For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood: A Reflection

By Mr. Westbrooks

Emdin-ForWhiteFolksWhoTeachintheHood-663x1024Around this time last year, Dr. Chris Emdin delivered the keynote message on the topic of culturally relevant pedagogy for the Drop the Mic conference held at the Newark Museum. He had copies of his book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too available for purchase, and it was a title that was already on my reading wish list, but unfortunately, he ran out of copies before I could get mine. I knew I could purchase it anytime, but owning an autographed copy was a rare opportunity.

Fast forward to August of this year during our training/PD week. One of my administrators got copies of For White Folks for all of the teachers in our sub-department. Upon completing it last weekend, I tweeted a picture of the cover and mentioned Chris. He promptly replied (which I wasn’t expecting) and suggested that we discuss what I read. To prepare for our conversation, I decided to organize my thoughts on paper/screen before we engaged in our build. Here are the key takeaways that I plan to bring up in my talk with Chris and implement in my own practice. The following topics don’t reflect everything discussed in the book. In an effort to not overwhelm myself or spread myself too thin, I narrowed down the book’s topics to the five themes or practices that resonated with me the most and that I was willing to immediately put into action.

  1. Cogenerative Dialogues

The cogenerative dialogue is the idea that teachers collaborate with students to implement positive changes in the classroom. The structure Chris describes involves selecting a small group of four students from a variety of skill levels and behavior types to meet with the teacher for a brief time either during lunch or after school. During these meetings, the students would voice their opinions on what issues their class was facing and what needs to be done in order to make it better. I’ve always asked my students for feedback, but maybe I’ll switch up the style a bit and obtain my feedback in this small group, invitation-only structure. That’s a question I need to ask Chris: If I’m carrying out the cogens, am I only receiving feedback from the participants in the cogen?

As teachers, most of our direct feedback is coming from administrators and other teachers, but the students are the ones affected most by our classroom experience. We can gain valuable insights and take our classes to the next level by listening to what they have to say. Kids hold nothing back too. They will tell you the truth!

  1. The Black Church, Pastor and Rapper Aesthetics

For Black church Sunday services, there’s always a program with an order of events or agenda that the attendees follow. However, the service often goes off schedule when someone catches the Holy Spirit, or when the pastor “gets excited” durin

g his sermon and start to freestyle. To an extent, it’s acceptable for our classrooms to be similar. Some of the best learning moments happen when you allow students to break away from the lesson plan (script) to ask questions or make comments that are not directly related to the topic at hand.

If a teacher is moved, he or she can exhibit the speaking styles of the Black pastor, namely the call and response technique as a method of engaging “neoindigenous” (urban) youth. Rappers do the same thing, and Jelani Cobb’s comparison of Black pastors and rappers in his book To The Break of Dawn is reminiscent of this notion.


  1. Aesthetically Appealing, Relevant and Welcoming Spaces

How can you expect students to feel welcomed, to learn, and to express themselves fullyand openly if the appearance of the classroom isn’t appealing? I’m aware of the importance of this, but I admit this has been a challenge for me with acquiring the resources to make my classroom look poppin,’ and that includes both the a

ctual materials to decorate and the time.

My arrangement of the desks into a semi-circle and the posting of my drawings that I did for my college art class and a picture from my last Reisling-influenced Paint and Sip class helped to somewhat make the room feel less like jail and traditional school. I’ve also set up my graffiti wall, which was an idea I got from the book. I couple of students have signed it already, and I have a poster of Nas and album cover stickers from my homie Tenn Stacks. It’s a start until I can get some more items.

  1. Context and Content: Community Involvement and Participation

Chris has a vignette in the “Context and Content” chapter about how a basketball game with his students led to further invitations to his students’ cultural contexts outside of the classroom, and how participation in those contexts resulted in a transformed classroom. The students are surprised and appreciative whenever I show up to their games and events. Within the last two school years, I’ve attended football and basketball games, track meets, a few art shows, and a law debate. In a less formal setting, my students have seen me shopping or walking around downtown. I want to take it to the next level, so I can start receiving invitations to events that are outside the school-sponsored extra-curricular activities.

Educators and education leaders often discuss the importance of building relationships and how that affects the students’ academic performance and social-emotional well-being. You can’t talk about building relationships and not talk about stepping out of the school building into your students’ cultural contexts.

  1. Teacher Perceptions

Perception is everything. It should be the first thing that teachers check, but why is it number 5 on my list? Our assumptions, preconceived notions, and attitudes about our neoindigenous youth will reflect in how they see themselves and what they can achieve. My perceptions and expectations of my students are high, but I must question if my students are aware of that, or if I need to be more explicit with my students about my perceptions of them. Or, can they tell just from my vibes?

Final note: You can know all of the pedagogy and everything about lesson plan designing, but Chris points out that it is the non-instructional pieces that are the game-changers, which I appreciate that the most about his book. If only school districts and administrators placed more value on these factors.

Nick & Chris


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. 

“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.


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.


Mr. Westbrooks

Read the student responses here

It’s Time to Man Up: Reflections from an Urban Educator’s Perspective on the 2-Actor Play that Explores What it Means to be a Man

By Mr. Westbrooks

“no education. no freedom.”

ManUpthePlay  It’s Tuesday. School’s out for the year for the most part with the exception of the extra days that we’re contractually required to work. I’m cleaning and packing up my room, just to unpack it again in September. I receive an email from a coworker about an upcoming stage play called Man Up. I read the email along with the accompanying flyer, and the production was described as a two-man play that tackled the topic of manhood along with issues that men deal with such as fatherhood, relationships, bullying, substance abuse, PTSD, etc. They were holding 2 shows on Friday evening, and I knew immediately that this was something that I needed to experience.

Before I build on my immediate thoughts and reflections after viewing the play from a Black male educator’s perspective, allow me provide context without spoilers. Man Up is centered around two main characters, a Black male high school English teacher and one of his Black male students. The student, whose name is Jihaad, suffers from an ill that is all too common in our society: His father has been absent for the majority of his life. Jihaad’s bitterness about his father’s absence contributes to his challenges with school, particularly with his English teacher Mr. King. Jihaad is frustrated by Mr. King’s tough love, and Mr. King is frustrated by his inability to reach a troubled young man who exudes the potential to be great. This is another phenomenon that is quite common in urban education and something I experience regularly in my day-to-day interactions with students.

However, like any skillful or effective teacher, Mr. King used his English class as a space for therapy and release. This was a concept I learned about in one of my English education courses in grad school. Ultimately, the multimedia project on “What it Means to be a Man” would eventually lead to Jihaad coming to terms with his father not being around and finding an exemplar father figure in his teacher.

As a Black man, who happens to also be a teacher, here are three things I took away  upon viewing experiencing Man Up:

The Importance & Necessity of Black Male Teachers

In one scene, Mr. King’s day-one homie questions him on why he chose to do deal with the stress and underpayment of the teaching profession. His response is powerful, and I echo his same sentiments. There are very few male teachers in the profession. There are even fewer Black male teachers and even, even (times 2) fewer Black male English teachers. Mr. King said it simply: Black boys “need to see strong, Black men.” Having access to positive role models who look like them can leave a favorable impact on their academic success and adolescent development. This is one of the primary reasons why I perceived teaching in an urban area as a calling, and I subsequently answered the calling.

The English Classroom as a Humanizing Space

Many educators probably feel that nationally sanctioned standards and standardized test prep stunts creativity and “real learning;” however, the key components of English Language Arts remain. Students still read literature and engage in narrative, persuasive, and expository writing. There are opportunities to discuss and debate amongst one another and chances to create multimedia presentations. Despite the limitations, English teachers have a bit more wiggle room than other core content area teachers.

Rather than allowing English class to add on to the frustrations that many of our youth are already facing, the subject should do the opposite by becoming a source of therapy. I was consciously exposed to this concept while taking Prof. David Kirkland‘s “Hip-Hop and the Teaching of English” course at NYU. Via learning tasks such as the video project Mr. King had his students produce, the texts that we choose to the read, the open-ended writing activities we assign, and the thought-provoking, small group/class-wide discussions that are sparked by our effective questioning transforms the English classroom into a humanizing space.

Furthermore, the fact that the writers chose to depict the education-centered plot of Man Up as dramatic art in the form of a stage play infused with music and poetry, indirectly legitimizes the need for arts education in our schools. Even without courses in the various forms of art, English teachers can incorporate the arts into their curriculum by having students create poetry or participate in Theatre of the Oppressed activities, which I was also introduced to in the Hip Hop course.

Regardless of whether learning comes in the form of traditional tasks such as reading, writing, and discussing or in more creative forms like visual and dramatic art, providing students with spaces to express their thoughts and feelings while acknowledging and affirming their humanity will ultimately break down the psychological and emotional barriers that hinder their achievement in school without sacrificing rigor and high expectations.

All Men Need to Man Up

In the public forum, we’re often most critical of the men or boys that wreak havoc in our neighborhoods. Indeed, they need to be adjusted, but in reality we all have room for improvement. We’re critical of the Jihaad’s of the world for being annoying as hell in class and seemingly not taking their education seriously, and we demonize the men like Jihaad’s father for being deadbeat daddies. Man Up made it a point reveal that all men have challenges, even brothas like Mr. King who on the surface seem to have it altogether.

Overall, Man Up is a must-see production for its themes, lessons, humor, interactivity, aesthetic value, and its relativity to our daily challenges. Although the play is male-focused with an all-male cast and characters, there’s a message for everyone. It’s a calling for all boys and men to man up, and it’s a calling for all girls and women to set high expectations and standards for the boys and men in their lives.

Man Up will be on a 28-city tour this summer. Visit for more information.

Man Up Post Play

“Without teachers, there wouldn’t be any other profession.”

Mental Slaves: A Social Commentary Poem

by Mr. Westbrooks

After completing quarter three of English 2, I started teaching the same course again to a different set of students. Unfortunately, three weeks of PARCC testing threw my plans off schedule, so the students weren’t able to learn as much content/skills as the previous group of students. In lieu of the social commentary research paper, I assigned the students a project in which they would create their own social commentary literature. Being intrigued by the project-based learning opportunity I created, I decided I would do the project with them, at least partly.

Our administration’s vision was to have the students craft interdisciplinary projects that would be rich in content and aesthetically appealing to the eye. I thought U.S. History would go well with my social commentary unit. During the previous quarter, the history teacher had the kids create a PowerPoint presentation detailing a historical turning point. For my project, I had the students consider their historical turning point, and write a social commentary literary text about a current event, issue, or topic that relates to the historical turning point.

Through poems, short stories, essays, and a song students drew connections and expressed their points of view between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Islamic State’s attack on Paris, racism during the 19th century and racism now, the Boston Tea party and the Verizon strike, the Bill of Rights and the gun control debate, and a few others. Many students struggled to find present-day connections to their historical topics and how to articulate the connections, but in the end, I received some insightful and creative texts. Below is the text that I drafted in between class periods. Look out for my students’ products in the near future.


American chattel slavery lasted between 4-5 centuries in the United States. Thousands of people were stolen and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in what’s known as the Middle Passage, and these Africans were used to fuel the American economy by essentially building America into what it is today. During that time of forced enslavement, African/African-Americans not only endured physical suffering, but they also underwent much psychological trauma. Since 1865, physical slavery was abolished by the federal government; however, remnants of mental slavery still exist in 2016. The following poem provides social commentary on the psychological slavery that continues to plague the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Note: The poem follows no specified rhyme scheme. It rhymes, but it’s not quite free verse. It’s…I don’t know. It’s something.


Mental Slaves

Courtesy of YouTube: No Joke Howard

Courtesy of YouTube: No Joke Howard









There’s misogyny and violence, but never doubt what rap do

That’s what I learned from Killa Cam on verse two

On the second installment of “The Professional” by DJ Clue

This is what Cam said on Fantastic Four Part two:


Back in the day, we was slaves

Whips and chains

It’s tradition

All I got…whips and chains

All I did…flip some caine

Now [Cam]* is sick of the range

Only a new six could fix the pain


Now, does his pain stem from his boredom with the range?

Or is he suffering from PTSD, no longer sane?

From a time of living righteous from which he could’ve been estranged

Yet strangely, he still saw himself as a new slave 13 years before Ye (Kanye)


What’s more, on the album SDE he made it plain

To paraphrase Biggie, you play ball, sell drugs, or entertain


Entertainer and athlete – Yeah, sure he’s gettin’ paid,

But William Rhoden showed and proved there’s a limit to his wage

Platitudes emanate from the so-called awake,

The type that convey clichés about ancestors rollin’ over in graves


But allow me to get to the theme of the prose,

About how our people think they’ve elevated, but haven’t yet arose


We’re mistaken if we believe bondage is only physical

That’s ended, but in 2016 we see the chains can be invisible


We’ve been fooled by the 13th amendment of 1865.

Mass incarceration and psychological chains prove slavery’s still alive


You got mis-education and religion mis-overstood,

Trap houses, liquor stores juxtaposed with churches in the hood


Across social classes, media conditions our minds.

Destructive music and reality shows keep the 3rd eyes blind


And when you’re blind you can’t see

Too much time in front of screens,

Which means you devote less time to read

Vocabulary devolved, less knowledge is gleaned

M.K. titled a chapter “The Most Beautiful Country”

He said with a limited word choice, you can’t be free

See, the peculiar institution was so mean,

That in 2016 they claim slave trauma is encoded in our genes


Solutions from the Oppressor, on which many of us are banking

Do we need psychological help to get our heads shrinking?

Our captive minds are ships with holes that keep sinking

Word to Carter G [Woodson], there’s no concern for your actions when they control your thinking


And to the choir members, this preaching isn’t new

You’ve got Kwabena Ashanti, Tom Burrell, Na’im Akbar, Alvin Morrow, Joy Degruy

But this verse isn’t for The Academy or debates on YouTube

I do it for the metaphorical unsaved; I do it for the youth

In particular, this was written by Mr. Westbrooks for his students in English 2

But even with knowledge and info, we become mental slaves to the truth

When we discourse about the source of the problem all day, we still lose

Because the time for us to MOVE is long overdue

Yet, we’re stuck in limbo about what we need to DO

So are the conscious folk any better than Killa Cam on verse 2?


~ Mental Slaves ~


A Social Commentary on Social Commentary

Harrison Bergeron

by Mr. Westbrooks

In conjunction with a reading unit my students recently completed, I assigned a research paper that was based on the same theme as the texts we just finished perusing the prior week. What was theme of the unit? Social commentary. In the reading unit, we focused on how writers use various forms of literature (short stories, poems, and open letters) to make comments on the issues that are happening in society. After reading Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and “DudleLetter from Birmingham Jaily Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham,” I had the students research the contemporary issues in our society, explain what they are along with the major current events surrounding them, and lastly offer their own social commentary on those issues.

One day when I took the time out of my already short lunch period to reteach how to format and craft a formal outline to two students, one of them challenged me to write a paper on the topic of social commentary. I accepted the challenge with no qualms, and what you’re about to read is the result. This piece goes out to Elvin from period 3/4, the only high school student I know that listens to Pro Era and Logic. (Rappers are social commentators too, by the way.)

Everyone has an opinion, or at least they’re capable and have the freedom of expressing his or her opinions, especially when it concerns events that occur in society. That’s something that hasn’t changed since the beginning of time. What has changed is the ways in which those opinions are expressed. In the past, individuals were limited in who they could reach, and there were limitations on who could be considered a social commentator, but with the advent of new media, anyone can reach anyone anywhere at anytime, and anyone can call him or herself a social commentator. People’s ability to create their own platforms and disseminate social commentary to the masses instantaneously can work to both the benefit and detriment of themselves and to society as a whole.

Everyone Can Have a Voice

If you consider any nation in this world, an indicator of how free its people are is the extent to which they can express themselves. It’s not the only indicator, but it’s a major one. Freedom of expression is also something that Americans take for granted since it’s readily available and accessible. Historically, such platforms like the printing press, soap boxes, pulpits, recording studios, meeting halls, and radio waves have granted individuals and groups the opportunities to express their points of view on politics, race, sex, economics, religion, identity, etc.

While some of the above mentioned platforms were limited to individuals in positions of leadership and those with money, 21st century media platforms has made the world’s audience available to the masses. In addition to the outlets that were operating in the past and are still functioning today, anyone can Facebook Debateset up a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or SnapChat account and voice his or her opinion on issues going on in society. Other Web-based platforms include sites such as WordPress (what I use), Blogspot, Blog Talk Radio, Blogger, Soundcloud, Weebly and Tumblr (“The Eleven Best Free Blog Sites”). Commentators’ choice of online platform is dependent upon their style, but the fact that basic usage of them is free for everybody, creates the prospect for anyone to give social commentary.

The downside to everyone being able to have a voice is that anyone can have a voice. While everyone is free to have an opinion, that doesn’t mean everyone should use a public platform to express it. There are too many social commentators that constantly spew out hatred, ignorance, and misinformation. While the producers of such content should be responsible for what they put out, the consumers should transform themselves into critics and analyze the information they’re taking in. While negative energy and just plain stupidity grind my gears, the widespread access to free and inexpensive media platforms used for the purpose of expressing social commentary should continue with the added caveat that public sharpen their third eyes and view the information critically.

Social Commentary Comes from Both the Producer and the Audience

In addition to everyone having the ability to establish platforms and disseminate information to the masses, contemporary social commentary allows the masses to respond to the commentators initiating exchanges and conversations between the producers and the consumers/critics. Historically, commentators responded to each other through newspaper editorials and pamphlets. In 2016, commentators and critics can respond instantaneously. If you read online articles, watch YouTube videos, or view posts on social media, you might notice that on many occasions, the comment section is more interesting than the feature piece. This also applies to the chat room format.

A variety of characters inject their thoughts into online open forums and call-in lines, and you never know what to expect. Constructive building, in which all participants engage with respect and the absence of emotionalism, sharpens everyone’s swords; however, debates can become toxic and unproductive when people begin to attack personal character rather than perspective and make comments strictly out of emotion instead of logic. Unfortunately, the elasticity of engagement between commentators is stretched wide, making the regulation of comments difficult to manage unlike that of a formal debate setting.

Despite the distractions that may arise in comment sections, chat rooms, and discussion boards, the chance for the public to directly respond to perspectives on the happenings of society is an advancement in social commentary. It’s not yet clear who’s able to define the specific criteria of social commentary, but one may argue that perspectives expressed in comment sections can be characterized as social commentary. This shows that in the 21st century, you don’t have to have a publication, radio show, organization, blog, or website to be a social commentator.

comments section

Final Thoughts

There are other points to be touched on and questions to be answered, but keeping in mind that this post was written for my students, I know that I’ve written well beyond their interest and attention span. The final analysis of social commentary in contemporary society is that people should take advantage of the platforms available to them. There are many spaces and opportunities for them to do so. For the youth, such as my students, who are now coming of age, it’s especially important for them to give their social commentary since they are our present and future. Think about how you can package your message in a way that supports your personal style and interests and a way that engages your peers, adults, and the youth coming after you. Be a responsible and productive social commentator by obtaining the knowledge, wisdom, and understanding before you release your message. In a society of ignorance inflicting the youth and the public at-large, the world needs it.

Purposeful Planning Part 1: The Undecided Student and Choosing a Career


By Nick Westbrooks

When it comes to deciding on what career path to choose, many college students knew what they wanted to do when they were in elementary school. There’s another group of students who thought they knew what they wanted to do, but either changed their minds when they got to college or at some point during their time at school. Then, there’s the sector of students who absolutely have no idea what they want to do.

They’re told to go to college, because they need an education to increase their chances of being “successful” in life, and they’re also told that it’s O.K. to not know what they want to do for a career yet. This is true to an extent, but many college students are given little guidance on how to make a decision. With the amount of time and money invested in a college education, it should be more desirable to figure this out sooner rather than later. Hopefully, these tips can function as a starting point to get the undecided individuals thinking about what they might want to do during and after college.