; I just remember the entire school was in testing mode - silent with students quietly bubbling.

I glanced up at the clock - 9:00 AM - and sighed; tests like that make the day move so slowly. Shortly after that, a teacher entered my room, breaking testing protocol: you don't walk in and out of each other's rooms during a school-wide test. He leaned in and whispered in my ear, "A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center." He tiptoed out and my thoughts were spinning - must be an could a commercial jet get off course like that...maybe it was a private awful.

October 1987
My friends and I visit New York and shop in the boutiques at the bottom of the Twin Towers. I stand outside and look up - it's breathtaking how tall those towers are. I wonder how they can remain standing and not just blow over in the wind. Some engineer is brilliant, I think.

April 1999
I help chaperone the Riverside High School Theatre Department's field trip to New York City and am excited to take one of those tourist ferry rides on the Hudson River. A full ten minutes of the ride consists of listening to the tour guide talk about the World Trade Center, and I click pictures of the Twin Towers from the water. It's a picture I'll dig through a box to find in the fall of 2001.

September 11, 2001
My students completed their tests, and I began to hear rumors - the other tower had been hit, the Pentagon, the Sears Tower, the White House...the stories continued up and down the middle school hallway. I felt uneasy but hid that from the students. Instead, I told them that something newsworthy, maybe history making, was going on, and we turned on my classroom radio. Since then I've thought about how different that day would've been with Facebook, Twitter, and my iPhone. Friends in front of televisions could have gotten me news much more quickly.

But in 2001, we depended on a little classroom radio. To my horror, the first thing we heard was the sound of bodies hitting the ground as victims jumped from the burning tower. I'll never forget my student Shiron looking at me that day and saying, "Mrs. Rigsbee, they're jumping." I turned off the radio just as the bell rang to dismiss class.

What followed was a day of chaos - teachers begging to leave and go pick up their own children from school (who knew where the terrorists would strike next?), students asking questions, staff receiving mixed messages about whether or not to discuss the happenings with children. Too late for me and my kids; we had already heard too much.

That afternoon all events were canceled: there would be no football practice, no meetings; we all went home and sat in front of televisions watching the coverage. I was horrified while watching coverage of the people walking the streets of New York City, holding up pictures of their loved ones, searching through devastation and debris. Some people were holding pictures of their pets - so much was lost that day.

The next morning I stood at my overhead projector and faced a silent class. Here's how I started: "Yesterday thousands of people got up, showered, shaved, brushed their teeth, and headed off to work, not knowing they wouldn't be returning home." Then I took my overhead pen and we did the math: "How many people do you think were on the planes that crashed?" I wrote their estimates down, and we added the number of people who may have been in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Our rough estimate was 2,000 who lost their lives. Little did we know we were off by almost 1,000.

The days that followed showed us a different reality. Security was heightened everywhere, even in schools. All outside doors began to be locked with the exception of the front door, a practice that continues to this day.

I remember, a few days later, standing outside of the school and hearing the hum of an airplane. I looked up and said to another teacher, "The planes are back." We had lived under empty skies for a full three days.

The seventh graders in my school today were two years old when our country changed. They don't even know a world without a Department of Homeland Security. Those who travel by air have never seen a time when they didn't have to put their liquids in a clear bag and take off their shoes to go through security. They've never known a time we haven't been at war.

This is, of course, an opportunity for all teachers to talk to children about what the world was like before that fateful day and about how changed we are.

And I wonder if somewhere, as we all tell our stories of where we were on September 11, 2001, my student Shiron is telling someone about the middle school classroom where he sat listening to a radio. There are so many things about that day I'll never forget...and Shiron sitting wide-eyed and looking to me for explanation is one of them.

Unfortunately, Shiron, the events of that day still defy explanation.

This picture of the Twin Towers was taken from a ferry boat in April 1999. It sits on my desk now, a reminder of a more innocent time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Meeting the Teacher

Let's say a doctor has to have surgery. Do you think he walks into the operating room, holding his surgical gown closed with one hand and examining the instruments with the other? Does he look at the sheet that will cover him, checking to see if it's sterile? Does he check the temperature of the room, ensuring that it's at a comfort level that will be conducive to a successful surgery?

I don't know if all of that happens, but I know some rather intense scrutiny ensues when a teacher attends a child's Meet the Teacher night. I know because I was just that parent...errr...grandparent.

Let me back up. I don't have many memories of my own children's Meet the Teacher night, or "Open House" as we call it at my school. As a middle school teacher, I always had to greet my own students and parents that night, as many of us did, so we arranged to drop by the elementary school and introduce ourselves to the teachers at another time. It was a professional courtesy we offered each other: "I'm sorry I'll have to come by a little early, but you understand...I have to be at my own school tonight." It worked out well.

I did have the opportunity, or let's say I made sure to have the opportunity, to visit my children's high school teachers. Something about grabbing that chemistry syllabus and hearing that teacher's presentation seemed so important. And I realized there was a great deal to be learned on these nights.

Case in point: my son, who attended Open House so he could see girls in summer shorts and tank tops, I'm sure, took a French class one year. I was surprised to enter that classroom to see that it was a Spanish class. Yep...I mean "Si"...everything in the room was Spanish...from the sombreros to the words on the wall. I sat there and looked around: how would my ADHD son ever learn French in a room full of Spanish? Soon, in walked the French teacher (pushing her traveling cart), and she nicely explained that she would be using the Spanish classroom and didn't have a room of her own.

She then sprawled out, in the jeans she was wearing, across the desk, and talked to us about her expectations. I resisted the urge to share my own expectations with her, including that you dress professionally when you meet parents and perhaps consider standing up. Instead I waited until her presentation was done and approached her.

"Do you think," I asked politely, "that you could ask the Spanish teacher if one of the four walls could be reserved for French? Then I'll tell my son to look only at that wall. Otherwise, he's going to be get really confused."

"Oh, that..." she answered. "Actually, I like this arrangement. I never have to worry about decorating a classroom as long as I travel like this." Sadly, in two sentences, Mademoiselle had summed up how committed she was to her job and to her students. And if memory serves me correctly, my son didn't do very well in French. Tres mal.

Fast Forward. Tonight I attended Meet the Teacher/Open House at my granddaughter's school. Taylor will begin kindergarten on Friday, which adds fourteen decibels of emotion on top of regular Back to School - buy the supplies - get new sneakers stress.

I knew walking into the building that I would be a Hawkeyed-Teacher-Nana, looking for any signs that this classroom would not be the best experience for my Taylorbug. I decided to keep an open mind and try to observe like every other grandparent. I began by making positive comments: "Look how neatly she's written Taylor's name! Elementary teachers have the BEST handwriting."

Then the Teacher Police took over. I looked across the room and saw two adults - one, of course, was the teacher, and one was the teacher assistant (also known as the paraprofessional). Which was which? Here's the problem: I should have known because the teacher should have announced, in her bubbliest voice, "I AM THE TEACHER! HI TAYLOR!"

Okay, maybe not. But that's what I was looking for. Taylor's mom filled out 957 forms (we don't have parents complete the forms at Open House in middle school...they take them home, for gosh sakes...which I promptly told my step-daughter...who asked the teacher...who said, "I'd prefer that you do them here." Great.) So while the forms were being filled out, I took Taylor on a field scope out the other kindergarten rooms. What if another teacher has more/different stuff? We must know this...and fast.

Things seemed mostly equitable except that one teacher had a bunk bed looking loft reading platform thingee with some cool bean bags on it....and a tiny sofa that looked so inviting I wanted to wedge my oversized body into it and read a book. Of course, of the three classrooms, I stalked...errr...visited...that loft is the one thing Taylor saw: "What was that, Nana?"

"Um...that's where those kids take naps. You won't have to take a nap in your room." Back in Taylor's class, her mom was on Form #954 so I seized the opportunity to have a private moment with the teacher.

"Hi," I said girl-to-girl. "I'm a teacher, too."

I waited. I looked deep into her eyes. I thought for sure I'd see that look that old college sorority sisters give each other when they reunite after several years. But no look...just an, "Oh...great..."

I couldn't contain myself any longer. "Look," I said. "Here's the thing. I am Nana. And this is my Taylorbug. So. So...I'll be here a lot. Okay? Like really a lot. Okay?"

At that point Taylor asked me to read her a book from the beautiful book display. She grabbed one and brought it to me. It was a lovely little picture book, and I opened it and formed my mouth to read the first words.

Only I couldn't.

It was in French.

Dear Taylor's teacher,
I apologize ahead of time. Just so you know....

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I love to hear about Fourth of July celebrations: folks watching fireworks, boating at the lake, tanning at the coast, and eating summertime food. My husband and I celebrated this year by taking a bike ride to the dam at the lake shared by my state and the one above it. I use the term "bike" loosely. To me, it's what I received from Santa when I was nine, but my husband uses the term to refer to a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Either way, it was a ride through the country, passing beautiful scenery along the way. I wished I had brought my camera when I saw the abandoned, rusty train cars that were the backdrop to a field of Queen Anne's Lace sitting beside a creek. And I wished I had brought a plate when the smells of all the cookouts we passed were wafting in the air (note: in the South, barbecue is a noun, something we eat; you may call the event I was smelling along the way a "barbecue." If so, you "ain't from 'round here." I call it a "cookout.")

Sitting on a motorcycle for five hours gives you a great deal of time to think. It's too loud to talk, and you have to keep your mouth closed anyway unless you want to ingest whatever may be flying around in the air. So I had time to think as we rode. I thought about the scenery; there are so many memories that go along with fields of tobacco (I worked as a "hander" during the summer after my eighth grade year), lakes (swimming in them as a child, living near one as an adult when my children were first born), and yards full of every type of celebration (flags and food and people in lawn chairs.) I saw a dog eating ice cream, right off the cone being held by his master, and a dog sitting proudly on the front of a boat ("I'm the DOG of the world...")

I thought a bunch about freedom, too, and what it really means....just to be able to hop on a bike and ride to nowhere/anywhere with no time restraints. One particular piece of scenery smacked me right in the face with the word "freedom." After leaning into a curve on a rural road I saw a sign that sent me spinning: an arrow pointing in the direction of our state's youth correctional facility.

My heart jumped as I realized that this facility is where my former student D is being held. You may remember D from a previous post that involved a parole officer and a felon "at-large" conversation for me. If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you'll remember my reconnection with D, who was at that time a high school sophomore that I hadn't seen since he was a goofy seventh grader.

Well, now, after spending a couple of months in our county jail, D is serving his time at a prison for youth offenders. While being held in "the county," as D calls it, he found ways to communicate with me. Any unknown number on my ringing cell phone would turn out to be D's sister, or mother, or family friend. Once a stranger called: "My boyfriend is in the county jail. D slipped me a note on a napkin because he wanted me to call you..."

Usually he would send a message saying that he wanted me to visit him. I found out that there are rules for this kind of thing: "Visitation for inmates K-P are on alternating Mondays and Thursdays at 4:30PM. Cash can be deposited into the accounts of inmates K-P on Tuesdays at 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM." Again, I was thrust into a world I didn't know or understand.

I showed up to see him on a few occasions, but my times were off so they never let me "back there." I did leave him a little bit of money a couple of times; as I understand it, they can purchase items like candy bars, stamps, etc. In return, D writes me letters. He always begins by thanking me for the money and for thinking about him. He doesn't hear from anyone else, he says. He's working on his GED, he tells me, if he can only stay out of trouble in the classroom. "They're always writing people up for nothing," he says. (This comment reminds me so much of the seventh grade version of D, who was constantly getting written up at school for "nothing.")

I always write back and try to encourage him, something that I've been trying to do for five years now, but it seems that although I try, his environment is louder in his ears than I could ever be. In his last letter, he sounded more excited than I've heard him before - his brother will be out of prison in five months; he thinks he'll have "somewhere to go" when he himself is released.

I've asked D to write about his experiences and told him that there are folks who may want to read about his life, how he ended up in this situation. He answered promptly in a return letter: "Who wants to read about another poor 'hood felon?"

So as I took in the summer air on a motorcycle and ate my obligatory hot dog and ice cream on the Fourth of July, I thought about freedom, and I thought about D. Just past the sign pointing to the youth correctional center sits a federal prison. I noticed the razor-sharp, winding barb at the top of the fence surrounding it. I saw the armed guards at their posts and wondered what different definitions the inmates inside would have about freedom. And I silently prayed that D never ends up there.

Then I turned my face toward the wind and headed back home to my life.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On Losing Katniss...

Although I am fighting it for all I'm worth, I'm losing Katniss. The loss has been gradual, but inevitable, and I feel it more everyday. I'm trying to hold on to the Katniss I've known for over two years, the one whose battles I've tensed every muscle through, the one whose struggles I've had nightmares over. That Katniss is becoming more and more dreamy; I can still see her, but through a cloudy fog. More and more I'm losing the Katniss that I've imagined, and she's being replaced with...

Jennifer Lawrence.

As a reading teacher, I teach my students to visualize the descriptions in the books they read. My principal refers to it as "the movie in their heads" when they can actually see what they're reading. While reading the Hunger Games trilogy, I visualized Katniss, and she became a friend during those books, one I felt I actually knew, one I missed once the books were completed.

But now The Hunger Games movie is being filmed, here in my own state, so I'm inundated with pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, the beautiful and talented actress playing Katniss. My Katniss was not quite so beautiful...well, she was naturally pretty, I guess, but that's not how I thought of her. She was tough. She was dirty. And she didn't have pouty lips as perfectly shaped as the bow she carried.

Jennifer Lawrence is gorgeous. Jennifer Lawrence doesn't look as if she has it in her to wipe out all the other tributes (16-year-olds selected by lottery to fight to the death - on reality tv - while representing their districts.) But my son the actor says she's a brilliant actress so maybe she'll be able to pull it off. I still miss my Katniss.

I worry about our students' imaginations dying out, becoming extinct from lack of use (like we've been warned about our pinky toes.) Let's take the Twilight series, for example. I haven't talked to one middle school child who can describe the character Edward from details in the book. But they can describe Robert Pattinson the actor to a "t." And Taylor Lautner, too. These guys are plastered all over middle school lockers and notebooks. Their faces (and bodies) are ingrained in the brains of adolescent girls. Who needs an imagination?

And is there one person in the world who doesn't see Daniel Radcliffe when they hear the words "Harry Potter"? But here's J.K. Rowling's description: "Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose." He's also described as being extremely thin and small, wearing baggy clothes that are Dudley's hand-me-downs. Well, I for one, don't remember seeing taped glasses in any of the Harry Potter movies, and Daniel Radcliffe looks pretty normal-sized to me.

As teachers we must make an explicit effort to design lessons that foster the use of imagination. We have to model the transformation from author's description to reader's visualization: "How is Katniss described by the author? What does she look like to you?" If we're lucky every student's rendition is a little different, every imagination taking the author's words to varied shades of different directions.

Also, with a bit of luck, we can get ahead of the movies, ahead of the video games, ahead of the music videos that interpret the songs for our students so they don't even have to bother. Hopefully, we can teach them first to think and imagine for themselves.

My son the actor has met Josh Hutcherson, who'll play Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, and one of my favorite characters in The Hunger Games. Josh was a teenager when they talked at the Teen Choice Awards in 2005. Years later, he and my son would share the same acting coach in New York City, and they would have lunch together.

Lunch with Peeta. I can't even wrap my head around that. But thanks to Gary Ross, director of the movie version of one of my favorite books, I may not have to think or imagine anything. I'll just sit back and watch...and fight like a tribute to not allow my Katniss and Peeta to be erased.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Don't Get Comfortable

'Tis the season: folks everywhere are donning fashionable gowns and moving the tassel from right to left. That moment - when the graduating class of 2011 is introduced - the future will lay ahead for the graduates, the veritable "rest of their lives" will be upon them.

My own nephew became a college graduate yesterday, and I was asked to represent the family by providing some remarks to a gathering on Fraternity Row. I was even given a prompt: "Tell the Sigma Nu brothers what they need to know for the future."

Oh, my. That was a tall order. I don't even know what I need to know for my future. How could I place myself back at 22 years old and find words of wisdom?

But that's exactly what I did: I thought about my own graduation from the very same university 32 years ago, and asked myself what I wish I had been told back then.

And after enjoying the huge feast prepared by Big Sam, the Sigma Nu cook, here's what I said:

Finding eloquent words for a group of brilliant young gentlemen like yourselves shouldn't be difficult. Others out there have shared words of inspiration, great words that we all know - Tim McGraw will tell you to "live like you're dying." Leann Womack hopes "you dance." Even John Mayer will tell you "there's no such thing as the real world" as he's running through the halls of his high school.

These are all great messages, but mine's a little different. I have three words for you: Don't Get Comfortable.

I'm not talking about your basic needs. Of course, we want you to eat well, be healthy, have shelter, and so on. I'm talking about your goals for your professional life...don't get too comfortable when it comes to your career.

I had a dream be a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. It never happened. And as I look back, I realize the problem: I never went to Dallas.

Evidently, you actually have to go there. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Fairy did not come to North Carolina to recruit me. She did not show up on my porch and tap me with a wand, leaving me in tassels and boots.

I had played it safe and stayed home where I was comfortable.

Don't get comfortable. Be a risk-taker. Push yourself beyond what you think your boundaries are. Step out of the safe zone. Be innovative and creative. Don't let complacency rule your life.

I don't want you to look back in 32 years and wonder why you were, um, never a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. Whatever your goal is, go for it! Move mountains to make your dreams happen. Do whatever it takes.

Just don't get comfortable.

I'm not sure if my words hit their mark with the young brothers of Sigma Nu, but one of the fathers in the audience said to me later, "Hey, uh, Dallas is still there. It's never too late."

Hmmm....something to think about.

My daughter, an NFL cheerleader for the Carolina Panthers, is on the far right, beside the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader, at the NFL Pro Bowl in January 2010.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Sorta Fairy Tale

Tori Amos' song title is appropriate today as we watched a prince marry his, the title she was given by the Queen. It was sorta a fairy tale due to the pomp and circumstance, the regalia, the carriage ride, and the prince/husband. But in some ways it was the same story as my own son and his bride...just a couple of kids who met in school, went separate ways a few times, came back together, said "I will" and "I do" and hope to live happily ever after.

There have been some who have challenged those of us who were mildly interested (or wildly fascinated) at the nuptials today. I get it. As an educator, I have been thrust into the current war zone along with my colleagues. These are times that I feel the need to justify to the world that I am a professional, that my work is important (so important that it can't be evaluated by looking at student numbers that are gathered on one day, reflecting one test.) So that's stressful and important and distracting enough without getting up at oh-dark-thirty to watch television. In addition, as a resident of the Southeast, I have spent a good part of the past two weeks peering out windows, dreading the all too familiar funnel cloud that has been common around here.

In other words, I know there are more important issues than a wedding involving strangers across the ocean. But lest you haters want to judge, indulge me a moment, and let me tell you why I watched and why I felt compelled to provide a play-by-play social media commentary during the event.

First of all, I have a degree in English. I love England, having studied the history of the country as required by my major. Also, I spent the better part of my last two years of undergraduate studies reading dead poets and playwrights who unknowingly impacted my learning, and then my teaching, for almost forty years. When the Reverend Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, quoted Chaucer during the ceremony, he sent me straight to translations of The Canterbury Tales and my senior English class with Mrs. Gertrude Chewning in a trailer at Northern High School then to an entire semester devoted to "Geoffrey" all by himself my junior year in college. Later during the ceremony the choir sang "Jerusalem" based on lyrics by one of the Romantic Writers, William Blake. At that moment I was transported to sitting in Greenlaw Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill reading Tyger, tyger, burning bright..." Fittingly, both of these literary heroes of mine are buried at the wedding venue, Westminster Abbey, along with Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, Dickens, and Austen in a section appropriately named "Poet's Corner." If I ever have a chance to see it, I will surely weep.

Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey - if only those tombs could talk....

So, yes, the English major in me wanted to see the wedding. But the middle-aged woman in me wanted to see it, too. I was there, nose pressed to the television in 1981, rocking a four-month-old and watching the timid Lady Diana marry her prince. A year later, little Wills was born, and I watched him continue to grow through the years just like my own little princess. And I, like so many others, looked on as the marriage struggled, saw the divorce play out in the tabloids, and watched in horror as Diana lost her life and was laid to rest after two little boys followed her casket through the streets of London. Like it or not, this family is a piece of our culture, and for that reason I wanted to watch the next chapter.

For some of us, the royal family is an intriguing history lesson. I tweeted earlier this week that if our country's forefathers could see all the media coverage of this event, they may wonder why they fought so hard for independence. But what a unique social studies lesson for our students: here's where we started, here's what happened next, and here's where we are now. Then we could ask: How about when they sang "God Save the Queen" and it sounded just like "My Country 'Tis of Thee" that we all learned in first grade? Why is that? And why wasn't the Queen herself singing, but her husband was? Cool classroom conversations...

What about the rich discussions we can have in our classrooms about just exactly who among us hails from England? Many of our students originated in other places; let's talk about everyone's heritage while we're on the subject...

Speaking of heritage, my father told me his family came to America from Wales, another reason I found the event today so interesting. My mother's family has traced my ancestors back to Leicester, England. Those of us with ties to the United Kingdom may just enjoy comparing cultures. For example, I have a problem with the fact that if I ever meet Kate Middleton, and I want to display proper etiquette, I will have to curtsy to a 29-year-old and refer to her as "ma'am."

Please. I have sweaters in my closet older than she is. And in general, I was put off by the formality of the wedding. It was too quiet inside the abbey. When the couple was announced as husband and wife, there should have been a few cheers, at least a clap or two. I hate when weddings sound like funerals.

And when the bride and groom exited, I longed for Kate to simply grab Will by the arm; that dainty handholding halfway up in the air looked a little as if they may break into a waltz at any moment.

Which leads me to the last reason for watching the Royal Wedding: the sheer entertainment of it. I mean, seriously, Eugenie and Beatrice, you call yourselves princesses? I call that stuff on your heads target practice! I feel bad for whoever sat behind you.

Here's the thing: in these days of devastation and tragedy, these days of feeling that there is a fight brewing inside us ready to be unleashed at every turn, we need to take a break and celebrate love and beauty, and, well, magic. Life will be back to smack us in the face soon enough.

Sometimes we just need a sorta fairy tale.

My son, Prince Will, and his Princess Rebecca last August. No formalities during this wedding recessional....right down to the Converse sneakers.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Irises and Sweet Bubby Bushes

The Smokehouse at My Grandparents' Old Homeplace

In so many ways, we are who came before us. In many other ways, we are the antithesis of our ancestors, fighting to do better, have more, and be more than our parents and grandparents.

Today I sifted through artifacts (trinkets, my daughter called them) of my grandparents' life. In a house that was built during WWI, my brother, sister, husband, and I waded through the debris that takes over when a house has been abandoned by sickness and death...a house that previously had seen 100 years of Christmas-gift-opening laughter, 50 years of chicken dumplings and strawberry cakes served by my grandmother, 30 years of gathering around the piano to sing "Have a Little Talk with Jesus," countless years of living about to be demolished as new owners will soon clear the land to build a new home.

"Watch out for Tippy's grave," my brother told the buyer.

"Watch out for my memories," I thought.

In the summers of my childhood, when other kids were packing up for camp, I was sent to my grandparents' house. I dreaded it with all the fervor my young self could muster: as a child I thought the country was undoubtedly the most boring place on earth! My grandmother went to bed at 7 PM...and we may as well have been in bed: there was certainly nothing to do there, and by the way, it was darker in the country than any individual from the city could imagine! They didn't believe in lights there. I thought all those old-timey years with candles ruined them - they were so impressed with inside electricity that lighting outside would seem an indulgence.

So I spent those weeks in the summer scared senseless at night, lying awake with bulging eyes because no kid in America could possibly be asleep at that hour, and no kid should have to lie awake and listen to sounds that don't include interstate traffic.

Occasionally, I was scared senseless during the day, too. I was awakened every morning to the crow of a rooster (does anyone really think that screech is a pleasant sound?) The other daybreak sound in the North Carolina Sandhills is that of a Mourning Dove - those "who-who-who's" are still ingrained in my audio memory and remind me of missing my parents during those summer trips.

Once I woke up with an ax-wielding Granny standing over me. My grandmother needed help with a classic country chore - chopping the head off a chicken. I was pronounced the "holder of the chicken." I had a problem with this job on many levels, none the least of which was that Grandma the Chicken Slayer could possibly miss and chop my hand off. Also, I love all living things, and to this day can't even step on a spider in my house, preferring instead to hoist him onto a paper towel and deliver him outside. So poultry-cide certainly proved unpleasant to me. And, by the way, chickens DO run like, well, a chicken with its head cut a circle...all over the yard. Note the post traumatic stress here!

I was also traumatized by the lack of conveniences out there in my Granny's sticks! She didn't have indoor plumbing until I was married and had my own children. I was pretty sure that there were creatures that had not been identified in the abyss that was the bottom of the outhouse. Sometimes I was brave enough to look down there in that hole, but there was nothing discernable - only darkness forever and ever. The fear still lurches in the pit of my stomach today when I think of the child abuse that was going on when Granny made me sit on that hole.

All that aside, I have other memories of my childhood summer place that aren't so traumatic. When I was eight, my grandmother's friend loaded my cousins, my sister, and me into the back of a pickup truck and took us to see The Sound of Music in the movie theatre on the day it was released in that small Southern town in 1965. I remember the bumpy truck ride over rural dirt roads every time I see the movie replayed.

And how many people can say that they have climbed on a wooden pasture fence and jumped bareback onto a moving horse, grabbing the mane, and holding on for life? (But mainly holding on so Mama wouldn't find my body in the pasture and know what I had done.)

How many folks have played in the top of a hayloft, jumping to the bottom floor of the barn (but not getting hurt because of the hay mattress that lay below)? Who's picked blackberries from vines beside the garden, only to be eating warm cobbler thirty minutes later? Gathered chicken eggs out from under squawking hens? Watched kittens emerge from a little hole in the stable door just as they're able to walk? Seen neighbors walk up the driveway with fresh baked goods to share? Snapped beans on a country porch for hours while swatting gnats? Taken a ride on a mule-drawn plow through rows and rows of cornfields? Who's banged on a piano, displaying no talent at all, but yelling, "You like my song, Granddaddy?!" only to hear, "It's beautiful!" shouted in from the other room? (Nothing to DO in the country? Boy, was I wrong...)

All of these experiences make up a big part of who I am. But my parents chose mostly a different life for me, raising me in the city and stressing the importance of getting the education that my grandparents didn't have. I'm a long way from the cotton mill that my grandmother worked in. I'm a long way from that outhouse.

Today my mother pointed out flowers around my grandparents' yard and house. "Just dig up a few, and we'll replant them at home. I want the Seven Sisters roses and the purple and gold irises."

I reminded her that we gathered bunches of irises during our last visit. They're blooming in my yard now. "Well, get me some of that Sweet Bubby Bush then."

Soon we drove away and began our long journey home. For miles I could hear my Granny playing the piano; I could taste her dumplings and home-canned green beans. I could feel crafts between my fingers, the ones I made every summer at Vacation Bible School at the Bright Light Baptist Church. I could feel the rough wood of my Granddaddy's plow.

I arrived home with a sense of homesickness - I walked outside to shake it off....homesickness at home - such an oxymoron.

I walked across the backyard with my dog and caught a flash of color.

I turned and saw the purple and gold of my grandmother's irises, transplanted to the city like me, blowing in the wind.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Kind of Difference Will You Make?

It is no secret that I've been preaching far and wide about the difference that teachers make. I've lived it, as a first grader, in a dark basement classroom, and I've read it in letters from past students who want to thank me for impacting them in a positive way. I've written articles about the importance of teacher/student relationships, and I've written a book about the difference my own first grade teacher made almost fifty years ago.

A theme that runs through my speeches and articles, as well as my book, is that the nurturing, caring teacher is the one who makes the biggest impact on students. The adult who displays an unconditional regard for students and their learning is "the one" who will be remembered as making a difference in the life of a child. And I'll stick to those words. But I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who had an interesting twist to the story of teachers making a difference.

She told me that as she thought back over her life, she knew the teacher who was the reason behind her eventually becoming successful - an educator, now working on her doctorate - as opposed to becoming a juvenile deliquent taking a destructive path to nowhere. That teacher was a high school math teacher, and my friend was not a good student, particularly in math. Growing up in poverty, she didn't have the tools she needed to be successful in school, and she was not confident about her abilities in math. I waited for her to tell me how this teacher encouraged her, hovered over her desk and pointed to numbers on her paper, giving her a quick hug before moving on to the next student.

That's not what came next. She told me instead that this teacher would often humiliate her in front of the class, would admonish her for incorrect answers, and would mistreat her in unthinkable ways. She said it was during that year that she decided to focus her energy on doing whatever was necessary to be successful in school. She woke up every morning determined to be a stellar student, a student who wouldn't give that teacher the opportunity to humiliate her in front of her peers.

"She pushed me to be great," she said.

Years later, she gave that teacher a call to tell her that she had, literally, changed her life. The teacher did remember her but made no mention of her drive and determination. Instead, she learned that my friend's current job isn't inside a classroom; it includes mentoring and training other teachers. The math teacher displayed some old habits when she ridiculed my friend: "Well, you're not even a teacher." Some things never change.

All teachers have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a child. I've said before that many times we don't even know the impact we've made. Once I was walking in a local shopping mall when I was approached by a lady who identified herself as the mother of a former student. As she went on and on about my class, how much I meant to her son, and so on, I was horrified that I didn't remember him. His name didn't even sound familiar. But I listened and nodded, hoping she'd say something that would spark a memory.

Finally, she said, "You don't know this...but you're the reason my son made it through seventh grade. He was struggling that year, having a hard time with peers, was so depressed I thought he was suicidal at times, but he enjoyed your class and wanted to come to school because of it." My mouth fell open and my brain was spinning. How could I have had that type of impact on a kid and not even know it?

The point is...we do make a difference. We have the honor and the responsibility of making a difference with every child we teach, every day they sit in our classrooms. Luckily, my friend had an inner drive that pushed her to make something positive out of a negative experience. And luckily, I was able to impact a student in a very important way, even though I was unaware of it and had no memory of the student years later.

How will the difference you make as a teacher be remembered? Will the story your students tell about you be positive or negative? Think about that as you walk through those classroom doors every day. What an amazing opportunity...

Monday, April 11, 2011

Bring It!

Right now, sitting here in an office in my school, where down the hall I worked through the years to inspire struggling readers to greatness, I have never wished to be back in the classroom more than I do right now. Right now this very minute! But not for the reasons you think.

Ever since I was pulled to serve as a "Teacher Ambassador" when I was named North Carolina's Teacher of the Year in 2008, I have, of course, missed kids. Even though I've grabbed up opportunities in the past three years to get myself back in front of the little boogers, I have not had my own classroom since that time. So, yes, I listen intently every day in the hopes that I'll hear the administrators' walkie talkies popping: "Seventh grade is moving..." so I can walk out in the hall and inhale children. So, yes, I do miss the kids, but that's not my motivation today.

I also miss my own learning communities, the language arts teachers I planned and collaborated know, the ones who encouraged me to dress like Britney Spears on our Genre Jam day. Luckily, now that I'm serving as a "teacher-on-loan" to our state education department, I have been able to set up my office in the same building where that "jam" occurred...which means I see my collegues often and can get my collegiality fix. I'm still there for all the social gatherings - the after-school baby showers and book clubs - and some days I just get up from this desk and walk into their classrooms. My friends, and their students, are accustomed to my drop-ins. But I'd really like to sit down and plan again, to look at assessment data and put our heads together to figure out what will enable our students to grow. But that's not why I'm longing for the classroom right now.

I also miss the actual act of teaching, too, and all the stuff that goes along with it: room decorating, lesson planning, assessing, re-teaching, re-directing, explaining, listening, counseling, hugging...I do miss all that. I even miss faculty meetings.

But none of those are the reasons I'm wishing I could be back in my own classroom today. During the current tumultuous times, I want to be there to join in with all those educators out there showing the world it can be done: teachers can and will continue to provide more with less, to survive in conditions that are demoralizing and demeaning, and to make ends meet with frozen salaries and pink slip threats.

I see it daily in my school: teachers continue to advocate for kids while working from dark until dark to plan innovative lessons all while maintaining positive relationships with kids. In short, teachers continue to make a difference even as policymakers negatively impact working conditions by making decisions that raise class size and cut positions, all while raising standards for performance.

Yes, I wish could have my own classroom during these chaotic times. I truly believe that as the craziness would swirl around me, I would feel pushed even harder to do what's right by kids. Threaten my job? I'd keep working until they dragged me away, still clutching the active board marker. Continue to reference "bad teaching?" I'd spend countless hours working to get better and better, sharpening my teaching skills by staying in touch with cutting edge research and technology. Decide to make my students' test scores public, along with my name?

At that I would stand in front of my classroom and talk to myself using the language of my middle schoolers: "Girl, you GOT this!" Then I'd look out the window toward the world and shout,


Saturday, March 26, 2011

International Sound Bites!

I was delighted to receive an invitation from the Council of Chief State School Officers to attend the International Summit on the Teaching Profession that was held in New York City on March 16-17, 2011. Thirteen State Teachers of the Year (three of whom became National Teachers of the Year and several finalists in the bunch) represented America's teachers at the summit that brought delegates from fifteen countries to meet with the delegation from the United States to talk about teaching.

I was star-struck upon entering the room and seeing our Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (even though I don't always agree with his politics.) At 6'5" he looms large anyway, but he had quite the presence in the room full of dignitaries as others clambered to speak to him. Also members of the US delegation were NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten. Marguerite Izzo, 2007 New York Teacher of the Year, served as the teacher representative, welcoming the other delegations to her state.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, was present as well and wrote about the experience in a eloquent manner that I won't attempt to match. Instead, I'll share the "sound bites" that I wrote down or sent out to the Twittersphere on those two days.

Arne Duncan began by saying that the goal of the summit was to "strengthen and elevate the profession" and that it shouldn't have taken this long to "get to this day."

Here are a few quotes from representative countries:

Brazil - "The dignity of the profession has to do with more than salary."

Canada - "It's important to further explore professional development for teachers and roles that school boards, schools, and teachers play."

"We should stop talking about teachers and instead talk about teaching. We need to talk about the skills of teaching."

China - "We must create an atmosphere of protecting teachers and continue to elevate teachers."

"The movement around the world is education for all. We must be careful it doesn't become test scores for all."

"Teachers must support reforms in order for them to work."

Denmark - "Teacher evaluation doesn't have to be so difficult. Principals should talk to teachers about their teaching."

Estonia - "We must invest in education."

Finland - began by saying, "We're proud of our teachers."

"The climate of the school and school leadership are the most important factors. Also, teachers need time to study, to have formal continuous learning."

"Only one in ten who want to teach actually get to become teachers. All must have master's degrees. 6,000 applicants for 600 jobs."

"There are no national tests in Finland."

"Teachers are considered experts of their work, academic professionals."

Japan - "Teachers are the vital force in education."

Netherlands - "We have secured autonomy of schools. We need to secure autonomy for teachers, but it's important to have accountability."

Norway - "We must respect and listen to teachers. We must raise the status of teachers."

"Curriculum doesn't change what happens in the classroom."

Poland - "We're inspired by these discussions of leadership and teamwork."

Singapore - "It's important to look at principals and how effectively they 'rally their team.'"

"Evaluation should be formative, not summative."

Slovenia - "We need cooperation between unions and ed leaders."

UK - "Evaluation shouldn't be so individual; it's like surveillance. Teachers should observe each other for higher impact."

"The voice of teachers is the heart of public policy."

"We need a system that's aligned and coherent. We need to trust teachers and design improvement WITH teachers."

US (Gene Wilhoit - Executive Director, Council of Chief State School Officers) - "It's inspiring for sixteen sovereign nations to come together to talk about the future of our countries by talking about our children."

"Developing school leaders who in turn develop good teachers is the way to go about it."

"The voice of teachers is the heart of policy."

Arne Duncan - "We've got to get better faster than we have before."

Dennis Van Roekel - "In US we have charter schools in an effort to provide autonomy. Only 17% do better than regular public schools. Most do about the same. Some do worse."

"We need to get the voice of teachers there...their perspective, create their vision. That voice should be in the room."

"There's so much conversation about the profession of teaching. Everyone's an expert because they WENT to school."

Randi Weingarten - "States are heirarchal instead of horizontal."

"Professional development and teacher learning should not be left to chance."

"Those closest to kids - teachers, parents - have the least amount of voice in policy."

"Historically we've had 'drive-by evaluation.' Now we have 'observation by test score.'"

Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General, OECD - "The research shows that teacher evaluation doesn't change anything."

Fred Van Leeuwen, General Secretary, Education International - "Testing is a teacher's tool, not a political device."

Marguerite Izzo, 2007 New York Teacher of the Year - "I've waited a long time to be at this table. I'm proud to represent America's teachers here."

An audience member from the UK - "Teachers aren't afraid of evaluation. They're afraid of being evaluated by people who don't teach, who haven't for a long time, and who don't know what they're doing."

Fernando Reimers, Professor of Education at Harvard - "Many countries mentioned the need for teacher autonomy, teachers being allowed to design curriculum, plan lessons, and make professional decisions. Pushback - in these days of Facebook, Twitter, etc., do we really do anything alone? Is autonomy irrelevant?"

All agreed: We need a systematic approach to education. We need to get the voice of teaching to the table.

On teacher evaluation: We stress a focus on collaboration, but we evaluate individual teachers.

Secretary Duncan ended the summit by saying, "We have to collectively create the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs."

Many of us asked, "What's next? What will come of these discussions?"

I did see the Secretary taking notes, and I sincerely hope that we have learned from countries that respect teachers and hold them in high esteem.

But we all know we have a long way to go...

Sunday, March 13, 2011

On Seeing Michael...

The first time I saw Michael he was entering my morning reading group. He was a sixth grader, a few months into the school year, and I didn't know him. In ten seconds' time after coming in the classroom door, he was an inch from my face yelling at me, and I was struggling to maintain my composure while turning to grab a discipline referral notice off my desk. Suddenly, two students I did know, and with whom I had worked really hard at developing relationships, jumped to my defense and threatened to give Michael a beating if I gave the word. I didn't.

This reading group was part of our whole school literacy program. We rotated sixth graders around in small groups every three weeks during the first thirty minutes of the day. I was focusing my instruction on reader's theatre and short plays; I had hoped to engage my students in some fun activities while slipping in reading strategies at the same time.

Being able to teach in a way that was a little different from my run-of-the-mill remedial reading curriculum was exciting. Greeting a new group of kids that included some I didn't know was challenging. Occasionally there would be an issue as a result of not having had that first-week-of-school-get-to-know-you time. And this, of course, was part of the problem with Michael.

To be honest, I don't remember why he got mouthy with me from the beginning of that class. Most likely I told him to sit down in a way that rubbed him wrong, and it was clear that he didn't want to be in that classroom anyway. Later, I would understand more: Michael was a sixth grader who read on a first grade level.

For years as a middle school teacher I have listened to my colleagues lament over "what those elementary teachers are sending us." I've also been at the receiving end of high school teachers' "concerns" about the students I've sent them. The problem is clear: there are middle school students who can't read on grade level, which is a problem itself, but because of that deficiency, they're angry. That anger displays itself in a myriad of ways. Students may lash out, like Michael did when entering my reading classroom, or they may shut down and refuse to participate in activities or do classwork and homework.

I did eventually develop a strong relationship with Michael, beginning on the very day he lost his temper with me. We had one of those heart-to-heart talks that caring teachers initiate, and then I used all of my reading assessment tools to determine what exactly was going on. As a reading specialist, I know that middle school children are usually deficient in one (or more) of three areas when they struggle in reading:

- They are unable to recognize words immediately (in a fraction of a second as my graduate professor explained) and depend on "sounding out" which is time consuming and laborious for middle school texts. They can't, for example, look at the word "interesting" and know what it is. They revert back to first grade phonics lessons and stretch the word out - "in-ter-est-ing."

-They recognize the words but don't have enough prior knowledge or content knowledge to understand what they mean. The example I use most often is "prairie." I've had hundreds of students who can tell me the word in a second but who have no clue what a prairie actually is. Because they live in the Southeastern United States, they've never seen a prairie and, unfortunately, these treeless tracts of land aren't commonly used as settings for popular teen television shows or videos. (And they've never found the joy I found as a child in my church's library while reading all the Little House books.)

-They struggle with activities that involve processing the print - like paying attention to the text, visualizing what they're reading, and using an "inner voice" to actually "hear" what they're reading.

Last year, when Michael was in eighth grade, I assessed him again. This time he scored almost at grade level on language comprehension (he knew what the words meant) and print processing. But he recognized words only up to a third grade level. Luckily, I was asking him to read short passages that didn't wear him down as he tried to decipher the text. But we both knew that what he would be required to read in high school would be too difficult, that he would continue to struggle as he had all along.

I gave him some tips for practicing his word recognition skills, including internet word games and flash cards, but he told me that he didn't need high school anyway. His father, he said, had taught him to be a master mechanic. He would be able to make all the money he needed one day, working with a skill he already possessed, one that didn't require a high school diploma. I talked to him about other benefits to continuing in school, the life skills he would learn along the way, the fun he would have participating in the social events that go along with high school.

"It'll be the time of your life," I told him, realizing all along that maybe it was the time of my life. I didn't struggle to read.

"I don't need it," he answered.

Yesterday, while driving in our school's community, I got behind a school bus. I slowed at the flashing lights and familiar arm as it stretched across the road. As I came to a stop, I recognized one former student after another hopping off those bus steps onto the grass and it hit me: this is a high school bus!

One by one, they walked by my car and waved at me. And then...the last one...with an ear-to-ear grin...Michael.

I waved excitedly (I wanted to jump out and hug him), and as I continued down the street I kept repeating one thought in my head:

That bus came from the high school. That means Michael's still there. And he's smiling.

Maybe he'll graduate one day after all. I can only hope.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Mama...I found Ida..."

It was 1999 when Mama mentioned Ida again. Daddy had been diagnosed with cancer but hadn't gotten really sick at that point so she was reflecting on getting older, how quickly things change, and just mentioned she'd like to know what had happened to her friend.

I had heard stories about my mother's friends all my life. Juanita, Deloris, and Ida had been Mama's roommates when they were seventeen. World War II was bringing bad news left and right as my mother watched the entire male representation of her high school graduating class leave and go to war, so these girls hung onto each other...for emotional and financial support...and for entertainment. They were the 1940's version of BFF's.

My mother and her friend Ida, in their younger days...
Ida on the left, Mama on the right

My mother met Ida when she was hired as a waitress at the Fairview Restaurant in Sanford, North Carolina. After that they lived together in a couple of different places, eventually leaving one house after awakening to the screams that accompanied an illegal abortion taking place in the next room. My mother has graphic memories of those screams, and of what a baby looks like when a pregnancy is terminated at six months, and that story probably kept me pure and chaste for longer than a lot of girls I know.

Not long after they relocated, a man came into the restaurant and offered to make both of them famous in New York. He was "an ugly man, with bug eyes," my mother said, and she didn't believe he was legitimate. But Ida did. And off to New York she went. She did, in fact, become a model, and soon my mother saw her picture in the newspaper: "She was standing there, holding an umbrella, looking so pretty."

My mother married a soldier, as they did in those days. "We were afraid they would go to war and die. So we married them too quickly; we didn't spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Ida 'cried and cried' when I told her I was getting married."

That marriage didn't last, but Ida's career took off. She eventually married a New Yorker and lived there until returning home in her later years. It was there I found her, after an internet search, in 1999. My mother called her, and she and Daddy visited, Ida cooking "grilled chicken on a George Foreman grill" at age 73. They kept in touch for awhile.

But then Daddy's cancer took its toll, and my mother's caregiving duties became overwhelming. After his death in 2004, Mama's health began to fail, too, as she moved more and more slowly, shuffling her feet as she went. But recently, after rehabilitation from a fall and a broken hip, she's been asking about Ida again, although her friend's phone number has been long misplaced. She says that more and more of her friends are gone now; she sometimes feels that she is the "only one left."

So a few months ago, I returned to the internet, only to find that Ida's address listed was the same place where that chicken dinner was held, about an hour away from my mother and me, but there was no phone number this time to accompany it. I searched through obituaries, finding none that matched. I even drove to Ida's house, only to find it closed up as if uninhabited. I assumed she had moved to some type of elderly assisted living facility.

A few weeks later, while driving out of town in that direction, I drove to the house again. A gentleman answered the door this time and said that the lady who had lived there before was gone, but he didn't know where. He directed me across the street to another elderly lady, one who would surely remember her friend.

The nice lady let me in immediately, with no fear for her safety, even though I was a total stranger. As I asked her about Ida, she said, "Oh, I remember her!" I asked if she knew where she went. The lady replied, "Who?" I started over. Our conversation went around like this for several minutes. Then I told the lady goodbye and reminded her not to allow strangers in her home.

Last week I went back to the internet and actually paid a small fee to search for my mama's friend Ida. This time I was given her same address, the one I had visited...but another address also popped up. I hoped it was the address for an elderly care center, a place I could take my mother to visit Ida, a place where she could make some more friends.

Today I had a chance to make the drive to that address. After driving in the rain, over and around winding country roads, I found myself in front of a beautiful, tall brick home in a residential neighborhood. A black lab barked at my approach, and I really felt that I was in the wrong place. No 84-year-old woman would live in a house like this. But I rang the bell anyway.

I said to the nicely dressed, middle-aged woman who answered the door, "I'm probably in the wrong place. I'm looking for Ida O'Neal. She was a friend of my mother's."

The lady's face fell, and she looked puzzled. "That's my aunt," she said. "I'm actually on the way out the her funeral."

I almost fell off the porch.

I had looked and looked for the girl whose picture sits on my mother's end table in her den. And I had found her...on the day of her funeral.

Ida's niece went on to tell me that her aunt had been in assisted living for five years because she was suffering from Alzheimer's. She had died four days before and would be buried in the next hour, not enough time for me to drive and pick up my mother and get her back there. Not enough time for Mama to accept the news.

I was invited in, and I signed the guest book. I looked at a table full of pictures of a lady who had been on my mind for months. I kept thinking, "I'm too late, too late. I'm too late to give my mother a piece of her youth back, too late to give her someone to talk to in her last days, too late to tell Ida goodbye."

I thanked Ida's niece and told her how sorry I was. I drove away numb and shaking toward my mother's house and pictured myself sitting down beside her on her couch.

"Mama," I would say. "I found Ida..."

Monday, February 21, 2011

What About The Children of Wisconsin?

In case you've taken a Waldenesque break in the woods and don't know it, there is quite the uprising being played out in the Wisconsin legislature these days. You can read about it all over the place, but you may get different versions depending on who's doing the reporting.

Some say the Governor has rushed to pass a budget that will strip unionized workers, including teachers, of their collective bargaining rights. The Governor says Wisconsin is broke, and he has no other recourse but to take away benefits and union bargaining rights from public workers.

One side says Wisconsin wasn't broke until this rookie Governor gave tax breaks to his big-business pals. The other side is pointing fingers at fourteen legislators who have fled town so that a voting quorum can't be reached.

The blogosphere and Twitterworld are hot right now, with points of view being fired off from all directions.

And then this morning, an intelligent former student, an adult now with a child of her own, posted on Facebook in a respectful manner:

"Are there scab teachers teaching the kids in Wisconsin? If there is no one watching out for the education of those children, shame on those teachers. I admit that I don't fully understand what they're protesting, but can someone explain to me what it is that's more important than the future of the children that are being left out in the cold?"

She continued with a comment to her own post:

"Please do not think that I am anti-teacher in any way. I am just trying to figure out why the kids are of such little importance. Please someone help me understand this."

Here is my response to her:

Dear Kristen,

Because we live in a Right-to-Work state, teachers here in North Carolina have a hard time understanding the ins and outs of collective bargaining. We don't have teacher unions and, therefore, are at the mercy of our education associations (and their lobbyists), our governor, and our state legislators when it comes to benefits and pay. We have to hope that we've voted the right folks into office.

So I don't claim to be an expert about what's going on in Wisconsin. But I know teachers in Wisconsin, and I know children in general. I have to believe that what the students are learning is more powerful than any history lecture they may have had the opportunity to hear in the past.

I've taught the Civil War, I've taught the Civil Rights Movement including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's I Have a Dream Speech, and I've taught all about apartheid in South Africa. Although my students have always appeared somewhat interested, it has been apparent that they are so far removed from either the place or the time (or both) that they don't really grasp the meaning. Oh, I try to make these events relative. We stand in a circle and hold hands - Black, White, Hispanic alternating - and I tell them that when I was in elementary school, this type of activity would have been illegal in the South. They don't get it. They don't believe it. It feels like a story to them. Fiction.

To the students of Wisconsin, this isn't a story. This is a real civil rights issue. And even if they don't know exactly why their teachers are missing, they do know that they are off fighting for what they believe in. Some students, referred to as the "soul of the protests," have even joined their teachers, staging sleepovers in the legislative building and waging war via social media. Some are joining forces, linking arm-in-arm to cheer like it's a Friday night football game:

"Everywhere we go-o-o-o,
people want to know-ow-ow
Who-o-o-o we ar-r-r-r-r-e,
a-a-a-a-nd we tell them,

We are stu-u-u-u-dents,
mighty mighty stu-u-u-dents.

The students of Wisconsin are learning the valuable lessons of free speech, standing up for a cause, and basing opinions on carefully sought out facts. I saw one of the fourteen legislators on the news this morning. Interviewed in the "undisclosed" hotel in Illinois where she was staying, this mother of two small children answered to leaving them at home by saying she hoped this experience would teach them to stand up for themselves some day.

I have a friend who teaches in Madison. You'd never meet a more open-minded, talented educator who loves everyone and embraces all types of ideas. This week she has been at the protests, subjected to name-calling and other harsh opposition. She believes she is representing what's best for her students, her family, and her state. But she has been called selfish and greedy because she merely wants to be able to advocate for herself when it comes to salary and benefits. Is this not a practice that occurs in the business world daily? Are teachers some type of sub-citizens, unable to make the same requests?

My friend, the peacemaker, has even stepped in between opposing protestors on the steps of the capitol in an effort to defend everyone's right to free speech. She has been called an idiot, a terrorist, a spoiled brat, and a knuckle-dragging mouth-breather.

This is how Americans are treating Americans. (Remember the Civil War? Now is it relative?)

Yes, Kristen, there is much for the children of Wisconsin, and the United States of America, to learn. I hope the parents of school age kids are talking to them about what they see on the news. I hope they will participate by sending emails to their elected officials or maybe even visiting the capitol themselves. History is happening in Madison, Wisconsin, and although the subject matter may be a history class lecture in a few years, right now it's real.

And I hope students there will never look at the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement the same way again. Those events aren't just stories either.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Where is the Love?

In 1972, on any given day, I would hear the song "Where is the Love," recorded by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, on my portable radio. It was popular, rising to #5 on the pop charts while taking the #1 spot on the soul and easy listening charts. Sometimes a song like that will find its way into the inner recesses of my brain and stay there, a repeating chorus that seems to grow louder and louder. I can't coax it out even when I try to sing the birthday song or "Jingle Bells" over top of it. It's still there - and today, Valentine's Day, "where is the love?" is pounding heavily on my eardrums as I attempt to work, eat, have a conversation...that song is IN THERE!

It was there, humming right along this morning, as I read an article about everyone's favorite former chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, Michelle Rhee. I'm not a numbers kind of gal, but the best I can tell from my reading, under Rhee's leadership, 250 teachers were fired summer before last with 229 escorted out right after. Then 241 were fired for "performance-based reasons" just last summer. To that I must say, "where IS the love?"

This particular article addresses 75 probationary teachers in their first or second years who had not yet come to the end of their first two years of teaching, teachers who were being let go because they received "negative performance evaluations after their first year." And to add insult to injury, these teachers were only given a "brief letter" indicating they had been terminated; there was no reason given, no opportunity for growth afforded.

Thank goodness an arbitrator has ruled that these 75 teachers were "improperly terminated" so maybe they'll have a second chance. I can tell you from experience that second chances can be the ticket to finding an educator who is committed to the profession, who is willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference to children. I know - because that very teacher is me.

I was not evaluated in any way during my first year. But I can tell you I would've been the first on Michelle Rhee's hit list had I worked for her. I wasn't comfortable in my own skin as a teacher, 22 years old and teaching high school seniors. The year was so tough I resigned at the end of it and didn't return for seven years. And I found upon my return that age hadn't improved my classroom management skills. I was, in fact, evaluated during that year, and there were some "below standard" markings on that final evaluation.

But I didn't get fired.

I got help.

First I found myself an unofficial mentor, a teaching wizard across the hall who held children's attention like he was a rock star. I watched everything he did and emulated every move he made. To this day, I pull from things he taught me, catching myself thinking of his words during classroom situations somewhat like we hear our parents' voices from long ago: "Don't run with scissors," "Look both ways before crossing the street."

The next year I had a real live "official" mentor, and I was at her classroom door daily with every "What do I do?" and "Do you have this?" and "How can I make that better?" that I could conjure up.

Fast forward thirty years, and you'll find a teacher who just may have made an impact on a kid or two (and on a teacher or two for that matter.) So....what if I had been fired? Would it have made a difference? Who would've taught Juanita to read? Who would be taking money, right now, to a student in jail who I haven't taught in five years?

I wish we could look in our crystal teacher apple and see how these 75 teachers turn out. But we can't. What we can do is support them in every way possible, provide exemplary mentoring for them, ensure they have all the resources they need, and give them opportunities to develop over short, show them the LOVE.

Today, Valentine's Day, my principal bought red velvet cupcakes for every staff member in the school. In our mailboxes we found candy and a note that read, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you and Peace."

I wish love and peace to Michelle Rhee as she practices her "tough" version of school reform. I just hope she doesn't continue to destroy young teachers in her path as she goes. So to her I have to ask, Hey Michelle, where is the LOVE?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dream a Little Dream...

I have to admit I'm hooked on reality television...well, not ALL reality television shows, just a couple of select ones. There are times when mindlessly staring at a screen offsets the intensity of the day. So stare I do.

Recently, I've been watching American Idol, a singing competition that highlights contestants who are singing in front of a team of judges. At this point in the season, the judges have the task of choosing which of the contestants are invited to continue in the competition, which ones will be allowed to travel to Hollywood and compete against others who are lucky enough to be invited, too.

What I've noticed during this particular season is that men, women, boys, and girls alike are crying crocodile tears, some begging, BEGGING, for the chance to make the Hollywood trip.

"Please. Puuhhhh-llllleasssseeee," they beg. "This is my DREEEAAAMMMMM. I've been dreaming to sing my entire LIFE!"

Interestingly, the minimum age limit has been reduced this year. Some of these dreamers have been dreaming for all of 15 years.

I continually talk to my students about dreams. I have all the staples of a middle school classroom: the future NFL and NBA stars, the rappers-to-be, the singers, dancers, and celebrities in the making.

I ask my NBA stars in training how many hours they practice every day, how long they dribble and pass after school. They grin and tell me they don't practice. Some aren't even on the middle school basketball team.

I continue by asking them if they think the NBA Fairy is going to show up on their porches, knock on their front doors, and then tap them with a wand. Poof - you're now a player in the NBA.

It's at this point that I draw my diagram on the board - my "Dream Alignment Diagram." First, I draw a big circle on the board, near the top. In the circle I write the word "DREAM." I tell the students, "This is it. Your dream. Whatever your dream's right here in this circle."

Then I draw arrows, beginning at the bottom of the board and pointing up toward the circle. I tell them that if they really want to reach their dreams everything they do must be pointing toward them. We discuss what those arrows represent: practice, work ethic, focus, etc.

Then I draw an arrow pointing straight to the side.

"Oh!" I say. "You don't want to do your work in school? You just took a detour away from your dream."

Then I reach to the other side and draw another horizontal arrow. "Think you need to get in a fight and end up in In School Suspension? There's another detour!"

I refer to the Dream Alignment Diagram periodically throughout the year, especially when it's apparent that my tweenagers need to focus. And I tell them that their dreams will not fall into their laps. Attaining them will take a great deal of work and an awful lot of time.

Dreams are not for the lazy. Dreams are not for the impatient.

And dreams are not for beggars.

They're for those who are committed to doing whatever it takes to make things happen.

And that means all their arrows point up. All the time.