Professional Book Club

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?

February, 2010

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.

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9 responses to “Professional Book Club

  1. I agree with you that it is so intimidating to think about teaching in a low-income urban school. With these students it seems like it is even more crucial to do a good job than with students from wealthier backgrounds. But unlike some of the other books I have read about teaching in schools like these, I think Tatum has done a good job so far of giving concrete strategies for reaching these students. I especially liked his list of must-reads and the discussion questions you mentioned. And I agree that these could also be used in a powerful way with other students as well. Knowing that there are some things I can to motivate black adolescent males from turmoil helps me feel more hopeful that I could be a successful teacher and help students be successful in environments that I’m new to.

  2. I agree that it is intimidating to think about teaching in a low-income urban school because in some ways it is more important to do a good job with these students than those from wealthier backgrounds. Unlike the other books I have read about teaching in schools with violence and extreme poverty, so far I think Tatum has done a good job of offering concrete strategies for helping these students become interested in reading. I especially liked the list of must-read books and the discussion questions you mentioned. And I agree that these could be used in a powerful way with others students as well. This book gave me a little hope that I can be a successful teacher and have successful students in environments that are new to me and difficult.

  3. Caroline – I found myself filled with doubt as well. I still have doubts that I am qualified enough to stand in front of young men and women who have faced turmoil that I still can’t even imagine having to face in my life. Tatum does an excellent of giving me a glimpse into a life I have not been exposed to. I find his writing refreshing because he is so brutally honest with the reader. I think once we get into the next part of the book we will have so much more content and ways of teaching to discuss, which will only build on our last positive conversation.

  4. Caroline-

    Though I didn’t read “Teaching Reading,” I can relate to many of your points here. I believe that as teachers, it is so important to understand why you teach what you do. This is something we encountered in our book club. We discussed “The Scarlett Letter”- one of those Canon books that everyone thinks they have to read to succeed in life. But why do we really need to read that book? Why is it any more important than a book by Chris Crutcher, for example? Our group felt that “The Scarlett Letter” wasn’t all that important, and we found it boring because we couldn’t relate to it at all. Unfortunately, this is how many students feel about most, if not all of the texts they read in school.

    I agree with Tatum in the sense that as teachers, we need to know our students interests and backgrounds. If we incorporate texts that focus on issues like, “what does it mean to be a man?” or, “what does it mean to be misunderstood?” we can help students become interested and engaged readers.

  5. I, too, appreciated our group’s honesty about being worried about approaching these students and being a helpful and not offensive or a hindrance. Something that our conversation and Tatum’s ideas on prior/home knowledge helped me to realize is that as teachers we should give ourselves as much credit and respect for the knowledge that we have gained from our personal experiences as we give to our students for their experiences and knowledge. As scary as it sounds, I think we have to find some way to create for the student an experiment in our class in which both parties (student and teacher) acknowledge (in some way) their differences, understand the problems that can be caused by those differences, and begin testing out solutions to those problems that utilize the differences in ways that benefit each party.
    Ambitious, aren’t I? 🙂

  6. I’m glad that Tatum is helping you to both understand, and feel a bit more confident about teaching in urban schools. As Melissa shares in her post, the stakes are high, both on an individual and societal level. You all will be joining the teaching profession at a time of great opportunity, and perhaps, not surprislingly, a time of challenge.

  7. I agree with you that high expectations for students and teachers is a key concept in the book. Teachers’ expectations for their students can have a huge impact on students’ beliefs about what they can and should be able to do. I was interested in the fact that Tatum claims to have always used grade-level texts with his students even though they were often several years below grade level and found the texts difficult. I wonder here about the balance between the good that high expectations can do and the harm that texts outside of the students’ zones of proximal development can do. It seems that his daily reading skill practices and support were able to help the students bridge that gap. This makes me worry about how well I will be able to help students with grade-level work if they are as far behind, and I guess that stems from fear that I won’t be able to expect as much from students with so much ground to cover. But I hope that having Tatum’s and other suggestions as tools, I can become more confident in both my students’ and my own abilities.
    I think this leads well into discussion of high expectations for teachers. I know that there will always be more for me to learn and that there will always be ways that I will be able to improve my teaching. It is not fair to students for teachers to rest on the knowledge they have of teaching without striving to improve. I was glad Tatum brought this up in the book and reminded us that we too will always have room to grow.

  8. Today, in my High Poverty Youth class we discussed the value of having high, but attainable expectations for students. Reading your post on Tatum’s emphasis on cultural awareness and sound technique reminds me of our conversation about the importance of guiding students literacy instruction in order to help close the gap between struggling and proficient readers. I strongly agree that giving students opportunities to pursue their goals beyond their experience stems from first knowing that they can and will achieve if you expect them to. Making students investigate their opinions is part of helping them reach beyond the ‘right now’ phase of their lives. Obviously, there is not 100% success with this idea as there is not 100% success with any idea; however, if a teacher does not believe that his/her students will achieve the percentage of success dwindles more significantly. I am also fairly certain that I will return to this book as a guide in the future.

  9. I agree that one of the most compelling aspects of Tatum’s text was his discussion of expectations and how they have impacted the student and teacher in ways that can easily go unnoticed. In all of my past discussions in class about the importance of high expectations for students, never before were there such exciting ideas presented for using characters and stories to demonstrate the impact of low expectations on people. I’m very excited about this strategy and how it can impact not just Black students but all students who have been limited by low expectation.

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