A Day in the Life of a First Year Philadelphia Teacher

by Christopher Paslay

from Chapter 7 of The Village Proposal

The one thing I remember experiencing my first year on the job was exhaustion.  Teaching was tough.  To do it right, it demanded an incredible amount of your time.  To do it right it had to become a lifestyle, a part of your very existence.

My typical day in 1997 was loaded.  I’d get up at 5:30 am, shower, dress, eat, and walk out the door by 6:45 am.  Most of my neighbor’s cars were still in their driveways at this hour.  Many of the people on the road were blue collar guys—construction workers who drove trucks and carried thermoses and big lunch boxes.  To me, there was always a side to teaching that was blue collar.

I’d arrive at school by 7:15 and sign-in at the main office.  I’d grab my roll book for my homeroom, check my mailbox for messages and other paperwork, and head to my classroom.  If I had parents to call that day I’d do this in the teacher’s room on the only phone, hoping to catch a kid’s mother before she went to work (this was before cell phones).  At least one of the numbers I’d call would be disconnected and no longer in service.  At least one of the numbers would be from a parent who didn’t have the same last name as their child.  I learned early on that if the student’s name was, say, Mary Smith, you couldn’t just call the child’s house and ask for Mr. or Mrs. Smith; the odds were Mr. Smith didn’t live there anymore and that Mrs. Smith was back to using her maiden name or the name of her new husband.  Even more tragic, some of the students didn’t even live with either of their parents, but with a grandparent or some other foster care giver.  The routine for calling a kid’s house was to ask for the parent or guardian of the child: Hello, may I speak to the parent or guardian of Mary Smith please?

When I did get a parent on the line I’d identify myself as Mr. Paslay, their child’s English teacher, and go into the reason for the call.  Your child’s been cutting; or your child’s been misbehaving and distracting other students; or your child didn’t turn in their persuasive essay that was due last Friday.  Parents responded to my calls in a number of ways.  Some were concerned and insisted that they would open-up a can of whoop-ass on their child as soon as they got home.  Others sounded put-out, like their lives were complicated enough already without some teacher hounding them on the phone.  Once in a while I’d get a hold of a parent who had thrown in the towel completely, admitting to me that they simply didn’t know what to do with their son or daughter, that if I had any ideas, they were willing to listen.

After the phone calls I’d go through my mail.  Any forms to complete, progress reports or documents from the counselor, I’d put in the top drawer of my desk to complete when I had more time.  I did the same with memos and other paper work reminding me about scheduled meetings.  Then I’d set up my room for first period.  This involved putting notes up on the board, getting any video, audio or computer equipment organized, and making sure all materials and supplies were in order.  Were there enough copies of the book or magazine I was using that day?  Were there enough newspapers and graphic organizers?

Before computerized grading, I had to set up my attendance and grade book for the day, recording the date, getting out seating charts if needed.  Then I waited, ready for the students to arrive.  It was important to be ready for their arrival, to have all things in place.  If I was a step behind, if I was putting up notes on the board at the last minute or running around to get extra copies, I played catch-up the whole period.  It was like the gun sounding and being stuck at the starting line, watching the race take-off without me; it knocked me that much off my game.

When the bell rang I stepped out into the hallway to greet the students at the door as they entered my room.  I also pitched in to keep my end of the hallway clear, to keep the traffic moving.  There was always a lot of congestion in the halls first thing in the morning.  Kids coming in late, congregating with friends, lollygagging and taking the long way everywhere.  I’d shoo some students off to class only to see them circle back around a moment later.  The hall monitor at the time, a short, 60-something woman named Florence, would holler and shout and tell the kids to move on, to take off their hats, but it usually took a good 10 minutes for the halls to calm down.

“Shut up Florence!” the students would say, mocking the way she talked.  Then they’d crack-up laughing and wander off.  Some mornings I’d get in the fray, demanding they comply with the rules, but most times this only insured that I’d start the morning off on the wrong foot, completely frustrated over a student who either ignored my directions or copped an attitude.

At the late bell I’d come back into my classroom and shut the door.  At this point at least one student would ask if they could go to the bathroom or to their locker or go get a drink of water real fast before class got started.  I’d tell them no, sorry, not right now.  We had things to do and they needed to get started on them.  I had freshman first period so this meant reminding them to sit down in their seats and relax.  Sit down and get started on the journal entry which was written on the green board in the front of the room.

They’d settle and take out their journals.  They’d complete the entry, reflecting on the topic and writing out their thoughts in at least one paragraph.  A paragraph was a minimum of five sentences, I’d tell them.  Journals were collected once a week and counted as 10 percent of their report card grade.  I circled the room and reminded them of the importance of the journals. I also tried to stimulate their thinking by pushing them to answer the question from different angles.  Some students responded positively to this stimulation, others didn’t want to be bothered and put their heads down.  I’d ask them nicely to pick their head up and if they didn’t cooperate or put it back down a minute later, I’d confront them and put their name on my “call list”.  Occasionally an argument broke out.  Once in a blue moon, this led to the student cursing at me at which point I pink slipped them and sent them to the discipline office.

Journal entries varied.  There were always a handful of kids who didn’t have a pen or bring their notebook.  In order to keep them on task, I’d lend them a piece of loose leaf and let them borrow a pen in exchange for allowing me to hold their student ID for collateral.  The same group of students forgot their pens and notebooks on a regular basis.  Lending them one just encouraged their bad habits.  I started charging a quarter for pens and paper, at which time these kids called me cheap and rebelled from completing journals altogether.  I called their parents with varying degrees of success.

After the journals were completed we discussed their responses.  Topics that were very interesting and stimulating—like abortion or legalizing marijuana—sometimes broke into heated arguments.  Despite my rules and specific instructions, five or six people spoke at once.

“Excuse me!” I’d shout.  “One person at a time.” I’d fight tooth and nail to get the class settled and refocused.  I’d call on another student to share his journal.  Thirty seconds later, the person speaking would get bombarded by an opposing opinion, then two, then 10.  The room would erupt like Jerry Springer, minus the fights.  I’d run out of energy and have to move to the next activity, even if there wasn’t significant closure.

The next activity piggy-backed off the journal topic which was geared toward the objectives for the day.  If we were doing a short story from their literature textbook, I’d transition into a “before” reading activity—the KWL was my staple the first year.  I’d have the students preview the title and look at the pictures in order to make predictions about what the story might be about.  Next, we’d preview vocabulary, briefly going through the meanings of the difficult words found in the text.

Late students would begin arriving at this time, some of them showing-up 30 minutes after the bell strictly because their parents failed to get them out of bed and out the door in time for school.  Despite my classroom rules they’d swagger into the room obnoxiously, in the middle of conversations with someone in the hall, laughing, sometimes cursing, cross the front of the room and go to their desk.  On the way they might stop and screw with one of their friends.

Once they sat down, they’d ask, “What are we doing?”  I’d explain the procedure for coming in late, that they needed to check the board for pre-class, for any journal entry they might need to complete.

“You got a pen I can borrow?” they would ask.

“No.  You need to be more organized.  Where’s your notebook?”

“I forgot it.”

“I’ll give you a pen and paper for 25 cents.  You can pay me tomorrow if you don’t have it.  I’ll write your name down.”

We’d begin reading the story.  I might start with the audio version or we’d read the first page together as a class.  Once the students were into the set-up of the plot, I’d have them read independently, using a QNT to deconstruct the text as they read.  A QNT was a strategy that stood for “Quotes, Notes and Thoughts”.  Much like a KWL, students took out a paper and folded it into threes and labeled it accordingly.  Under “Q” they recorded any quotes that struck them as interesting or important, under “N” they took any notes about any particular passage that they either enjoyed or had questions about, and under “T” they recorded thoughts and reflections about certain passages.  It was designed to get them engaged with the reading.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work so well.  Getting students engaged with reading was perhaps the most challenging thing about being an English teacher.  In the beginning, especially dealing with freshman, if we didn’t read the story out loud as a class or listen to it on audio, the students tuned out.  Many didn’t have the self control or focus to read long passages on their own.  They lasted no more than a few minutes and then started talking.  I constantly had to circulate the room and raise my voice to get them back on task.  This was before I learned about “chunking,” and other kinds of literacy strategies.  I was a rookie teacher and didn’t know the tricks of the trade.  I had limited supporting materials and many of the things I did, many of my activities and methods of instruction, were worked out through trial and error.

By the end of the period, which at the time was 57 minutes long, we usually would have gone through at least three activities: a pre-class warm up to introduce the topic for the day; a reading piece that was not always guided with a directed reading strategy; and a writing piece that was not always centered around the proper objectives and didn’t build in that day’s vocabulary.  Often times I struggled with classroom management so my activities were based not on the best methods of instruction or learning objectives but on what would keep the students the quietest.  And I rarely gave homework.  At the time, homework was incredibly hard to keep up with.

After first period my gas tank was already half empty.  If there were a confrontation or spat with a student my energy would be totally spent.  But there was no time for self pity, because as the bell rang and one class left another took its place.

Second period was the same as the first—30 energetic freshman.  I’d go out into the hall to greet them as they entered the room.  There would be arguments over taking off hats and clearing the corridor.  There would be lateness, kids coming in five or ten minutes after the bell with cans of soda they illegally purchased from the vending machines in the lunch room.  There would be more students without pens or notebooks, students who just wanted to screw off or put their heads down on the desk and sleep.  And there would be complaining.  Complaining over the journal entry; complaining over the story or article we had to read; complaining over the stupid writing assignment we had to do.

When second period left third period came in.  Same drill.  Thirty freshmen acting like freshman.  Arguing, complaining, challenging my authority.  On bad days I’d be running on fumes.  I was physically drained, and sometimes it was quite a struggle just to get everyone’s attention to begin the lesson.  The kids would be in their seats with their journals out but still brimming with energy, poking each other, play fighting, horsing around like they were out on the playground.  I’d stand at the front of the room, waiting for just the right moment to get started.  The feeling was a mixture of anxiety and apprehension, like looking at a 200 pound television that you know you have to carry up five flights of steps.  When I thought the time was right I’d jump in and get started.

“Okay,” I’d begin, “it’s time to get started.  I need everyone’s attention now guys.  Seriously.  Does anyone want to share their journal entry today?”

Nine out of ten times the room didn’t settle.  Just asking for their attention usually didn’t cut it.  The freshmen were in their own little worlds and conversation continued.

“Okay guys,” I’d say, and start naming the names of the individuals who were still not listening.  “Joe, I need your attention.  Denise, Shakira, please.  Let’s stop the talking now . . .”

Sometimes Joe, or Denise, or Shakira would get mad and say, “What?!  What do you want?!”

“Stop talking please.”

“Man, I’m not the only one.”

My patience would slip.  So would my temper.  I knew it was time to stop being nice; it was time to start lifting the 200 pound television up the five flights of steps.  There are theories in textbooks that state teachers don’t have to expend this kind of energy to get students’ attention, that if they have established routines in the beginning of the year—such as flicking the lights on or off or holding up their index finger to signal silence—then students will comply practically effort free.  But from my experience that first year, this was a lot of bologna.  I’d flicked the lights on and off several times in September, only to have the freshman go, Ooo!  Haunted house!

Frustration mounting, I’d raise my voice.   “Excuse me!” I’d shout finally.  “I need everyone quiet and facing forward, now!”  Things would begin to settle, although there were always a few pockets of students who refused to allow my lesson to interrupt their personal conversations.  Then I would begin teaching.

Advisory, otherwise known as homeroom, would begin right after 3rd period ended.  Thirty more freshmen would flood my classroom, talking, goofing off, sometimes wrestling.  My goal during advisory wasn’t to keep them quiet but just to keep them in their seats.  I’d sit at my desk and take attendance.  In the beginning of the year I’d ask students who were absent the day before if they had a note, but after a week of doing so, it became clear that bringing in a signed slip of paper from mom or dad was clearly the exception rather than the rule; to my shock, less than 10 percent of the students in my advisory ever had a note excusing their absence.

What’s with these kids’ parents? I would think to myself, remembering how concerned my own mother and father were with my education.  Clearly, many of these children lacked the proper guidance.  School was not a top priority at home, and the absence of their parents’ involvement was having a negative effect on their overall study habits and learning.

Halfway through the 20 minute advisory period the PA announcements would come on.

“Shhhh!” I’d tell them.  “Let’s listen.  This is important.”

Not many people listened or cared.

After advisory was my 45 minute lunch period.  I’d eat my sandwich, take the roll book back down to the main office, and get ready for the last two classes of the day.  I’d straighten my room (pick up the crumpled paper, candy wrappers, and the occasional empty soda can) and replenish supplies.  With time left over I’d grade papers or think about preparing activities for the next day.

The bell would ring.  Another 30 freshman—my fourth class of the day—would come through the door.  Like me, most had just finished their lunch.  Most days this group had two gears: One—bouncing off the walls; and two—sleeping.  There was no in between.  Because of the sugar rush from lunch, they had even more energy than the group before them.  Getting their attention at the beginning of class was the equivalent of carrying a 300 pound television up to the attic, if you can believe that.  Fortunately, I’d have a second wind from eating as well, so I’d usually be able to pull off the task of getting them quiet and writing in their journals.  But often times, forcing them to shut down and concentrate had an interesting effect on their bodies: it sent them into second gear—sleep mode.

If they couldn’t bounce around and talk and burn off the sugar with no holds barred, many times they shut down.  Bang.  Out like a light.  Snoring and drooling on the desk.  I was absolutely stunned and amazed at how little ability they had to control themselves, to put up with just a minimal amount of discomfort.  I was also amazed at how many parents of these children seemed to suffer from the same issues.

On days that I was struggling to get through the period, I’d cave-in and let 25 percent of the class sleep.  I welcomed the peace and quiet.  I was presenting the lesson to whoever wanted to get an education.  If they opted out, so be it.  It was their choice.

Next period was my 57 minute prep.  If I could muster the energy I’d get started on making copies for the next day.  I might call a parent if there were an incident earlier in the day, or continue grading papers.  Many times I just veged-out at my desk and tried to keep my sanity.  I was fried and often times did a lot of staring out into space.

The last period of the day were sophomores.  This group of 29 students was a little more mature than my first four classes of 9th graders.  They actually entered my room like regular human beings.  This had a lot to do with the fact that 15 to 20 percent of them cut the class everyday; it was the last period and many wanted to go home early.  At first I spent an incredible amount of time chasing down cuts—checking attendance in advisory roll books and speaking with other teachers (back then there was no computerized attendance system)—but after a few months I didn’t have the time or energy to waste on kids who didn’t want to be in school.

Because the school didn’t have any 10th grade literature textbooks, I photocopied a lot of material out of my college Intro to Literature anthology to use with the sophomores.  I also adapted the writing assignments I used with the 9th graders to use with the 10th.  By this point in the day I was burnt.  Cashed.  Out of steam.  So were the students.  Because of my lack of experience and the lack of materials, my lessons were often thin and didn’t last the full 57 minute period.  Often times by 2:30, fifteen minutes before the bell, there’d be nothing to do.  Students would talk and congregate in clusters in the room.  I’d yell and tell them to get back in their seats, but this was a struggle.  They were bored and ready to go home.  Five full minutes before the bell they’d line up at the door, waiting.  Sometimes they’d push through the doorway and spill out into the hallway.

“Wait for the bell,” I’d tell them, and have to stand in the doorway to keep them from sneaking off.  Every so often I’d get tired of the routine and make a new rule: no one could leave at the bell unless everybody was seated.  It worked for about a week but I soon ran out of energy and lost the ability to enforce the rule.  At the bell, people left anyway.  I gave detentions and made calls but again got limited results.

When the bell finally rang to end the day, the feeling of relief was incredible.  The television was safely on the fifth floor of the apartment (some days, I’ll admit, I only got it to the third floor), and now I could put it down and catch my breath.

Of course, the end of class didn’t mean the end of my day.  There was still an incredible amount of work to be completed before it was quitting time.  Papers to grade.  Lessons to write.  Calls to make to parents to try to get them involved in their child’s education in any way I could.  Some days there were after school meetings with special education teachers to fill out Individualized Education Plans (IEP’S), or conferences with administrators to work on Comprehensive Support Assistant Programs (CSAP’s).  After it was all said and done, I’d leave school sometimes as late as 5:00pm.

When you did the math, I was working close to a 10 hour day.

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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.   

 

Bullets In a Philadelphia Classroom

from The Village Proposal

by Christopher Paslay

A student shows up to journalism class with bullets—but the good kind.

In the spring semester of 2002, I was given the opportunity to teach Journalism.  A primary function of the class, which was open to all Swenson students interested in news writing and current events, was to produce the school newspaper.  This was one of the first orders of business when the class began.  The first week I broke students into groups of three and asked them to brainstorm for possible names for the paper.  Students began writing titles down on slips of paper, at which time I collected and read them aloud to the class and asked for feedback.

“Okay,” I said.  “How about the ‘Swenson Voice’?”

“Man, that’s corny.”

“How about ‘The Pulse’?”

Boo,” someone shouted.

Finally, after three days of discussion, an African American student named Lawrence came up with The Swenson Scroll, a title that struck a chord in me immediately.  Interestingly, when I read the title to the class, there was only a lukewarm reception.  Some students still thought it was “corny”.  As the teacher of the class I eventually overruled them: The Swenson Scroll it was.

My next objective for the class was to give the students a crash course on news.  What was news, exactly?  What were its elements?  Where did you find it and how did you report it?  Being that it was a beginner’s course, I explained to students that news had to be three basic things: interesting, accurate, and important

We spent a week learning these principles, dissecting newspaper articles and watching news broadcasts.  We talked about sex and violence in news, and whether it was the media’s job to inform or to entertain.  We talked about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity, or put another way, the difference between opinion and fact.  We had lengthy discussions on whether total objectivity in journalism was even possible—could news really be “fair and balanced?”—being that an editor’s decision on what news to cover and how to cover it could have serious consequences on the public’s perception of the world around them. . . .

. . . Once the students began writing their stories, it usually took the entire 96 minute class period to finish.  Most students needed to rewrite their articles at least once before they produced anything worth publishing.  It took some students even longer to get it right.

Lawrence, the most enthused student in the class, often rewrote his articles several times before he perfected what he was trying to say.  At one point during the semester, Lawrence had come to me with a story he’d written about Swenson’s teen pregnancy program.  Excited, he showed me his article so I could approve it and put it in the current issue of The Scroll.

I read his article with a poker face, but Lawrence saw through it; he knew there was a problem.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“It’s too wordy,” I told him.  “You have this big long introduction, but you don’t say much.  This is a good start, but where are the facts?  Where are the five W’s?”

Lawrence reread his opening paragraph.  Then he explained to me that he was trying to grab the reader by telling a mini-story in the opening.  I told him that it was good effort and a good idea, but that it wasn’t working.  His personal anecdote was just confusing things and delaying the real facts of the story.

“Should I rewrite it?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him.  “Get right to the facts.  Remember, the most important information comes first.”

Lawrence nodded, took his paper and went back to work.

The next day, at the end of class, Lawrence came back up to my desk with his rewritten article and asked me to give it another look.  I did.  However, it was still too wordy, and I told him so.

“Bullets,” I said to him.  “You have to write in bullets.”

“What’s that?”

“It means your sentences need to be short and powerful.  Bang!  Right to the point.  One after the other: bang, bang, bang.  Like bullets.  What’s with all these words, Lawrence?  I’ve read your writing before, and I know you can write much tighter than this.  You’re thinking too much.  You’re trying to sound too sophisticated, and you’re not saying what you mean.  Just say what you mean, real simple.  Just say it.  Don’t worry about how it sounds.  If you do that, your style will come naturally, so will your voice.  Does this make sense?”

Lawrence stood thinking for a minute.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Go back and rewrite it.  Keep it tight, and get to the facts.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

The next day Lawrence came back with his article after a third rewrite.  I took it from him and read it, quite pleased by his progress.

“Bullets?” he asked me.

“Bullets,” I told him.  “Congratulations, Lawrence.  You made it into the school paper.  Nice job, buddy.”

“Thanks!”

A week later, when the paper was published, Lawrence was all smiles.  So were the 16 other students whose articles had made it into the Swenson Scroll.  That April, during Swenson’s spring parent-teacher conferences, Lawrence’s mother came by my classroom to meet me and discuss Lawrence’s progress.

“Lawrence really enjoys your class,” she told me, proud of her son.  “He really respects you as a teacher, too.  He talks about your class all the time.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “That’s good to hear.  Lawrence is a great kid.  Excellent student.  He always puts in one-hundred-and-ten-percent.”

Lawrence’s mother smiled.  “He was just so proud of his article in the school newspaper, let me tell you.  He carried it around with him for a week.  Showed everybody in the entire family.  It’s now hanging up on the refrigerator for all to see.”

“That’s really great to hear,” I said.  “Good for Lawrence.”

I shook hands with Lawrence’s mother and she left.  Lawrence would go on to publish two more articles in the paper, and finish the class was a 95 average.

The following year, when Lawrence was a senior, I kept-up my relationship with him, occasionally seeing him around school and chatting with him in the halls.  He looked different his senior year, however.  He was thinner by at least 15 pounds.  He was also wearing a new hairstyle, keeping his head completely bald.  Later, of course, I’d learn that it wasn’t a new hairstyle at all, but the aftereffects of chemotherapy.  Lawrence had brain cancer, and was slowly losing his health.  He would fight the good fight and make it to graduation, but shortly after commencement, he passed-away.

It happened during the summer, so I didn’t find out until the new school year.  It was a tough summer for Swenson students.  Two other students had died, one in a traffic accident and another by committing suicide.  But Lawrence was the hardest to take.  I’ll never forget his articles in the school newspaper, or his passion for writing and his enthusiasm for my class.

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Click here to purchase The Village Proposal at Amazon.

For good schools, it takes a village

I recently attended a community screening of the education documentary American Teacherat School of the Future in West Philadelphia.

The film, narrated by Matt Damon, chronicles the stories of four teachers from rural and urban areas of the country, and examines how these dedicated educators, despite loving their students and jobs, were often forced to rethink their careers because of low pay. After the screening, a panel of local education leaders, including Philadelphia School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, reflected on the film and the state of education in America. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “For good schools, it takes a village.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Purchase ‘The Village Proposal’ and Support Shared Responsibility in Education

Due out this September from Rowman & Littlefield!  Click here to preorder a copy and support shared responsibility in education!

Here’s what the education community, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, has been saying about Chris’s new book, The Village Proposal:

“Public schools have been blamed for every ill created by the larger society: poverty, the breakdown of a strong family unit, adolescent crime, adult crime, and so forth. Lost in all the reform talk, is the voice of the teacher. . . . Christopher Paslay is a teacher who knows what students need and what teachers need to help students achieve and succeed. We applaud his efforts in the classroom, in the school and now in his effort to inform the larger community by authoring The Village Proposal.”—Jerry T. Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers

“Many educational books are written by so called ‘educational experts’ who would not last a day teaching in an urban high school. It is refreshing to read a book by someone who has walked the walk. This book is a well-written account by an actual insider of his challenges of teaching in a large, urban school setting, and what it takes to succeed in this environment. Chris Paslay comes to the conclusion that a teacher is the most important element of a student’s success in school, but they aren’t the only element. For a student to succeed, it really does involve a shared responsibility of ‘the village’ with the teacher as the point person.”—Brian Malloy, 2009 Philadelphia School District Teacher of the Year

“This book is a must read for anyone truly interested in the fight to reform our schools. Paslay’s honest account of his life and the challenges he faced to become a successful teacher in urban schools is exactly what is missing from today’s policy debates; the insightful perspective of someone who has been in the arena where too many fear to tread.”—Jack Stollsteimer, former Pennsylvania Safe Schools Advocate

The Village Proposal shows the success and failure of America’s public school system from top to bottom, and explains how everyone needs to have accountability when it comes to educating children. It’s a great read for those interested in the perspectives of an everyday schoolteacher.”—James Tarabocchia, 2009 Pennsylvania Career Teacher of the Year

“Chris Paslay uses personal memoir and documented research to make you think, really think, about education in our country. This is a must-read for every faculty book club.”—Cindi Rigsbee, 2009 finalist, National Teacher of the Year, and author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make

“Explore the learning process through the eyes of a teacher and understand how education must change if we are to recapture our past success. The Village Proposal also challenges those in the education business to stop exploiting problems for their own benefit. It is a must read and as it clearly demonstrates, there are no simple solutions and only by working together can we effectively change education.”—Harry Vincenzi, Ed.D., Psychologist and educator, co-author, Energy Tapping: How to rapidly eliminate anxiety, depression and cravings

The Village Proposal is based on the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Part education commentary, part memoir, the book analyzes the theme of shared responsibility in public schools and evaluates the importance of sound teacher instruction; the effectiveness of America’s teacher colleges; the need for strong school leaders and supports; the need for strong parental and community involvement; the effectiveness of multiculturalism and social justice in closing the achievement gap; the relevancy of education policy; the impact of private business and politics on schools; and how the media and technology are influencing education.

The Overdose

 

by Christopher Paslay

The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility.  The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September. (Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

In November of 1998, I learned that one of my students was living with his father in the apartment below mine.  I was in the lobby of the building getting my mail one Saturday afternoon when I glanced up and saw Kevin, a boy in my sixth period class, carrying his bicycle down the steps.  We made eye contact but neither of us said anything.  I stood there, holding my mailbox key in my hand, not sure how to react.  I wasn’t proud to be living in this particular apartment complex, so the first thing I felt was embarrassment.  I’d moved in the first of the month, not even two weeks before, because the college buddy I was rooming with in my old apartment had gotten a new job and relocated.  I couldn’t afford the rent on my own so I was forced to move.

Kevin turned and disappeared out the front door with his bike under his arm.  I don’t believe this, I thought, wanting to hide.  I was on the first month of a one year lease and already I knew I’d made a mistake, that I’d made my decision in haste.  Sure, my new apartment was cheap, but money wasn’t everything.  The complex was cramped and musty, and the tenants were mainly elderly people on fixed incomes.  And the place smelled.  Not all the time, but once or twice a week an odor came from the basement that I figured was a bad sewer line.  It was totally disgusting.  I called maintenance and complained, but nothing was done.                 

The place also had roaches.  I didn’t see any for the first two weeks, so when I was unloading groceries from my car one day in the parking lot and my neighbor asked me about them, I didn’t know what he was talking about. 

“Have you seen the roaches?” he said to me.  The man’s name was Bruce, and he happened to be the father of my student, Kevin, but at the time I didn’t know this.  He lived in the apartment right below mine.   

“Roaches?” I said.

“Yeah, this place’s loaded with them.  You’ll see ‘em sooner or later, believe me.”  He was standing on the front steps smoking a cigarette and he flicked an ash.  “So how do you like the place?”

“It’s fine,” I said, not wanting to offend him. 

“It’s a shit hole,” he said, “but it’s cheap.  You won’t find any place cheaper in the entire Northeast.”

It was true.  I’d shopped around for two whole weeks and this place had the lowest rent by far.  At the time, it was $375 a month for a one bedroom. 

“Okay, so take it easy now,” Bruce said, tossed his cigarette in the grass and went inside. 

I brought my groceries up to my apartment on the third floor and put them on the counter in the kitchen.  As I was putting them away, to my horror, I saw a big fat black roach crawl across the cabinet.  For a moment I felt panicky, like my entire life was falling apart right in front of my eyes.  How was I going to live like this for another eleven months?  How was I going to do it?

Get a grip, I said to myself, standing in the middle of the shoebox-sized kitchen and staring into space.  It’s no big deal.  It’s all how you look at it.  Anyway, what are your options?  Move somewhere else?  You can’t, you signed a one year lease.  Are you going to call mom and dad to come and help you?  Forget that, you need to become a man.  So you’d better suck it up there, Christopher.  You’d better suck it up and stay strong.

I calmed down a bit.  I was only 26 at the time, so I had thick skin.  At college I’d lived in fraternity houses almost as bad, so I knew how to make due.  The whole situation was a test, like my first year freshmen students, and I was going to pass it.  I’d get tough and stay focused.  Put my nose to the grindstone.  If one of my students could live here, so could I. 

I put away the groceries and made my dinner.

*          *          *

By the end of the month, I’d settled in.  I paid an exterminator to bug bomb the place so the roach problem went away for a while.  Every so often I’d run into Kevin, but these situations were awkward so we never had much to say to each other. 

Then, out of nowhere, tragedy struck.  It was a Saturday night around midnight, and I was sitting in my living room playing with the new iMac computer I recently purchased, checking out that new phenomenon called the “internet”.  I was on a chat-room website writing back-and-forth with a woman who claimed to be single and an elementary school teacher from Tennessee, when I heard screaming coming from the apartment below me.  My adrenaline started pumping immediately, and I turned from my computer to stop and listen more closely.  Then I heard the sound again, what I thought was screaming.  Or was it someone laughing and horsing around? 

It stopped so I went back to talking with the woman on-line.  We began flirting, and the woman invited me into another chat-room that was for “adults only”.  Before I could decide how to respond, I heard a loud crash below me, making the apartment shake.  I ran and looked out the window.  Nothing was out there.  I walked back to my computer and felt more thumping and banging below.  I began to get scared.  Something didn’t feel right and I wondered if I should call the police. 

I didn’t.  Instead I explained to the woman on-line what was happening and asked what she thought I should do about it.  Before she could answer I heard glass shattering.  It was extremely loud and there was no mistaking it.  I picked up the phone to call the police but then heard a siren outside and saw flashing red lights reflecting off my apartment walls.  I ran to the window and saw an ambulance pulling in front of the apartment building. 

I hung up the phone.  Someone had already made the call.  Freaked out, I signed-off with the woman on the internet and went to bed.  It took me an hour to fall asleep.  The next morning I got up and went to the gym.  When I got outside I saw the remains of some broken glass on the sidewalk, and a block of cardboard in the window of the apartment below me—the apartment Kevin lived in with his father.  This freaked me out even more.  What the hell happened last night?

When I got back from the gym, on the way up the steps to my apartment, I ran into a group of people on the second floor.  They were coming out of the unit Kevin lived in. 

“What happened last night?” I asked one of them.

“Bruce passed away,” a man told me.  He shut the apartment door, locked it, and walked passed me.  “Excuse me,” he said.

He’s dead? I thought, stunned.  My worst fears had come true.  As I lay awake the night before my mind came up with all kinds of crazy scenarios—murder being one of them—but I never thought it would be true.  That’s if he were murdered; I still didn’t know the details. 

The whole incident ate at me for days.  Freaked the shit out of me.  Kevin was absent from school but I’d heard nothing official about his father, not from the principal, not from the counselor.  I was too spooked to ask. 

Then one day I got my answer.  About a week after the tragedy I came home from school and parked my car in the lot behind the apartment.  As I got out of my car I saw Kevin with another one of my freshmen students named Joe.  They were both on bicycles, cruising around the parking lot.

“Hey Mr. Paslay,” Joe called to me.  They rode over to me and stopped.  I waved to them, and remember staring at Kevin curiously, wondering what a teen who just lost his dad would look like; I know if I lost my father at age 14 I would have been a traumatized wreck.  But Kevin didn’t look any different than he always did. 

“You live here?” Joe asked me. 

“Yeah,” I said, embarrassed.

Joe nodded.  “That’s cool.” He could sense my unease.  “You don’t have to worry, Mr. Paslay, we won’t say anything.  We won’t tell anybody where you live.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Did you see the ambulance here last Saturday night?” Kevin spoke up.

I told him I had.

“Well that was for my dad,” he said.  “He overdosed.  I came home that night and found him.” 

“I’m sorry,” I said, floored. 

“It’s okay.  I’m probably going to go to live with my mom in New Jersey.  I might be transferring out of Swenson soon.”  Kevin popped a wheelie.  “You ready Joe?”

“Yeah, I’m ready.”  Joe waved.  “See you Mr. Paslay.”

“Bye,” I said.

The two rode away.  

A month later, after Kevin moved to Jersey with his mom, Joe told me the details from the night Kevin’s dad died.  He said Kevin came home around midnight, an hour past his curfew, and found his father hunched over the dining room table with a needle in his arm.  He knew he was dead because he had turned blue.  After Kevin called 911, he lost his temper and started screaming and smashing things in the house.

“Oh my God,” I said to Joe.

But the tragedy didn’t end there.  A year later, when I asked Joe how Kevin was doing with his mom in Jersey, Joe would inform me that Kevin had been killed riding a dirt bike on a back road in Toms River.

Tough Love

by Christopher Paslay

The following memoir was cut from the final version of The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility.  The book, which is part memoir, part education commentary, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield this September.     

I’ve met teachers over the years who don’t believe in an overabundance of structure.  They feel too much emphasis on rules and discipline makes things ridged and stifles learning and creativity.  Personally, I disagree.  It’s been my experience that students crave discipline, especially the ones that have chaos in their lives.  If you put up a fence in the backyard, a kid doesn’t have to think about the boundaries anymore, he can run free within the limits.  Without a fence, a kid might forget himself and get hurt.  Wander off and get lost, fall down a well, get hit by a car.

Growing up, I knew all about fences.  I went to 12 years of Catholic school.  In sixth grade, during the 1983-84 school year, I had a nun for a teacher named Sister Dominica.  She was about 70 years old at the time, which meant she had cultivated her teaching and disciplinary techniques in the 1940’s and 50’s, a time when Catholic school nuns were known for outrageous behavior, like closing a door on a student’s head or slapping him smartly across the face.  I had a run-in with Sister Dominica during the first quarter of the school year.  Apparently, she considered me to be what she called an R.C.I.—a person who was rude, crude and ignorant.  She even had me recite this back to her.  She’d say, Mr. Paslay, what are you?  And I’d have to say, Rude, crude and ignorant, Sister Dominica.  In reality, I was just an 11-year-old boy who was a bit silly and hyperactive. 

I hung around with two other boys who were silly and hyperactive as well.  In class we talked too much and weren’t as respectful as we should have been.  When Sister Dominica told us to jump, we hesitated—and ripped the occasional fart—before we asked how high.  Of course, this didn’t sit well with this old school nun who in her heyday ate elementary school children for dinner. 

So in the beginning of November, when report cards were issued during parent teacher conferences, Sister Dominica met with my mother in her classroom and tore me a new asshole; thankfully I wasn’t there to see it.  Sister Dominica carefully articulated my disrespectful behavior—the fact that I would fart in class and not even say excuse me.  She went into detail about my silliness and tom-foolery, my propensity to distract other students and not always follow directions.  She said this and a half-dozen other things that horrified my mother.  She also noted that I’d received two C’s on my report card—in spelling and grammar, ironically enough.  In 10 minutes Sister Dominica got two months frustration off her big-bosomed chest.     

After the conference was over, my mother left the classroom and to her embarrassment walked out into the hallway where she was greeted by the stares of all the other mothers who’d overheard the entire episode while waiting their turn.   

My mother was fuming. 

I was playing football with some friends on the front lawn of our house when she pulled up in the car after the conference. 

“You’re in big trouble, buster,” she said to me, got out of the car and slammed the door.  My friends snickered over the word buster, but when she gave them a scolding look they took the football and left.  My mom was so angry that she had trouble getting the key in the front door. 

“Get inside,” she said.  “When dad gets home, you’re going to get a beating.”  I asked why, and then she recapped the whole incident—how Sister Dominica said I was misbehaving and screwing around in class, not following directions, acting like a real jackass. 

“And the worst part,” my mother said, “was that you embarrassed me!  All the other mothers were waiting in the hall and overhead everything!”

When my father got home there was a gigantic blowout.  My parents lectured me for a half an hour about respecting the teacher and following the rules, and informed me that I wasn’t allowed out the following weekend. 

“And no television, either,” they said.

As it turned out, this wasn’t enough to get through my thick head.  The next morning, when I was getting ready for school, I started arguing in the kitchen with my mom about school work and about the things we talked about the afternoon before.  This meant only one thing: it was time for a spanking.

My father stormed downstairs, anger in his eyes, wrinkles forming on his forehead.  “Go upstairs.  You’re getting a beating.”

“But dad—”

 “Go upstairs now!” 

I knew the drill.  I went up to my bedroom, removed my pants and underwear, and lay down on my stomach on my bed.  Several minutes later my father came into the room, belt in hand, and proceeded to whip my backside, hard, three times.  He left three welts that would fade within the hour, but it hurt like hell and I cried at the top of my lungs.  Spankings were agonizing and put the fear of God into me, which is why my father only used them as a last resort in very serious situations.        

Afterwards, it was time to go to school.  My father dropped me off like he always did. 

“Chris,” he said to me before I got out of the car, reaching over and putting his hand on my shoulder, “I hope you know that me and mom love you.  We only do this because we care, and want to see you become a good person.  Do you understand this?”

“Yes,” I said to him, and sniffled. 

My father hugged me and I went inside to school.  I went through the normal morning routine in Sister Dominica’s class, diagramming sentences, defining vocabulary words, still shaken from the spanking.  At one point I started quietly crying again, ducking down behind the boy in front of me so no one would notice.  Sister Dominica came over several times to give me some Kleenex, revealing a rare soft spot in her heart, and this simple act changed our relationship profoundly.  She was impressed I was taking my medicine like a man, and looking back it’s clear she was struggling with something close to guilt.  Had she overreacted with my mother? she wondered.  Maybe

But now I was awakeAware.  My head had been officially removed from my ass.  I eventually became Sister Dominica’s favorite student.  She was able to help me channel my energy into my class work, and I finished the sixth grade with straight A’s.  My behavior grade went from a U (unsatisfactory) to an O (outstanding). 

Did I believe in fences?  Boundaries?  Rules?  Most definitely.  As long as they were reasonable and anchored in love.

Release Date Set for ‘The Village Proposal’

The Village Proposal: Education as a Shared Responsibility, a book on school reform written by Philadelphia School District teacher Christopher Paslay, will be officially released by Rowman & Littlefield Education on September 28, 2011

To preorder a copy, please click here.

The Village Proposal is based on the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. Part education commentary, part memoir, the book analyzes the theme of shared responsibility in public schools and evaluates the importance of sound teacher instruction; the effectiveness of America’s teacher colleges; the need for strong school leaders and supports; the need for strong parental and community involvement; the effectiveness of multiculturalism and social justice in closing the achievement gap; the relevancy of education policy; the impact of private business and politics on schools; and how the media and technology are influencing education.

 About the Author

Christopher Paslay teaches high school English in the Philadelphia School District where he’s worked since 1997. He’s a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer, where his articles on education and school reform often appear.