Public School Notebook Reviews ‘The Village Proposal’

by Christopher Paslay

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed III calls The Village Proposal “provocative” and “engaging,” although he points out some flaws regarding the idea of the universal “we” and the concept of social justice.         

Below are the opening lines of the Notebook’s review of my book The Village Proposal by Samuel Reed III (click here to read the full review):   

Christopher Paslay brings his expertise as a high school English teacher, contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chalk and Talk blogger to make The Village Proposal a timely and compelling read. The book examines the problems in education by juxtaposing Paslay’s personal memoir with solid documented research. . . .

Reed, a fellow Philadelphia educator, writer, consultant and educational researcher, has made some interesting observations and analyses of the book.  Before I respond to his review, here’s some quick background:              

In the spring of 2009 I decided to sit down and write a book on education reform.  I tried to do something unique and original—combine memoir from an everyday Philadelphia schoolteacher with researched-based commentary on how to remedy America’s ailing public schools. 

I spent nearly two years of my life on the project—collecting research, writing, rewriting, developing a proposal, shopping for an agent, finding a publisher, working with an editor, revising, checking facts, developing a title, collecting jacket cover endorsements, and going through all the painstaking work of marketing the book to the education community. 

In September of 2011 The Village Proposal was released by Rowman & Littlefield

To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.  Worse still, it seems the blend of memoir and commentary exists in a limbo that flies under the radar.      

But Reed’s review, which was published today on the Notebook’s website, seems to have captured much of what I was trying to achieve:         

You may not agree with some or all of the arguments, but that is exactly what makes Village Proposal a good read. Paslay argues using a narrative structure not found in many books about education reform. He doesn’t bore the reader with an overly complex or over-simplified problem-and-solution approach to education. He presents a nuanced view of shared responsibility. . . .

That was indeed part of the purpose of the book, to craft a narrative that succeeded in developing plot and character, while weaving-in commentary about the issues facing public education. 

On a more critical note, Reed noted that I misinterpreted the concept of social justice:

The chapter “Multiculturalism and the Achievement Gap” has the greatest tension. “Social Justice” and Amiri Baraka are the competing foes in the climactic narrative about shared responsibilities. But contrary to Paslay’s perspective, social justice should not be viewed as a polarizing force, but as a means to conduct inquiry around equity, fairness, and what it means to live in a democratic society. . .

This indeed is a valid point.  However, the concept of social justice, as I mentioned many times in the book, is a matter of perspective.  I wouldn’t say that Amiri Baraka’s call for revolution was an inquiry into fairness.  Holding on to past injuries is not healing, nor is it proactive to stoke the flames of racial tension in students and young people.  Our ultimate goal as humans should be colorblindness.       

Reed also pointed out what he felt was a short-coming of the book: 

His style of combining his memoir and documented research fuels the narrative of shared responsibility. But Paslay falls short in crystallizing his first-person narrative to incorporate the universal “we”.

In the chapter “First Year,” there is a sense that Paslay’s background of attending Catholic schools and growing up in a “refined” suburban, two-parent household makes his edgier students the “other.”  

In the chapter “A Day in the Life,this “otherness” reappears when the idea of “What’s with these kids’ parents?” enters the narrative frame. Therein lies the rub with not only the title of the book, The Village Proposal, but also the whole village concept. For the “it takes a village” narrative to work, the “I” must be the universal “we” and “these kids” must be “our kids.” . . .

This is also valid observation by Reed.  However, in defense of the book, in later chapters the relationship between myself and my students does develop into a universal “we,” which is part of the arc of the book—that after my initial years in the classroom, I finally develop a true relationship and appreciation of my students that is free from separateness; this “otherness” indeed dissolves over time as I gain experience and bond with my students. 

Reed’s conclusion is very thoughtful and complimentary nonetheless:   

Overall, though, this book deserves accolades. The structure, narrative style, documented research, and provocative commentary make it a must-read for teacher educators, teachers, policy makers and anyone interested in understanding the landscape of education reform.

Paslay deserves a lot of credit for writing a timely portrait of his vision of what shared responsibility looks like and feels like. For writing The Village Proposal while working as a full-time classroom teacher, prolific blogger, frequent contributor to the Inquirer and sometime-critic of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Paslay has my utmost admiration.

Thank you Mr. Reed for your thoughtful and in depth review.  The feeling of admiration is, for the record, mutual.   

 

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Paul Vallas reincarnated?

 

 

by Susan Cohen Smith

 

On a sweltering September day in 2002, mad dogs and school teachers sat out in the midday sun, awaiting the arrival of Starship Vallas to descend on our wretched souls and breathe new life into the beleaguered Philadelphia public school system.

 

Paul Vallas sailed into the School District of Philadelphia promising sweeping reforms and a new day in public education. I clearly recall that even I, a seasoned, but somewhat cynical teacher, was so energized and hopeful by the dynamism of our new leader that I dropped everything I should have been doing to prepare for the new school year and spent precious time attending to his first directive.

 

I was asked to compile a detailed inventory of my classroom furniture: every desk, chair, cabinet, pencil sharpener, etc. and its age, condition and functionality. The incentive for the swift completion of this task was the promise of new equipment and furnishings because “Mr. Vallas is committed to world class arts programs in the high schools.”

 

I dutifully documented each student desk, teacher desk, shelf, bulletin board, sink, storage cabinet, etc. whose precise age I knew for certain because they were the exact same fixtures that existed in my classroom when I was a student at that school in the sixties!

 

When Paul Vallas left the system in 2006, those very same desks and furnishings were still in that classroom, the promise of their replacement left unfulfilled by the “surprise” multi-million dollar budget deficit that emerged toward the end of Mr. Vallas’ tenure as CEO.

 

Experienced Philadelphia teachers are understandably weary of the hoopla and lofty imaginings of the district’s current Superintendent. They have heard it all before—only to have it forgotten when funds do not materialize, or when the crisis du jour takes precedence over the implementation of new initiatives, or when the five years of the Superintendent’s contract are up, which ever comes first.

 

Our detractors will accuse us of institutionalized pessimism and failure to put the students first. It will take a lot more than a 34 page draft of recycled ideas to fire up the hearts and minds of those in the trenches in Philly schools.

 

What I would have liked to see in Imagine 2014:

 

Who exactly is going to evaluate teachers’ performance and effectiveness? Will they be the administrators who have achieved their goal of fleeing the classroom?

 

A rethinking of the absurd “Easy Pass” grading system of no grade under 50.

 

An exploration of the possibility of requiring administrative personnel to teach on a regular basis to give them first-hand understanding of how these initiatives should be implemented.

 

A new requirement of all Charter Schools to accept, educate and retain all students who choose to attend their schools, even those students who do not conform to their standards of behavior, attendance and academic success.

 

So much of Ackerman’s plan depends on the recruitment and retention of new and presumably better teachers. Veteran teachers wonder how she plans to stem the flow of enthusiastic, motivated, knowledgeable new teachers walking out the door after receiving their floating rosters or when the supports they’ve been promised fail to materialize.

 

One thing is certain. In 2014, there will be a new strategic plan with a new set of goals accompanied by a new lexicon of terms in the School District of Philadelphia.

 

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