#AgeOfLiteracy: Can’t Read vs. Won’t Read: Reading Engagement and African American Males

#AgeOfLiteracy: Can’t Read vs. Won’t Read: Reading Engagement and African American Males

By Chad Everett (@dcseverett) and Rita Platt (@ritaplatt)

The Educator Collaborative was delighted to be invited to share posts for the International Literacy Association’s Leaders for Literacy Day. We’ll be posting all day long! And follow #AgeOfLiteracy to read updates from others throughout the day!

In this post, The Educator Collaborative Network Member Chad Everett and educator Rita Platt share their ideas for “flipping the script” when it comes to literacy approaches and African American male students.

Chris, a sixth-grade student, settles into his seat and opens his book. It is independent reading time. For the first two minutes his eyes are focused on the pages and he appears to be reading. But, as minute three approaches, he flips through the pages quickly, and it becomes clear that he is not really reading. He locks eyes with his friend and makes faces that cause both students to chuckle. Unfortunately for Chris, Mrs. Reese has already corrected him twice today. She sends him to the office. His disruption earns him two days of in-school suspension. His work will be sent to him while he is there, but his teacher will not be on hand to provide instruction, so he will re-enter class two days behind his peers. And, Chris is behind already.

The Problem

This story plays itself out each day in schools across the United States. Many times, students like Chris find themselves in front of people like me. My job is to decide their disciplinary fates. I spend the better part of each day sitting across a table, looking into the eyes of young men who, like me, are African American. It is of little surprise that more often than not I find myself looking into a set of brown eyes like mine. There is a long and clear data trail that shows students of color are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers (EdWeek, 2014). There is also a documented differential and negative pattern of treatment for African American children, originating at the classroom level (Skiba, Michael, Nardo, and Peterson, 2002). Add to that the fact that African American students are nearly one and half times more likely to be diagnosed as having a learning disability and it is easy to see a scary pattern.

This leaves the profession with many questions that must be asked and answered. One of them is how is the above is effecting the reading lives of African American boys? As Tatum (2006) reminds “National reading achievement data continue to indicate that as a group, African American males —particularly adolescents in middle and high school classrooms—are not performing well. In light of the often played out scenario above and these startling statistics, we must ask a critical question: Are students like Chris misbehaving during reading activities, because they cannot read or because they are not being engaged during literacy instruction? Simply put, why doesn’t Chris want to read? We must explore the possibility that our African American boys are not reading because we are not adequately motivating them to. We must resolve to do better.

Flipping the Script

It is time to flip the script on the idea that African American males do not seek rich literary lives. Although often portrayed as an academically disengaged group, literacy has always played an important role in lives of African American males, they have long recognized and placed emphasis on the importance of being literate. These individuals have “…turned to texts to make sense of their present conditions in the United States and to shape possibilities for their futures” (Tatum, 2009). Consider the fact that “generations of African American slaves learned how to read and write and then employed their literacy on a crusade for freedom before and after the Civil War” (Warren, 2005). In Forgotten Readers (2002), Elizabeth McHenry chronicles Male African American literary societies dating back to the 1800s, detailing how reading and the related conversations allowed African Americans access to the political and literary terrain of the United States at a time when there were precious few access points. A Pew Trust poll (2013) bridges history with today, finding that more African American adults read a book in 2013 then any other group! Why then, don’t our African American school-aged boys choose to read?

The Solution

We must remember that strong literacy instruction engages the mind and enriches lives. For African American males “…literacy development sits at the intersection of educational policy, reading research, urban school reform,…and a wide array of social, economic, and political forces” (Tatum, 2012). This moves far beyond skill and strategy instruction. Do not misunderstand, skill development (i.e., fluency instruction, vocabulary instruction, and comprehension instruction) is necessary. It does not matter how many rich texts we share with students if they do not have the skills necessary to navigate them. But, do not fall for the premise that skills instruction is enough or that it is what our boys need to catch up. This fallacious thinking has led to a trend that perpetrates a bitter and ineffective cycle. African American students fall behind, teachers and schools try to catch them up with boxed programs, and skill and drill type interventions and students become further disengaged and fall further behind (Gallager & Allington, 2009.) The profession must commit to moving beyond a focus solely on skill instruction. It is ahistorical and ignores the role of literature in the development of identity–a powerful factor in literacy engagement for African American males (Tatum, 2006). Just as in the rich history of African American literacy, our youth must be taught to harness books as both window and mirror, as works that allow them to hold a mirror to and learn about themselves and those that allow them to look out the window to learn about the wider world. It is not always that our male African American students cannot read, it is often that they won’t read because we have not helped them see literature as a way to understand and communicate.  

The Pledge

Teachers, we are powerful. The literacy work we do has far reaching impact. Children who have poor academic outcomes in elementary school, particularly those who have difficulty learning to read, are more likely to engage in delinquency, violence, and substance use during adolescence and beyond (Fleming et al., 2004, p. 130). Considering the differential and harsher treatment of African American boys in school, it is critical that we exercise our power on behalf of these children. We must work to nurture students’ resiliency and identities while improving their reading achievement. The goals of skill development and access to meaningful, quality literature can no longer be separate. Educators must consider the broader context in which our students’ literacy development occurs. Teachers, we must not stand at the intersection of these spaces, we must enter in, seek to understand them, and advocate on behalf of our African American boys. We owe this to ourselves, our students, and our world.

The Resources

If we give students like Chris, from the scenario above, books that they want to read and can read, they will read them. Once reluctant readers finish one book, their confidence grows. Increased confidence and a great library can lead to increased reading and for students like Chris, better behavior.

Link to 2006 Tatum quote http://www.ascd.org/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el200602_tatum.pdf

Gallagher, K., & Allington, R. L. (2009). Readicide: How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse.

McHenry, E. (2002). Forgotten readers: Recovering the lost history of African American literary societies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Warren, K. (2005). Literacy and Liberation. Reviews in American History, 33(4), 510-517. doi:10.1353/rah.2005.008

A Snapshot of Reading in America in 2013. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/01/16/a-snapshot-of-reading-in-america-in-2013/

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