Friday, February 27, 2004

Another week of school is finished and it was a pretty good one, except for this nagging toothache I have had.
All of the Holocaust research project has been completed except for the final draft. I spent the last two days listening to my communication arts students giving oral reports and making multi-media presentations over the Holocaust. I can almost tell you the complete Anne Frank story word for word from memory.
The writing contest begins next week with a total of $100 worth of cash prizes available to sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students. I have to get the guidelines typed and have copies made over the weekend.
Next week, in addition to the writing contest, the communication arts students will finish the final drafts of their research papers. The advanced class will also begin writing news stories for The students, under the direction of Sarah McDonough, were given their assignments today. They seem to be excited about it. I'm eager to see what they come up with.
Wildcat Central seems to have taken off again. I have been getting about double the traffic on the website lately, primarily due to the levy issue and the shenanigans the Diamond R-4 superintendent has been pulling almost on a daily basis. We are preparing for the annual Scholastic Book Fair next week at South. When I think about that, I am reminded that Diamond's forward thinking superintendent tried to close the new middle school library before it even opened three years ago, even though the Middle School Student Council had collected more than 1,000 books in a book drive. Thank God they gave those kids a library...though I wouldn't guarantee how long they will have one.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Some good. Some bad.
That's about the best way to describe this past week, but overall, I would say it turned out well. My surprise evaluation took place Friday morning in the communication arts block and it went well. That has always been my best-behaved class and the students were on their best behavior. The principal, Ron Mitchell, went over the evaluation shortly after school Friday. My grades were all high, nearly all 4s on a scale of 1 to 5. I received two five scores, in the categories that I really wanted to score high in: knowledge of subject matter and willing to go out of the way to help the students. I didn't even notice until this morning that Mr. Mitchell had checked the area that said, "Recommended for rehiring." So barring some scandal or a drastic worsening of the R-8 School District's financial situation, it looks as if I can look forward to a second year at South Middle School.
Now for the bad news. I had to leave school a little earlier than usual Friday so I could get back to the Carthage Post Office before 4:30 p.m. to pick up a package. I was expecting it to be "The Hidden Life of Otto Frank," which I had ordered from so my students would have it to help them with their research on the Holocaust. It turned out I had two packages. One was the Otto Frank book, but the other was a copy of "Small Town News." My novel has been rejected by another publisher. Oh, well. I'll just send it to the next one on the list. I am nowhere near to ready to give up on this book.
Still, if that's the worst news I have this week, I can't complain. My energy continues to be at a high level. I have kept working on and have completed the links page and the links for teachers page. I plan to add some more student papers in the next day or two. In a week or two, I will start having the advanced communication arts class write news stories for the Top News page.
I had the honor of being one the judges for Project Citizen, which has been worked on the past few weeks in social studies teacher Rocky Biggers' classes. The kids did pretty well, especially considering that this is the first time South has tried Project Citizen.
I have had some really good entries in the poetry contest for Eighth Grade Poetry Anthology. I am accepting the last entries tomorrow. After that, I have to narrow the list down to one. Judging from the quality of the entries I have seen so far, this is not going to be easy.
Story time.
It has been nearly 14 years since I started covering what turned out to be one of the biggest stories of my reporting career. Ironically (you will say why I use that word in a little while), the story began in The Joplin Globe. A Carterville man named Vince McCarty was arrested on a traffic violation in Webb City and claimed he had been beaten by three Webb City police officers as they were taking him to his cell. That complaint and the city's response to it were featured in reporter Andy Ostmeyer's story. I had just started covering Webb City news for The Carthage Press, so I wasn't too concerned about losing out on that story, but I wanted to get in on it somehow. My opportunity came the next week.
I was covering a Webb City Council meeting at the old city hall when the council went into a closed session to discuss a personnel situation. It was warm outside, so several of the spectators went outside to talk. I went outside to listen A man and a woman were talking and I heard the man say, "They say that guy got beat up pretty bad."
The woman nodded and said, "You should hear the tape."
Naturally, bells started ringing for this reporter. "Tape?" I thought. I continued listening and the woman described what she had heard on the tape.
When she finished talking, I approached her and said, "I sure would like to hear that tape."
My already fragile ego was further deflated when she asked, "And who are you?"
I told her who I was and she told me she would make a copy of the tape for me and give it to me at three o'clock the next afternoon if I stopped by the convenience store she owned. I picked up the copy the next day and was shocked at what I heard. The beating had been captured on audiotape. You could hear Vince McCarty screaming as the officers used a stun gun on him and told him that this is what happens "if you mess around in Webb City." I could distinctly make out the voices of the man who was being beaten and three other people, but since I had never heard these voices before, I had no way of knowing if the tape was authentic. I always took pride in being thorough, so I went to two sources in Webb City and had it confirmed that the voices belonged to the three officers who had been accused. Now I had to convince my publisher, Jim Farley, that we should run an article on the tape. The problem was we still had no way of authenticating the tape, we didn't know who had recorded it, or if anything had been cut out of it. Having been told that the tape had been sent to the FBI for authentication, I called an FBI source and got the confirmation that the FBI was looking into this mysterious tape. After that, Farley and my editor, Neil Campbell, gave me the go-ahead on the story.
That started an interesting period in my life. I had already established a reputation as an investigative reporter while I was at the Lamar newspaper, but this one would end up putting me on the map, at least on a small scale. When the tape story hit the streets in Webb City, we received a report that Webb City police officers were stealing the newspapers and destroying them. I wrote that story also after I had it confirmed and that stopped that, even though to this day I do not go even one mile over the speed limit when I am in Webb City.
The Webb City story continued to develop. I managed to find sources in the police department who were upset with what the police chief and a few officers were doing to the city. I found people who had been on the police department who were willing to talk and I cultivated sources on the City Council and who worked for the city. For the next two years, I turned out story after story uncovering things that the mayor and the police chief wanted to keep hidden.
I published one story detailing how the city attorney had warned the council that the police chief was illegally buying machine guns for the private use of his officers. I uncovered a city document with the help of three brave council members which outlined nearly every violation of the law that had been made by the police department.
Throughout this time, the Joplin Globe reporter, a female reporter who had worked for the Globe for nearly two decades, continued to deride my reporting, saying time after time that she would not be allowed to get away with "that kind of tabloid reporting" at the Globe. And despite my efforts to carefully source my stories (and I almost always had to have at least three sources before I would print anything), I began wondering when no one picked up on my stories either at the Globe or at the three local television stations.
A battle had developed between the mayor and the police chief, which ended up in the firing of seven officers, including the three who had been involved in the beating. The other four officers, who had been fired for insubordination. Those four officers filed suit against Mayor Richardson and the council and I covered the trial at the federal courts building in Joplin. By this time nearly two years had passed since my initial Webb City story. During that trial, every controversial story I had written was confirmed in sworn testimony. The Globe reporter told me, "You were lucky," and left it at that. Nevertheless, I knew how hard I had worked and I felt vindicated.
The Webb City story was the first one to land me the number one spot among daily newspapers for investigative reporting at the annual Missouri Press Association contest in 1991. I defended that title successfully for the next three years, with investigations into teen drinking, soft sentences for sex offenders in Barton County, and a hospital administrator with a long record of sexual harassment. In 1992, my Webb City investigation landed me a finalist position in the National Associated Press Managing Editors Contest. (I lost to the reporting team which investigated the Branch Davidian shootout in Waco, Texas.)
After I became managing editor of The Press in December 1993, I didn't have as much time to devote to investigative reporting, though I still finished second in the 1995 and 1998 competitions, then went out on top with another first place in 1999. Ironically, that was awarded three months after I no longer worked for The Press.
Now to get back to that irony comment I made earlier, my job at The Carthage Press ended in May 1999, thanks to a $750 million lawsuit filed against me by a right-winger who was trying to establish a survivalist compound near Carthage. I had written on The Press' opinion page about an event he had held near Carthage, which included the phrases, "A blanket of white descended upon Carthage," and "they were here on Friday, they were here on Saturday, and those nuts were sprinkled on our Sunday.' The guy sued everyone in site, including me for $750 million and The Press for an additional $750 million. It was the first time I had ever been sued in 22 years as an investigative reporter. The Press and its owners, Liberty Group Publishing, didn't bother to hire an attorney. I received a letter saying that I needed to return the service from the guy who was suing me. If it had to be served on me in person, I would be charged $200. When the deadline to return the papers came, I asked my publisher, Ralph Bush, who had replaced Jim Farley, what I should do. He said, "You'd better to go ahead and send them in," so I signed them and returned them. Thirty days passed and I discovered that since The Press had never hired a lawyer, we had not responded to the lawsuit and I was subject to a $750 million judgment. Because of that, Liberty had to bring in a libel lawyer and since out libel insurance didn't kick in until after a $10,000 deductible, returning the service had cost the company $10,000. It took three years for me to find out that was why I was fired. Liberty's CEO had demanded my dismissal after his lawyers had jumped all over him for not getting in touch with a lawyer. He blamed me for putting him in that position. Ralph never bothered to tell him that he was the one who told me to send in the papers. Oh, well. Eventually, the judge dismissed the lawsuit, noting that I had the first amendment right to my print my opinion.
Two days after I was fired by The Press, I received a call from Edgar Simpson, the Globe's editor. He asked me to come over and talk with him and we set up an appointment for the following day. When we finished with the interview, he told me that the first job that came up with The Globe would be mine and that he was working with the higher-ups to get to hire more reporters. I never heard from him after that. To this day, I don't believe that he was just leading me on. Something happened after our meeting that kept me from getting a job with the Globe.
Perhaps I'm wrong, but I believe I have finally figured out what happened. On Friday, I was at the Wal-Mart Superrcenter in Carthage when I ran into the reporter who was the victim of my Webb City scoops and other scoops during my time at The Press. She was several feet away when I caught her eye. She immediately looked the other way and quickly turned down an aisle to get away from me.
Since she has been an editor with The Globe for some time now, I began to wonder if she hadn't been the one who poisoned Simpson's mind against me. It always seemed strange to me that the Globe never came looking in my direction, considering that they recently hired a major investigative reporter with a penchant for twisting the truth, hired a religion editor and then fired him for plagiarism, and have hired a number of reporters who have trouble getting quotes right and keeping their facts straight. Things worked out better for me. I had always wanted to be a teacher and this gave me an opportunity to get back into the classroom after 18 years (though it was really hard to turn down a $32,000 a year offer to become managing editor of the Miami, Okla. newspaper). I haven't regretted getting out of journalism, but I had always wondered why The Glove had suddenly soured on me.
I could be wrong about the reason, but I don't believe I am. Now that I have that solved, I would like to find out who was taping the cell at the Webb City Jail nearly 14 years ago and send that person a thank-you letter.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

"Devil's Messenger"
The plot and title for my next book came to me as I was driving back to Carthage tonight after visiting my parents.
I had been thinking over another idea, but I wasn't too thrilled about it. This one will be a lot of fun to write (and hopefully, a lot of fun to read, as well).
I plan to finish up the links page on tomorrow, as well as updating the About Communication Arts page to include this week's assignments. I will begin working on the Links for Teachers page sometime this week.
Students in the CA classes will continue working on their research papers on the Holocaust this week, as well as testing over "The Diary of Anne Frank," and watching an A&E Biography video over her short life.
I have tried, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, to sstop dwelling on what was done to me by the superintendent and school board at Diamond, but things keep happening that bring those bad memories back to light.
One of the biggest problems I have had has been with the new high school drama teacher there who seemingly is obsessed with me, though I only met him for about two minutes last year.
He has tried to make students feel like they are being disloyal to him if they keep in touch with me. This probably comes from the fact that he is responsible for the content on the school's official website, while I have continued to make my site, Wildcat Central, available.
He has also criticized my reporting abilities to the students, which is not proper. I will admit that I do not have a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. All I have is 22 years of actual experience, more than 100 awards, including national, regional and state awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, and sports writing, and more than 15 years as a managing editor at daily and weekly newspapers. My critic, as far as I can tell, has not worked for a real newspaper since he was in college and worked nights at The Joplin Globe about 30 years ago.
This man has sent a number of e-mails to me this school year, maintaining an air of politeness, but carrying a veiled threat. His last one, which came a couple of weeks ago, was to correct some faulty information that is printed about him on my website.
I have written, accurately, that he is being paid $37,000, considerably more than nearly all of the veteran teachers at Diamond. That has been a big thorn in the side of the teachers, and understandably so. He has not questioned anything I have printed about the amount of money he makes.
I have also pointed out, again accurately, that he has only two years of teaching experience. He counters by noting that he taught for eight years while he was in the Navy and that his students were just out of high school. I was aware of this, but even though apparently the superintendent took this into consideration when he gave him his outlandish contract, it doesn't change anything. Eight years of teaching adults who have volunteered to be in the service is nowhere near the same thing as teaching kids who are forced to come to school day after day.
I spent 14 years teaching high school and college students journalism through a program I ran at both The Lamar Democrat and The Carthage Press, but those years do not count toward my public school teaching experience. This is my fifth year as a public school teacher. It is Mr. Burnett's third year. He is a great salesman, that no one can deny. He talked the Diamond school district into paying him considerably above the salary schedule.I don't hold that against him.
What I do hold against him is this unreasonable vendetta against me that he has carried into the classroom and the harm he has done to the journalism program at the school.
Students who were greatly interested in journalism when they were in middle school no longer have that desire. Journalism is a noble calling, even though it is hard defending it against the excesses of the national (and sometimes the local) media. A journalist has the ability to shine light into the darkness and make sense of things that are incomprehensible. One of the biggest thrills of my journalism career is that 12 of the high school and college students who worked for me under the training program received national, state and regional journalism awards, with eight of them earning those awards while they were still in their teens. The only thing I did was make the assignments, give them encouragement and make sure they had the tools to succeed. The awards were due to their skill and hard work.
I have been worried about the high school journalism program at Diamond ever since the teacher e-mailed me last year and told me he wasn't much into the writing aspects of his job. (And I do still have that e-mail if that statement should ever be denied.) He said he was more into working with the students on doing television and making videos.
I probably wouldn't even have mentioned any of this, but I know at least one very talented young lady, a freshman who reads this blog, who has written in her own blog about how she has lost her enthusiasm for journalism. Alicia Bradley is someone who can make her mark as a writer whether it be as a journalist or as a novelist. I hope she doesn't let one bad experience sway her from what could be a very fulfilling school activity (if not eventually a career) for her. The kind of depth and perception that she shows in her writings is the kind that should be encouraged by faculty, family, and friends. How much value would the Diamond R-4 school system have if it could claim it produced a Pulitzer Prize winner or a best-selling novelist?
Give her a computer and get out of her way!
On a related note, I read an article today that was published in the Tuesday Neosho Daily News, talking about the new middle school newspaper at Diamond. The article had comments about how the students didn't think a newspaper could be put out again without Randy Turner, who sponsored it last year. That article was lifted from the school website, where it has been since long before Christmas break. Only one issue of the paper was ever put out, after the students kept badgering the teacher to do it (because they had put out the newspaper in the same class last year when I was teaching it.) No editing went into the stories beyond the student level and they received no guidance from the teacher, from what other teachers and the students tell me. Indications are the new middle school newspaper may be an orphan, with no followups to come. That's a shame. Those kids worked hard last year. Again, the interest probably will no longer be there.
Thank God I'm at South. These kids also deserve encouragement and support and they have some wonderful people, both at the faculty and administrative level, who are going to make sure they get it. It's a good feeling to be part of a system like that.
Speaking of newspapers, I could have done without the item in The Newton County News Wednesday in which one of its columnists told everyone that the only person she knew who had a birthday on Leap Day was Randy Turner. Thank God she didn't say I was going to turn 12.
I still remember when I turned 11 while I was in my first year teaching at Diamond. Karen Loewe, one of the English teachers at the school, called KSYN and said I was celebrating my 12th birthday. No, Karen. This is number 12, three weeks from today.
Natural Disaster may make a comeback in the near future. I received a call from H. J. Johnson last week, asking us to sing at a festival sscheduled for the first Saturday in June on the square in Carthage. We also have a standing invitation to perform at Burney Johnson's monthly show at the community building in Tipton Ford. I am eager to get back to performing, especially now that I have the energy that I didn't have the last several times Natural Disaster performed.

Monday, February 02, 2004

So much for my new year's resolution to blog everyday. Most of my spare time the past few weeks has been used to set up my new class website. I used the name one of my students, Autumn Mauller, came up with,, and employed a design chosen by another student, Sarah McDonough, and Autumn.
The web site has been on line for about 10 days now and it appears to be going over well. I have finished with the home page, though there will be changes on it from time to time. I am about two-thirds of the way through the student links page, which is designed for research and enjoyment. I have just started on the About Communication Arts page, which will let students and parents know about the class, find out what homework has been assigned, keep up with the writing prompts, and detail the research project and the extra credit project.
The extra credit project has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my five years of teaching. It began in November. I modified an idea used by Renee Jones, an English teacher at Diamond Middle School. Last year, she assigned each of her eighth grade students to write a novel. It was part of the regular grade in her classes, but I decided to make it an extra-credit project. Students who wanted to earn extra credit had several options. They could write a novel, write a book of short stories, write a book of poetry, write a two or three-act play, or double their Accelerated Reader goal.
I have had about 80 to 85 percent participation in the project and the kids were enjoying it so much that we decided to continue it into the third quarter.
If the students show progress during the weekly checks, 25 points is added to their cumulative point total. Most of the students in my morning block opted to do read for extra credit, which is fine, and they have kept reading each week. One or two are writing novels and a few others are writing poetry.
In the afternoon block, the extra credit project has taken on a life of its own. A few are doing the reading, but several are well into their novels.
It was difficult for me to keep up with their work last quarter, because of my poor health, but I have been able to read over their work since the Christmas break and offer some hopefully helpful suggestions.
Last Thursday was a wonderful day for me, as a teacher and as a human being.
The extra-credit project, mentioned above, was part of it. I picked up the students' work to take it home and read it. Previously, I had just made sure they were working on it via a cursory glance, then returned the material to them. I was surprised when Lindsey Hamm, one of the best writers, in my class, had indicated to me a few days earlier that she did not want me to take her novel home with me. It had nothing to do with a lack of confidence in the novel. She simply wanted to keep on working on it at home. Finally, we reached a compromise. I would read it during my planning period and return it to her by the end of the day.
The other surprise came from Jordan Harmon, one of the quieter students in my afternoon block. She handed me 115 handwritten pages. That would have been enough of an accomplishment, but that was just the beginning. Those 115 pages began with Chapter 34 on page 559 and ended with page 673. I counted the words on three pages and estimated that so far she was written approximately 67,000 words, or about two thousand words more than I wrote in my novel...and she is nowhere near done. The novel read well. Jordan is talented, as well as being an extremely hard worker.
Other students also showed excellent writing promise. This project has been a success. It shows that if you challenge students, they will usually respond, and there are many teachers at South who do that every day.
The positive feeling I had after looking over my students' extra credit project was only the beginning of the good feelings I had last Thursday. I had finally decided that I was going to make my long-delayed return to Diamond Thursday night. It was the next-to-last home game for the seventh and eighth grade basketball teams and I wanted to let those kids know that I hadn't forgotten them.
At the same time, I was somewhat concerned about what the response would be to my return, especially considering some of the anonymous comments left on my website, some of which allegedly came from students, but which I believe were actually written by adults.
I walked in the door, paid my $3, which I probably shouldn't have since I am technically still on the faculty there (I was placed on an unpaid leave of absence about three weeks before school started.)
When I went to the concession stand, Mr. Towers already had my Diet Dr. Pepper and bag of popcorn ready for me. (I am so predictable.)
Then I walked into the gym, I saw a look of recognition on the face of little Sheena Chung, a seventh-grade cheerleader. She immediately began sprinting across the gymnasium and didn't slow down until she almost knocked me over, jumping at me and hugging me. She was almost crying, and to be honest with you, so was I.
She was followed quickly, by three other cheerleaders, Eris Baker, Kelsey Henson, and Hannah Carr. Then the basketball guys started coming up to me. I had high schoolers talking to me, parents, and one time when I went into the commons area, I was greeted like a long-lost relative by three janitors, who proceeded to talk to me for more than 15 minutes. About the only people who did not come up to me during the two hours I was there were the three board members in attendance.
Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You definitely can go home again, but only for a visit. From what the kids and the teachers tell me, the Diamond R-4 School District, is not a place in which you would want to live, at least not if you have an interest in quality education.