Helping Students Find Their Purpose

I went on a journey with my students last school year. Some of the steps we took involved inquiry, reflection, writing, and collaboration. But more importantly, it helped students discover their passion, their purpose. I learned about them as full human beings. I learned from them. They taught me as I was teaching them. Using The Purpose Project has been one of the most meaningful tools I’ve used with young people; it shows them how to use their passion to help others. Take a look at these amazing young people and the work they did … Find information about The Purpose Project here.

(The student who did the projects on the women’s shoes and seizures are not my students.)

A Brief Voting History

When Election Day came, my daddy and I crawled up into his truck,

the 1980 lime green and white Sierra or the dark blue King Cab

Ford Ranger—always American cars because he was an American

man although America didn’t always want him.

The Masonic Lodge downtown was the polling place then.

Mr. Pete Jacobs, our neighbor was a poll worker.

“Hey, Little Barbara!” he would boom and I would wave,

look at his light eyes and his black suspenders.

I would go with my daddy into the ballot box.

He would draw the curtain; there was always plenty of room

for us. I stood beside him and he cast his vote. He didn’t

say anything. My Pa was a man of few words. He’d come out

grinning with his ballot in hand, say something to Mr. Pete, who gave

me a sticker that I’d wear with pride all day.

Although at that age I didn’t know what a vote meant.

Didn’t know how many people had died for me to be able

to watch my daddy cast a vote in the 1990’s. Didn’t know

about the Hamburg Massacre or how black women

in the South still weren’t voting in 1920.

We would climb back into the truck and drive home.

My daddy, one of my first teachers, modeled for me

how to participate in a democracy that ain’t never been

about the people, taught me how to show up.

Like I’m doing now at this new polling place, the line

long. I brought a book. I’m scared they’ll say I can’t vote.

I’m scared that I left my photo ID that’s required now.

But it’s all good. I have the voter machines in sight

in this middle school gym.

A little boy is with his mother at the table where you sign

your name. “You’re coming to vote today?!” the poll worker

asks him. And nearly all of the poll workers here are Black women.

“Yes ma’am!” the boy replies. “And what’s your name?”

“L.J.” the boy replies. My daddy’s name. And I wonder what

the little boy’s L.J. stands for, because L.J. was all my daddy ever had.

The poll worker tells L.J. to have a seat in the bleachers.

He can’t go to the voting machine with his mama,

but he can watch her vote from afar. L.J. is mad he can’t go,

but he sits on the bleacher with his Spiderman figurine anyhow.

I go vote. Not straight ticket. I want to click on every name.

Write in a few others. I press and press and cast my ballot.

I get my sticker. I will wear it with pride all day.

Surviving the Storm

I was at my Aunt Lola’s house—a second home for me. My mother picked me up around dusk to take me back to our house. I was only six years old when Hurricane Hugo barreled into Charleston on September 22, 1989; it was a strong Category 5 storm. Johnsonville is only 88 miles from Charleston and 45 miles from Myrtle Beach. Hugo was much bigger than the entire state, which meant we would definitely feels its impact.

I don’t remember if I slept in my room at all that night, but I did sleep at the foot of my parent’s bed. I awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of the wind and the rain. I looked out of the window and even in the darkness could see those tall pine trees swaying in the wind. It was the first major hurricane of my life, and though I felt safe there in my parent’s room, I went back to my make-shift bed of blankets, eyes wide open, listening to the rain and the wind.

It’s how the wind sounds now that the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Florence batters the Carolinas. My partner Lester and I are as prepared as we can be: we have our flashlights, water bottles, and non-perishable foods ready. Just two years ago we prepped for Hurricane Matthew and before that for the 1,000-year flood of 2015.

When Hugo finally passed, we went outside to see the damage: felled pine trees throughout the yard, huge branches all over the place, one of our neighbors had a tree fall on their house, the hole like a gaping wound. It took weeks for us to get electricity again. Some of the food in our deep freezer spoiled, and the lines to get gas were long

But we survived.

Even without electricity we ate good. My father had a portable burner with plenty of propane, and he tried to grill as much of the meat as he could. We had coolers full of ice and drinks. We cleaned up our yard. Weeks later my father would follow many of our neighbors and cut down the remaining pine trees in our yard.

We don’t know yet the sum of what Flo will bring to South Carolina. I live in Columbia now, so we’re three hours inland from the coast, which affords us a buffer of sorts. But like Hugo, Florence is just as big, if not bigger than the entire state and we don’t know how the rivers and dams will handle all the extra water.

We are survivors by nature, even when Mother Nature lashes us with the reminder that we are not more powerful than her.

One of Lester’s cousins was to get married in Charleston today, but instead of re-scheduling the wedding, they had a private ceremony in her parent’s home. On the short drive there, we didn’t see much of anything, just little tree limbs and leaves strewn about and a light rain. The ceremony was full of laughter and tears and love, even in the midst of storm churning all around us…

Love survived today.

My mother was fifty-eight years old when she was wheeled into a non-emergency ambulance and transported to the Hospice House in Florence (the city that’s one hour away from Johnsonville). She took her last breath there as Tropical Storm Ernesto dumped rain outside her room window.

I survived that grief.

My mother was six years old too when Hurricane Hazel came through South Carolina. I remember her telling a story about how they went to the home of a white man her father worked for to wait out the storm. They endured that Category 4 hurricane on the man’s screened-in back porch. On the back porch.

My ancestors survived.

I survived Hugo when I was six years old because I had the privilege of growing up in a home where my parents had the means and experience to be prepared. They knew what to do. They didn’t panic or lose control. So although the storm itself was terrifying, what happened in its aftermath was not. I was safe, fed, and hydrated.

Hurricane Florence will be a record-breaking storm; storms come and go often. It’s what we do when the storm is over that matters.

What Joeleen Taught Me


This school year marks my tenth year as a teacher, my fourth at Spring Valley High School. This is the longest I’ve ever worked at one place. I usually work in threes: a journalist (2005-2008), a teacher at Carolina Forest High School (2008-2011); and a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (2011-2014)—with a one year stint at Coastal Carolina University before coming to SVHS.

I’ve taught elementary school-aged children poetry with The Watering Hole Poetry Organization; I’ve taught adults composition at the Columbia campus of Virginia College; I’ve taught incarcerated men creative writing at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville.

Teaching is my heart work, and I’ve been teaching in some capacity for the past ten years.

Some say that the public school system is broken. That maybe true. The truth is that our young people who show up every morning to that system need good people to not only teach them, but to care about them as well. I’m blessed to be in that number.

As we get closer and closer to the first day of school, I find myself anxiously anticipating what I believe will be a good school year. I am also reminded of a lesson I learned in college. This lesson was not in a classroom, but on a basketball court.

My basketball coach at Agnes Scott College was Joeleen Akin. She was—and probably still is—a follower of Coach John Wooden. One of his tenants she preached to us was the cornerstones of the Pyramid of Success: Enthusiasm and Industriousness: Have fun and work hard.

This lesson has never left me and continues to guide me in my personal and professional endeavors. Industriousness and enthusiasm can be the cornerstone of any classroom, team, workplace, or organization.


Be excited about your work. This is not a “fake ‘til you make it” sort of enthusiasm or the type where you have to jump up and down and flap your arms. This enthusiasm goes beyond the actual, physical work you are doing. This enthusiasm is having energy with the people who are at the center of your work.

If I’m monotone, dragging, and uninterested everyday, my students will sense that and feed on that energy. The same goes for any work we do. What type of energy do we bring into a room when we walk into it?

We all have bad days—those low energy days when it doesn’t matter how much coffee we drink. However, if our bad days outweigh our good days, we need to listen to that and adjust accordingly.


I won’t make more money for working harder than the teacher who is printing out worksheets for students. However, my motivation to work hard in my profession is not motivated by money, but by my desire for my students to value the power of language in this present and in our future.

This year my curriculum is undergoing a paradigm shift. I am modeling my curriculum after Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. This new model will include more writing conferences and adding reading conferences. It will be a mess and messy, but that’s life. As I told a colleague recently, “It’s not about perfection; it’s about progress and process.” I’m willing to put in the work because I know my students will be better for it.

Industriousness and enthusiasm are a team. One compliments the other. I have a copy of the Pyramid of Success in my classroom that I look at often. I’ve never used it in my classroom with my students, but I think I will this year as a way for us to build community and share a common vision. That’s ultimately what Coach wanted us to do: Unite over a set of common principles.

Coach Akin was also our Director of Athletics, and she would eventually be promoted to Dean of Students. She is now Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator at Georgia Tech. I’m sure the cornerstones held her up throughout her career, however subliminally.

Those same cornerstones will help me through this coming school year.

A Good One

“Hello, my Amerikees!”

It was one of my father’s favorite greetings whenever he would come home. I’d hear his truck on the gravel path of our driveway. I’d look out the window and see him driving his dark blue 1987 Ford Ranger towards the shed. Sometimes I would even come out to the back porch and watch him get out of the truck. He would wave with his hands that seemed too big for a man of his size, smile and say, “Hey, baby girl!” and I replied, “Hey, daddy.” I’d turn and go back in the house.
This scene didn’t happen when I was a little girl. It happened when I am a grown woman in my early twenties. To say that I have always been a daddy’s girl is an understatement. I had special real estate in the area since I was the only girl and the youngest child.

“Hey, Shaveevee!”

He would greet me sometimes, a severe mispronunciation of my middle name, Sharain.

I can still hear him: his voice, his syntax, his special country boy way of talking. Father’s Day 2018 will make my seventh year without him.

Father’s Day is a hard day for those of us whose fathers are dead. Dead is a cold word. It doesn’t hide behind the pretty euphemisms of “passed away” or “gone.”

Da in Suit
Da before Cousin Debra’s wedding, sometime in the 90’s.

For a few years after he died I didn’t celebrate Father’s Day. My dad was dead and I didn’t feel like celebrating anybody else’s daddy. And if you’re reading this and your father is dead, know that it’s okay to not celebrate. It’s okay to sit in whatever feelings you may have and to even cry if you need to.

He may be dead, but he lives on in me.

My brothers and I lived in the same house in Bluefield all of our years in school; we never had any utilities disconnected because of lack of payment; we always had food to eat, even if it wasn’t cooked and ready: the cupboards, fridge, and deep freezer always had food in them; we always had a mode of transportation to get where we needed to go; we had both parents in the home, and they went to work everyday. As an adult, I would figure out why Da wouldn’t say “I love you” often: Acts of Service was his love language.

This Father’s Day I remember him, all of the memories and moments we had together, the fish fries and cookouts, all the summers shelling butterbeans and peas from his garden, the times he would “play possum” to trick me, or the time we went fishing and only caught little baby fish we eventually threw back into the river.

My daddy’s dead, but I’m blessed. I had a good daddy.