Reading to Empower: A Thoughtful Guide to Literacy Instruction
March 13, 2010
Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males has the potential to close the achievement gap between multiple players in the education game. Alfred Tatum offers a straightforward examination of how best to encourage black teens in the classroom, but his insights extend beyond the turmoil specific to their experience. “There are no black-male-only research-based reading strategies,” he says. Rather, cultural awareness and sound technique should guide all literacy instruction. Tatum’s suggestions regarding text selection and metacognition, specifically, could prove useful to teachers of all students hoping to close the gap between struggling and proficient readers.
For those with little experience teaching black adolescent males, however, Tatum’s book is especially significant. He recommends both texts and critical questions that, when used in combination with reading strategies, have the potential to motivate black students to move away from the victim mentality, critique the society that represses them, and pursue goals beyond their immediate experience. Tatum’s high expectations for his students, in my opinion, are the ultimate driving force behind his students’ success. Underlying each of these objectives is the belief that young black readers can and will excel if given quality instruction. He leaves no room for excuses. For example, he never allows his students to “say anything in [his] classroom without investigating the meaning behind it.” In a system that often leaves this demographic behind, this confidence is vital to true achievement.
His expectations for teachers are as high as his expectations for students: not only must we choose relevant, challenging texts, conduct daily lessons in reading strategies, and constantly build the bridge between academic and personal success, we must also scrutinize our own practices through professional development communities. Again, Tatum’s advice extends beyond black adolescent males. I would recommend this sort of reflective instruction to all teachers, myself included, who hope to improve reading proficiency and personal practice.
I would encourage anyone invested in the complexity of the student experience to read Tatum’s book. Parents, legislators and teachers alike could benefit from its insights into what works for literacy instruction and what contributes to low reading scores and life expectancy among black adolescent males. I feel certain that I will return to it as a guide to choosing texts and asking essential questions in my own classroom, regardless of the age, race, or reading level of my students.
What does it mean to be a teacher?
The introduction and first chapters of Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males were overwhelming. Education aside, I found myself doubting my qualifications for teaching outside my own relatively sheltered experience. How am I possibly qualified to stand in front of young men like who, like Alfred Tatum, have endured more turmoil at 14 than I’ve known in twice that time? Suffice it say, my expectations for the author and his subsequent chapters were hopeful and high.
Much to my relief, the first meeting of our professional book club somewhat assuaged my anxiety: at least I wasn’t the only one who felt a bit uneasy. My group members expressed similar concerns over making literacy relevant to black adolescent males and closing the achievement gap. Our discussion heightened my awareness of the variable expectations set for these students as compared to their white or female peers. There are different categories for “smartness”—street smarts and book smarts—and different environments in which each are valuable. It is our charge, as teachers, to create an environment that supports the latter and makes literacy valuable beyond the classroom.
Like Alvermann, Phelps, & Gillis suggest, the key to connecting life and literacy for Tatum lies in understanding students’ schemata and introducing interesting, pertinent texts. According to Tatum, we need to question what we teach, why it’s meaningful, and what we hope students learn from it. It sounds like a simple idea, one that any reflective practitioner would embrace as a lifestyle, but holds more complexity for teaching to a diverse population of students. To this end, Tatum provides a list of provocative questions for teachers to raise and young black males to consider: What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be misunderstood? What does it mean to be pacified with low expectations? What does it mean to be invisible?
Our group came to the conclusion that these are crucial issues for students of every race, sex, and demographic to contemplate for their development as critical readers and independent selves. I hope I can focus my classroom around asking these questions and, through the teaching of reading and writing, enable students to answer them confidently.