A Teacher's Call: 'Let's Investigate'

Lynn Ferguson Riggs is a science resource teacher at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences.
Lynn Ferguson Riggs is a science resource teacher at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences. (From Lynn Ferguson Riggs)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006

In the science laboratory at Bailey's Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences, grass and mung bean seeds sprout in small pots covered with different colors of cellophane. Other pots are covered with aluminum foil, wax paper and plastic wrap.

Fifth-grade students curious about how the plants will fare can look to Lynn Ferguson Riggs, the science resource teacher, for encouragement and guidance. But they have to finish the experiment to find out which plants will grow and which won't.

"I'm not about giving the answers," Riggs said. "I'm about 'Let's investigate and how can we investigate.' I want to make sure my community has people in it who are problem solvers, who are ready to take on the world. Being able to think like a scientist is extremely powerful."

Riggs's creativity in the classroom is one reason her colleagues nominated her for The Washington Post's Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award for the Fairfax County school system. She was the county winner.

Carol Franz, principal at Bailey's from 1989 to 2001, said Riggs had a "prescription for every child." Students who excelled were given more challenging material, and struggling students got the help they needed to master the basics.

"She knows every one of her kids and what they can do and what they need," Franz said. "Lynn just seems to have an intuitive sense about teaching."

Riggs, 50, who lives in Falls Church with her husband, didn't imagine herself as a teacher when she studied psychobiology at Oberlin College in Ohio in the late 1970s. But she was fascinated with the study of how young children learn to talk and ended up working with a professor who was conducting research at a day-care center.

Although she loved the science, Riggs was captivated by working with children. "I decided I did not want to spend my time in a rat lab," she said.

Riggs went on to volunteer at the day-care center. Then she earned a master's degree from the University of Texas at Austin in early childhood education for the handicapped.

Riggs began her teaching career as a preschool special education teacher at two Fairfax County elementary schools and later worked as a consultant with similar programs in other schools. She started at Bailey's in 1995 as a third-grade teacher and also has taught English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Riggs said that her work with children with disabilities has helped in every classroom she's been in. She recalled the time a student who was new to the country and didn't speak English arrived in school.

"I could tell from Day One from . . . the way he was turning so one ear was always facing me that he had a hearing impairment," Riggs said.

Riggs helped make sure the boy had his hearing tested and, sure enough, he needed a hearing aid.

Phyllis Payne, who has a son at Bailey's and a daughter who attended the school, recalled volunteering in Riggs's classroom a few years ago during a spelling lesson. Instead of beginning by teaching the children the "spelling rule" that was used in all the words, Riggs asked the students to look at what the words had in common and try to figure out the rule on their own.

"What's so amazing . . . is that she really encourages the kids to discover on their own," Payne said.

As a science resource teacher, Riggs works with children in all grades to expand on the science lessons they learn in the classroom.

"It's a fabulous job," she said. "I can go from physics . . . to life science and seeds and dissecting squid."

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