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Jeff Thomas’ All-Volunteer Army: RAVING!

A little video I did for Jeff Thomas’ All-Volunteer Army back in 2013 that I never posted.

Focus on Defense

Lawrence Whitaker runs the martial arts gym Philly Urban Defense in North Philadelphia, which he claims is the only gym in the city purely focused on self-defense.

Tania O’Donnell

This is a little music video I directed and edited for Jeff Thomas’ All-Volunteer Army. Photographer Michael Bucher shot it. For more about the band, like their Facebook page at For more of Michael’s stuff, check out his website at

Martial Machines

For the past six years, the Northeast Robotics Club has organized a robot fighting event at the Franklin Institute called Robot Conflict on the Parkway. On Saturday, October 6, roughly 30 design teams competed in double elimination bouts to see who had the toughest bot in its weight class. More than just a good time, events like these help engender a curiosity about engineering and science in viewers both young and old.

The video above highlights a battle early in the event between Ben Fox’s Mulcher 2.0 and Ryan Beaver’s Bazinga. Bazinga would go on to win the competition in the 3 lb Beetleweight Division.

No Easy Answers for Scripted Learning in Philadelphia Schools

(Note: This article was originally written in December 2011. I have posted this primarily to serve as a work sample for potential employers, and much of the information contained within is out of date. Specifically, the Direct Instruction programs are no longer mandatory, and principals have been given more autonomy when selecting curriculums. More information about that decision can be found at The Notebook here and here.)

Like most of the American public school system, the School District of Philadelphia is beset by an achievement gap, a situation where one group of students, usually due to socioeconomic factors, falls far behind another in academic success. In 2009, then current Philadelphia School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and the School Reform Commission instituted a scripted learning curriculum in an effort to close that gap.

The SRC purchased the scripted learning program Direct Instruction from the educational publisher McGraw-Hill and mandated that it become the standard intervention program in special education classes and in struggling schools—which the district calls “empowerment schools.” Reactions to the program have been mixed.

Rasheda Randall, a teacher who works at the Philadelphia middle school Alternative for Middle Years at James Martin, teaches Direct Instruction in special education classes at James Martin and previously taught it in the empowerment school Roberto Clemente Middle School. Her main experience is with Corrective Reading, a reading curriculum that is part of Direct Instruction.

An average Corrective Reading class consists mainly of drills. Randall said she begins by writing phonemes on the blackboard, and the children recite them back to her until they get them right. Then she drills vocabulary and reading comprehension, pausing periodically to ask scripted questions in the second case.

She affectionately referred to this approach as “drill and kill.”

“You have the phonemes, check,” Randall said. “You do the vocabulary, check. You do the reading, check. And you’re listening to how students are reading and pronouncing the individual sounds and the vocabulary. Check.”

This is the essence of Direct Instruction. Every step is precisely delineated, and nothing is left to chance. If the program is instituted correctly, every teacher in every Corrective Reading class should be moving through the same steps at the same point in the curriculum. Randall admitted that the scripted nature of the program can sometimes be stifling.

“It lacks creativity,” she said. “And as a teacher you want to be able to give kids choices. You want to be able to do different things. And you’re not allowed to really do that.”

Despite this misgiving, Randall said some students do respond well to Corrective Reading. For example, children with learning difficulties need very rudimentary grammatical and phonemic instruction, so the students in Randall’s special education classes at James Martin tend to be well served by the program.

Based on her previous experience at Roberto Clemente Middle School, Randall said the program also helps with students who are at an economic and social disadvantage. Many of Roberto Clemente’s students came from homes where English was not the primary language. In their case, basic phonemic and grammatical instruction was paramount. Even when there was no dual language household in the picture, many children simply did not have a background that prepared them to succeed in a more traditional reading program.

“That’s why corrective reading for some kids really works well,” Randall said. “Because they weren’t coming from a home where mommy and daddy sat and read to you or took you to the library. So, in that sense, that structure really helps.”

Randall also taught Corrective Math, a Direct Instruction math curriculum, but only for a year. She did not find as much to praise in the math program, which focuses on teaching computation skills through the same drill-and-kill style as Corrective Reading. While there are some students who need this approach, Randall said most would be more helped by a program that included more word problems.

Caroline Ebby, a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and a former consultant to two empowerment schools, is highly critical of scripted learning, singling out Corrective Math as particularly bad.

“There’s no attention in the curriculum to underlying concepts or problem solving or mathematical thinking,” Ebby said, “And these are the kinds of things that every major national organization in mathematics and mathematics education are saying that students need.”

According to Ebby, the research used in support of Corrective Math is out of date in that it argues for a focus on rote computational exercises rather than aiming for an integrated conceptual understanding. She also the said that the program stifles creativity and student teacher interaction.

“During Corrective Math, students are not allowed to ask questions, and so teachers can’t sort of go off the script,” Ebby said. “It’s a scripted program, they have to follow exactly what it says, so they can’t make connections.”

Along with four other teachers and researchers, Ebby submitted public testimony criticizing Direct Instruction at an SRC meeting on May 26, 2010. The testimony also included criticism of Corrective Reading from Philadelphia teachers Angela Chan and Ramona Lewis. Chan and Lewis asserted that Corrective Reading fails to engage students who would be better served by a curriculum with a basis in literature as well as phonemic instruction.

Not all teachers are opposed to Direct Instruction. Hayley Harrison, a special education teacher at Huey Elementary School, is grateful for the structure that Corrective Reading gives to her classes. Like Rasheda Randall, Harrison finds that it helps students with developmental disabilities. She said she is not alone among special education instructors at Huey in liking the program.

“It was good because the children who do have special needs, some of them were getting lost in [the standard mathematics curriculum] Everyday Math and were getting lost in the reading curriculum that was being used because they just lacked the basic skills,” Harrison said.

Harrison does not follow the scripted structure as closely as the program requires, though. She often finds herself straying from the script to help individual students understand their mistakes or to engage them in a more direct manner than Corrective Reading allows. Harrison attributed this to her personal teaching style.

“I make the scripted program work with my personality as a teacher, which is why I think my kids respond better to it,” said Harrison.

Corrective Math, on the other hand, proved to be a harder program to personalize, and Harrison expressed her doubts that the repetitive reciting of mathematical facts was actually helpful to students.

“I don’t think the group is going to benefit from us saying ‘one plus seven is eight’ fifteen million times,” said Harrison.

Caroline Ebby said she is not surprised that teachers find ways to incorporate their own styles into Direct Instruction, but stressed that to do so, they had to go against the program.

“I would say good teachers do what they can do,” said Ebby. “But what’s important is the program does not allow for that.”

Familiar Lines: Graffiti Culture in Philadelphia

Zarit Islamu, an old-school graffiti artist

Zarit Islamu, aka Nana, leans on the wall that holds up his two cardboard canvases on October 8, 2011. Mixed in with the caricatures and the Occupy Philadelphia slogans is a bit of graffiti history.

(Note: This article was originally written in November 2011)

“Graffiti is the ancient hieroglyphics of a modern day,” says Zarit Islamu, who prefers to go by his graffiti tag, Nana.

Nana, a grandfatherly man with a patchy white beard and glasses, describes himself as a storyteller, a caricaturist, a musician, and a graffiti artist. Two pieces of cardboard rest on the wall near his tent at Dilworth Plaza, where he currently resides as a part of the Occupy Philadelphia Movement. The cardboard is covered with caricature drawings, Occupy Philadelphia slogans, and ornate graffiti script written in black marker. To hear Nana tell it, the history of graffiti in Philadelphia is inscribed on those cardboard sheets.

Philadelphia had an important role in the early graffiti movement, according to Nana. Starting in the late 1960s, Darryl McCray, aka Cornbread, and a handful of other Philadelphia-based graffiti artists developed many of the essentials of the modern graffiti style before the center of the movement transitioned to New York in the 1970s. These days, graffiti in Philadelphia has changed, with many of those early artists having joined the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network as part of the Mural Arts Program. There are still people like Nana, though, who are keeping the original culture alive.

When Nana started out in the early 1970s, graffiti culture in Philadelphia was already established, but a lot of its more recognizable elements had not yet been conventionalized. Writers adorned Philadelphia walls with the traditional “Kilroy was here” figure and sprayed their names in plain roman letters.

“Most people didn’t have a script,” says Nana. “They’d just go and write their name. But I began to develop a sophisticated script.”

Nana demonstrates this development by writing the letter A on a piece of white poster board. He then draws another A, this time with some loops and dashes, and explains that these embellishments came about by accident from speedwriting. When a graffiti writer would tag a freight train or bomb a city wall, he would have to write fast and always be on the lookout for the police. These streaks and loops were the result.

Nana draws another A and adds more flourishes. Each successive version becomes less recognizable but more distinctive than the last. He says writers eventually started consciously incorporating these features into their script and personalizing them to develop individual styles.

After drawing about five different versions of the letter A, Nana runs his finger along one of the curves nested inside the newest version and reveals something hidden: One of the earlier versions of the A is contained inside the loops. Nana says he can still trace the creative lineage of the newer scripts he sees around the city.

“If you see a 1965 Corvette Stingray and a modern one, though there is 40 years of evolution, you still know it’s a Corvette because of those familiar lines,” says Nana.

The history of a script

This graffiti letter A becomes more and more ornate with each iteration, but always retains a connection to the original script.

Not everyone looks at graffiti and sees a corvette. In 1984, former Mayor Wilson Goode formed the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network to combat the spread of graffiti throughout Philadelphia. Soon afterwards, he hired artist Jane Golden to create the Mural Arts Program, which included reaching out to graffiti artists to recruit them as muralists.

“The reality is that the stance towards graffiti is very confrontational. And it’s very much one of dismissiveness,” says retired graffiti artist Randall Quinn.

Quinn, aka Jawnzap7, is a 31-year-old hip-hop artist who records with the Disciples of Discipline and volunteers at the media tent at Occupy Philadelphia. He no longer writes graffiti, but he says he understands the impulse towards vandalism inherent the art form. Homeless at fifteen, he says that he was a young man with a lot of nihilism who was deeply involved in the property destruction and vandalism aspects of graffiti. Now that he is grown with children of his own, he says that graffiti does not need to be illegal to be vital.

“If you look at a city like Toronto where graffiti art is advocated in the public space, every alley you go into is filled with beautiful graffiti,” he says.

Quinn is an example of the relationship between hip-hop and graffiti. Hip-hop artists and graffiti artists have a powerful though somewhat diminished connection to each other that dates back to the origins of their respective art forms. In the 1980s, New York DJ Afrika Bambaataa said that the four pillars of hip-hop were DJing, MCing, breaking, and graffiti.

“In terms the beginning of hip-hop, a lot of the graf artists were 14, 15 years old when they first started writing,” says music journalist Leila Wright, “and that’s the generation that they came out of was this really raw hip-hop.”

Wright is the production manager and lifestyle editor at Rhyme Street Magazine, a bimonthly exploration of Philadelphia’s hip-hop and R&B culture. Wright says the importance of graffiti in the hip-hop movement is often forgotten today.

“It hurts my soul to say it, to admit it,” says Wright. “But I do agree that hip-hop has somewhat moved on and forgot about graffiti and doesn’t hold it in as high regard as it does b-boying or it does DJing.”

RAW South Street on South Fifth Street serves as an example of the way that modern hip-hop can stay connected to graffiti.  The store is stocked with hip-hop themed clothes and shoes. Copies of the Philadelphia-produced graffiti magazine Infamous line the front counter next to a handful of R&B and hip-hop CDs. In the front, customers argue about hip-hop artists and graffiti etiquette, and out back, an alleyway serves as a legal canvas for graffiti artists. RAW owner Dras Kim says that the overly commercialized rap scene in Philadelphia has overshadowed hip-hop.

“I wanna support raw people who’re doin’ for themselves,” says Kim.

Kim convinces Philadelphia-area MCs and DJs to perform at his shop and encourages people to breakdance to the music. A strong believer in the four pillars of hip-hop, Kim also makes sure to support graffiti.

“Graffiti seems to be the one that got lost, never went really commercial,” says Moon, a 30-year-old Philadelphia graffiti artist who prefers to be identified by his handle. “It’s hard to make a livin’ out of painting, y’know.”

Moon at work

Moon goes to work on a legal wall behind RAW South Street on November 6, 2011.

Moon recently contributed a piece to Kim’s alleyway gallery. The piece consists of an ornate M written large against a Philadelphia skyline, while in the lower left corner, an angry looking Man in the Moon grimaces at onlookers.

Moon has been a graffiti artist for roughly ten years, but now he makes his living as a graphic designer while sticking mainly to legal walls for graffiti writing. Legal walls give him the luxury and time to plan a piece out without having to rush for fear of police or neighborhood reprisals.

“I had my couple years, I did my thing, but, y’know, you get older, you gotta slow up,” he says. “But, uh, I still do it here and there.”

As for the mural program, Moon says they do good work, but that they are more influenced by modern art than graffiti style these days.

“I got nothin’ against them. They do their thing, I do my thing,” says Moon. “Yeah, they got somethin’ against me. I don’t know why.”

Almost finished

Moon puts the finishing touches on his piece. The figure in the lower right-hand corner represents the Man in the Moon.

Temple University ophthalmologist looks for effective ways to target at-risk populations

Dr. Jeffrey Henderer, Ophthalmology Chair at Temple University Hospital

Dr. Jeffrey Henderer stands behind his desk at Temple University School of Medicine.

(Note: This profile was originall written in October 2011)

Randy Bullock stared at the eye chart on the far wall of the examining room. When prompted, he read aloud the letters on one of the chart’s lines. A medical student adjusted the lenses on the phoropter, a gray, bulky apparatus pressed up against Bullock’s face. He read the line again. The student made some notes, and then led Bullock to another room for further tests.

“I’m a caricaturist, so my eyes are important to me,” said Bullock. “I’m an independent artist. I don’t have insurance.”

That is why Bullock is getting his eyes checked at Health Center 5. On the first Thursday of every month, Dr. Jeffrey Henderer and students from the Temple University School of Medicine go to the city-run health center located on 1900 N. 20th Street to provide free eye-exams to community members.

Henderer is a clinical ophthalmologist and professor at Temple University School of Medicine and Temple University Hospital where he was appointed the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology in 2008.  He has a medical degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland and completed his residency at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami, Florida. In 1999, Henderer conducted a fellowship at Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Hospital. Henderer’s experience at Wills Eye taught him about the need to find creative ways to reach patients for preliminary screenings.

During his fellowship, Henderer would conduct free glaucoma screenings at senior centers in the area. Risk for developing glaucoma increases for anyone over the age of 60 and for African-Americans over the age of 40 according to the National Eye Institute. Due to the age related risk factors, Henderer decided that conducting screenings at senior centers would be a good way to target populations likely to be affected by the disease.

“We probably did about 25 screenings a year, and we probably screened a few thousand patients, ” said Henderer.

Henderer soon encountered a major problem. When he would tell senior center residents they were showing early signs of glaucoma, a disease that can lead to irreversible blindness if not treated, he discovered that most of them failed to make follow-up appointments. Early glaucoma has no obvious symptoms and can only be detected with an eye exam, so it is easy to ignore even after a diagnoses is made. Henderer was disappointed that the senior center screenings were not a success.

“It turns out it’s a pretty effective way to target the population you think is at risk,” he said. “The problem is that the people don’t come for care. I didn’t realize that would be the problem.”

The project at the health center is his latest attempt to find an effective way to bring vision screenings to underserved populations at a low cost. The patients’ primary care physicians at the health center refer them to Henderer and his medical students, which makes convincing patients to follow up after a diagnosis easier than it was during the Wills Eye project.

Most of the patients are at risk for diabetic retinopathy, a blindness-causing disease for which diabetes is the primary risk factor. Once they arrive for their screening, Henderer and the students conduct a full eye exam that tests not only for diabetic retinopathy, but for other eye-diseases as well.

Jeffrey Henderer and Fahad Akhtar

Dr. Jeffrey Henderer and Temple University School of Medicine student Fahad Akhtar demonstrate how a a slit lamp is used to examine the eye.

If patients indicate no symptoms, they are sent on their way without the need for a costly exam to be performed at a hospital. Those patients who show symptoms are referred to Temple University Hospital for follow-up care.

“Hopefully it saves the city money, and hopefully it’s more convenient for the patient,” said Henderer.

The project is not meant only for the benefit of the patient and the city. The medical students who conduct the exams receive valuable experience in patient care.

“With Dr. Henderer here with us, it’s much more one on one learning, which I’m grateful for,” said Carrie Wright, a second year medical student considering specializing in ophthalmology.

Generally Henderer and his students examine fifteen to twenty patients at these eye screenings, but on the day they examined Randy Bullock, the number was closer to twelve or thirteen. Henderer decided to go to the waiting room to see if anyone else would like to get a free eye-exam. When he made his announcement, no one responded, so Henderer turned to one man in particular.

“Do you need an eye-exam?” said Henderer.

“No,” said the man.

“Not even with your Yankees cap on?” said Henderer.

Hi, all


I am a Master of Journalism student at Temple University. This empty blog will soon be filled with any stories and sketches that I feel are worth publishing, but have not been published elsewhere. Stay tuned for updates.

-Brendan Clay

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