On Corbett Bashing and the Common Core

by Christopher Paslay

Common Core texts indoctrinate young children and teach them to manipulate facts for social advocacy.  Sound familiar, Philadelphia? 

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This is the philosophy I use when I teach students in my high school English classes how to write.  There is no substitute for the right word—no true synonym—and until a writer figures this out, he won’t be able to fully articulate his thoughts.  This is the case whether you are writing a narrative, informational, or persuasive essay (the Common Core’s preferred term for “persuasive” is now “argumentative”).

Good writing, especially in today’s culture of limited attention spans, is focused, clear, and accurate.  Good writers can say more in less space—and they can back their writing with examples, details, and evidence.

This philosophy has worked well with my own students at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.  On the 2012 PSSA Writing Test, 74% of my 11th graders scored proficient or advanced—a whopping 28.1% percent higher than the Philadelphia School District average, which was only 45.9%.

Unfortunately, some English Language Arts texts being promoted by the Common Core are no longer focused on teaching students succinct, accurate writing that avoids the use of flimsy persuasive techniques (such as red herrings, overgeneralizing, circular arguments, name calling, etc.), but on writing that actually encourages the use of emotionally charged propaganda for social advocacy.  In short, some ELA texts supported by the Common Core are not making young children free thinkers, but politically indoctrinating them (type the phrase “Common Core indoctrination” on YouTube and see the results).

One interesting case of indoctrinating students and promoting the use of propagandistic writing for social advocacy is the state of Utah’s first grade ELA primer Voices: Writing and Literature, recommended by, and aligned with, the Common Core.  On the surface it appears the text is about literature and writing, but a closer look reveals a major theme is social justice and social advocacy.  This, amazingly, is being introduced not to college undergraduates in Community Organizing 101, but to first graders!

One section in Voices: Writing and Literature teaches young children how to play fast and loose with facts by using emotionally charged propagandistic words to elicit emotions and bring about liberal social change.  It doesn’t teach children to use the right word, as Twain would have advocated (as well as any respectable writing teacher), but to use a word that will get folks stirred-up for social justice, whether or not that word is true, evidence-based, or accurate.

Click on the below YouTube video to see for yourself:

Because the Philadelphia School District is flat broke and has no money to invest in a new set of textbooks, such a primer may not be made available to our city’s school children.  However, the political indoctrination of School District students—and the teaching of how to play fast and loose with facts—is well underway.  Groups like Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, who often partner with politically motivated adult organization such as the Education Law Center, are well schooled on the use of propaganda in writing.

All three of these groups frequently use “correlation to prove causation”—a logical fallacy and standard propaganda technique—to imply that Philadelphia public schoolteachers are discriminating against minority students because black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (and these groups continue to claim this despite the fact that no documented cases of racial discrimination by a Philadelphia teacher against a students exists . . . except, of course, the discrimination against Sam Pawlucy by a black geometry teacher for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class).

The newly founded “Fund Philly Schools Now” does much of the same in terms of their blatant use of propaganda.  Launched to help raise money for struggling city schools, an admirable goal, their website states:

Since Gov. Corbett took office, it has become clear that when he must make the choice between tax breaks for corporations and much-needed investments in our children, he chooses corporations and wealthy donors every time. The crisis in Philadelphia public schools has been manufactured by Gov. Corbett. He is starving the city of resources and then using teachers as scapegoats and Philadelphia families as pawns.

Propagandistic?  No question.  With Federal stimulus money gone, Governor Corbett has been forced to make due with less, and this has no doubt adversely impacted Philadelphia public schools (as well as most public schools in PA).  But the crisis in city schools was not “manufactured by Gov. Corbett.”

During the Ackerman years, from July of 2008 to July of 2011, the School District blew through nearly $10 billion, spending so reckless it prompted the IRS to open a detailed audit of their financial practices.  The rapid expansion of charter schools—nearly 100 of them in 10 years—also greatly contributed to the School District’s financial crisis.  There is also the matter of Philadelphia residents owing over $500 million in delinquent property taxes.  And the fact that the School District loses millions of dollars in unreturned textbooks and stolen computer equipment each year.  And the reality that recently retired baby-boomers are overwhelming the pension system.  And all the cronyism/nepotism over the past five years from the usual suspects . . . Ackerman, Archie, Evans, Gamble, Fattah Jr., etc.

All Corbett?  Please.

Does the School District badly need money?  Absolutely.  Do I want to see our city’s children get the resources they need?  Most definitely.  But the theatrics and use of propaganda to get money is getting old.  People are growing tired of it.  Attacking public officials is becoming counterproductive (just ask Mayor Nutter).  Why does the rest of the state hate Philadelphia, think we are a cesspool?  Perhaps they are tired of Victimology 101.  It’s like with affirmative action: If groups in need simply took responsibility for their problems and said, I’m having some trouble keeping up, can you please lend a hand?, people would bend over backwards to help out.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Affirmative action in 21st century America goes more like this:  It’s YOUR fault I have problems, so give me what you owe me, now!

Not the best way to get the help you need, or to get at the true root of problems.

Neither is using propaganda to bring about reform (or to teach our students English Language Arts).

According to the mission statement of the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes, a noted curriculum specialist and former public school teacher, disagrees with the Common Core’s mission statement and feels they have an ulterior agenda.  She writes in a recent article:

Common Core is not about “core knowledge” but rather is the foundation for left-wing student indoctrination to create activists for the social justice agenda. Education is being nationalized, just like our healthcare, to eliminate local control over education, imposing a one-size-fits-all, top-down curriculum that will also affect private schools and homeschoolers.

I don’t know if Dr. Hornsby Haynes is totally correct about the Common Core, but I know this: ELA teachers should teach students how to make strong, factual arguments, not how to play loose with the facts to support their own political agendas.

Campaign for Nonviolent Schools’ Mission is Admirable but Misguided

by Christopher Paslay

The Campaign for Nonviolent Schools’ primary focus should be on character building and traditional core values. 

The Campaign for Nonviolent Schools (CNS) is a youth-led coalition dedicated to ending school violence and improving school climate.  According to their Facebook page:

The Campaign is building a nonviolent student movement across neighborhoods, schools and organizations, engaging hundreds of youth in exploring the roots of violence in their own lives and developing a personal commitment to nonviolence.

Prison-like school environments, a lack of resources, high staff turn-over rates, and suppression of youth leadership are examples of conditions that enhance feelings of anger, frustration, and helplessness that young people may already be struggling with. These conditions help to create school environments which are a breeding ground for physical and emotional violence directed at other students and staff members.

CNS’s goal of ending violence in schools is admirable and its members should be acknowledged for their involvement.  However, CNS’s mode of operation is predictable and disappointing, and its members still are not thinking outside the box: they, like most progressive grassroots movements, preach that students are victims of a broken system, and that change doesn’t begin with character building or proper conduct, but with the airing of the same tired grievances.           

Comparing schools to prisons is irresponsible, as is the notion that our city’s public education system is a “pipeline to prison.”  This so called “pipeline” exists not in the school where a system of educational and behavioral supports is in place to help children grow and succeed (teachers, therapists, counselors, coaches, nurses, mentors . . . all providing free books, equipment, individualized education plans, food, medical resources, etc.), but rather, in the surrounding neighborhoods feeding into the schools.         

In other words, the schools themselves aren’t violent; the students coming in from broken and dysfunctional homes and communities environments are.            

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Assault on Learning” gave us a small glimpse of just how dysfunctional students coming into the system can be:

  • There were over 4,500 violent incidents reported during the 2009-10 school year.  According to the Inquirer investigation, “on an average day 25 students, teachers, or other staff member were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victims of other violent crimes.
  • In the last five years, there were more than 30,000 violent incidents reported—from assaults to robberies to rapes.
  • In the 2009-10 school year, 690 teachers were assaulted.  In the last five years, 4,000 were. 
  • In the 2007-08 school year, 479 weapons were discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms, and 357 weapons were found in high schools.  Tragically, almost half of the most serious cases were not reported to police.  Inquirer reporter Kristen Graham wrote that “the most serious offenders—including those who assaulted teachers—were neither expelled nor transferred to alternative education.”  She also added: “Just 24 percent of the 1,728 students who assaulted teachers were removed from regular education classrooms, and only 30 percent of them were charged by police.”
  • From 2006 to 2008, not a single student was expelled from the Philadelphia School District.

These statistics reveal two things: one—a violent and unruly minority of students are violating the rights of the majority of Philadelphia’s hard working public school children and robbing them of their educations; and two—not enough is being done to protect the rights of these children.   

Instead of CNS siding with the majority of their peers who are tired of being short-changed in school—instead of calling for the violent and unruly minority to shape up or ship out—CNS calls for discipline policies that prevent the proper removal and alternative placement of the incorrigible few. 

In particular, CNS opposes the use of more punitive forms of punishment, like suspensions and expulsions:         

We demand a smart school discipline policy that uses restorative practices and/ or other preventative discipline measures that focus on addressing root causes of issues rather than merely doling out punishment.

Positive behavior supports, restorative practices, and peer mediation are all well and good, but groups like CNS never adequately explain what should be done with the scores of students who are still behavior problems after these interventions are provided (and after they’ve taken valuable resources away from the students who want to learn).  Tragically, these students are too often kept in the classroom where they continue to rob their peers of an education. 

CNS has yet to speak out against this horrible injustice, just as they’ve yet to adequately hold their peers accountable for their own behavior.  If CNS truly wants to campaign for nonviolent schools, they should start by demanding that all the hooligans, bullies and thugs stop destroying the system, and fight to promote character and traditional core values among their own peers and classmates.

Chalk and Talk celebrates 100th post




 by Christopher Paslay


 Today’s blog post is a special one—it’s the 100th on Chalk and Talk since this site was launched on September 28th, 2008.


In just under 11 months on the internet, this site has received 20,650 views.  The exposure and reach of this blog is steadily growing.  In June, Chalk and Talk generated 2,995 views—an average of 100 per day for the month.  July was almost as busy: 2,811 for the month, an average of 91 per day.


On a grand scale, these numbers are small potatoes, but on a local level they are significant.  The Philadelphia Pubic School Notebook, a publication that’s been covering education in Philadelphia for 15 years and was recently awarded a $200,000 grant by the Knight Foundation, launched a new website in February. 


According to the paper’s editor, Paul Socolar, the site gets about 400 visitors a day.  And that’s with a large staff of professionals generating material—photographers, editors, reporters and bloggers. 


Chalk and Talk’s staff is a bit smaller.  The entire operation is basically run by Yours Truly.


That’s not to say Chalk and Talk doesn’t generate dialogue and spark reaction, because it most certainly does.  On September 29th, 2008, I posted a commentary on this blog that I had originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled How about the teachers?  It suggested the Philadelphia School District was treating its educators less than professional, and called for a fair contract with them. 


Superintendent Arlene Ackerman responded in a letter to the Inquirer headlined Taking Exception, explaining that the School Reform Commission was working hard to rectify the problems facing the District, and that there were “no easy answers”.


Shortly thereafter, I received a personal letter from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President, Jerry Jordan.  Mr. Jordan thanked me for my article, and for bringing to light the concerns of Philadelphia public school teachers, whose voices are often ignored or marginalized in the media as a whole (on a side note, the PFT has revamped its website, and now includes Jerry’s Blog.  Click here to visit).


Chalk and Talk has also gotten feedback from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook.  Those that follow my “Eye on the Notebook” series are familiar with the dialogue here (to read the exchange, click on Eye on The Notebook under “Categories” to the right).  Although some feathers were ultimately ruffled, I believe my month-long encounter with Paul was positive.  He taught me some things about journalism, and I enlightened him on the realities of teaching in a Philadelphia public school classroom, and made him more aware of the limited scope of his newspaper, and the fact that it isn’t always teacher friendly. 


I’ve received comments from the Philadelphia Student Union when I suggested that they needed to do more to hold their peers accountable for bad behavior; last fall I got a comment from Jonathan Stein, general counsel of Community Legal Services, when I challenged his notion that the Universal Feeding program should be application free.


There’s been feedback from other bloggers, such as Samuel Reed of the Notebook and Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning; from parents and community groups, most notably Moving Creations, a non-profit arts mentoring program working with area youth; and of course, there’s been hundreds of replies from Philadelphia public school teachers, the dedicated men and women who work miracles with our city’s children on a day-to-day basis (thank you Susan Cohen Smith for your witty commentaries). 


Some days I wonder if running this blog is worth the effort.  When it comes to the public’s perception of education in America, the glass is always half empty.  We are constantly being bombarded with words like broken and failing.  More than ever, teachers and schools are being made the scapegoat for just about everything, and the other significant pieces of the education equation—such as parents, educational policy writers, politicians, professors, and society as a whole—are consistently ignored.


There is a lot of negative energy wrapped up in the politics of education.  I make a conscious effort not to get pulled too far down into this muck, but some days, after I crank-off a 700 word article rebutting some point made by some know-it-all who’s never taught a day in a classroom, I find myself becoming cynical.  I apologize for this.  My intent is not to sling mud or call names. 


I write because I want to make things better, because I want the public to see a more accurate version of the objective truth, if there is such a thing. 


I hope the next 100 posts on this blog are just as meaningful and engaging.  I hope they continue to inform as well as entertain, and provide readers with new insights.    


Thanks to all of you who have contributed or commented.  Chalk and Talk is an open forum for all points of view on education.  Feel free to email the address above, or to post your thoughts on any of the articles directly on the comment board.


When the community steals from its students



by Christopher Paslay


Over the past decade, education advocates and community groups have been focusing their attention on school equity—the idea that all students, regardless of race and socioeconomic status, should receive an equal education.


As a teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I agree wholeheartedly.  All children deserve a quality education.  The reality, of course, is that not all schools are equal, and often times the neediest children end up in schools that are struggling to achieve.


Many advocacy groups blame educational inequities on the quality of teachers.  Others suggest it’s about race—that the District needs more African Americans on staff to reach minority students in order to close the achievement gap. 


Still others talk about the absence of resources, and insist schools in impoverished neighborhoods lack books, computer equipment, and other supplies (members of the Philadelphia Student Union recently met with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. to talk about the lack of resources at Overbrook High School).


The irony (or tragedy) is that when you take a closer look at schools like Overbrook, you’ll often find that these schools did have adequate resources and materials at one time, but they somehow disappeared from circulation.


Unlike the situation earlier this year with textbooks, it’s not the District or school administrators who are responsible—it’s the community.             


The very men and women who are supposed to be making a contribution to education in their neighborhoods are actually taking away from it—by stealing valuable educational equipment.    


According to a report by CBS 3, nearly $5 million in computer equipment has been stolen from the Philadelphia School District since 2005, most of which has been taken from impoverished neighborhood schools.        


In the 2008-09 school year,12 laptops were stolen from Overbrook High School, 33 from Strawberry Mansion, another 30 from Bok, and a total of 104 from Furness (after three robberies). 


How have community groups and education advocates reacted to the reprehensible behavior of their fellow citizens? 


Besides a short-lived plea by Philadelphia Police to return the stolen property, mum’s been the word.  Not much of a peep by anyone.  The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a self proclaimed champion of educational equity, hasn’t said much.  Neither have activists working under the Education First Compact or the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform. 


Neither has the Philadelphia Student Union, for that matter. 


It speaks volumes that those who claim to care about public education in Philadelphia have failed to hold their own community responsible for stealing from our city’s children.  It’s also telling that not a single “education activist” has started a campaign to raise awareness about the crime being perpetrated against our students. 


It takes a village to teach a child.  If our own community is stealing resources from our children (and not being held accountable), what hope is there for pubic education?    


This is yet another example of how the educational system is the result of the community, not the other way around.


The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article




by Christopher Paslay


On March 3rd, I posted an article here on Chalk and Talk headlined Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?  In the article I criticized the Philadelphia Public School Notebook for running an objectionable editorial (Changing the odds) that suggested Philadelphia public school teachers were racist and afraid of the communities they serve.


Two days later I received an email from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook, requesting that we open a dialogue in order to address some of the issues I had with his newspaper.  Paul also asked me to reread my March 3rd article, and to pay careful attention to its tone, which Paul felt had degenerated into name calling; he took particular offense to the fact that I called the Notebook “irresponsible”. 


I reread the post, and although I didn’t feel I had called anyone names, I did agree that it had an edge to it.  I explained that this was a reaction to the accusations contained in the Notebook’s Winter 2008 edition, Focus on Changing the Odds, where the newspaper more than once alluded to the fact that teachers were racist. 


Paul admitted that I wasn’t the only teacher who felt this way.  However, he suggested that I focus on the actual points of disagreement, rather than throwing around so many labels.  In order for both of us to tone down our rhetoric, he wanted to know what other editions of the Notebook may have offended me. 


As I went through the Notebook’s archives, I realized that these articles were not so much offensive to teachers as they were unfriendly.  Here were the gripes I had:            


Lack of Parental Involvement:  The Notebook fails to scrutinize parents and explore all the ways mothers and fathers are failing their children.  They suggest parental involvement is low because schools aren’t “welcoming”; teachers are “intimidating”; announcements aren’t made early and often enough; literature isn’t translated into other languages; etc.     


The achievement gap: The Notebook fails to explore the societal root of the problem, and refuses to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills.  They place much of the blame on racist teachers.    


Safety issues:  The Notebook fails to admit Philadelphia neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and that violent crime exists.  They chastise teachers for not wanting to teach in the poorest schools because they harbor unfounded prejudices and are “afraid of the communities they serve”.  


Inappropriate student behavior: The Notebook fails to acknowledge the violent and unruly actions of too many children (many of them minorities).  They often explain these behaviors away and blame them on the teacher’s unconscious racial prejudice or the counselor’s wrongful diagnosis. 


English language learners:  The Notebook fails to recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden.  Instead, they call under-resourced and overwhelmed schools and teachers “unwelcoming” and demand better services.


The Voice of Teachers:  The Notebook rarely incorporates into their articles publications that represent the voice of classroom teachers.  Instead, they consistently quote studies and statistics from civil rights organizations that tend to paint schools and teachers in an unflattering light.    


Philadelphia Student Union: The Notebook fails to emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.  Instead, they consistently harp on the fact that parents and students “feel disrespected by teachers”.           


Writers and Bloggers:  The Notebook does not have a single writer or blogger that is a current Philadelphia public school teacher.


After reading my concerns, Paul admitted that teachers do need a stronger voice in his newspaper, and he insisted that he is working on this situation.  He also explained that the Notebook’s mission is to make schools better, and that their focus isn’t necessarily on the other parts of the education equation—parents, communities, or the students themselves; Paul did admit however that the problems schools face cannot be solved in isolation.


In addition, Paul stated that he wouldn’t mind having a public discussion on the Notebook’s blog about most of the issues I listed above.  I may take him up on this offer.  For now, I’m posting these concerns here on Chalk and Talk, and I’m asking people on all sides of the argument for constructive feedback. 


One final note: I’d like to thank Paul Socolar for engaging in our email dialogue, and for taking my concerns to heart.  And I’d also like to reiterate my pledge to watch the tone of my posts, as long as the Notebook strives to be more teacher-friendly.     


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.  


Better Way to Police Teens




Note: This commentary was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 25, 2008.  I’m reprinting it here on Chalk and Talk as a means to try to ease tensions between teens and police in light of the incident at Sayre High School last week.


 by Christopher Paslay

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once said that justice was incidental to law and order. Although there is some truth to this statement, when it comes to our police force, there is a fine line between keeping order on the street and fostering a culture of mutual respect.


The balance between order and respect is even more delicate when it comes to policing teenagers.


An alarming number of the adolescents I teach admit in class discussions that they don’t like cops. Many feel disrespected by police on a regular basis, and complain that cops are always “in their face,” when they’re talking on street corners, for example, or congregating at playgrounds.


I believe this hostility stems from a communication breakdown between teenagers and police. The majority of law enforcement officials in our city are good, hard working people, and so are most of our youth, even though some are quick to challenge authority figures. But when the two interact in our fast-paced society, relations can go sour.
As a
Philadelphia public school teacher, I understand the importance of being able to communicate effectively with teenagers. In my experience, effective communication boils down to three things: awareness, listening skills, and tone of voice.
Everyone—teachers, police, and teenagers included—are the star of their own personal drama. As human beings, we have the egotistical habit of taking everything personally. If a teenager gets mouthy with me in class, my first reaction is that she doesn’t like me. If she doesn’t immediately submit to my authority, I assume it means she thinks I’m a push-over.
In reality, this isn’t the case. When a young person acts out, the root cause could be anything—trouble at home, a fight with a sibling, a missed meal—none of which have anything to do with me. There’s no excuse for the behavior, but as a mature authority figure, I have the awareness not to take it personally.
I don’t have to argue, raise my voice, or become hostile. Most importantly, I don’t have to compete with the child. I can take a step back and become a neutral observer. I can note the emotion of the individual, and try to find a way to defuse it.
In order to do this, I must be a good listener. I must have the ability to listen to alternative points of view, even if it’s from a juvenile. And I must take this point of view to heart. Many times as a teacher, when I’m dealing with a student who rubs me the wrong way, I find myself shutting down and refusing to hear what he or she has to say. It’s during these times that I take a deep breath, close my mouth and open my ears and listen. Most times, I realize the student has something important to say. Either way, it builds mutual respect and keeps the lines of communication open.
Finally, I believe it is important for authority figures such as teachers and police officers to watch their tone of voice. Sure, there are times to get loud just like there are times when you must stop and listen, but either way, it’s important to have a respectful tone. I think the “golden rule” works well in this situation: Talk to others the way you expect to be talked to, even it’s a young person.


Police officers are not teachers; their job isn’t to counsel or educate. Their jobs are obviously more dangerous; oftentimes, in threatening situations, they don’t have time to reflect upon opposing points of view. However, a heightened awareness of teen behavior, coupled with listening skills and a respectful tone of voice, might make a world of difference when confronting adolescents. It might help dissolve underlying tension and cut down on violence against police.


The hostility teens feel toward law enforcement officials is unhealthy and must be addressed. Communication skills could be the first step in a new and improved relationship between cops and our region’s young people.

Philadelphia Student Union Fails to Hold Peers Accountable at Sayre

 by Christopher Paslay


I’m extremely disappointed with the Philadelphia Student Union.  They squandered a golden opportunity during their recent protest at Sayre High School to show the city that they truly value education and strive to hold each other accountable.         


I say this with all due respect, in light of the pleasant correspondence I had with the PSU earlier this week on Chalk and Talk.  But the PSU made all of us in the Philadelphia School District look foolish when they protested police instead of the unruly behavior of their peers.


The PSU missed the chance to highlight FIVE important student behaviors during their recent demonstration:


1.  The importance of coming to school on time.  The students who supposedly started the brawl at Sayre came to school almost two hours late.


2.  The importance of following the school dress code.  The Sayre students who came late allegedly started the brawl because they were turned away for not dressing properly.


3.  The importance of respecting police officers.  Two Sayre students were charged with assaulting a police officer during the brawl.


4.  The importance of respecting school teachers.  One Sayre student was charged with assaulting a school teacher during the brawl.


5.  The importance of respecting each other.  17 Sayre students were charged with disorderly conduct for fighting.      


The PSU was curiously mum on all five of these issues.  They did however protest the actions of Philadelphia police, the men and women called into the school to control the chaos started by unruly Sayre students.  Ironically enough, no formal complaint was ever filed against the police, nor was there any report of excessive force given to the principal or school officials.


And yet the PSU was there in force, waving their banners and shaking their fists, insisting Sayre students were unfairly labeled as trouble makers.  “We want people to know that we’re not animals, monsters and crack babies,” Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre said.  Who called anyone a “monster” or “crack baby”? 


After carefully pursuing their website, I’ve come to realize some of the PSU’s core beliefs contradict those of genuine proactive learners, and I find this troubling.  Despite the PSU’s record of peer tutoring and community service, members still subscribe to the notion that students are not ultimately responsible for their own educations.  They blame everything except the kitchen sink for their lack of academic success (teachers, schools, books, budgets, principals, politicians, etc), but nowhere in there mission and vision statements do they lay out the ways they can hold THEMSELVES accountable for learning; although I was highly impressed with the PSU earlier this week, a closer examination of the group makes me realize I was too quick to shower them with praise.


Motivation comes from within.  The PSU’s idea that a student’s yearning for knowledge is somehow “crushed out of them” by a failing system is dangerous.  In essence it is saying that it is okay to give up on school, that just because learning conditions aren’t up to par, teenagers are absolved of responsibility for their own schooling, and have the right to point fingers and place blame.


If students are going to be successful in Philadelphia public schools, we ALL must step up to the plate.  We ARE the system, and we must stop making excuses.

The Philadelphia Student Union Answers the Call

by Christopher Paslay


Chalk up another victory for the Philadelphia Student Union.  On Thursday they held a rally on the steps of Masterman High School that gleaned the attention of the Inquirer, Philadelphia’s biggest newspaper.  Now this prodigious group of Philly teens strikes again with an impressive response to yesterday’s blog, “To Members of the Philadelphia Student Union: You Must Speak Out Against Truancy”.


Dan Jones wrote the official comment, and it was very well crafted indeed (I am a high school English teacher so I read student writing with a critical eye).  The thing that impressed me the most was the timeliness of it: his response came not even four hours after I posted the blog entry.  That’s great journalism. 


Well done, Dan.  Again, it’s refreshing to see students taking stock in their educations.  Not only that, but getting active in the community in a positive way.  To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the PSU, but Dan certainly enlightened me.  And I give the PSU website two thumbs up!


To keep the lines of communication open (because that’s what this is all about anyway, right?), I’d like to further discuss two points Dan made in his response to yesterday’s blog. 


The first is that Dan faults the “system” for the lack of parental and community involvement in education in Philadelphia.  He stated, “we argue that these things are not the fault of the people, but rather of a broken system that is failing everyone . . .”


This is where I disagree.  There is no such thing as “the system,” some detached entity that exists in a vacuum.  People ARE the system—parents, teachers, students, etc.  If we work, than the system works.  Just as members of the PSU have distinguished themselves with their activism and thirst for knowledge, so must parents and community; I do not accept the arbitrary excuse of a broken “system”.


The second idea I’d like to discuss is the PSU’s idea that parents must choose between work and their child’s education (as stated on their website).  As the old saying goes, a mother doesn’t divide her love between her children, she multiplies it.  The same goes for education: Moms and dads must extend their days (by getting up a half hour earlier perhaps) in order to MAKE time in their schedules to help their children with school.


Thank you again Dan for your insightful comments.  I am thoroughly impressed with you and the PSU.  I hope I can establish a dialogue with all of you, and I’ll visit your website often. 

To Members of the Philadelphia Student Union: You Must Speak Out Against Truancy

by Christopher Paslay


On Thursday, October 2nd, two dozen members of the Philadelphia Student Union gathered on the steps of Masterman High School to voice their displeasure over the perceived lack of attention being paid to students’ concerns during contract negotiations between the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (“Phila. students voice concerns on teacher pact,” Inquirer, Friday, 10/3).


Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre High School, stated, “Although we have a lot at stake in the teachers’ contract, there is no way for us to know whether or not our concerns are being addressed.”


A major concern for members of the Student Union is teacher equity, and the fact that some of Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools lack educators who meet No Child Left Behind’s standard of “highly qualified”. 


“I’ve seen students cut class and come to my classroom to avoid bad teachers,” said Finesse Davis, a senior at Overbrook High.  “The system of teacher distribution in Philadelphia is broken.”


It’s wonderful to see our city’s students fighting for a stake in their own education.  If these same teens approach their future careers with as much gusto and fervor, I’m sure they’ll all be extremely successful; I look forward to hearing good things from them.


To address their main concern, teacher equity, I’d like to state that I agree with them whole heartedly.  Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools desperately need highly qualified educators.  Teachers and the school district must come together to find ways to attract highly qualified teachers to failing schools, as well as retain the ones they already have.


With that said, failing schools also need help from parents and the community, as well as from the students themselves. 


Members of the Student Union must raise their voices and bring public awareness to other issues as well. 


Student truancy is a great place to start.  According to the Department of Human Services, more than 12,000 Philadelphia public school children are absent from school on any given day.  Student Union members must put pressure on their peers not to skip school or cut classes; Finesse Davis might want to suggest to her friends that cutting class is a bad idea, no matter what her friends’ opinions of their teachers might be.


The Philadelphia Student Union must also put pressure on their own parents (and parents of their peers), to get more involved in their educations.  Parental involvement in the Philadelphia School District is tragically low.


I wish members of the Student Union much success with their fight to bring teacher equity to Philadelphia public schools.  If they can rally to get their peers (as well as their own moms and dads) to take their educations more seriously, I’m sure a more equal distribution of teachers in low performing schools will soon follow.