English classes respond to ‘Imagine 2014’




by Christopher Paslay


Yesterday, while the Philadelphia Student Union staged a predictable protest outside District headquarters to voice their concerns about “Imagine 2014,” Dr. Ackerman’s new strategic plan, I took time to discuss the school reform blueprint with students inside my 11th grade English classes. 


I introduced “Imagine 2014” by having students read an overview of it outlined in a recent Inquirer article, Ackerman’s plan for Phila. schools.


After we read the article, I instructed students to first write about the most controversial idea proposed by Dr. Ackerman: whether or not the District should shut-down 35 of its lowest performing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside managers.


Of the 62 students who completed the exercise, 36 (58%) said failing schools should remain open, and be given extra resources to deal with low achievement on their own. 


“The District should keep schools open and try to solve the problems,” one student wrote.  “It doesn’t matter if the schools are under new management, it’s the way students act.  They need a couple more schools like CEP, so students that want to learn can learn.”


“I believe that schools should stay open,” another said.  “If we closed down 35 schools, they would be sending the worst students to better schools.  This would bring down better schools.” 


Still another stated, “They should keep schools open and try to solve the problems.  It’s better to deal with the problems then postponing them, because that’s what opening charter schools is really doing.”


26 students (42%) agreed that the failing schools should be shut-down. 


One student argued, “I think the District should shut-down failing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by private managers.  If schools are not doing their jobs right, and students are not learning, then the superintendent needs to take action.” 


“I agree the District should shut the failing schools down,” another said.  “I think private managers or charter will run things more efficiently.”


There was one student who had an interesting perspective on closing the 35 lowest performing schools.  She felt that if the District voted to shut them down, all stakeholders should have an equal voice in the proceedings.


“I feel the District should allow all the staff, students and families of the 35 schools to decide if they want to reopen as a charter,” she wrote. 


At this point I asked the students to pull out three other ideas proposed in “Imagine 2014” and write about their strengths and weaknesses.


Most students liked the idea of lowering class sizes.  Many also thought it would be good to open three more career and technical schools, and offer music and art in every school.   


“I believe it is a good idea to let students move through school at their own pace,” one student wrote, referencing Dr. Ackerman’s proposed credit-acceleration program. 


One thing several students disliked was paying teachers more to teach in “tough” schools.  They reasoned that genuine educators should want to help kids no matter what, and that money shouldn’t be an issue.  


Imagine 2014 is an extremely broad plan.  Further dialogue is needed before it can be whittled down to a reform model that is both fair and practical.  


District officials must solve problems, not rename them

by Susan Cohen Smith


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The School District of Philadelphia’s new Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, has embraced the time-honored method of enacting wholesale institutional change within the Philadelphia school system: if something’s not working, change its name and call it something different.


Once upon a time, there were Department Heads in Philadelphia high schools. They were positions that required passing a test and paid a higher salary than that of a teacher. Department Heads were knowledgeable in their academic disciplines, most held doctoral degrees, and they gave valued assistance to both beginning teachers as well as seasoned veterans in a non-threatening, demonstrable way.


Although their teaching loads were reduced, Department Heads still taught a class or two, and were nearby to handle minor student discipline problems. A good Department Head was invaluable for maintaining academic integrity within their subject area, managing textbook and supply inventories, and mentoring teachers in their departments.


Some administrators became peeved because Department Heads were earning more money than principals.  Department Heads also taught less than a classroom teacher and, because of PFT contract regulations, they could not be forced to formally observe and rate other teachers.   


There may have been a few bad apples who took advantage of the relative autonomy of the Department Head position, but no more than other education professionals in other positions.


To some administrative higher-ups, Department Heads had it too good.  They represented nirvana because they had achieved the coveted status of getting out of the classroom, being paid a decent salary, and escaping the heinous task of dealing with unproductive staff. They had to go!


The School District’s solution? Blame Department Heads for the decline in student achievement at the high school level. Phase out the position of Department Head and eventually replace all but a handful of them with a new nomenclature: Small Learning Community Coordinators.


This accomplished many goals. Under the guise of creating smaller schools within a school, an SLCC is paid at a teacher’s salary, is selected by the principal and need not possess any particular expertise in an academic discipline. Best of all, there is no job description for this position in the teachers’ contract so they can be made to perform various and sundry duties at the whim of the principal.


Unlike Department Heads, they can also be returned to their classroom duties at the principal’s discretion; it is far easier to rename a Small Learning Community and select a new coordinator than to do away with, say, an English Department.


The public believes it is getting a leader to monitor students more intimately than before, and that enormous high schools are being pared down to manageable schools within schools. Problem solved! Think again.


The case of the Department Head is but a single example of the many instances that the SDP has rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic. Remember Junior High Schools? They were hotbeds of teenaged angst and the bane of public education for many years. There is no more problem in this area because the name was changed to Middle Schools.


Then there was the practice of Mainstreaming.  This process allowed special education students to attend non-academic classes if it was determined they could handle the subject fairly well alongside regular education students.  This served to acclimate the special needs student to the general student population, and to reduce their isolation status.


Mainstreaming was then changed to Inclusion.  When this happened, the number of special education students attending regular classes grew astronomically. The teachers of these classes didn’t need special education training, nor did they have to be paid a salary differential on the elementary level. It provided tremendous relief and flexibility for rostering in secondary schools. Soon, there were instances whereby the special education students in a regular education class outnumbered the regular education students!


The list goes on and on.  Those of us cursed with institutional memory are usually shunned or at best, tolerated by the current crop of administrators.  We remind them of how they got into some of the dilemmas they face today.


For the want of expediency and cost cutting, education has suffered.  The original motives behind many of the changes were relatively unknown to all but a few—and remembered by fewer.  The causes of many of today’s ills are wrongfully attributed, and their solutions, such as the ones proposed by Dr. Ackerman, are wrong-headed.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at retiredartteacher@gmail.com

To Mayor Nutter: What happened to stopping contracts with outside managers?

by Christopher Paslay


“As Mayor, I will call for a reduction in contracts with outside contractors unless there is a compelling educational purpose for renewing the contract.”


Mayor Michael Nutter, Putting Children First


In an educational reform plan dubbed Imagine 2014, Philadelphia schools’ chief Arlene Ackerman announced her intention to shut-down 35 of the city’s lowest-performing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside management.


Although I agree that the District’s failing schools need additional help and resources, I don’t believe the answer rests with outside contractors.  Studies show that educational management organizations (EMOs) such as Edison Schools, Foundations Inc., Victory Schools, and Universal Companies are not producing results.  In 2007, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.  The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

The Bulletin wrote an article based on these findings as well.   In it they concluded, “EMOs receive an additional $18 million per year, approximately $768 more per pupil, to run their schools with no measurable difference in test results.”     


But Dr. Ackerman assures us this time around things will be different.  Only successful organizations with proven track records will be given opportunities to run Philadelphia’s failing schools.


One organization Dr. Ackerman touted was the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP).  KIPP schools are praised around the country for high student achievement, especially with minorities in high poverty areas. 


However, KIPP schools are not always what they seem.  A three year study by SRI International, a Menlo Park, CA-based research institute, found that many KIPP schools have an alarmingly high rate of student attrition, which in some cities was as high as 60%.  The same trend was true for teachers, who had a turnover rate of almost 50% in some districts. 


In other words, the time and energy required to work or attend a KIPP school is overwhelming for many adults and children alike; at KIPP, the school day begins at 7:30 and runs until 5:00, and classes are held every other Saturday.


So the question remains: How are we going to staff these schools?  Also, what do we do with the high number of students who transfer out of KIPP schools because the work load is too difficult?          


As Mayor Nutter announced in his education plan outside Samuel Powel School in the fall of 2007, “We know that contracting out to the education management organizations—the EMOs—are not producing results that are any better than many of our regular public schools. So instead of allowing consultants to profit, we should return some of the consultant money to the classroom.”




So what are the solutions?  How do we save the District’s lowest-performing schools? 


By not shutting them down or giving up on them.  By investing in HOLISTIC education, and funding programs that help struggling parents and neighborhoods gain some stability.  By not only holding principals and teachers accountable, but also parents and the students themselves.  By actually ENFORCING the District’s policy on zero tolerance for violence—going into unruly schools and systematically weeding-out the bad apples—permanently removing the students who are ruining everyone’s educations. 


Outside management is not the answer for Philadelphia’s failing schools.  The research proves this, and the Mayor himself has acknowledged this reality.  My only question is, when will Michael Nutter step in and challenge Dr. Ackerman’s new reform plan?  When will he fulfill his campaign promise and stop contracts with outside managers?     


Imagine 2014



by Christopher Paslay

(Re: Imagine 2014)






Imagine there’s no insults
It’s easy if you try
No blaming just the teachers
No waving 30 schools goodbye
Imagine the SRC
Giving us what we need


Imagine no outside managers

It isn’t hard to do

No wasting millions of dollars

And no consultants too

Imagine all the parents

Pulling their own weight


You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday the SRC will join us

And every child will be someone   


Imagine no betrayal

I wonder if you can

No inside agenda

A brotherhood of man

Imagine all the politicians

Doing what they say


You may say that I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday the SRC will join us

And every child will be someone


Eye on the Notebook: Parental involvement must start in the home



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent editorial, “Building parent power,” the Notebook calls for parent leaders across the city “to come together and lay the foundation for a stronger network of organizations giving voice to their concerns.”


The Notebook praises organizations like ACORN and Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project for their advocacy work in education, and for “developing new leaders and activists, helping parents deepen their understanding of issues, and challenging District leaders to make improvements.”


In my experience as an educator, there are two kinds of parental involvement: personal and political.


Personal involvement is where parents become actively engaged in being good parents: teaching their children how to communicate and solve problems nonviolently; focusing on nutrition and setting a reasonable curfew; instilling in their sons and daughters work ethic and an appreciation for the value of education, etc.


Political involvement is where parents become activists and organize for political reform: they challenge district leaders to change policies, and network to make their voices and concerns heard.


The Notebook’s editorial “Building parent power” places its focus on the latter and ignores the former (as they do so often). They call for parents to become politically active in the Philadelphia school system, but fail to demand that moms and dads get personally involved in the educations of their sons and daughters at a home level.        


As the saying goes, It takes a village to raise a child.  Parents are an integral part of the District, not simply because we can use their power to protest for educational reform, but so we can use their influence with their own children to make our city’s youth better students and citizens.         


There are approximately 167,000 students in Philadelphia public schools.  If we multiply this number by two (one mother and one father), than there are about 334,000 parents in the city.  Unfortunately, with the exception of the 200 or so parents who regularly show up at 440 North Broad shaking their fists at SRC meetings, or those motivated few who attend school functions and are members of home and school associations, too many moms and dads in the city are nonexistent when it comes to their child’s schooling.


If we truly want to build “parent power,” must start by doing so in the home.  Every one of us must crawl before we can walk.  According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we must satisfy physiological and safety needs—as well as the need for love and belonging—before we can satisfy the need for esteem.  In other words, moms and dads must parent first—then they can get up on their political soapbox and advocate for reform.


Philadelphia’s recent Parent Leadership Academy is a case in point.  A pilot effort by the Philadelphia School District and the William Penn Foundation, PLA was formed to empower parents and promote them as leaders in their children’s education and schools. 


Although PLA made some progress and was a valuable learning experience, in the end, the program was dropped because it didn’t develop according to expectations. 


In a recent report published by Research For Action entitled “Parent Leadership Academy: A Parent-Led, District-Hosted Partnership for Parent Engagement,” researchers concluded that ultimately PLA “was not a sufficient lever for changing the District’s relationship with parents.”   


One reason PLA failed was because parents couldn’t move beyond the historic distrust of district officials, and continued to complain that the climate was not “parent friendly”.  There was also tension between PLA board members and those involved in the Philadelphia Home and School Council.


There have been questions raised as to why a similar program in Kentucky—called the Center for Parental Leadership (one of the programs on which PLA was based)—remains a reigning success, and why PLA ultimately ended in failure.  The answer rests with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: Parents in KY, unlike many in Philadelphia, have established workable relationships at a base level—with their own families and communities—and thus possess the tools and credibility necessary to take that next step toward educational activism.


So what are the solutions?  How do we get parents of Philadelphia public school children involved at the home level so they can ultimately achieve that next step and get active in the district?                


According to the findings by Research For Action, providing educational programs for parents can help them get more involved with their child’s schooling.  “Increases in educational attainment for younger and less educated mothers are related to gains in children’s achievement, particularly reading skills,” the report explained.  It also found that the more educated parents are, the more they are able to provide help with homework, and become academic role models for their children. 


In addition, neighborhood school-based sites are more effective in drawing parents than nonneighborhood school-based sites. Basically, participation by parents is highest at a site with a strong connection to the surrounding community.


Finally, moving beyond school walls is a promising strategy for reaching parents. Instead of schools inviting parents to come to them, there should be a more community-based focus, and the District should “reach parents where they are.’” 


Parental involvement is a two-tier process.  Parents must get involved at the home level in order to build the skills necessary to get active in the district.  To quote Barack Obama in the final presidential debate at Hofstra University, “Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They’ve got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.” 


Joey Vento, multicultural ideology, and the ‘speak English’ sign

 by Christopher Paslay

 This is America.  When ordering, speak English.” 


By now we know the story.  Joey Vento, owner of the famous Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia, placed a small sign in the window of his restaurant asking customers to order in English.  Although the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed a discrimination complaint against Geno’s (which the commission eventually lost), Vento said the sign was never meant to be offensive. 


“This country is a melting pot, but what makes it work is the English language,” Vento told members of the commission. 


How we react to this “speak English” sign says a lot about who we are and what we believe in.  Those who find it offensive are probably cultural pluralists.  Those who agree with its message are most likely assimilationists.           


If you’re not familiar with these concepts, allow me to elaborate on their meanings. 


According to James A. Banks, author of Cultural Diversity and Education, “It is extremely important, argues the pluralist, for individuals to develop a commitment to their culture and ethnic group, especially if that group is oppressed by more powerful groups within society.  The energies and skills of each member of a culture or ethnic group has a moral obligation to join the liberation struggle.” 


In other words, you should not only be permitted to speak in your native tongue, but you should do it with pride, and resist anyone or anything that tells you otherwise.


Assimilationists, on the other hand, “believe that strong ethnic attachments are dysfunctional in a modernized civic community.  The assimilationist sees integration as a societal goal in a modernized state, not ethnic segregation or separation.  The assimilationist thinks that the best way to promote the goals of society and to develop commitments to democratic ideals is to promote the full socialization of all individuals and groups into the shared national civic culture.”        


In other words, This is America.  When ordering, speak English. 


In 2009, the debate between cultural pluralism and assimilation isn’t limited to chessesteak shops in South Philly.  America’s schools are jumping into the fray as well.  Educational policy makers and those interested in school reform are battling over ideas and curriculum in regards to multicultural education.  And like the heated debate over Vento’s sign, each camp has a set agenda and interprets research very differently.


When it comes to education, the pluralist believes that the cultures of ethnic groups are not deviant or deficient in any way, but are well ordered and highly structured—although different from the dominant culture.   To quote Banks, “Pluralists believe that curriculum should be revised to reflect the cognitive styles, cultural history, and experiences of cultural groups, especially students of color.”


Educational assimilationists believe that learning characteristics are universal across cultures, and that the socialization practices of the dominant culture enhances learning, while the socialization styles of ethnic groups hold their members back from succeeding in school.  To quote Banks, “Emphasis should be on the shared culture within the nation-state because all citizens must learn to participate in a civic culture that requires universal skills and competencies.”            




Both cultural pluralist and assimilationist concepts have their drawbacks.  The pluralist theory is lacking because it often fails to prepare students to cope adequately with the real world beyond their ethnic or cultural community.  And because learning characteristics are not always universalistic, but to some extent, cultural-specific, the assimilationist theory is not completely foolproof. 


The answer to curriculum reform is what Banks calls multicultural ideology.  Banks states, “Educational policy can best be guided by an eclectic ideology that reflects both the cultural pluralist position and the assimilation position, but avoids their extremes.”


In other words, we need educational policies that promote social cohesion and a minimum of mainstream socialization, but at the same time, take into consideration a student’s learning style based on his or her culture or ethnic background. 


Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part Two


by Christopher Paslay


Note: This is a continuation of an article posted on February 8th





It’s interesting how many teens associate Malcolm X with the phrase “by any means necessary”.  But those who’ve studied Malcolm X closely will understand he never advocated violence.  As Attallah Shabazz wrote so eloquently in the forward to the current edition of her father’s autobiography, “Malcolm X never advocated violence.  He was an advocate of cultural and social reconstruction—until a balance of equality was shared, ‘by any means necessary.’  Generally, this phrase of his was misused, even by those who were his supporters. . . . ‘By any means necessary’ meant examine the obstacles, determine the vision, find the resolve, and explore the alternatives toward dissolving the obstacles.” 


Teaching the life of Malcolm X should not be a means of encouraging revolution, even of the “creative” kind proposed by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Just as with pride and self-expression, teens today have no problem rebelling against authority.  As teachers, we don’t need to whet their appetites for civil disobedience.  We don’t need to get them any angrier than they already are.  If anything, we must find ways to dispel their anger and replace it with tolerance and compassion; we must teach them that taking responsibility for an unpleasant circumstance or situation—not resisting it—is the best way to go about changing it.




We all know the impact education had on Malcolm X’s life (even if it was a homegrown one in prison).  A whole world opened-up to him when he taught himself to read and think critically: “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.  This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. . . . I saw that the best thing that I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. . . . I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages.  I’d never realized so many words existed!  I didn’t know which words I needed to learn.  Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying . . .”


Starting with the word aardvark, Malcolm copied out the entire dictionary, word-by-word.  It took him years to do so.  And as a result, he went from an uneducated inmate with no direction, to an intelligent, impassioned civil rights activist who changed the lives of many. 




America today is more diverse than it’s ever been.  Teachers and students alike are of many races and cultural backgrounds.  In order to tackle the treacherous terrain of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we must explore the material with an open mind and non-biased eye, and balance our lessons with humility, dignity and responsibility.

Teaching Malcolm X in the 21st century: Part One



by Christopher Paslay


Over ten years ago, when I first began teaching in the Philadelphia School District, I asked my department head to order a class set of The Autobiography of Malcolm X so I could use it with my English classes.  Without hesitating, she gave me the following advice: Stay away from Malcolm X.  When I asked her why, she told me he was too difficult a subject, and that if I wanted to do an autobiography of an important African American, I should instead try Gifted Hands, the remarkable story of neurosurgeon Ben Carson.          


Although I never taught Gifted Hands, I stayed away from Malcolm X.  I knew from studying him in college that his autobiography was filled with challenging subject matter, and as a rookie teacher educating a multi-racial class of students, I didn’t want to butcher the material; I was afraid of sounding either too bleeding-heart or too insensitive.


As time passed, however, my fascination with Malcolm X took hold once again; it wasn’t long before I began experimenting with his autobiography in class—teaching it in bits and pieces—tinkering with lessons in a trail-and-error sort of way. 


Today I teach Malcolm’s autobiography from start to finish—from the Forward by Malcolm’s daughter Attallah Shabazz to the Epilogue by Alex Haley.  Because I believe all races can learn something from reading his life story, I’m sharing four tips I’ve learned to better teach Malcolm X to a 21st century, multicultural class of high school students. 




Traditionally, pride is a major theme of Malcolm X’s autobiography.  Pride is one of the reasons why Malcolm X changed the lives of so many people; he gave people hope by making them feel good about themselves.  But in the 21st century, pride has a way of getting our young people into trouble.  Many times, our youth are so proud that they don’t listen to their parents; they are so proud that they don’t heed the advice of teachers and police officers; they are so proud that they rather pull the trigger of a gun than back down. 


What our students really need today is humility.  Our students need to learn that it takes a stronger person to walk away from a confrontation than to engage in one.  The ironic part is that it was Malcolm X’s humility—not his pride—that saved him.  He wasn’t able to let Allah into his life until he first humbled himself—got down on his knees and prayed for forgiveness.  In his autobiography he states, “The hardest test I ever faced in my life was praying. . . . bending me knees to pray—that act—well, that took me a week.  You know what my life had been.  Picking a lock to rob someone’s house was the only way my knees had ever been bent before.  I had to force myself to bend my knees.  And waves of shame and embarrassment would force me back up.”




Another traditional theme of The Autobiography of Malcolm X is self-expression.  But just like with pride, I don’t believe our youth are short on self-expression.  Take a look at the way they dress, the way they wear their hair.  I’m not singling out any particular culture or style, I’m just making a reference as a whole: Most of our youth don’t lack self-expression. 


Tattoos and piercings are commonplace.  So are extravagant styles of dress, from “gangsta” to “gothic”.  And with so many pop singers peddling sex, it’s a wonder any of our young ladies come to school wearing any underwear.      


And where does dignity factor into self-expression?  Let’s look at Malcolm’s life for the answer: he was never able to truly express himself until he first got back his dignity.  He got his dignity back by shedding all the props and gimmicks of the popular culture, by no longer conking his hair or wearing that flamboyant zoot suit; according to Malcolm, a zoot suit was “a killer-diller coat with a drape shape, reet pleats and shoulders padded like a lunatic’s cell.”


In the 21st century, students must understand that humility is just as important as pride. 


Part Two of this article will be posted on Wednesday. 


African American literature must be taught with great care






by Christopher Paslay


NOTE: This article was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on February 22, 2006.


The students I teach are growing up in a world where race seem less of a pressing issue than ever before. Billionaires can be black (BET founder Robert Johnson), rappers can be white (Eminem), and top golfers can be a little of everything (Tiger Woods). That’s why I find teaching African American literature a challenge: Many kids just aren’t as obsessed by skin color as previous generations.


Discussing books such as The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, or Booker T. Washington‘s Up From Slavery can make students—both black and white—quite uncomfortable. So can more modern texts, such as The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, with its segregated, southern backdrop.


With much of its content focusing on race, bigotry and hardship, black literature has the tendency to rip the blinders off students’ eyes, bringing them face-to-face with the harsh realities of America‘s past.  It is a world their parents or grandparents may have known, but that is new, and often disturbing, to them.


Of course, there is a flip side to African American literature.  There are uplifting tales about triumph and survival—those things that unite us and make us human. Writer Toni Morrison has a body of work that transcends race and color, as do authors Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.  Then, there are black writers whose work centers on individuals, rather than members of a group. Names such as William Melvin Kelly, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes and Dudley Randall come to mind.


But teaching African American literature is still challenging, and the subject matter should not be taken lightly, particularly when it comes to more militant writers such as Malcolm X or Amiri Baraka, who preach black power and rejecting the American establishment. Analyzing such work can be tricky business. It must be done thoughtfully so as not to promote resentment in white students or patronize black ones.


Black literature is an incredibly unique and sensitive genre. The minute you delve into it, you lose your innocence. Although many of its themes are about love and compassion, it still can be politically charged. There’s something there that says, Let’s look at all the issues involved with race. Let’s look at all the ways people of color have been disrespected in America.


That’s what’s so hard to address in a high school setting, especially one that is culturally diverse, as the Philadelphia schools are.


When race is the central issue of a work (and it is central to most African American literature), I can see the uneasy expressions on some of my students’ faces and hear the uncomfortable shuffling as they squirm at their desks. Every so often one of them will say: Why are we doing this stuff today?


I pause and explain that we must study work from a diverse group of authors. I tell them that we study African American literature because it’s important to become aware of our own differences so we can understand them, so we can tolerate them, so we can celebrate them.


Race relations have a come a long way in the last 50 years. The hip-hop culture, along with the diversity that comes from living in a metropolitan city, has helped many teenagers look past a person’s skin color. But prejudice and bigotry still exist.


Although many of my students consider themselves color-blind within the confines of their own environments, eventually they’re going to be hit with the realities of opposing viewpoints and, ultimately, racism. When this happens, they must be prepared to deal with it in an insightful and non-violent manner.


African American literature is a very complex genre. Its body of work is broad and thought-provoking. And it must be taught with great care.


Eye on The Notebook: Are Philadelphia School Teachers Really Bigots?



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook and its readers with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent article, “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes,” the Notebook explains that a disproportionate number of black and Latino boys are placed in special education.  Although they effectively shine a light on this issue, they oversimplify the problem by blaming it primarily on racism. 


“Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor,” the Notebook writes.  They also suggest there is an “unconscious racial discrimination by school authorities.”


As an experienced, hard-working teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I find this reasoning off-base and offensive.  There may exist a cultural gap between students and teachers, but to insinuate that minority students predominate in emotional support classes because they are being discriminated against by racially prejudiced teachers and counselors, most of whom are white, is insulting and intentionally misleading.     


The Notebook is too far removed from the day-to-day reality of urban classrooms to accurately diagnose problems, and as a result, they offer generic solutions. 


There are two layers to the problem of minorities and special education.  First is the fact that black and Latino males are “acting out” too often in school.  Second is that teachers are sometimes misinterpreting this behavior.  The Notebook does a marvelous job of overlooking the former and highlighting the latter.  Even if we succeed in reducing the number of black and Latino boys in emotional support classes, their unruly behavior will still remain.  And where will we be then?   


In the end, the student’s behavior is everything.  No employer is going to put up with a young man who continues to act out.        


So how do we change a student’s behavior? 


One solution is providing students with Positive Behavior Supports.  According to a plan designed by the Institute for Human Development at Northern Arizona University, “Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is an approach to helping people improve their difficult behavior that is based on four things:


1.  An Understanding that people (even caregivers) do not control others, but seek to support others in their own behavior change process;


2.  A Belief that there is a reason behind most difficult behavior, that people with difficult behavior should be treated with compassion and respect, and that they are entitled to lives of quality as well as effective services;


3.  The Application of a large and growing body of knowledge about how to better understand people and make humane changes in their lives that can reduce the occurrence of difficult behavior; and


4.  A Conviction to continually move away from coercion – the use of unpleasant events to manage behavior.     


PBS is effective because it treats the problems (poor communication and anger management skills)—not the symptoms (a false label).  If used correctly, it can literally change a student’s entire life. 


Instead of making sweeping generalizations and pulling the race card, The Notebook should focus its attention on a process that can rectify misbehaviors and give students back control of their educations.  Doing so might be more beneficial for students, and less offensive and insulting to teachers.