Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking

I normally don't respond to post on my blog. Over the years (my first column appeared in the Herald-Sun on July 20, 1997) I have received death threats from members of the KKK, had a slumlord yell at me over the phone, received mail from a dude warning me I would be killed while walking down the streets, been called an Uncle Tom by black people and accused of raising the race card by white people. Simply put, I have been hated by just about every segment of the population.

A couple of things ring true in evaluating those who have responded to my work. I’ve discovered that most of my critics lack sound reading comprehension. This happens on a number of fronts. There are those who don’t read what I write, but rather listen to what others think about what I write. As a journalist, I have learned to read the original document before drawing your own conclusions. Most of my detractors draw suppositions based on what someone else said about what I said. This is why I listen, as hard as it has been, to Rush Limbaugh. I dislike what he says not because of what others say about what he says, but because of what I have heard him say.

Sounds simple, but trust me when I say it gets hard reading what people say about what you say when you hold in your hand the original document. I would like to believe that most of what has been posted on my blog is the outcome of people responding based on what they have heard, rather than from what they have read. Otherwise, we are contending with a generation that lacks basic reading comprehension skills.

I’m not alone in this assessment. “I'm very concerned about the lack of basic communication skills exhibited by those students who fired off angry, reactionary messages fueled, in some cases, by the default ‘the media's out to get us’ attitude that plagues that school in particular and the DPS central office, IMO,” a local reporter responded in an email. “It was clear that some of them commented after hearing about, but not checking out for themselves w/some degree of objectivity, what you wrote!”

The reporter continued. “Some of our kids really need to have someone with patience to teach them critical thinking skills, or they'll be doomed to marginal opportunities and glass ceilings after graduation that wouldn't be there if they saw themselves as well prepared, truly educated, possibly bilingual and very curious citizens of the world...with minimal (if any) hobbled self-image generated chips on their shoulders.”

My colleagues concern for the state of critical thinking and reading comprehension led me to write this post. Most disturbing is how prevalent it is among a vast percentage of those who read my recent post. Critical thinking involves a level of responsibility that many of my readers lack. Before speaking, do the homework. Study the subject being criticized. Develop an opinion based on significant research around the subject matter. Simply do the homework.

I don’t blame the students at Hillside for lacking a historical perceptive. They’re not aware of my role in writing columns when the new Hillside was built. They are too young to remember the viscous attacks I launched at Ann Denlinger, the former Superintendent. They are too young to remember how I fought, since the inception of their school, for the promotion of all that is good at Hillside. They are too young to remember Richard Hicks, the principal who led Hillside from the old building to the new. They haven’t read the columns I wrote back in the late 90’s about Richard Hicks and the strengths at Hillside.

The youth at Hillside are too young to remember that, back in the day, there was a fight to merge the City and County school systems. They don’t know the heated battles to complete what Mayor Bill Bell started when he was Chair of the County Commission. They weren’t there to listen to the fear laced comments coming from white residents. They didn’t have to read what the paper wrote back in the day. They are reaping the benefits of having a local press that has been stripped due to the economy. In other words, if not for the reduction in staffing at both the Herald-Sun and the News & Observer things would be much worse.

This generation makes assumptions related to their school that those who came before them never had the privilege of embracing. They have the guile to believe citizens have no right to know about what happens in their schools. They pick fun at those in the press and attack them for reporting on what the public has a right to know. When guns are found in the schools, when academic performance is low, when drop-out rates are high and there are other issues in the school, people have a right to know. Why, because there is a history that predates this discussion, and it is incumbent upon those within this merged school system to prove the experiment is working.

As I’ve stated, I can’t blame the students for not knowing better. I can’t blame them for not being there, for not reading my work from the past, for not knowing the work that has been done or for making far too many misguided statements about the reporting on matters involving their school. As disturbing as all of that may be, what gets under my skin is their lack of comprehension or, and I hope this is it, not reading before they write.

A suggestion on reading within context-read all of the relevant material before formulating an opinion on the subject. Read it for yourself. Don’t take the comments of others. Let me give you a bit of history on this subject. There were two previous blogs. The first raised eyebrows after I exposed Pappy would not be returning to Hillside. In that post I discussed reasons behind his leaving. For those who missed it, the reference to the man in the nice suit was not a criticism of Pappy, but rather a statement related to the cycle implored by DPS administrators-place the job in the hands of the guy in the suit or the lady in the dress. My suggestion to the administration was to give Pappy more time. The post was not an attack against Pappy, but more of a call to action.

The second post was an apology to the students at Hillside. It was written after Mr. Pappy exposed how hurt the students were after the first blog post. It was my personal gut check. It seems that responses to this recent post failed to read the second blog, or, just maybe, they care less that an apology was made in the first place. If that is true, and I hope it isn’t, students need a lesson involving character and forgiveness.

With all of that being said, the students who have posted on this blog make some great points. Posting in this public form is one of the ways to alter any misperception. It is up to the students at Hillside, and other low performing schools across the state, to remind us all that test scores are not the only way to measure academic excellence. The students often refer to the drama department at Hillside. Hillside New Tech and the International Baccalaureate program are gems within the Durham Public School system. Great things are happening at Hillside, but beyond these obvious reminders of success, great things are happening that can’t be measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The best way to alter all of those perceptions is in how students present themselves in public space. When arguments are formed based on sound, credible evidence-people listen. Those arguments should be made not as an attack against the character of those engaged in reporting and giving commentary on the news. The best way to shift the tide of public opinion is not to engage in a war, but to raise the bar. Speak with credibility. Do your homework. Don’t make assumptions. Speak with passion, but when you do, be sure you have read the evidence before you speak.

And please keep posting. Let us know how you feel. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind. This blog belongs to you. Challenge me when I’m wrong, but when you do that, do it with respect. Not because my feelings will be hurt, but because all eyes are on you and your school. This blog has given the world a chance to see you in a different light, and that light is shinning. Your school is better because of your words.

Go mix those words with truth. Read.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Death of Earl Pappy

I unlocked the door to the gym at West Village as four students from Hillside followed prepared to show their moves. Dremarcus “Little Dre” Rogers received a text message. “Dang man,” he whimpered in disbelief. “Mr. Pappy is dead.”

I didn’t want to believe the text message. I ran upstairs to my loft and began making calls to confirm the news. “Yeah man,” Delbert “DJ Kraze” Jarmon said. “He died of a heart attack this morning. Earl Pappy, the former Principal of Hillside High School, died on Sunday morning.

I soon discovered that his last days were engulfed in a tussle to find work after resigning his post at Hillside. He walked away after being pressured by members of the alumni association, some parents and folks like me to turn things around at the troubled school. People were tired of all the negatives that came with having a student enrolled at the Hillside. It was time to shift the cycle of dismay that made Hillside a laughingstock among North Carolina schools.

I’ll never forget my last encounter with Earl Pappy. It was during a meeting with the Site Based Management Team at Hillside. They were troubled after reading a blog I posted that called for a change in the culture at Hillside. Pappy was angry because the students were angry. I listened as other members of the committee shared their opinions about my blog. It wasn’t until Pappy spoke that I decided to write an apology to the students.

“I haven’t read what you wrote,” he said. “I don’t need to read it. My students are upset and that’s all I need to know about what you wrote.” It was the look on his face that got my attention. I could tell he cared about the students. He was right. They had heard enough bad news about their school.

“He was more like a friend than a Principal,” Cortland “Big Dre” Gallaway said. “He really cared about us.” Big Dre talked to me about how Pappy would listen to the students. In his mind that was a good thing. In the minds of some of the teachers it’s what made it difficult for him to succeed.

One teacher told me Pappy was a bad match for Hillside. The school, in that teacher’s opinion, needed a disciplinarian, someone who would tell the boys to pull up their pants. “He would have been great in a school like Hillside New Teach or in a setting where the emphasis was just on the academics. The problem I have is in how he was set up to fail.”

From all accounts Pappy had a hard time finding work after leaving Hillside. I’m told he spent his last days depressed due to the stress caused by having to deal with a career change. Is that what happens after we throw people among the wolves to be devoured while attempting to make a difference? After being forced to leave his job, the school system failed to find a place for Pappy to continue to use the gifts that landed him the job. What happened to all those accolades that had leaders of the system raving about how he would make a difference?

“He was easy to work with,” said Nakia Jones. Jones has served as a substitute teacher at Hillside since 1996. She has watched Principals come and go. “The one thing that set him apart from others was his support for the arts. He really believed in what we were doing and did all he could to support us.”

Pappy’s biggest critics acknowledge that he was a great person. “I can separate how I feel about a person from how I feel about them as a leader,” Jarmon said. “As much as I liked him as a person I did not think he was the right person for Hillside.”

It is hard to talk about a person after they die. During his life I believed Pappy was set up to fail. I wrote that the Alumni hindered his progress. I believed then, and still do, that it was a lack of support from the community that led to his end at Hillside. I believed then, and I still do, that our expectation for Pappy to save the ship from sinking void of help from those looking from the outside would set him up to fail-just like those who came before him at Hillside.

What troubles me most is what happened after he walked away. No one was there to offer him a job. No one cared enough to help Pappy stand with integrity after the pressure was too much for him to continue in his role at Hillside. It is disturbing to me that black men with insight take that risk everyday to make a difference. They throw themselves in the midst of the hardest battles only to be cast to the side after they are unable to make the expected change.

This man deserved the right to work with dignity. Why didn’t we support him after he walked away? Why couldn’t we find a way to utilize his enormous gift? Why do we give black men one chance to fail?

This was a great man who loved the students at Hillside. They cared for him for reasons some may never understand. He made a difference in their lives. Despite all of that he couldn’t get a job.

Help me understand why. It’s a shame. No, it’s a damn shame!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: A Call to Serve

I’ll never forget the day my mama taught me how to be mission minded. I was preparing to leave for school when a taxi pulled into our driveway. My mother goes into the garage where luggage was waiting, comes back into the house to inform me and my father she was leaving to go to Haiti. We both stood in shock as the taxi pulled off to take my mother to the airport.

I thought of my mama’s trip when I heard of the earthquake in the most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. She returned with stories about the people she met there. She talked about the beauty of the country and her experience with voodoo. She was moved by the power of the worship service which ended with a chicken being decapitated. Haiti changed my mother, but not because of the landscape our rituals of the people. It was the poverty that opened her eyes and paved the way for her work as a true catalyst of change.

From her work with women to the founding of a homeless shelter back in Missouri, my mother’s trip to Haiti began my own journey down that lonely road of doing all I can to make a difference. There was something in her eyes when she returned that forced me to rethink the decisions I would soon make. Those pictures of the poor would not let me sleep.

I called my mother after the earthquake. I asked her about Haiti. Her response was simple, “You know I went there,” she said. “It hurts so much.” Then a pause. “My God it hurts so much.”

My friend Glenda Jones called just before I made that call back home. Her call reminded me of one I received after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Back then Inga Willis and Sima Flower, owners of Peace Fire Galleries, called me disgusted by the lack of attention given to the horrific pictures that consumed us-people unable to get off roofs. Pictures of dead bodies floating, children crying and senior citizens dazed by it all. One gloomy image after another left us feeling mortified and disgusted by a lack of movement.

We moved to the streets crying for help. We stood there begging people to help in some way, any way, to put an end to the pain of our brothers and sisters down there. We held buckets to collect money. We had no permit. We did not know we needed one. Soon, donations came and an organized followed and hope took over. Glenda’s voice was another call to move.

“We will be taking donations on Saturday,” she said. “We want to collect items for babies. Will you help?” Of course I will. I called my mother. When I hung up the phone I cried. I cried because of the sound of my mama’s voice. I could tell she wanted to go back. I knew the faces of the orphans she visited while there came to mind. I knew she thought of all the poor people who now had to endure even more pain.

So, items will be collected on Saturday at Glenda’s salon-Sincerely Yours at 2718 Hillsborough Road (next to Merchants Tire). They will collect items to be shipped from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. The drive is in collaboration with the Family Health Ministries, a charitable organization based in Durham, NC that provides medical care in Haiti with 70 volunteers in the country. Family Health Ministries will ship the items to Haiti.

Family Health Ministries is requesting specific donations:


Because of cultural differences or weight concerns the following items are NOT requested:

· NO Pampers
· NO Baby Food
· NO Water
· NO bottles of alcohol or antiseptics

The number at Sincerely Yours Salon is (919) 286-7777 or call Liz at (919) 260-0357. It happens tomorrow, January 16th. It’s interesting it all happens on the weekend of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday celebration. What better way to honor Dr. King than to participate in a cause that he would have encouraged.

Our prayers go out to all the people in Haiti. We send them our love. We send them our support. I send them the spirit of an amazing mother who taught a son how to love and give. This is the work of the kingdom of God.

Yes, it hurts so much mama, but you son will do what he can to do what you taught him to do.

Take that Pat Robertson.