Is cursive writing worth teaching?

by Christopher Paslay


“Are the flowing curves and fancy loops of cursive writing disappearing from elementary school classrooms?” asks writer Megan Downs in a recent USA Today article, “Schools debate: Is cursive writing worth teaching?”


Call me old-school, but I think penmanship is an important skill and should continue to be taught in all schools across America.  Technology is great, but there is a down side to it.  Computers and cell phones are having a negative impact on students’ handwriting and the writing process in general.  There’s too much copy-and-pasting going on during research assignments, and the penmanship of America’s youth is getting weaker.       


According to a report titled Handwriting development, competency, and intervention by  Katya P. Feder and Annette Majnemer, therapists with the Canadian Institute of Health Research and the School of Physical and Occupational Therapy at McGill University, “Failure to attain handwriting competency during the school-age years often has far-reaching negative effects on both academic success and self-esteem.”


What do you think about the issue?  Take the poll below.



Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (part one)

by Christopher Paslay


Currently, I am working on a master’s degree in multicultural education at Eastern University.  This semester I’m taking EDU 517—Multicultural Education.  Here is an excerpt from a reflection paper I wrote after reading the first 90 pages of Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?       


          “. . . I guess Tatum gave me a more technical understanding of race/ racism in America; now I’m more hip to the buzz words such as internalized oppression, dominant and subordinate societal groups, and White privilege—the language created to shift power from the dominant society to the subordinate minority culture.    


Here are the things that I liked about the first 90 pages of Tatum’s book.  She maps the identity development of African Americans from the early formative years all the way through adulthood.  As a teacher, if I could walk away with one bit of knowledge it would be the importance of recognizing how children—particularly African Americans—form their opinions of themselves and their culture.  It was good to see that Tatum pointed out that young black children (especially adolescents) need to mindfully reject negative stereotypes and find more positive role models. 


An example of a role model Tatum would undoubtedly approve of would be none other than Barack Obama.  I recently read in the New York Times about the “Obama Effect,” how Obama is so inspiring that his mere presence as U.S. president is raising scores of black test-takers.  As for the rejection of negative stereotypes—maybe our society could start by cleaning-up the gratuitous sex, violence and materialism found in the hip-hop culture; as educators, we must find substitutes for hip-hop music, possible substituting jazz and blues for gangsta rap. 


Of course, there were also things about Tatum’s book that I disagreed with.  To be frank, I found the underlying premise of the text quite hypocritical.  On the one hand, Tatum claims she wants to end racism and bring equality to all people by breaking down barriers and developing a true multicultural society.  Yet through the first 90 pages of the text, she unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) manages to divide the races, creating an us versus them mentality.  Nothing in the book is about synergy, teamwork or sameness—it’s always about a dominant and a subordinate; an oppressor and an oppressed; an insider and an outsider; a privileged and a marginalized. 


Granted, I’m not going to deny that these situations exist in American society.  But the problem with Tatum is her philosophy behind who and what should be the catalyst for change.  In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, the message is quite clear: Change DOESN’T come from within—but from OUTSIDE.  White society is racist.  Period.  And black people and minorities are the victims.  Period.  (Ironically, Tatum says in her book that many black students are “uncomfortable with the portrayal of their group as helpless victims” during lessons on slavery).  Tatum mentioned that during most of her workshops on race, white students rarely mentioned being white.  This makes sense.  She seems to be big on creating an atmosphere of white guilt, so why would anyone want to admit that they were white?


According to Tatum, white people are privileged, and they must bear the burden of recognizing this privilege and feel guilty about it (this guilt will supposedly help end racism in America).  But if you subscribe to this logic, than all people should feel guilty about something.  Handsome people would have a Handsome Privilege (being a good looking person sure opens a lot of doors in America), and intelligent people would have an Intelligent Privilege (brains also gets you far in this country), etc.


Although Tatum means well, she probably doesn’t realize that her book is filled with racial stereotypes and generalizations.  Worse still, she doesn’t realize the danger of labeling the white American establishment as “racist” (even though America is quite diverse in 2009), just because people worked hard to achieve the American Dream.  She could say the establishment is too competitive, or maybe even intolerant.  But using the word racist in my opinion is a bit radical and done in poor taste.         


Tatum might want to write a book on Barack Obama’s new message to America:  SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.  This approach might be less insulting to white people and condescending to blacks.  As a result, it might actually break down barriers between the races rather than pigeon-holing people and creating more anger and resentment.”


A second reflection paper—on the second half of Tatum’s book—is due next week.  I’ll be sure to post an excerpt from that paper as well.  


Cuts at libraries mean Philadelphia students could have nothing

Though Philadelphia‘s public library services recently landed on the chopping block, the city’s public school students have watched school library services dwindle for years.


Today, more than half of the district’s 281 schools have no library staff. In one region, it’s up to 78 percent.”


The above excerpt is from a story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Cuts at libraries mean Philadelphia students could have nothing”. 


Janet Malloy, who is our librarian at Swenson Arts and Technology High School and also president of the Association of Philadelphia School Librarians, is very concerned about the situation. 


“Lots of the failing schools have no librarian or no library,” Malloy told the Inquirer.


Join the conversation about funding school libraries by clicking the comment button below.   


Phila. schools are overdue for more holistic approach

“Public schools are not free-floating, self-contained cities cut off from human civilization. They are rooted in communities and neighborhoods. They are supported not only by teachers and principals, but also by parents, businesspeople, counselors and clergy.


No one understands this better than Geoffrey Canada. In 1991, he started the Harlem Children’s Zone, a network of educational and social-service programs aimed at reducing poverty in Harlem. The program, which has been featured on Oprah and 60 Minutes, is groundbreaking because it takes a holistic approach to education.”


This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Phila. schools are overdue for more holistic approach”.  Please respond by clicking on the comment button below.


Thanks for reading.


–Christopher Paslay

Robert Frost and the debate over Intelligent Design

by Christopher Paslay


Last week, as a supplemental activity to the Philadelphia School District’s 11th grade English curriculum, I had my students read and analyze the Robert Frost poem Design.  This poem is about a white spider that camouflages itself on the petal of a white flower, and by doing so, manages to catch and kill a moth. 


The last four lines of the poem are as follows:


          What brought the kindred spider to that height,

          Then steered the white moth thither in the night?

          What but design of darkness to appall?–

          If design govern in a thing so small.


The poem is rich in symbolism, and its theme is quite complex.  But in the end, the poem asks this basic question: Did this happen by chance, or was there a plan (design) behind it?


After I had my students analyze the structure of the poem (it is a sonnet, so we studied its octave and sestet, and also its rhyme scheme), we began discussing the poem’s theme: chance verses design.


This, of course, led to the debate over intelligent design, and whether or not it should be taught in public schools. 


As a way to discuss freedom of speech, I had my students read the commentary, “What’s Wrong with Teaching Intelligent Design in Our Public Schools” by Jay Sekulow, the Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Washington, D.C. based legal advocacy group specializing in Constitutional law. 


They read the article and had to identify the author’s thesis and supporting arguments.  Then they had to give their opinion—whether they agreed with Jay Sekulow or not, and why. 


Sekulow’s main point—which I explained to the class was only one side of the debate—was that students should be permitted to examine all theories about the origins of life, including I.D. 


78 of my students completed the assignment.  66 of them—84.6%—agreed with Sekulow: Students should be given the opportunity to study I.D. along side Darwinism so they can ultimately decide what to believe for themselves.


“I think Americans, regardless of our beliefs, should be able to freely access information because people fought and died for our freedoms,” one student wrote.


“I do not think Intelligent Design has anything to do with religion,” another said.  “It’s just giving an option on how life on earth came about.”   


Of the 12 students who disagreed with Sekulow, one stated, “They have no scientific proof that Intelligent Design exists, so therefore it shouldn’t be taught in public schools.”


A very articulate young lady wrote, “Including Intelligent Design in public schools will lead to protests and more.  Some parents don’t like it being taught because of their religion.  It could offend them.  Even though it is science, it brings up religion.  If kids want to find out about Intelligent Design, go to church and leave it there.”


The discussion was very interesting.  The students were passionate about the topic. 


To conclude the lesson we went back to the Frost poem, and reread it. 


Many saw it in a whole new light. 



Lower Merion residents talk the talk; now it’s time to walk the walk

by Christopher Paslay


On November 4th, 2008, America voted for change.  We the people voted for Barack Obama, a man who wants to bring balance back to our country, who wants to level the playing field so all Americans can have an equal opportunity at achieving the American dream.


For many people, the appealing part about Obama is that he believes in change through an equitable allocation of resources.  He’s fighting for universal heath care, and his tax policy calls for a “redistribution of wealth”. 


In Montgomery County, according to CNN’s Election Center, 249,493 people pulled the lever for Obama—which was 60% of the county’s vote.  Lower Merion Township was a part of this vote.    


The irony is that these same Lower Merion residents who supported Obama and his principles of balance and redistribution are suddenly jumping ship when it comes to putting these ideas into action.  When the Lower Merion School District decided there needed to be a “redistricting” of students to balance attendance between its two high schools—Lower Merion and Harriton—these same residents cried foul. 


Redistribution stings when you’re the one being redistributed.  It’s okay to spread the wealth when it’s the other guy’s money—but when it’s time for you to anti-up and carry the load, things aren’t so rosy anymore. 


Here’s what I have to say to Lower Merion residents who are belly-aching over the school board’s decision to redistrict their sons and daughters: Stop crying and get over it.  You don’t know how lucky you are.  So your kid has to take a 30 minute bus ride?  Big deal.  Both Harriton and Lower Merion are excellent schools.  They are both very safe.


You think your child is facing a hardship?  You don’t know what a hardship is.  A good portion of the students I teach at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Philadelphia take THREE buses to school.  Because students attend from all over the city, the commute for some of these kids is close to 90 minutes.  And it’s all public transportation.  Some of these kids are going through neighborhoods at 6:00 in the morning with REAL safety issues. 


And these Lower Merion residents are complaining because their child must travel 30 minutes on a FREE, SAFE, yellow school bus to an excellent school on the other side of town?  PLEASE!!  I took a 25 minute SEPTA trolley ride to school every day when I was a teenager.  It didn’t kill me.   


The most disgusting part is, some of these residents have the audacity to cry racism!  They claim they are being unfairly punished and singled out!  Their sons and daughters won’t be able to see all of their friends at their safe, clean, outstanding new school!  And boo-hoo, boo-hoo, boo-hoo.


Yesterday, The Philadelphia Inquirer chimed-in on the issue in an editorial headlined, Lower Merion Redistricting: Over the line.  They concluded that, “Instead of rushing to implement redistricting in the fall, the board should go back to the drawing board and reassess the impact of this plan.”  Why?  Because the way the board came up with its boundary lines “seems arbitrary at best, and racially divisive at worst.” 


Racially divisive?  What can the Inquirer possible mean by this?  You can’t “redistrict” minorities?  Only rich white folks can bear the brunt of redistribution of resources? 


The farce is that nothing is actually being redistributed!  The students assigned to Harriton will be getting equally outstanding educations!


Accusations of “institutional racism” don’t sound very fair to me.  It sounds a lot like politicking for power, nothing like the “equal” and “balanced” vision of America Lower Merion residents voted for when they chose Barack Obama.  


Schools should not be held responsible for students refusing free meals

by Christopher Paslay


For antipoverty advocates, it’s not enough that the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single school. 


They must also COAX the students into eating it as well. 


Call me old fashioned, but I always thought that HUNGER sparked the desire to eat.  According to Abraham Maslow, motivation is driven by the existence of unsatisfied needs. 


Not in Philadelphia.  According to a story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Phila. School breakfasts lure few, the district is failing its students. 


Inquirer Staff Writer Alfred Lubrano uses an interesting choice of words in the first sentence of his lead:


Just one in three low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts got those meals in Philadelphia schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to a national report released yesterday.


The curious part is the word GOT, which connotes the idea that eligible students are lining-up in Philadelphia public schools to receive their free meals but through some fault of the district, they’re not receiving them.


This clearly isn’t the case.  According to School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities, School Year 2006-2007, the very report Lubrano cites in his article, the Philadelphia School District reported serving breakfast in every school in the district.      


A more accurate intro would read as follows:


 Just one in three low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts ACCEPTED those meals in Philadelphia schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to a national report released yesterday.


This would shift the responsibility away from teachers and schools and place it where it belongs: On the parents and the students themselves. 


The Inquirer article goes on to quote Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, an antipoverty advocate.        


“The real problem with breakfast has been the resistance at the local school level,” Stein told the Inquirer. “Many principals and staff have not been gung-ho behind breakfast. And this is a laissez-faire district where the principals essentially call the shots.”


Again, the wording is misleading.  Principals HAVE offered free breakfast in schools around the district, but not in the way people like Stein find acceptable. 


The typical school breakfast in Philadelphia is served in the cafeteria in the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the instructional day begins.  The breakfast is FREE, and ALL students are eligible.


Then why are only one in three low-income students getting breakfast?  Because many kids come to school late, opting to smoke a cigarette at the bus stop or listen to their iPod on the corner.  Others eat Dortios and Pepsi for breakfast, while some stop off at Dunkin Donuts for a nice cup of joe.  Others fuel up on energy drinks, such as Red Bull or Monster.   


And some just flat out aren’t hungry. 


So who’s at fault here?  The students themselves?  The parents who fail to instill in their children the importance of eating a healthy breakfast?


Of course not.  It’s the school’s fault.  It’s not enough to just offer meals completely free of charge, but now people like Jonathan Stein are insisting principals and teachers get “gung-ho” about breakfast and stop their “resistance” to such meals. 


Resistance?  Are you kidding me?


Stein wants all public schools in Philadelphia to serve breakfast in class.  So does Kathy Fisher, welfare and public benefits coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth of Philadelphia. 


“They should make it policy in Philadelphia to have in-class breakfast feeding,” Fisher told the Inquirer. “It seems the model works well in other places.”


So let me get this straight.  In 2006-07, the Philadelphia School District made breakfast available to all kids in all schools, 75% of which got them for free or at a reduced rate.  Then in September of 2008-09, the district pulled out all the stops and decided to offer free meals to all students in all schools.


But this still isn’t good enough.  Now antipoverty advocates want meals served in-class. 


I see.  Milk and juice and syrup and French toast and bagels and cream cheese.  Outside the lunchroom.  At students’ desks.  Where their books are.  And papers.  And pencils.  And this is supposed to be done when?  In place of which part of the mandated curriculum? 


Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the district, even suggested holding principals accountable for students taking part in the free meals.  According to the Inquirer, Grasela “is recommending to the district that the performance of principals in breakfast service be included in their job evaluations.”


Hmm, nice touch.  While we’re at it, why not hold the teachers accountable as well.  Dock their pay $50 a shot for every scrambled-egg platter that isn’t finished by the kids.


Apparently, underprivileged children and their parents are too helpless and feeble-minded to accomplish the most basic of organizational tasks (such as getting to school in time for a free meal).  It’s just this kind of insulting, condescending mentality that prevents too many capable families in Philadelphia from becoming independent and taking back control of their lives. 


And it’s just this kind of twisted blame-game that keeps too many quality educators out of Philadelphia’s public school system.       



Peace activist denies students valuable opportunities

by Christopher Paslay


It’s a real tragedy when well-meaning yet misguided adults prevent students from taking advantage of excellent career and educational opportunities.


So is the case with Sally Ferrell, a member of North Carolina Peace Action.  For the past several years, Ferrell’s been trying to handout pamphlets and other materials in a rural North Carolina school district that warns students to think twice before joining the military. 


According to a story in USA Today (ACLU sues N.C. school system for barring peace activist),  Ferrell “set up a ‘peace table’ in hallways, where she handed out material and talked to students about AmeriCorps and other alternatives to the military.  But by December 2007, [Superintendent] Laws said he’d had enough. A principal had complained to him about some of the materials and Laws told Ferrell her message was no longer welcomed.”


As it turned out, Ferrell was accused of “disparaging the military,” and the superintendent banned her from the school system.


Ferrell turned to the ACLU, who is now suing the N.C. school system and demanding that Ferrell be given the same access to students as military recruiters.


From a constitutional standpoint, I guess (I’m no lawyer) Ferrell and the ACLU have a genuine gripe; they have a First Amendment right to have the same access to students as the military.


But from the standpoint of an educator, I find it unfortunate that Ferrell and N.C. Peace Action find it necessary to push their values and politics on impressionable teenagers.  The military is an excellent career and educational opportunity, and persuading young people to forego these options is in my opinion a crime. 


Antiwar activists often comment that the military gives students misleading information and targets minorities and the poor.  But from my experience, the situation is just the opposite: those who oppose military recruiters distort the negative aspects of the armed services, overemphasizing war and death and downplaying the positives—such as earning money for college, traveling the world, and learning a valuable job skill.


Here’s a fact that so called “peace activists” don’t tell teenagers in the Philadelphia school system: There were more murders on the streets of Philadelphia in 2008 than there were American soldiers killed in Iraq. 


Sally Ferrell and North Carolina Peace Action don’t realize the opportunities they are denying kids.  Teens should be taught HOW to think, not WHAT to think.  When it comes to joining the military, young people should be left alone to respond to recruiters as they see fit.


District should mandate after school activities instead of extending school day

by Christopher Paslay


It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials want to extend the length of the school day.  Increased instructional time was a high priority on Dr. Ackerman’s recent “wishlist” for the District. 


Although I don’t agree that more is always better, research shows that keeping kids in school longer improves tests scores and keeps them out of harm’s way.  KIPP Philadelphia Charter School is a case in point.  They operate under an extended school day and school year, and their PSSA test scores are well above the Philadelphia School District average.      


However, extending the school day has its drawbacks with staff.  Teacher turnover at KIPP is high, and compensating instructors for the long hours is difficult (many teachers work 10 to 12 hours days when you factor in lesson planning and assessment); the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers fought the increased school day in the past because the District wasn’t willing to pay for the extra time.


But there is a solution to the problem.  The District can extend the time students spend in programs without placing this extra burden on the teachers. 


Instead of extending the length of the school day, the District should mandate after school activities for all its students.  And the District could use ASAP (After School Activities Partnerships) as a partner.  To quote ASAP’s website, “An estimated 45,000 kids citywide spend between 20-25 hours a week alone after school – with the most dangerous hours between 3 pm and 6 pm. These unsupervised young people are much more likely to be the victims of crime or become involved in risky behaviors. Additionally, lack of after school activity could be contributing to the rise in overweight children. Recent reports that Philadelphia has both the highest crime and poverty rates of the ten largest cities in the nation provide strong impetus for improving the lives of the city’s kids.”


ASAP has already served 15,773 Philadelphia youth to date, and organized 1,210 clubs (primarily volunteer-led in schools, recreation centers and libraries).


“Research shows that after-school programs deter negative behaviors while improving achievement and attendance,” said Maria Walker and Marciene Mattleman in an opinion piece in today’s Inquirer headlined, Enrich children and the city with after-school programs.    


In their article, Walker and Mattleman also noted ASAP’s ability to get students involved in playing chess.  “The Chess Challenge is ASAP’s centerpiece initiative, with more than 3,500 kids playing in schools, libraries, recreation and community centers, shelters, and the Youth Study Center,” they noted.  “Studies show that chess teaches strategic thinking. School administrators say young chess players are more likely to see the consequences of their actions and avoid risky behaviors.” 


Mandating after school activities would be a win-win for everybody.  Much of ASAP is run by volunteers and funded by donations, so the District wouldn’t have to pay extra money.  ASAP could be supplemented by athletic programs run by schools in the District, where coaches would be compensated for their time.      


The District could start small and work its way up.  Students could be given the option of whether they wanted to participate in fall, winter or spring activities.  They’d have the choice of playing a varsity or intramural sport, or joining a club.  This would surely increase participation in athletics and extra curricular activities within the District, programs already established and funded by the District. 


At midnight on August 31st of this year, when the Philadelphia Federation of Teacher’s contract extension is up, I can guarantee a sticking point of negotiations will be extending the length of the school day.  If the District opts to mandate after school activities instead of increasing an already lengthy school day (and doing so without properly compensating teachers and instructional staff), then a new contract just might be ironed out sooner rather than later.