Stay in Your Lane or Nah? A$AP Rocky, #blacklivesmatter & The ‘Raptivist’ Phenomenon

By Mr. Westbrooks

In an opinion piece for The RootMichael Arceneaux expressed his thoughts on A$AP Rocky‘s 2015 interview with TimeOut Magazine and his follow-up interview with The Breakfast Club last week. He ultimately came to the conclusion that the public shouldn’t expect all celebrities to use their platforms to speak out about the current issues if they lack the knowledge to do so. The following week, I watched an interview between Red Pill of Know The Ledge Radio and Brother Rich of Underground Railroad Productions in which Red spoke on Rocky’s comments as well. He expressed a similar sentiment and took it a step further by stressing the seriousness of activism and the need for statements and actions to only come from individuals who are sincere about the work. He also stated that rather than making the offensive comments that he made, he could’ve deferred his thoughts to someone more knowledgeable.

Recent events surrounding the backlash that A$AP Rocky received from the public/media along with NBA and WNBA players using their platforms to speak out against police brutality opens up for discussion the topic of whether professional athletes and celebrities should use their platforms for social commentary or simply stay in their lanes.  While I agree that staying in your lane prevents celebrities from making ignorant, outlandish, or disingenuous statements, a question that comes to mind is, “Should that philosophy apply to injustice?” Whether you’re living in a privileged position or in poverty, many of us probably know that at any given moment we can go from one extreme to the next. Furthermore, as Black people, most of us are aware that injustice can be inflicted upon us in some manner no matter what our socioeconomic status is.

With that being said, what doesn’t affect us directly could affect us if our circumstances happen to change. Moreover, a collective mindset teaches us that since we’re all connected by race or humanity (whatever you prioritize first), issues that don’t affect you directly, do make an impact indirectly. To use an oft-stated and on the verge of becoming cliche Dr. King quote, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s true that some threats just remain that, threats; however, the atrocities of anti-Black police brutality and vigilante violence in our history to accompany the recent string of events show and prove that the oppressor isn’t bluffing.

It’s hard to believe that Rocky is merely speaking on what he knows considering that he’s surrounded by media, and he maneuvered through uptown NYC during his adolescent years. Although he doesn’t live in Ferguson, the population and social ills of Ferguson probably mirrors those of Harlem in many ways. There’s a good possibility that he’s either witnessed police brutality or knows someone or heard a story about someone who was a victim of it. He doesn’t have to know about politics to recognize that shooting down unarmed Black people is a bad thing. Thinking about the root of Rocky’s comments, it makes me wonder whether he truly doesn’t know what’s going on, if he’s just choosing to not care, or like Megan Saad said about artists in general who shy away from becoming “raptivists,” he wants to protect his “financial interests and brands.”

If Rocky doesn’t care or if he’s afraid to lose his financial backing, he can refer back to the two paragraphs before the last. If he’s honestly lacking knowledge of what’s happening racially, socially, and politically in America, he can either do his duty as a so-called “American citizen,” and educate himself, he can do as Red Pill suggested and defer to someone more knowledgeable, or he can go with the Mr. Westbrooks theory and create his own lane by continuing to speak on what he knows, but in a manner that contributes to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Before anyone gets what I’m saying twisted, mixed up, and confused, let me first be clear that I’m not  one of those Black people that deflects the issue of police shootings by bringing up Black-on-Black violence. You also won’t hear me exclaim, “All Lives Matter!” I’m very aware that BLM is a movement to restructure or rebuild the Black Liberation Movement to include a broader population of Black people in terms of gender, sexual orientation, and ability with the goal of challenging systematic and blatant injustice while reaffirming our contributions to society.  And, I won’t pull the respectability card by suggesting that rappers need to change their content in order for the police and other racial groups to respect us. Now that that’s out of the way, I can get to the point of how A$AP Rocky can continue to rap and talk about what he knows while still contributing to the movement.

While groups outside of the Black social construct have and will continue to be apparent allies to BLM, it’s essentially all on us to achieve the solutions we need to reach, whatever they may be. It’s going to take buy-in and a unified effort from Black people. While rap songs about violence, drugs, money, hoes, and clothes aren’t the reasons why police are shooting down Black people, these factors can hinder our ability to unite in greater numbers and battle against the beast of racism and White supremacy.

If Rocky wants to talk about his friend being killed, he can do that and frame it in the context of the human impact of violence on friends and families. With his “new inspiration in drugs,” he can speak on how to use drugs responsibly in ways that allow you to tap into your spirituality. (Shout out to the Black Dot.) He can also discuss horror stories of the dangers of irresponsible drug use. If he wants to talk about being “in these bitches drawers,” he can either do the knowledge on the powers of sex magic or describe the emotional and health-related risks of having sex with multiple partners. “Jiggy fashion” is cool. Promote economic empowerment by showing love to fly, Black fashion designers.

Celebrities don’t have to talk about politics per se in order to contribute to the cause of BLM. They don’t necessarily have to assume the responsibility of being “raptivists” if that’s not what they know or are passionate about, but they do have a responsibility to avoid making destructive music that indirectly relates to the BLM movement. Meek Mill probably won’t quote the Constitution on his next album, but he did promise to not rap about “extreme violence” anymore after Dream Chasers 4.

Rocky mentioned that he wants to promote peace and inspiration through his music, and that’s what Black Lives Matter needs more of. He may not have the answers to our police brutality, Donald Trump, and Billary Clinton problems, and I understand his frustration with social justice issues. But, that peace and inspiration may be what people need to decompress from all of the craziness that’s going on. A$AP Rocky should challenge himself to be true to that objective and push himself to take it to the next level during these trying times, no matter if it’s in the studio, on social media, or in an interview.

 

 

#SummerReadingChallenge Book 2: Hip Hop Decoded

By Mr. Westbrooks

Hip Hop DecodedUnlike The Immortal Birth, The Black Dot’s Hip Hop Decoded was a recommended read that just sat on my Amazon Wish List for long as hell until the author made an appearance in my city at a local Black-owned bookstore. I’ve watched several Black Dot and Professor Griff lectures on YouTube, and I mention Griff because he has lived similar experiences maneuvering in the music industry, and he has written and spoken about the metaphysical, esoteric, and occultist aspects of the entertainment industry, primarily Hip Hop. The masses of media consumers skeptical that a secret society of families connected by bloodline called the Illuminati controls the music industry, would probably dismiss Dot and Griff’s information as conspiracy theories, but that’s neither here nor there.

As you can see, I was already aware of the caliber of knowledge Black Dot was bringing to the table before I even opened his first book. (He also has another book called Urban Culture Decoded which I will read and write about at some point this summer.) According to his brief autobiography, Dot grew up in the South Bronx and led his own Hip Hop career as a young emcee named Cheba La Rock in the 80s and 90s. He was to signed to B-Boy Records, toured around the world with Tim Dog, established an independent label, B.I.B Records, and started a group called The Lethahedz that released an EP called A&R Killer.

During these years, he would learn the ins and outs of the music business, so needless to say, Dot is more than qualified to write about Hip Hop. His support and backing from Hip Hop’s pioneers such as Kool Moe Dee, Professor Griff, and Grandmaster Caz – who also wrote the foreword – further legitimizes Dot’s qualifications. Even after all of the YouTube presentations along with the in-person lecture he gave at the Source of Knowledge bookstore in Newark, NJ, I was still amazed after reading HHD as it widened my third eye even more to the mystery of Hip Hop.

Looking at the title, it may be easy to mistake HHD for your typical book on Hip Hop that  gives you a chronological history of the culture as it relates to the social and political events occurring during each era. It’s not that. It’s also not a purist tirade of how Hip Hop music has become shit hop in its contemporary age. And, it’s not a top 25, 50, or 100 countdown of the greatest emcees of all time. It’s none of those things. It goes way deeper than that, and Dot makes that clear from the beginning.

Like he mentions in the foreword, HHD is about the “mystery of Hip Hop.” He does provide some history, but he doesn’t dwell on the early beginnings. The history is used as a reference point to contextualize how Hip Hop got to where it was when the book was published in 2005 and where it could potentially go beyond that time. At some points, Dot praises Hip Hop and criticizes rap music, but the basis of his analysis is an alternative perspective that most people are probably unaware of. He dives deeply into the spiritual, metaphysical, numerological, and occultist implications of Hip Hop. He goes further back than the South Bronx in the late 70s and early 80s by drawing parallels between the four elements of Hip Hop (DJing, break dancing, graffiti, emceeing) and the four elements of our African past with drums, dance, hieroglyphs, and the oracle.

Throughout the book, Dot transforms and characterizes the culture as a Hip Hop metaphor of the movie The Matrix. He identifies the key figures of the music industry from the corporations at the upper echelons to the masses of consumers at the lowest level. He reveals what the red and blue pills represent, and he discusses the roles that all of us play in the Hip Hop Matrix. To appeal to a variety of learners and to reach a broader audience, the author conveys his scrutiny through an array of methods – fictional stories, visual illustrations/diagrams, historical facts/current events, and critical analysis.

Allow me to reiterate that HHD was published in ’05, so the events surrounding the Nas and Jay-Z beef, the fall of Roc-A-Fella Records, the rise of G-Unit and it’s on-wax and possibly off-of-wax conflict with Murder Inc. may all be dated; however, the overarching themes and messages are relevant today and for years to come. HHD is written for the masses of people who’ve noticed that something is terribly wrong with Hip Hop as it exists contemporarily, or for those who question the judgment of the XXL Magazine staff members who selected this year’s freshman class. Appropriation and commodification has caused the culture to devolve from it’s highest vibrational frequencies from a time when it was in its purest form. In order to unplug yourself from the Hip Hop Matrix and to take the first steps towards destroying the Matrix machine, this book is a must-read.

Black Dot

#SummerReadingChallenge Book 1: The Immortal Birth

 

By Mr. Westbrooks

Immortal Birth2I had no prior knowledge of The Immortal Birth by Allah Jihad. I’ve never heard anyone mention it or suggest reading it during a lecture. I was just happening to be perusing the shelves of the Source of Knowledge bookstore in Newark, NJ when the book cover caught my eye. The Universal Flag of the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE) was prominently situated in the center surrounded by symbols for the square and compass of Freemasonry, the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Shriners), the Christian cross, the Masonic grip, the Moorish Science Temple flag, the Moorish Science Temple Circle Seven, the Nation of Islam, and the Ansar Pure Sufi. Mdu ntr better known as Egyptian hieroglyphs filled up the backdrop. I deemed the placement of the hieroglyphs to be deliberate as I recognized that all of the groups and organizations represented on the cover are fragments of ancient Egyptian culture.

Mesmerized by the cover design, I picked up The Immortal Birth and flipped through the table of contents. I had no idea if this book would be worth reading, but the subject matter was of particular interest of mine, and I was sold on the positive reviews printed on the back cover. I took a chance and went against my philosophy of not judging a book by its cover and made the purchase. I’m glad I did.

In The Immortal Birth, author and NGE representative Allah Jihad takes his readers through five schools of thought related to Islam in Black America. Each chapter is dedicated to one group or organization. He starts off with Freemasonry by first delineating the differences between the speculative craft and the operative craft of Masonry. Along with historical points about its origins, Jihad ties everything together with an analysis of how Freemasonry relates to Black conscious organizations, which he further reveals in the proceeding chapters.

Again avoiding anticipated confusion, Jihad breaks down the differences between the ancient Moors and Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America (MST). He offers a biography of the organization’s founder and a  history of the MST in chapter two and does the same for  Master Fard Muhammad and the Hon. Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam (NOI) in chapter three. These chapters become even more interesting as Jihad details his experiences as a member of both the MST and NOI chapters in Chicago. He reveals his disappointment with the lack of high science in the MST, even after gaining access to the esoteric knowledge contained within the Adept Chambers. This and the corruption and hypocrisy he witnessed within the NOI would ultimately lead to his departure from the two respective organizations. Although Jihad expresses an overall negative analysis of these groups, he makes it a point to remain respectful to the MST, NOI, its leadership, and members. And, at no point does he advise readers to join or not join any organizations, but he merely advises readers to do the knowledge before moving forward.

Although Jihad’s primary focus is on Islam, he provides a wholistic outlook on all of the groups, and he writes critically at length of Dr. Malachi Z. York and the Nuwabian Nation of Moors. Following the same pattern, he attempts to deliver an accurate biography of York (in the midst of speculations and disagreements over York’s birthplace) and the history of his movement through each of its name changes starting with the Ansaar Allah community and ending with Nuwabian Nation. He addresses the economics of the movement, the conditions of its members, the contradictions in York’s teachings, and York’s sex abuse allegations and pending court case. Jihad cites media reports, books written about York, and he conducts his own investigation by interviewing former members of the Ansaar Allah community including one of the mothers of Dr. York’s children.

Lastly, Jihad thoroughly builds on the NGE, describing the history of the Gods in New York and telling the story of its founder, Father Allah. Although Jihad is critical of NGE, he clearly sheds the Nation in a more positive light than the other organizations, which is understandable considering this is the way of life and path that chose him. He shares his experience, corrects misconceptions, and furthers his analysis and history of NGE by including the insights of other members via essays, newspaper articles, and interviews.

The final chapter dedicated to the NGE is also a 101 course of the Nation’s teachings from their core values to the meaning of the Supreme Mathematics and Supreme Alphabets. Despite my unfamiliarity with The Immortal Birth, the book seems to be widely read, especially amongst NGE members as denoted by the numerous feedback messages from its readers at the end of the book. But, make no mistake about it. Anyone who has the desire to heighten their consciousness levels will appreciate what Allah Jihad has to offer in TIB. 

Student Responses to the End-of-the Year Open Letter Part 2

Background: I included an open letter to my students as a part of their final exam. You can read the initial letter here, and you can read their responses to my letter here. Upon catching a couple of students cheating/talking during my final exam, I gave the culprits zeros and required them to retake the exam. I created  a new exam with a new open letter. Below are the students’ responses to  my second letter. 

N.F.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

Your open letter was very interesting because it’s like we are speaking to each other about education and I admired that. It was funny how you said “I’m not picking on you” and put me on the spot but I was explaining this part I’m writing to someone. That’s why I understand why you gave me an zero. I’m happy that you gave me a second chance to make up and I should of known not to discuss anything because it’s a final but a lot of people was speaking that’s why I thought it would be ok to speak too.

Mr. Westbrooks you really funny I was mad yesterday that was suppose to be my  last day. I looked on my grade I had 2 A and 1 B and 1 F the F was by you I was like why he gave me a F and I seen talking and I had to talk to you and said the test tomorrow so I wanted to do whatever it took to get Honor Roll again and I’m working on it now.

I really appreciate you giving me a second chance on this test to make up my grade. Thank you Mr. Westbrook

T.B.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks

I appreciate that your letting me retake my final exam, because other teachers would’ve just gave me a “F.” And my grade would’ve been bad and I would not been able to make honor roll and my grade dropped so bad I would have had to attend summer school 2016.

I regret cheating on your test and if I can go back into time I’ll really change my act that day because it was very unacceptable because my grade was good in your class and I learned enough to do a great enough job the first try I did the test.

I am horrible at cheating because it’s not my hobby and I really didn’t study for the final until last night and everything seems more easy to me. I wish I would’ve did this from the start because I would not be in the situation I am as of right now. Thank you for letting me redo this important final, and great open letter. It was very interesting and made me look at the situation in another vein.

Student Responses to the End-of-the-Year Open Letter

Background: Last week, I posted an open letter that I wrote to my students. You can read it here. Below are some of the responses that the students wrote back to me. Each response is denoted by the student’s initials, and they are exact replications of what they wrote, so expect to see grammatical errors. 

S.H.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

With that being said, not all students have the same mindset as others. I understand where you coming from but I don’t know about others. I agree with you, I haven’t been here for that long, I see many kids that are real smart but all they do is try to show off in front of their friends. Today is mostly based off people impressing their friends so the “act tuff” or don’t want to do their work or try to be down and skip school. I tried to help people, I really did I tell people this all the time, but it’s like people are afraid to be judged. Like say a boy don’t want to they’ll call him a “B” word and not want to be his friend, call him a nerd etc. Basically if you get kids one by one I promise  you you’ll see a better grade or education percentage because they don’t have to impress anyone. But back to what I was really talking about. I have many goals I would like to accomplish. So I’ll try my best to accomplish my goals and take the advice that you gave me.

D.R.

I read your letter beginning to end and I found a lot of the things in your letter important and interesting. I’m one of the students that wants to go to college and find education very important. Th job I want to have when I grow up is a defense attorney and that takes a lot of school and hard work. I am going to try my best to achieve that goal but if that doesn’t work out, I will always have plan B and C which is a flight attendant or real estate agent. Them are some pretty good backup plans so even if I fail at becoming a defense attorney I will have backup plans. Like you said education is more bigger than grades. I agree in order to make A’s and B’s you have to know things. You can’t just make an A or B by knowing nothing. You have to put in the time and effort to achieve your goals and go to college. You also need an education to get a job you can’t expect to get a job and not know anything. A job is very important. It’s not to late to better your education and smarter your mind so that you are ready for any challenges that come your way. Work hard and play later.

S.B.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

My main goal in life is to be “successful.” When I express the term “successful” I don’t mean have lots of money or a huge mansion, and five cars. I want to be able to look back over the years of my life and be able to say “I made it.” I want to be able to be proud of myself. As I reminisce about my early years in high school and even through college, I wish to endure the satisfaction of knowing the sleepless nights, the extra credit assignments and the waking up early constantly every morning paid off. It took me a long time to figure out that nothing in life is given to you. You must earn “everything.” A quote I came across said “When you want to succeed, as bad as you want to breathe then you will be successful.” I feel as though if I work very hard, then reaching all my goals will be no problem. I highly understand the importance of education. A high school diploma nowadays does not mean anything. You should strive to go past your potential. I feel like education is something no one can take from you. It is more powerful than anyone can realize. But in reflect of what you said, I will do my best to be the best I can be. I will take my education more seriously. Thank you so much.

K.G.

Dear Westbrooks

I honestly agree with the whole letter. I feel that as a student I understand what you are trying to say. As I got through the first 2 paragraphs you seem like you’re trying to get a point across trying to reach out to us as a teacher or catch our attention on things we don’t notice. I like how you “BOLDED” your subjects about the message that your trying to send.

I feel like you tried to relate to us. It seemed like since we saw the school is easy, your goal was to make your class hard. Reading this I thought of everything you wrote and it sounds like you care for us. You don’t want to see throw our lives away. You would want to see us do well maybe on TV somewhere.

It is shameful that we would just want to pass and leave high school not knowing anything. It seems like we just want a good grade. With this being a “charter school,” public schools such as Central, Shabazz, Weequahic, they actually get more work and harder work.

I honestly would like to take this poem home because it was touching. And if you would take a few kids who have nothing going for their lives and read this to them maybe it could have them think a little bit.

Reading this I also thought I shouldn’t think about what I want to do until 12th grade year. But now I think I’m going to start early and have like backup plans because I have big dreams and I want to make them come true.

(PRINT THIS POEM OUT FOR ME!!!!!!!)

T.M.

Dear Mr. Westbrook,

I thank you for writing this letter towards us students. This letter motivates me to do better for myself. You’re my favorite teacher and writing this letter towards us makes me think hard about what I want to do after high school. You really caught my attention when you said how we all think this school is easy but when you handed us the social commentary project many of us struggled with the project and some of us still have not turned it in. Most of students think it easy because it easy to cheat and get an easy but then what happen after high school. You can’t cheat your way through life. Some of us really have an eighth grade education because it is easy to cheat here. But how are you going to get a job if you have a low educations intelligence. You can’t go to college and you think you going to cheat your way through. Cheating may help you now but in the long run it’s going to do more damage than help. So I would like to end this letter off with a thank you.

M.M.

Dear Westbrooks,

I have reviewed your letter and A’s and B’s do indicate my action in school. I’m focus on moving to the next grade. My english class is type easy. You put lessons together the best way you can to make your students understand the lesson very well. Some assignments sometimes I thought I would never get it but I came along and got it done.

I don’t think every assignment would be easy for me because you still have other people in different places that are very behind on different skills. Your letter gave me a total exchange mindset about my work and grades. You made me come to class more because you teach me great skills to lead me to passing your course.

M.E.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I agree with you 100%. A lot of students in this school are getting good grades but they are not really learning the content and keeping it in their brain so they would use it in the future. I like the way that you teach you brake everything down for us and make sure we don’t move on to something else unless we understand it and you give us a challenge so that we could actually put some thought into our work. I also agree that we don’t have to go to college to be successful. A lot of students in this school are talented so they could use their talent to start a business of be a super star. I agree with you and I think we need more teachers like you.

R.D.

I found this social commentary very interesting because is not just a letter to NPCS class of 2018 but is a letter that every student could be inspire by taking your words seriously; It will help student to have different mentality of education. Which you use to remind us that not a lot of people have the opportunity of attend high school, college or university. This message really inspired me and give me a reason of taking advantage of education because many people fought for education, which were their civil right but they were denied of their civilization of education. Now that I have the opportunity to something that many people dream of I will grab education is extored.

The second important that I personally learn in this message is that letter grade doesn’t really mean anything. Education is more than just a letter grade. A letter grade just describe your performance in academic. Education has a whole different meaning. Like you said in your letter “Education is any type of training or learning.”

“Money without consciousness, awareness, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding leads to destruction.” I learn a lot in this message. I also understand that money is not everything but money with education is everything.

I appreciate your time and concern about us, this letter will always hold a special place in my heart. As long you let me have a copy.

J.D.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

As a student of yours for a year and knowing you for 2 years I’ve honestly have learned a lot. Mr. Westbrooks your honestly my favorite teacher & I will always remember every chance you have given me to pass your class all the jokes and honesty you give on to us to make our day shine better I truly appreciate you. Your one of the teachers that really always have our best interest even though sometimes you do tell my mother I skipped your class but anyway you will always be my favorite teacher.

E.S.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I thank you for this letter because it helps understand a lot of were you coming from I’ve learned from you. I’ve learn from my mistakes. I know I’m a smart kid and not everything in life is easy. I’m planning a lot of things to do in the future like going to the military or to college, maybe both.

I know my first year was a mess but I’ve changed a lot and it’s what teacher is this school keep telling me. I’ve been progressing my work  and my behavior. Nowadays the street is not safe to be walking around with all these gang and shooting. This world needs to get better. Yes college is not for everybody but if you have good skills and know that you can be something in life then going to school is and working hard to achieve your dreams is the way to go.

K.J.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I greatly appreciate you for taking the time out to express how you feel about the students and our needs in NPCS. I agree with what you said 100%. Some of the kids around my age don’t take education to serious. Before you wrote this short letter I was one of the kids that said “This school is easy” but not easy because of the grades , I said it because we could get all the help we need, we can use the computers whenever we want but some of us tend to take advantage instead of taking the opportunity and bettering ourselves. When I took summer school last year that was a wake up call for me, because I knew I could have passed just like everybody else but I took advantage and waited until the last minute when it was already too late. I failed myself. However I am proud of myself now on who I am becoming. I’ve improved so much over the past year because I took my education more serious than my teachers.

N.F.

Your letter was upwelling. I like that you keep the class interesting because most students like learning new things and some gets bored if it’s not hands on. There are many reasons why a lot of students from last year stayed here it’s because teachers like you. You example what you hand us I get it when you do that and the note on the computer I like how you go over it in class.

This school assignments are easy but your work is difficult all of your work is writing assignments there is not a lot of quizzes and if it was it would be on a paper and must be handed in after class. Other classes there are a lot of questions that is very easy and out work is on the computer so if we don’t know a question we can get answer from another student.

I want to leave this school because I feel as though this school would not teach me what college seem as when I go to college I want to be on task and know what they are doing. Instead of being confused about my worse subject which is math. Everything about math confuse me but I agreed what everything you have said you know what happens in this building I just want a bright future.

A.A.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

It’s crazy how I’ve met you & you were a flex coach tending to disrespectful children’s need to becoming an English teacher, teaching said disrespectful kids. I’ve read your open letter & I’m thinking about what you wrote & I’m trying to do better & I’m trying to start now in high school with experiences & trying no to wait after high school but not only am I to young, my parents aren’t letting me. They play a huge role in my life & doing with my social life & aren’t allowing me to go & get the experiences I need. I don’t blame them either, with the craziness going on right outside of the place we have learned to call school.

I’m going to college. Even if you say it isn’t for everyone I’m going. It’s for me I already have it all mapped out. I just got to do better in school. I could’ve had honor roll all marking period but I’ve slacked in my classes – I’m still slacking but all that’s changing once I move into the white neighborhoods when I move down the street from a nice white couple who goes by the name Sally & John & their nice daughter Barbara. I might take some influence on them. Once I’m out of the urban neighborhood. Once I’m out of the ghetto.

A.B.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I understand that education is very important for my life. This year is a great because I met amazing teachers who I have learned from. I very grateful that I could have you Mr. Westbrooks as my English teacher because you taught me so much that will benefit me in the future to the Air Force and become a Pararescue (PJ). I will continue to learn about what life is about and hope see what life has to offer.

I hope to transfer to another school, but I will never forget Mr. Westbrooks class if I leave of course. I will cherish the cool moment we had in your class and everything you have taught.

J.H.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I read your letter and I have to say it got me thinking about what you said. When you said that students said this class or school is easy. To me it’s really not you can’t really focus on any work for the class to be easy. It’s hard to keep good grades but I’m trying and I guess that’s all that matters. You were right about the only staying focus on grades I know because I was doing that myself. I couldn’t really remember anything a teacher was saying but I calmed down on the grades and focused on learning the work.

Mr. Westbrooks I’m concern about college I really don’t know if I want to go but then again I want to because my mother never got a chance to go and I want to be better than her and not follow after her footsteps. Best believe I don’t play about my education. I lobe to learn new things. I love learning about where I came from or who I am.

I know I’m taking to long to find out what college I really want to go to, but I have been looking and I hope to find the right college. Mr. Westbrooks thank you for showing how much you care about my education. I really hope you read my whole letter and understand where I’m coming from.

A.W.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I agree with your letter and hope that it gets through to more students. I always loved school, I liked being challenge and my teachers always seeing that in me made me the highlight of their day. I always had good grades, of course I saw them as important because that was the proof of how hard I tried this however is my first year getting straight A’s. I’m guessing that being challenged through elementary and middle school paid off.

Also I’m not going to be I did wonder why we needed certain classes. I want to be a singer, songwriter, poet and hopefully author and director so certain things I had to learn of course I accepted it but wondered why. You answered my question as you said “Even if you don’t think you need to learn everything we’re teaching you in school, the process of learning is a habit, and it trains your brain to solve problems more relevant to you.”

I also take into account that we don’t go to college and still succeed I’ve learned about how if you go to college not knowing what you want to do then it’s a waste. That and how you said a lot of students or a majority of kids and teenagers in school think what they want to do in life will be more important to think about after high school although I’ve been ambitious about what I want to do since 5th grade others may not have to start as early but certainly shouldn’t wait till after high school.

My final thoughts to you in this letter is that you make excellent points. What you’re trying to teach high schoolers I knew all but one and I thank you for getting those points across.

N.H.

I truly understand where your coming from in your letter. You just want us to get the point across that we don’t always have to find the easy way out. It’s more to it than just trying to maintain your grades & cheat on assignments or test. It’s about really learning academically and remembering what your learning, and I’m truly aware of that. So I’m going to really think of that and take action because college doesn’t mean a successful life either.

M.C.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I agree with mostly everything you said. It’s true what you said about school and how finishing you work is more important than actually learning something. One of the things I didn’t agree on at least in my opinion is “that we don’t have to go to college.” Growing up in Newark isn’t easy. You always hear how Newark is the most dangerous city in New Jersey or the most dumb. Growing up I always had teachers tell me how everyone is expecting me to fail in life because “I’m from Newark” or how I’m not smart enough to go to college because “I’m from Newark.” It’s sad because most of those things apply for 80% of this school maybe even 90% but not me. I’m going to college. I know you think its not a big necessity to go but for me it a huge necessity. I WANT to go to college not just to prove a point but to get somewhere in life. I don’t want to stay here in Newark not because I don’t like it because it’s a beautiful city but because I don’t want to be mistaken for people that make Newark “Newark.” I don’t want want people’s face expression to slightly change in a disgusted way when I tell them where I’m from. Any ways in conclusion even if I disagree with one of your messages (I guess that’s what I’ll call it) I agree and enjoyed your social commentary.

C.R.

Dear Mr. Westbrooks,

I’ve read your letter and I was focusing on it, in a good train of thought. This letter says a lot that you’ve really never said to me or that I’ve really heard. Education to me is really more important than grades. You can have the education and get a “F” on an assignment and still be the brightest, it’s the learning that counts. Grades are not an indication of your learning ability.

School and your class has taught me a lot and I have 2 more years to succeed. I believe you need a education, because honestly where would anyone be without education? Where would you be Mr. Westbrooks? Education is the key to success and that’s for everyone. But after the 4 years of high school I believe everyone should go to college to better there lives when I think is a great idea.

Reading your letter has brightened my look on learning and college. I think you took the time to write this letter to us truthfully. I took heed to what you have said in your letter. Thank you for this!

P.O.

I do believe that education and the level of education isn’t where it’s supposed to be. I do notice that people really only care about passing and not really learning what is given. It just seems in life stuff are more important than school. We as kids on social media see a lot of people dropping out or high school or not going to college becoming rich and successful. I always felt like teachers made us feel like the only way of being successful was going through school and for me I never thought that was the case because growing there was a lot of things I looked at and was like you don’t need school for this and those things I was looking at the people doing them were successful. I just feel the school is one way of being successful but there is plenty more ways you just have to have hard work and dedication in what your doing. Don’t get me wrong school is good for kid and especially kids in our city and it’s always nice to learn something new but like you said the educational route may not be for everyone.

“An Open Letter to the Students that are Retaking My Final Exam aka 5 Lessons from Talking or Cheating on My Exam”

By Mr. Westbrooks

Background: The following open letter was included in a make-up final exam for students who were caught either cheating or were under the suspicion of cheating. Their task was to read the letter and respond to it by writing a letter back to me. You can find the original version of the final exam open letter here.

I wonder if any of you went through the exam and felt remorseful at the end after you read my open letter about taking your education seriously. My guess is probably not, based on your actions during that part of the exam and after. I would like to assume the best, but I’m also familiar with some of your unscrupulous behavior from last year that just seems to be incorrigible. (As you can see, I removed the vocabulary section of the exam, and decided to throw a few of those words in this letter.) Below, are 5 lessons you should take away from having to come to school another day to retake your final exam.

  1. I’m not picking on you.

As you probably know, you’re retaking this exam because you either cheated or you talked/laughed excessively. Before I go any further, I need to emphasize that the talking and laughing was excessive talking and laughing. I say that to say other students were talking and laughing and even trying to discuss exam questions at various points; however, they did it for a little bit and stopped. You all, on the other hand, did it for the majority of the period. So, I didn’t immediately decide to give you a zero the first time you talked or copied off of someone else’s paper. I put at least five checks next to your name before I did that.

You can also argue that I didn’t give you any warnings, but I would argue that it’s fair that I didn’t give you any warnings. All of you retaking this exam aren’t new to this school and the expectations. In fact, there’s been such a strong emphasis on test-taking throughout your years in school that you’re familiar with assessment expectations from your previous schools. For too long, especially at this school, you’ve received too many empty warnings and not enough real consequences. Without real consequences, you don’t learn from your wrongdoings, and without learning from your wrongdoings, there’s no improvement in your character.

Anyway, to put that part about warnings simply: You know better.

  1. The consequences should’ve been much worse. Be thankful.

I know you’re mad as hell that Thursday wasn’t your last day of school and you had to watch your average drop two letter grades. Before you start moping, sucking your teeth, and hiking on me (see definition #2) behind my back, understand that you’re very fortunate that I’m allowing you to retake this exam. If you were at a different school, you would be stuck with that zero. If this was the SAT or PARCC, your scores would’ve been canceled, meaning they wouldn’t count, and you would have to completely retake the test. College is another level. If you talk, you’ll get a zero and removed from the room, BUT IF YOU CHEAT, you will get kicked out of that college/university entirely. That means you don’t just fail the exam or that one, specific class; you get kicked out of school COMPLETELY.

As you can see, disruptions and cheating are very serious matters. Although I probably shouldn’t be giving you chances like this, I want to give you a fair warning now, so you won’t have to suffer a rude awakening later on. You also can’t give the excuse that you didn’t know, because you heard it from Mr. Westbrooks.

  1. Respect the people that put in the work.

I don’t need to say much about talking and laughing. When you’re doing that, especially constantly, it’s distracting and you can’t really concentrate on what you’re doing. Even if people say that it’s OK, they may not really feel that way. They might say that it’s OK for you to talk and laugh while they’re working, testing, or learning because they don’t want to become the enemy. You may not seem to care about your own work or education, or you may disrupt class or the learning environment, because you’re struggling with the work, but don’t bring down the other students who are trying to learn and do their best. Either remove yourself, or talk to me privately so you can receive additional help. That’s what I’m here for.

Students put a lot of hours into learning, studying, and completing challenging assignments. The students you refer to as the “smart kids” or “good kids” weren’t born Respeck Saucewith knowledge and the ability to earn decent grades and pick up on certain skills and information quickly. They had to be trained to become that way. It takes a lot of work, practice, and sacrifice to reach that point. How does it look when they put in the hours, days, months, and years to be academic achievers, and you merely put in a few minutes to copy their answers, but you both end up enjoying the same benefits? That’s like you slaving hard at a job for 40 hours a week, and letting someone who sleeps all day at home take half of your paycheck. That sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s what you’re doing when you copy other people’s work that they put time and effort into. I don’t care if you get the liquid bottle or the powder in a can, but you need to “put some respeck” on your classmates’ names and work!

  1. You’re bad at cheating anyway, so just don’t do it.

Let’s be clear: This is not a challenge for you to prove me wrong, but I want to lighten the mood a little bit by pointing out how terrible you are at cheating. Well, you probably won’t find this funny, but I’m laughing at you. First of all, you were super obvious. You saw how small and open the room was, so of course I’m going to notice you looking at someone else’s paper. Secondly, you go on your phones to Google, and copy answers that make no sense…at all. On the “Harrison Bergeron” fill-in-the-blank, question, I gave you a small blank to fill in with ONE word (The answer was dystopian by the way). But, what did you do? You wrote a paragraph in the space below the question, and drew and an arrow to the blank. Really though?? And can any of you tell me what the word “interval” means without looking it up? No, OK. To make matters worse, you all didn’t have enough sense to change the words so everyone didn’t have the same answer. You had the same exact answer…word for word. Really though??

Don’t take this as you need to find sneakier ways to cheat. Just don’t do it!! Study! Pay attention in class! Don’t have side conversations! Ask for help, not the answers. I’m not supposed to call students mean names, so that’s not what I’m doing. I’m talking about your behavior and not your character or personality. With that being said, the ways in which you all tried to cheat was stupid, very stupid.

  1. It will catch up to you.

I hope this doesn’t happen, but let’s say after you finish reading this letter you still choose not to listen. You find better ways to cheat, you don’t get caught, or you never receive any real consequences. Just know that, you may think that you’re getting over, but it will catch up to you eventually. It may come in the form of you getting kicked out of college, or it may end up being exposed as an incompetent and ignorant student or worker, because you never really learned anything or put in any real work. Quit while you’re ahead, or suffer serious embarrassment later on.

Peace,

Mr. Westbrooks

Read the students’ responses here.

An End-of-the-Year Open Letter to the Students of My English Classes

By Mr. Westbrooks

Background: I drafted this open letter and included it as a part of my students’ final exam. The purpose of the letter was for them to analyze an example of literature being as social commentary and to give them some parting words to reflect on over the summer. The students were also required to respond by writing an open letter back to me. Some of their responses will be included. Note: The letter was a last-minute decision, and I wrote it about an hour before the exam lol, so there was definitely more I wanted to say but didn’t have time to write.

To the current English 2B students and the larger Class of 2018:

As most of you know, I like to keep things interesting, so rather than finding a social commentary text that someone else wrote, I decided to write to you directly. With the exception of the new students that arrived this school year, we’ve been together off and on for two years now. A lot of your classmates from freshman year are no longer here for various reasons. For those of you who are still here, I’ve witnessed some of you grow behaviorally and in terms of maturity, and I’ve witnessed some of you grow academically. While we’ve made some progress, I have a few areas of concern that I would like to bring to your attention briefly. All of my comments connect to theme of taking your education seriously.

Your Education is Bigger than Grades

Passing your classes — or even earning A’s and B’s in your classes – is not an accurate indication of whether you’re prepared for the next grade or even life after high school, regardless of what you decide to do after you graduate. This is especially true considering that the work and expectations at this school aren’t challenging enough. We both know this, because I’ve heard some of you on a few occasions talk about how “easy” this school is. However, we also both know that I’ve never tried to allow my English class to be too easy for you. Just look at the social commentary posters that many of you struggled with, but eventually completed. You shouldn’t be content with school being easy, especially when many of us are far behind teenagers in other schools, states, and countries.

When you’re only concerned about earning average or good grades, you become more focused on finishing your work rather than actually learning or gaining a deeper understanding of the material. Knowing how much growth we need to make, I find it shameful that we only complete learning tasks when it’s a part of the grade. What’s even crazier, is that some of you even turn down extra credit opportunities! Even if you don’t think you need everything we’re teaching you in school, the process of learning is a habit, and it trains your brain to solve other problems that may be more relevant to you.

Yes, You Do Need an Education

Many people probably have a narrow understanding of “education.” When the word education comes up, many of us automatically think of school. But in fact, education comes in many different forms. Here are my thoughts on college: College isn’t for everyone, and everyone shouldn’t attend a college/university after high school; HOWEVER, I believe every student should have the OPTION of attending college. There shouldn’t be any student leaving high school without the skills to be successful at an institution of higher learning. Also know that earning a college degree isn’t a guarantee of financial success, but it could be if you use the higher education system to work for you.

I want you to think about education more broadly, and take it seriously. Education is any type of training or learning. You have other options besides going to college, enlisting in the army, or just getting a job. You can be an electrician, mechanic, plumber, barber/hair stylist, beautician, etc. You can own your own business, which is very important. We’re all familiar with street entrepreneurs aka trappers who employ themselves by selling illegal and destructive products in the ‘hood, so why can’t we take that entrepreneurial mentality, and start businesses that are both legal and productive?

My last point on the necessity of education: Along with attending school or learning a skill/trade, you also need a proper education of yourself. Even if you’re a platinum rapper or earning millions in the NFL, NBA, or MLB, you still need this knowledge. One of my favorite teachers (I think it was Tony Browder) once said, “Money without consciousness (awareness, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding) leads to destruction.” Money alone can compromise your morals or cause you to make stupid decisions that will lead you to losing your money.

Many of us don’t know the history of who we are and where we come from. It’s important for us to know this “old stuff” in order to give us guidance for the present and future. I hope you picked up on this lesson from our social commentary project that history repeats itself, and if we’re not aware of it and take proper action, we’re doomed to make the same mistakes that our ancestors made. On a positive note, studying the achievements of those who came before you is inspirational, and it takes away all excuses for you not being excellent. Educate yourself on who you are. Read more books (I’m not only saying that because I’m an English teacher). Watch videos and documentaries, and visit museums. There are even Instagram pages that you can follow that can provide a starting point towards knowledge of self.

Don’t Wait Until After High School

I hear some of you say “Oh, we’re still in high school, and we’ll worry about that stuff after we graduate.” No, start now. In reality, other kids your age started taking their education seriously and working towards their after high school goals in elementary school. It’s never too early to get started. The earlier you start, the better chance you have at being successful. Because of the education we’ve been given so far due to our background and where we live, we have a lot of catching up to do, and we also understand that we have to work twice as hard to get where we need to be.

Final Thoughts

I hope you read this entire letter, and you take heed to my words, and think seriously about them over the summer. I wouldn’t write this long letter if I didn’t care about you or want to see you do well. You are the present and the future, and all of us adults are depending on you to make our future better than what it is now.

Peace,

Mr. Westbrooks

Read the student responses here