Monday, July 28, 2014


About 3 years ago, I attended a Unity Rally Against Hate today at the Hughes Main Library. The Ku Klux Klan was recruiting in the Upstate, so we rallied to show that love and understanding is stronger than hate and fear. I'm writing a novel about the Civil Rights Movement in South Carolina and in my story a newspaper editor types these words in an editorial. They're words I'd like to say in light of that rally.

The Ku Klux Klan does not much worry me. When they get together under the cover of darkness and white sheets, in the flickering light of burning crosses, around heated, hateful speeches, I can see and hear and feel who they are, what they do, and why they are there.

The silent people worry me a lot, though. They don't get together in big groups. They walk around in the light of day in shirts and ties, dresses and heels, t-shirts and tennis shoes. They go to church. They speak in small groups, many small groups in many places. I can't see and hear and feel them.

I think I know what they want, the Klan and the silent people, I do. They want the world to be black and white. They want the black part of the world - colored folks, poor folks, gay folks - to stay in it's place, quiet and powerless. They want the white part of the world - white folks, wealthy folks, straight folks - to stay in charge and powerful.

The Klan yells it loudly.

The silent people whisper it softly.

I know how many yellers there are. I can look them in the eye, stand nose to nose with them and tell them who I am, what I do, and why I am here. I can confront their hatred and fear and injustice with love and understanding and justice.

I don't know how many silenters there are. That's what worries me.

I simply hope there are more folks filled with love, understanding and justice than the Klan and the silent people.

If you see and hear and feel like me, please tell me your story. I need to know you're out there so I won't be afraid.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Pages in the Book Go Flip, Flip, Flip

My elementary school is a Title I school. About 95 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and Medicaid. Research shows us that many children raised in poverty struggle to learn to read. Common sense tells us that children who don't learn to read can't read to learn. They often reach a frustration level with school by the time they're in the third grade. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 70 percent of low-income fourth-grade students can't read at a basic level. I often wonder, "What can I do in my day-to-day work as a teacher to help?"
I came across a story in the St. Petersburg Times about Timothy Driggers, a bus driver for Lomax Elementary School in Tampa, Fla. Each day his bus arrives a half-hour before the school opens. There are about 20 students on the bus. One day he found a book on the bus, and no one claimed it. The next morning he began reading the story to the students. They loved it! When the story ended, they asked for another one. The media specialist gave him a list of great books, and a reading circle was born. Now the students read with him. They predict, question, clarify and summarize. They tackle difficult books. And Driggers recently won the 'Celebrate Literacy Award' from the International Reading Association, the world’s largest literacy group. He received a standing ovation at the award ceremony.
As a reading interventionist, I'm always looking for ways to encourage students to read. Our school opens at 7:15 a.m. for breakfast, but some of our students arrive early and wait at the front of the building for our custodian, Ms. Louise, to come and unlock the door. So I decided to follow Driggers' example and start a reading circle for them. At 7 a.m., I take my teaching stool and Frindle by Andrew Clements out among the waiting students and start reading. One day I was a few minutes late to my reading spot. Two students said, "Mr. Barton, we were waiting for you! We want to know what's gonna happen next!"
On a political level, I know I can advocate for my students, many of whom are children of color, by supporting policies that promote comprehensive reading instruction, integrated schools and classrooms with a small percentage of students reading below grade level. At the school level, I know I can advocate for them by urging parents to read and talk to their kids more often. And on a personal level, I know I can advocate for my students by finding creative ways to help them become good readers and by showing them that I care.

The School in the Tree

The School in the Tree (my teaching philosophy)

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a school in a tree. The tree was gigantic, with a hollow trunk that could hold 100 people standing hand in hand in a circle and 6 branches that could each hold a classroom. The classrooms were full of wonder. They were covered with canopies of green leaves from the tree and were open to the world outside so cool, gentle breezes could blow through the rooms. Small, colorful birds could sit on the floor and tap out a beat for all of the drummers and tappers in the classes. The tables were carved from hard knots on the branches and were large enough to comfortably sit four students. The teachers wrote on bright wood below stripped away bark with pens they had created with colors from the flowers of the tree.

Mr. Bark was a new teacher on the 3rd branch at the school. His heart was full of love and care for the students in his classroom and his mind was spinning with ideas about ways he could help them learn.

At 8 a.m. on the first day of school, a giant woodpecker landed on the office branch and pecked the tree to let the teachers and students know it was time for the school day to begin. The twenty-two 3rd branchers in Mr. Bark's class had climbed into their room and had stopped and looked in surprised silence. Mr. Bark was at the front of the classroom standing on his head.

- Good morning, class. I am so glad to see you! What nice feet you have! You can learn most about people by looking at their feet. You can understand how hard they work by seeing if their feet are calloused and worn. You can understand their hearts by seeing if they can walk in someone else's shoes. Join me! All of you, stand on your heads!

The students were stunned. At first, no one moved. One of the students remembered the school rule that you received a letter "N" if you did not follow your teacher's directions so she placed her hands and head on the floor and pushed her feet toward the ceiling. The other students followed her lead and soon there were twenty-three heads on the floor and forty-six feet in the air. The students thought Mr. Bark should receive a letter "I" for inappropriate behavior.

- Isn't this great? It is good to look upside down at the world every day. I want to teach you to look at things upside down. You might have problems that you can't solve when you look at them rightside up but that you can solve when you look at them upside down. This is true for reading problems, writing problems, math problems, or any kinds of problems. Learn to look upside down at your problems!

Suddenly, one of the students screamed.

- Ouch! This is crazy! You can't make me do this! I'm not standing on my head for anybody! I'm not going to do this!

The screaming student was lying on his back. He had tried three times to get his feet in the air and had fallen with a "thud" each time. After his third fall all of the other students laughed at him. He was angry, not at his giggling classmates or at his eccentric teacher, but because, no matter how he tried, he could not stand on his head. Mr. Bark looked at him with calm eyes and spoke to him in a quiet voice.

- Please try one more time.

He looked down at the floor and reluctantly put his hands and head on the ground again. He tried to move his feet toward the leaves and began to wobble back and forth, around and around. He grimaced and prepared to hit the floor.

The last sight he saw before he closed his eyes was of Mr. Bark's wiggling foot. He expected to hit the floor and have his breath knocked out of him but instead he felt a gentle tug on his ankles. Instead of falling down, he was being pulled up. He opened his eyes and saw with astonishment a miniature elephant flying by flapping its ears. The tiny elephant had its trunk around his ankles and was holding his legs up straighter than any of the other legs in the room.

The students could not believe their eyes. Mr. Bark had a magic elephant that could fly to them and help them when they needed help. They learned that their new teacher also had a magic pen. Whenever he wrote with his magic pen they immediately understood fully what he was trying to teach them, even difficult math and science problems. Occasionally, when students were having a tough time writing a story, he would let them use his magic pen and they were able to write in perfect form and with perfect grammar the thoughts and feelings that were inside of them. The students knew they were going to have an exciting, meaningful year.

They learned happily ever after.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Everything was covered in white.

The fields that provided food for us to eat and vegetables for us to trade, the trees that provided shade for us to rest under and lumber for us to sell, and even Poppa's hunched shoulders as he trudged his way to the barn to milk the cows were blanketed in snow. 1948 would be a year of surprises for us in Clarendon County, South Carolina, surprises that started on the first day of January when we had the coldest stretch of days and the heaviest and deepest of snows that the midlands had seen in a hundred years.

Momma put her arm around me and we snuggled close together as we watched Poppa disappear into the blinding whiteness of the pouring snow.

"My, my...look at all that snow, Carter...look at all that snow."

"It's turnin' ever'thin' white. It's beautiful."

"Yes, sweetie, it is beautiful."

"It makes ever'thin' look so bright and clean and new."

"Yes, it sure does. But, you know what? I like to think about what's underneath the snow."

"But there's nothin' but frozen ground and bare limbs underneath the snow."

"And don't forget there's a Poppa under it, too!"

"Why do you like to think 'bout things like that, things that're frozen and bare?"

"Well, it's 'cause of som'thin' that happened to me when I was a little girl about your age. Ev'ry Sat'dy afternoon, my Daddy and Momma would take me and your Aunts and Uncles into town. We didn't own our own farm like your Poppa and I do now, so we lived in what was called a 'sharecroppers shack' on Mr. Wilson's farm.

That shack was a dark, bare place that was too small for a family of nine. We all worked so hard on that farm, but on Sat'dy afternoons Mr. Wilson let us outta work to go to town. In town, ev'rythin' looked like it does now under this blanket of snow - white, clean, and new.

The som'thin' that happened that I wanna tell you 'bout is this. We were walkin' down the sidewalk, Daddy in front, Momma behind him, and the seven of us chil'ren all in a row from the tallest to the shortest. My goodness, we did look like ducks in a row, we chil'ren did. A young man and a young woman, a white young man and woman, came a'walkin' toward us arm in arm. As was the custom, we stepped off the sidewalk to let the white folks pass. I looked down at the ground, as I was supposed to do when a white man passed me, and it was then that I saw a sup'risin' thing.

The cement sidewalk had a small crack in it, and out of that broken place grew a flower, a tiny flower. Even though I was a'wearin' my Sat'dy dress, I knelt down on the ground close to the flower so I could cup my hands around it and really see it. It was the most beautiful flower I had ever seen in my life and it is still the most beautiful flower I ever saw. It's petals were red and yellow, its stem was green, and the center a'holdin' it's seeds was black. The yellow was the color of the sun in the early mornin', the red was the color of the sun in the late ev'nin', the green was the color of the april fields at dawn and dusk, and the black was 'zactly the color of black folks like us's skin. And there was that flower, a'growin' through the hard, white concrete that covered the earth!
That's why I like to think 'bout things that are covered up, Carter, 'bout things that're underneath. Oft'times, you cain't see them but they're there and they're beautiful and they're a'waitin' for a crack so they can grow and be seen and make the world a more beautiful place."

Now, I loved to spend time with my Momma and if I had to choose the best times I spent with her then I'd choose times like those, times when she held me close and told me stories. I felt her protective arms around me, felt my future brother or sister move and move in her belly to the rhythm of her words, breathed in the smells of buttermilk and flour from the morning's biscuits, and saw her story as if I were there with her.

Everything' was covered in white. The ground around me was frozen. But everything inside of me was full of color and warm.