The Scoop



This picture demonstrates the power of a book. These children are members of the Sina Sina tribe of Papua New Guinea. The oldest girl, age 12, is using Melissa Forney's Picture Speller for Young Authors to teach English to the other kids. She has also earned a little money using it to teach some of the adults in her tribe. I was awed and humbled to see how far the book has traveled. My friend, Rosalie Ranquist, was a missionary to this tribe for many decades. Now in her late 70s, she still travels back to visit the tribe almost every year. A wonderful challenge for your students this year would be to find some place in the world where books are scarce, and send a few books along with letters from your students. Every child around the globe deserves to experience the wonders of turning the pages of a beautiful book.


If you missed this report on 60 Minutes, take a moment to read the transcript here. It will make your day! When I see excellent teaching and extraordinary methods being used for great success, I get so excited I could jump out of my shoes. Freeman Hrabowski is one of my heroes, a Teacher Spectacular. Reading about what is going on at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, makes me want to go there in person to witness how lives are being changed in such amazing ways. If you don’t do another thing today, READ THIS TRANSCRIPT!



A hundred years ago, I was living in New Orleans, and, sister, I needed a job. I was in for a rude awakening. There were no openings for teachers. Nada. Zip. A big fat zero. I needed a job. Employment. Regular paychecks. I heard about an opening in a little town south of New Orleans called Port Sulphur. I called the principal and put on what I hoped would pass for self-confidence.             

“I understand you have a teaching position opening. Don’t hire anyone until you meet me!” (I was such a doofus at that age.)

            He laughed. “When would you like to interview?”

            “Tomorrow.” I knew I sounded like an overly eager beaver, but I wanted that job. You have no idea.

            I consulted a friend who had a sense of style.

            “You need help. You’ve got to make a good impression,” she said.

I was a tomboy. Born and reared in the tropical country of Panama, I had a lot to learn about life in the big city. My friend loaned me a dress with a mini skirt. I don’t know what we were thinking in the ‘70s. Those skirts were SHORT. She also suggested a few more necessities to improve my chances of being hired: make-up, Lee Press On Nails, and pantyhose. I understood the make-up and the fake nails, but pantyhose were new to me. Panty-what? We didn’t have such in the jungle. Nope. Not ever.

“Look for them where they sell the eggs,” she coached.

I searched K-Mart until I had to seek out a worker. “Uh, sir, where are the eggs?”

“We don’t sell eggs.”

“My friend said to look for pantyhose near the eggs.”

“Oh. You mean L’eggs.” He eyed me like I had just fallen off the turnip truck.

The L’eggs wall was a veritable Shangri-La, a cornucopia of glittery plastic eggs. I had no idea that you bought pantyhose by size and color. I ran my hands along the lot of them until I stood transfixed in front of the shiniest of all, silver. It was a wonderment. To me it could have been Fabergé.

Interview day dawned bright and early. I showered, did my hair, put on make-up, pressed on my Lee Press Ons, and threw the miniskirt over my head and smoothed it into place. I unsnapped the silver egg, which hinged in the middle, and lifted the top. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the contents looked like a small, curled animal with wrinkly brown skin. I pulled out the panty hose. They were 4 inches wide and 11 feet long. No kidding. The panty part looked too small for a newborn. I checked the label. Control top. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with control top, let me school you. The Army uses control-top material to stop enemy tanks. Not one has ever broken through. Ever. Spider-Man’s spidey suit is made of control-top material. Olympic trampolines are made of control-top material. I tried slithering into them. Stretching. Pulling. Sliding. Jumping in place. At one point the recoil bent me backward, and I ended up on the bed in the birthing position, panting. I finally managed to pull the waist up where I thought it should go, but the crotch part was somewhere between my knees and my nether regions. There was still a good 12 inches of wrinkly material hanging off the ends of my feet, but that was the best I could do. I put on my open-toed high heels and tucked the hanging pantyhose part in under my feet. I checked my reflection in the mirror. Not bad, if I didn’t move too much and reveal the crotch of the pantyhose was 1 inch above the hem of my dress.

            At the interview, the principal welcomed me and offered a chair. I walked stiffly and sat down, careful to smooth my hem down as low as possible. I crossed my legs into the position my mother had ingrained in me as “ladylike.” As the principal launched into a diatribe about the need for good teachers, something caught my eye. I looked down. Twelve inches of pantyhose were hanging out of the end of my high heel. My face went scarlet. I reached down as nonchalantly as I could and, keeping my eyes on his, I poked it back into place. I rested my hand on my leg, just above the knee. I felt something bumpy. I looked down. THREE OF MY LEE PRESS ON NAILS WERE STUCK TO MY LEG UNDER THE PANTY HOSE.

A shocked, guttural sound burst out of me. “UUUUUUU!!!” I slapped my hand over the Press On Nails like I was killing the worst mosquito. The principal stopped, mid sentence.

“Are you okay?” His eyebrows raised up a full 2 inches.


Thank goodness for principals. They can talk all day. He continued where he had left off. I, however, hung between mortification and misery. This was the only job available in the entire free world, and I wasn’t going to strike out because of careless grooming. While the principal talked, I began rubbing my leg with both hands, trying to unstick the nails. There was no way to go but up. My plan was to rub them up out of sight and re-stick them to my leg where they couldn’t be seen. This was hard work. Millimeter by millimeter. Intense concentration. I didn’t hear a word the principal was saying. I went into a glazed over, semi-vegetative state. I lost track of time. I was beginning to make progress when I realized the principal had stopped talking. He was staring, mesmerized.

Thank goodness for pity. His voice was gentle. “Do you need a moment alone?”

Thank goodness for mercy. He left me alone.

Thank goodness for grace. I got the job.



It is important to me that we come back to the fact that children did not plan or choose the lives they are living. They have to cope with the families into which they were born or adopted. They have to work with the bodies they received at conception. They have to learn with their own particular sets of abilities and limitations. In spite of their differences, all children are worthy; all children are precious; all children are unique individuals in spite of the labels we sometimes put on them. This poem is a great reminder.


Special Learner

I didn’t choose to be this way

I wanted to be smart

To gain your praise, my friends amaze

with gold stars on the chart

You’ll never know how very much

I wanted to be fast

To turn in work with time to spare

Instead, I’m always last

I don’t know why I ask you things

then ask you to repeat it

I don’t know why I try to

fi nish work and can’t complete it

I don’t know why for me it’s hard

to grasp the things you teach

It seems I almost get it

then it slips beyond my reach

My heart’s desire is to inspire

succeed, achieve, and fl ourish

But I’m a kid in desperate need

of one who’ll teach and nourish

All my expectations,

all my hopes so wild

For underneath the labels, see?

I’m just another child


Click Here to print: SpecialLearnerPoem.pdf




Last year, I made an amazing discovery on a teaching trip to San Antonio. I was invited to present two days of workshops at Briscoe Elementary and found some of the most outstanding writing from fourth graders I have seen. The samples were posted on one of the bulletin boards in the main hallway. I tracked down the teacher and found María Elena Arellano, a caring, nurturing DREAM of a teacher. Her passionate, motivating style of teaching is legendary at Briscoe. Another teacher told me her daughter had been in Mrs. Arellano’s class and is still talking about what a great teacher she is. Back at Briscoe this year, I asked María Elena her secret. “I simply LOVE teaching writing. I aspire to create a positive, fun-filled, non-threatening writing environment for my students. Once this is established, they feel free to become risktakers. This is where the magic begins.” Now I wish I could transform myself into a fourth grader and spend a year with this incredible teacher. María Elena, the magic comes from YOU.


            I told you about my church youth group from when I was a teenager and how much fun we had. We went on choir trips, mission trips, held services at the hospital, helped old people clean up their yards, packed one ton of candy into stockings for poor children at Christmas, played practical jokes on each other, went to camp, sang concerts, produced puppet shows, and some things I can’t divulge because the statute of limitations has probably not run out yet. We were comrades in arms. Soldiers in the foxhole. Partners in crime. Not to mention all the times So-and-So got a crush on You-Know-Who, and we kidded and ribbed and let the cat out of the bag. When two of us actually hooked up, we stuck our fingers down our throats and made vomiting noises and said how gross it was. We were sick with jealousy. We went to Jungle Survival School together, but that’s another story.

             A few weeks ago, many of the group got together for a reunion in Dothan, Alabama, since the Panama Canal Zone doesn’t exist anymore and most of us live up here. I looked forward to it eagerly but also with curiosity. After all, it had been almost 40 years since we had seen each other. You know how that goes. Life encroaches, and the years and the miles and the weather and the job and the marriages and the two-point-five children and the extra piece of pecan pie add up. As Rick drove me up to the reunion, I wondered, Will they know me? Will I know them? Will we have anything to talk about?

            The minute we saw each other in the hotel lobby, it was as if time and space and distance didn’t exist. It was as though we had seen each other just the day or week before. It was surreal, getting together with so many kids who had meant so much to me in my childhood, almost an out-of-body experience. The connection was profound. When we hugged each other, it was not words that rushed out—it was tears. We were bubbling with laughter, to be sure, but I was knocked out by how emotional it was. We spent the evening singing old choir and camp songs, sharing memories, and honoring our choir director and his wife, both now 90 years old. It was magic. Get this: the reunion was actually planned and carried out by a girl who had been much younger than us. It had always been her dream to be a part of the group when she watched us as a kid. Now as an adult in her forties, her dream was to see all of us together again. What she did was give us a gift. For one night, I stepped into a time machine and got to recapture the spirit, the unity, the camaraderie, and the ambiance that had once been ours.

            We really existed. We really were. We really lived.


Have you ever done something so dumb, so destructive, so heinous that the memory stays with you for a lifetime?

 My husband and I lived in New Orleans but went away every weekend to minister to a small church in Port Sulphur, Louisiana, 50 miles away. I was young and poor and stupid. Emphasis on the stupid part. I still had so much to learn about the savvy of running a household.

 On Friday afternoon, I set out a frozen chicken to take with us to cook for Sunday dinner. I left it on our gas stove where I would be sure to see it and take it with us when we left. Before we closed up the apartment for the weekend, I made certain the lights were out, the windows were locked, and the AC was off. We were too frugal to keep the AC running while we were out of town. And, let me tell you, Sister, the temperature was about a thousand degrees in that apartment without the AC running.

As soon as we got to Port Sulphur, church friends invited us for Sunday dinner. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to cook and clean up on such a busy day. I never gave the frozen chicken a second thought.

Sunday night we returned to our New Orleans apartment, and it was dark in the little alcove by our front door. My husband fished around for his keys, unlocked and opened the door, and WAS PHYSICALLY KNOCKED BACK. Instantly. On moment he was fine, the next his arms were flailing, and he was making unintelligible sounds. Then a horrible stench almost knocked me over. Actually, horrible isn’t even in the ballpark. Putrid. Deathly. I am not exaggerating. I wonder to this day why the neighbors hadn’t already called Homicide to investigate.

Now, the weird part was we were still in the dark. Neither one of us had yet made any intelligible sound. All efforts went into pushing and shoving to distance ourselves from the horrendous odor. That’s when we heard a thin, eerie WHISTLING. Demonic. Otherworldly. A high-pitched keen calling from the grave.

I managed to hit the kitchen light switch, and we both saw it at the same time. The raw, three-day-old chicken had spoiled to the point where the bag had blown up as large and as tight as a BASKETBALL. There was a tiny pin-prick in the plastic bag and the escaping gas was making the eerie whistling.

It all came to me in a rush. I had left the chicken. It was rotting in the bag. I had to get it out before my husband left me for someone with better sense. I rushed to the stove and reached out to grasp the now giant sized plastic bag. But, the minute my hands touched it, IT EXPLODED.

I am simply not gifted enough to fully describe the full impact of an exploding, rotten chicken. Mere words are not adequate. The stench, my gyrations, the flying parts, the rain of juices, my disrobing, my language. I think I actually experienced the Dark Side.

It took hours…no, days…to clean everything and fumigate the apartment. Even the curtains had to be taken down and washed. Twice.

I’m older, I’m smarter, and I still do dumb things sometimes. But, this experience gave me a gauge for judging all other situations. No matter what I’m confronted with, deep down there is the comforting assurance that it couldn’t be as bad as the chicken.



My grandfather was a one-of-a-kind type of guy, a mixture of sailor, rascal, gentleman, rapscallion, yarn-spinner, fisherman, dreamer, and patriarch. He was bigger than life. He ran away from home, joined the Merchant Marines, sailed the seven seas, and had the tattoos to prove it. During his colorful life, one of his jobs was to paint circus wagons for Ringling Brothers Circus. He had a steady hand and use these special sable brushes, imported from Russia, to paint stripes and curlycues. My uncle gave each of us one, and I touch it every now and then, just to rest my hand where I know Grandaddy's had been. In my mind I can hear his laugh, smell his outdoorsy smell, feel the press of his big arm holding me close.


“Bloom where youre planted,” Mama would spout.

I should have listened and not tuned her out.

She said it a lot,

Im kidding you not.

“Bloom where youre planted, whatever your pot!”

See, I was a kid who might grumble and gripe.

“...Dont like my teacher...just not my type.”

But Mama would say,

In her no-nonsense way.

“Bloom where youre planted, cause thats where youll stay.”

I stayed and I stood, though I kept up my guard,

Knowing Miss Burns would be much, much too hard.

I entered her room

With a heart full of gloom.

And found, with Miss Burns, that Id bloom and Id bloom.

Call the militia! Call the Marines!

For seven years later, Id entered my teens.

I hate to confess

That Id stress and obsess,

“Ive nothing to wear!” and “I hate this old dress.”

But Mama would say, “Child, we havent a dollar,

But Ill change the sleeves and put on a new collar.”

Id watch her begin

With her needles and pins,

And wouldnt you know it? That dress “bloomed” again.

Then came the time when I left home for college,

Eager to fill up my head with new knowledge.

I wrote home to Mom,

Saying, “Please, please stay calm,

But Ive met a guy and hes cute! Hes the bomb!”

Mama wrote back, saying, “Wait! Its a phase!

Trust me! Youve known him for just...14 days.”

Her words did intone,

“Agree or come home!

Bloom where youre planted but right now, ALONE!”

“But Mama,” I wept, “I might be an old maid.”

I launched, to my shame, an impressive tirade.

But Mama held fast,

“It never would last.

Youll bloom again—and this too shall pass.”

The years rolled on by, and much later, I wed,

And I tried to “bloom,” like Mama had said.

It was I, now, each day,

When my kids were at play,

“Bloom where youre planted,” they both heard me say.

But oh, how we want things—bigger and better.

Then one day we find were a credit card debtor.

My checkbook held naught!

I was in a tough spot,

For trying to live much too big for my pot.

Id forgotten to bloom in a pot just my size,

And that is when trouble will always arise.

When debts are assuming,

Mortgages looming,

Odds are that happiness will not be blooming.

My lifestyle had taken possessions for granted.

I had to RELEARN to bloom where Im planted.

It isnt the “stuff,”

Possessions or “fluff,”

That make us feel deep down that we have enough.

Its focusing in on the blessings from God

And learning to live with a life slightly flawed.

The car has a dent?

Your bracelet is bent?

Your son tracked in mud, or worse, wet cement?

Need to lose weight?

Hairstyles not great?

Dont like your husband, or friend, or roommate?

Dont have a job?

Head has a throb?

Your boss is demanding and sometimes a snob?

Your son wants a turtle?

Cant find your girdle?

And lunch with your daughter is sometimes a hurdle?

Kids always fight?

Cant sleep at night?

Your first grader cant get her shoes tied just right?

You can go far

In the place where you are,

No matter how humble, how small, how bizarre.

So shout hallelujah! Take nothing for granted.

Give God the glory, and bloom where youre planted.


Click here to download Bloom Where You're Planted 


Aren’t some words in writing just dead? I know that we’ve all seen them. Words like run, said, happy, fun, mad; the list just goes on and on and on. These words need to be put to rest, but students choose to use them over and over again. Why? Well it’s probably because they can’t think of better words with which to replace them. Now this is where a classroom’s Dead Wall finds its perfect place. A Dead Wall can be a simple bulletin board, a section of wall space, or even a corner of the white board. Once you have your Dead Wall space, you’re on your way to giving your students a resource they will use time and time again. Now you’ll need to find all those dead words—you know, the words that you get tired of reading in paper after paper—and find a word or list of words that will SIZZLE in its place. Use a piece of gray construction paper, and cut it into a tombstone shape. Now all you have to do is write the “dead word” on the top in small print and write the SIZZLIN’ vocabulary word(s) that can replace it in large print. Post these tombstones on your Dead Wall, and you are well on your way to bringing student writing back to life. To even take it to the next step, you can do what a teacher friend of mine, Jon Spencer, did and host a classroom funeral for all of your dead words. Encourage students to wear all black and have them all gather around as you place each word to rest. You can even allow students to be creative and share their own eulogy for how they will miss using each of the words, and throw in a box of tissues for the extra effect. This will be a learning experience that your students will never ever forget.