Advancing Literacy for Black boys

Advancing Literacy for Black boys

I’ll never forget the moment when I realized that the students in a school I was supporting had not read anything more than a few pages of text for close to two months.

There were a myriad of potential excuses for it. They were ramping up for test prep season, there was a spring break and a snow day, they had cycles of interim assessments that broke into their instructional time, they rotated between reading and writing units during core ELA time, and had been in the middle of a writing cycle, etc.

It took me a while to see it clearly, as I came only once a week, at most, and couldn’t always see the full picture. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks once I did. How could students improve their literacy when they weren’t expected to read for sustained and structured periods of time daily?

This wasn’t the only school I visited where something like this was happening. All the schools I worked with were in a highly segregated district by race and class with the highest concentration of students in temporary housing in the city. In another school, there was a constant assortment of students who simply roved about the open spaces of the building. And when instruction was happening, it was mainly a teacher shouting to be heard while print outs of short passages slid to the floor.

In all of these schools and classrooms, there were striving, smart, kind, passionate children seeking to have their intellect ignited.

So Alfred Tatum’s recent book, Teaching Black Boys in the Elementary Grades: Advanced Disciplinary Reading and Writing to Secure Their Futures resonates deeply with me because he is on a mission to disrupt this dismal reality, which all too many Black boys face in schools across our nation. Too few texts, too little intellectual engagement, diminished expectations of their capacity and potential.

I’ve been paying attention to Tatum’s work for some time now when a colleague turned me on to Reading for Their Life: (Re)Building the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males several years ago. His concepts of providing daily textual feasts for Black boys and of connecting them to textual lineages provided me an aspirational anchor for lesson design.

Yet admittedly, when you listen to Tatum present or read some of his previous writings, it can at times be hard to understand exactly how these concepts may play out in a lesson. But my colleague also had shared with me some of Tatum’s Boys College lessons, so I had an inkling of what he meant, and have drawn upon them as a reference in my own lesson design. I find his lessons one of the very few examples out there of moving swiftly between multiple components of literacy within one lesson, from decoding to deeper comprehension to writing about multiple disciplinary texts.

So I was excited to see when Tatum’s latest book came out that he centers the books around these very same lessons. In this book, he lays out a foundational multidimensional view of reading that he draws upon when designing lessons for Black boys. He takes the reader through specific lessons, from texts to student writing, to demonstrate what engaging boys in disciplinary and interdisciplinary intellectual work can look like.

I think we can and must go well beyond these lesson approaches — the texts are short, and it’s hard to see how they could move beyond a few lessons and into a full set of units — but Tatum provides us a strong case study of how instruction can be approached radically differently. Instead of slow walking children through surface-level content, he gives us a moral imperative, draws explicitly upon a legacy and lineage of Black intellectual and pedagogical forebears, and provides concrete examples of what engaging Black boys in daily textual feasts and building textual lineages can look like.

In Tatum’s view, focusing on mere proficiency in literacy is a diminished expectation wrought of racism. Instead, he promotes an accelerated focus on developing advanced literacy through intellectual engagement with disciplinary texts, and synthesizing thinking across disciplines. This is a cause I applaud and if you haven’t heard of Tatum’s work before and you serve Black children, I suggest you get yourself a copy.

If teachers had been using this kind of approach in that school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, they would have been doing something far more effective compared to what had been happening.

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