Writing In the Durham Public Schools

MichelTharpWebEditor’s Note: Below is Michel Tharp’s brief presentation to the Club about writing programs in the Durham Public Schools in response to some concern after David Robbins program that Durham’s situation might be similar to what David discovered in Richmond several years ago and led to the founding of Podium in Richmond.

Three weeks ago, we had an inspiring presentation by David Robbins from Richmond. Virginia.  He described a very impressive writing program he has organized through The Podium Foundation. This foundation has done a remarkable job of promoting writing in the public schools.  His foundation serves as wonderful model for private groups to create useful and effective organizations that can make helpful and significant contributions to help improve public schools.

Several times in his presentation, Mr. Robbins mentioned that Durham Public Schools might have many of the same problems that Richmond schools have. While there are many similarities (poverty, low performing populations, high drop out rates among minority males, etc), the one area he focused on is his talk was the fact that Richmond schools did not offer any writing classes and that no school had a newspaper or literary journals.  I was immediately horrified that many people in this room listening to his talk might think that this was also true for Durham Public Schools.   As a 14 year teacher in Durham Public Schools, I know that this is NOT true and I feel that it is absolutely necessary for me to make sure that every one here knows this is not the case.

For the past 10-12 year, all DPS schools have worked with  philosophy called “Writing Across the Curriculum” – this program emphasizes writing in every course – English, history, science, math, arts, health, etc –across the entire curriculum. There are training sessions, in-service workshops and continual support for teachers to incorporate writing in their classrooms.  I’ll admit that even though, I personally felt very comfortable and confident teaching writing, as a mathematics teacher, I did have some trouble justify the time that students spent writing how they would solve an equation instead of just going ahead and solving it. But that’s not the point – the point is that district policy places a high emphasis on student writing

Knowing the things that were happening at my school, I decided to check out the other traditional high schools.  Every one of our schools has a school newspaper as well as a student created yearbook.  Many of the newspapers have ongoing connections with “The independent” and “The Voice.  In addition to the writing that is an integral part of ALL English classes, the district curriculum offers courses in Journalism (Riverside offers 5 different levels of Journalism) as well as courses in Creative writing and Critical writing and even “writing through literature”.  At least three of the high schools have had professional writer come in to work with their students this year.  Hillside’s “Book Club” invites members to bring in and read their own poetry.  Other schools have Creative Writing Clubs and Slam “spoken” poetry club.

For the past 5 or 6 years, DSA has produced a Literary Journal entitled “Portraits in Ink” which last year won a “Superior” rating from the National Council for Teacher of English.  That journal looks just like the ones we saw from Richmond with short stories, poems, essays, commentaries, drawing and other art work.

In Durham, developing writing skill starts long before high school.  As a Reading Ranger, I am lucking that I get to spend an entire morning each week with Ms. Jones’s first grade class. Every week, we work on a writing project. It might be a narrative – “My first day at school”, a critique “My favorite part of the book was..”, opinion “I think we should have more or less recess” or personal feelings” My treasure chest would have …”.  In all this writing, these first graders are encourage to expand and develop their ideas and include more and more details – at least 5 or 6 sentences with 6 words or more. As a reward they get to draw picture about their writing and read them to the other students.  The halls of Y E Smith are full of hundreds of other writings samples from this and other classes.

Yes, DPS is faced with many challenging problems and the school system could definitely use the kind of help and support that a Podium Foundation type organization could provide in many different arenas including reading, writing, science, math and other aspects of student growth and development.  But we all need to know that writing and literacy is not dead and forgotten in Durham Public schools but that it is an important dynamic and integral part of the entire Durham Public school system.

Submitted by Michel Tharp

Program Report: The Last Moderate Muslim – Sam Wazan

SamWazanWebFull disclosure: most Rotarians in our club know that I am an American Jew married to a Catholic Palestinian.  My mother-in-law’s father was killed when she was eight by a bomb blast in an Israeli market. No person I know from the Middle East (and of course I know more than most) didn’t carry a story to the US with them of violence,  sorrow, displacement, and a deep-seated desire for peace.

So it is less than ironic that it was my turn to write the minutes for our speaker for the day, Sam Wazan, author of “The Last Moderate Muslim”. It is a shame our announcements gave Mr. Wazan such a short time to speak, because how can one summarize neatly the path for peace in the Middle East, or for that matter anywhere?

I hesitate to even try to condense his story for you here, because these are stories I know personally: I only remind you that in reading the words “slaughter”, “massacre” or “rape” that they are more than letters on your screen; they are the deepest tragedies human beings can bear. And so Mr. Wazan implored that perhaps all he could do was allow us to see the conflicts through the eyes of those who have lived it, and beg an end to our apathy.

Sam sought out to do four things in his short talk: give us a new lens to see the violence through, share the root causes of conflict, how he believes you can achieve peace where there is a culture of religious violence, and to implore us to do things differently because the United States “inadvertently fuels the fire.”  Here he made reference to changes we can make such as boycotting non-profit organizations which are intent on making their enemy, ours. “The camp that I subscribe to is upholding humanity above all differences in pursuit of peace.”

Raised in a Muslim school, Sam recalls his first identifications for himself: that he was a Sunni Muslim, and that Jews and Americans should die. By the age of ten and a half Sam’s life was torn apart by the Lebanese Civil War, so he was exposed to horrible conditions: snipers, religious massacres and constant bombing. For fifteen years there was no power, water or phones. He witnessed Christians murdered, first systematically tortured to cause as much suffering as possible, and this continued back and forth between the two faiths. By 1982 the country was invaded by the Israelis, and now even trying to buy gasoline he had to maneuver past Christians, Israelis and the PLO, his heroes, who shot at his car, stole his gasoline, and stole his faith in them as well.

He remembers the Israeli army allowing the Christian militants to surround the Palestinian camps (here I believe he is referring to the Sabra and Shatila massacres, which Jean Genet wrote about, but I am certain there were more than just these that he means), and the Muslim militants retaliating against the Christians, the leaflets from the Israelis stating that any males 16-60 years of age would be considered enemies of the State of Israel and their “future was undetermined”. So in the end, he believes Peace can only come if it starts free from ancient grudges, because the damage to the people of the region, especially on their psyches and those of their children is so great, that the starting point must be one of respect. Where each side listens to the other with the intention of finding value in what the other has said.

And so Sam Wazan travels and speaks to Jews, Muslims and Christians, imploring that we forget who is right or wrong, and mostly that we are not cavalier about where our money, support or votes go, and to make certain that these things match what is actually happening on the ground in the Middle East, not just rhetoric for the status quo.

I believe all of us who listened to Mr. Wazan’s story wished we could have heard more. Much of what he said was unbearable to hear, but should be heard for the very reasons he states: our lives, our economy, all that globalization depends on peace in these regions. Or we will all suffer the consequences.

Submitted by Deirdre Haj

Editor’s note: Sam Wazan’s novel, The Last Moderate Muslim can be purchased on Amazon. There is a link on this page to his “author page” as well with some biographical info.  The book is available in paperback as well as for the Amazon Kindle. On the Barnes and Noble site, the book is available at this link as a NookBook

Rotary Minutes: Bob Gutman

BobGutmanRotaryMinuteWI have no doubt that Bob was a passionate physician. But anyone that expected to hear about how he left Duke and founded Durham Nephrology Associates or served on the Board of the Renal Physicians Association, or as President of the Medical Staff and Chief Medical Officer of Durham Regional Hospital, had to be disappointed in his presentation. Forget about the time he served in Vietnam as a Navy Medical Officer.

But anybody could learn that, which I did by googling Bob’s name. What has been so fascinating about these Rotary Minutes is learning things about our members that you seldom learn with a google search; their deep interests, their passions and how they really want to be remembered themselves.

Bob made no bones about it. He is not only passionate about Durham and the Judea Reform Community here, but also about Israel which he had recently returned from. Bob noted that he and his family were supporters of the fabulous Levin Jewish Community Center that we were listening to him in. But most of his time was spent describing Jerusalem and other vibrant and diverse areas of Israel.

Travelogues without pictures can be pretty boring but this was a case where the enthusiasm of the narrator can paint an even more vivid picture than the camera. For me, it certainly shed some light on a fuzzy impression I’ve had of a prosperous but barricaded country in one of the most tortured corners of the world.

As President Don remarked afterwards, anyone visiting Israel would do well to take Bob along as a tour guide.

Submitted by Jay Zenner

Program Report: Offsite at the Levin Jewish Community Center – Peace Scholar Rachel Rafferty

PeaceScholarWOne summer when I was much younger I used to bike ride with a couple of elderly Jewish gentlemen around Byrd Park in Richmond. The treat was that we would finish with a breakfast of bagels with lox and cream cheese, prepared by the wife of one of them. I knew bagels and I knew cream cheese but lox was something new to me. If texting had been invented then, my reaction would have been “OMG!”

So when I saw the menu for our “off site” meeting at the Levin Jewish Community Center, my mouth watered and I knew this was a meeting that I couldn’t miss. I wasn’t disappointed…and it wasn’t just the food. It was my first peek at the LJCC, or the whole complex off of Cornwallis Road for that matter, and I was stunned at how impressive the facilities are. The hospitality extended by Executive Director Steve Schauder, our club board member Bob Gutman (who also helped with the menu), Durham Sunrise Club President Larry Rocamore (who co-chaired the fund raising committee that raised the money to build the LJCC) was wonderful. President Don also recognized our executive secretary, Sharon Lassiter, who worked with Erin Biggerstaff, the LJCC manager of corporate sponsorships and rentals. They made the logistics of an off site meeting seem way too easy.

The bright spring day also enhanced the background for a visit and presentation from Rachel Rafferty, a Rotary Peace Scholar from the nearby Duke-UNC Rotary Center for International Studies in peace and conflict resolution, one of six such Rotary Peace Centers around the world and the only one located in the Americas. The first image that Ms. Rafferty shared with us was not so pleasant, however. It was a bombed out town square from her homeland of Northern Ireland from the time of the “Troubles.”

Rachel is an educator and the essence of her work revolves around how we acquire the myths that perpetuate conflicts and the potential role of educators to alleviate hatreds through curricula with more objectivity and sharing of both sides of a story. She noted that there were many obstacles to achieving success in this endeavor not the least being the political opposition of leaders who whose power is dependent on fear created by these myths.

Northern Ireland has resolved its problems but there are many, many conflicts on the international stage that will drive the need for more study and work by peace scholars for as long as any of us will live. But there are many conflicts of a much less global nature that can benefit from the same principals Ms. Rafferty described. Not the least of these is the current debate in our country about guns. I suspect that the image of a gun owner in most of the rural areas of this country is that of a responsible citizen that considers a gun as much of a tool as a means of protection or sport. I learned recently, somewhat to my horror, that my youngest brother, perhaps the gentlest man I know, not only has a gun but has used it on occasion to put down a dying animal. If your influence is an urban environment, the image of a gun owner is more likely to be a spaced out kid peddling dope on a street corner or a hate crazed neo-nazi with a basement full of clips and ammo.

Submitted by Jay Zenner
This culture clash could benefit from some of the insights developed by Ms. Rafferty but it also faces some of the same obstacles such as politicians stoking the fears to consolidate their own power.

Here are some links to explore some of what we were treated to on Monday. More information about the LJCC is at www.levinjcc.org and the Judea Reform Congregation at www.judeareform.org. The Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center is at www.rotarypeacecenternc.org and they have a very active Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DukeUncRotaryCenter. Rachel Rafferty’s profile is at http://rotarypeacecenternc.org/peace-fellow-profiles/current-fellows/class-10/.

Program Report: David Robbins – Richmond Virginia’s Model for Improving Literacy

 DavidRobbinsWhen David Robbins, novelist and teacher of creative writing, was asked by a friend in the Richmond, Virginia, court system to look at the city’s public schools to see if there was some missing ingredient that might offer an alternative to incarceration of wayward youth, David made a startling discovery:  Not a single high school or middle school in the Richmond school system offered courses in creative writing and none had a school newspaper or literary journal.  Convinced that writing and the creation of art in other media provided avenues for instilling a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem in youth, David set out to remedy the deficiencies in the schools.  This led—thanks in no small measure to David’s obvious enthusiasm and energy—to the creation of the Podium Foundation that has enjoyed remarkable success in advancing writing in the Richmond school system (www.thepodiumfoundation.org).

 Podium is not a mentoring program like our Reading Rangers which deals with a different, but related issue–to help students whose reading performance is subpar to get up to grade level.  Rather, Podium seeks to initiate a systemic change in the Richmond school system.  Additionally, it doesn’t use volunteers—that was tried early on but was found unsatisfactory—but instead puts paid staff members and Virginia Commonwealth student interns in participating schools.

The absence of any kind of writing program in Richmond had many explanations.  One obvious culprit was budget shortfalls.  Almost universally, what is the first thing to get cut when money gets tight?  Arts programs.  When David asked the Richmond superintendent of schools how it could be that writing programs were absent from the curriculum, the superintendent was quite blunt: No teachers, no teachers felt competent to teach writing skills, plus they were too busy “teaching to the tests.”

David realized there were at least two distinct issues to be addressed. One was overcoming student attitudes.  Podium would strive to replace the prevailing “stupid is cool” with “writing is cool” as the new norm.  Another matter was how to convince teachers that writing is important, that it can be incorporated into the curriculum in many ways and that they were perfectly capable of mentoring (“teaching” is probably not the right word) students to write creatively and expressively.

To deal with the last point, three years ago Podium established workshops titled “Teaching The Teachers.” Held at VCU in the summer, these intensive four day workshops for thirty high and middle school teachers are designed to provide skills, knowledge and confidence to “teach” creative writing and to see how creative writing and art can be used across the curriculum.  Teachers who have gone through this program are unstinting in their praise: “I realized how much I enjoyed writing and learning new techniques to inspire/motivate my students,” wrote one representative teacher.

To arouse student interest, Podium created a literary journal whose content, editorial work, illustration and design is wholly student produced.  Podium clubs with 20-25 members in each school provide the nucleus of the program, but submissions by a broad cross-section of the student population testifies to the reach of Podium and the development of writing programs in Richmond schools.  Writing and expressing oneself in other media has indeed become “cool.”  For example, the first issue of the Podium literary journal received 400 submissions.  This year the number will reach about 2,000, meaning that nearly half of all high school students in Richmond will submit a poem, short piece of fiction, personal memoir, opinion piece or artwork for consideration.  The print journal has become so popular that an online journal has been created (see www.podium-online.org).  Some teachers have started using the journal as a text.  Why is reading Melville or Reynolds Price a better way to learn about metaphors than reading the writings of peers?

Podium relies heavily on corporate and individual sponsorships.  An especially fruitful partnership is with the Richmond Times Dispatch that publishes student written opinion pieces several times a year.

Mark Lazenby introduced David Robbins whom he has known for many years.  David is a graduate of William and Mary College and UVA law school.  Some years ago, David abandoned the law practice to become a free-lance writer and, later, a full-time novelist.  Perhaps his most famous work is “War of the Rats,” an epic story of a game of cat and mouse between a Russian and German sniper that inspired the 2001 film “Enemy at the Gates.”  David has taught creative writing at William and Mary and at Virginia Commonwealth University.


Submitted by Allen Cronenberg

Rotary Against Drugs Speech Winner Shaza Gaballah

ShazaWebShaza Gaballah did our club proud by winning the District 7710 Rotary Against Drugs speech contest and then last Sunday winning the multi-district contest.

Thanks to sponsor Melissa Mills, we got to hear the winning speech at last week’s meeting. She proclaimed at the outset that, “This is a generation that has stopped caring.” OK, Shaza, you have our attention. She went on to describe her efforts to combat that trend. She founded a club at the School of Science and Math that tries to help people struggling with substance abuse to get help, raising money to support their treatment.

Our club can’t be accused of apathy, so Shaza’s inspiring proactive response to a problem among her peer group makes her a worthy representative. Her speech got a much-deserved standing ovation, something President Don noted isn’t exactly par for the course: “This is a tough room.”