African American males have been described with phrases like “unsuccessful,” “hopeless,” and “failure.” It almost seems as if society religiously rejects the Black male, and has lost all hope and potential for him, and pushes away the mere thought that they could be the next famous, prosperous, influential somebody.
The Black community has long recognized that public education alone generally is insufficient for growing African Americans, especially young males. Improving, yet still languishing at the bottom level graduation and achievement rates across the nation are evidence of a system not designed to help the general Black male.
As a result, more educators are searching for innovative ways to close the gap and level the playing field for African American students.
Alfred Tatum, professor and author of “Reading for Their Life,” has proposed a solution for the problem of this generation.
Published in 2009, Tatum’s book is a Black male “educational manual” for teachers. He actually proposes an old practice that has long been forgotten in education — reading empowering materials.
It has been his experience, that students in classrooms everywhere have lost interest in school. Tatum has found that the texts teachers assign to students, especially Black males, are ineffectual for long-term success. Instead, students need reading material that can be practically applied to their lives.
“In the book, I introduced how the relationship between African American males and texts has been severed over the past 40 years,” Tatum shared. “I begin to show how we rebuild what I call textual lineages.”
As defined by Tatum, textual lineages are personal collections impactful pieces of literature that have connected people to a significant moment or relationship in their lives. For example, “Invictus,” “Invisible Man,” and the U.S. Constitution are influential pieces of text that have caused significant shifts in the psyche of a Tatum. He says it provides a healthy psyche, providing a backdrop of being, joining, thinking, or acting, it nurtures modern-day awareness, and connects people to a larger goal.
“Black males read and wrote for four reasons (historically): To define self, to nurture resilience, to build tenacity, and to engage others,” he explained. “Some people figure, well I have some Black male students, so I give them reading materials that have Black male characters. That will help them become more engaged. But that’s not true. We think that the answer to educating Black males is give them something they can relate to without thinking deeply about what that really means.”
Contextualizing literature for students, especially African American males, is important when establishing a textual lineage. Typically students lose interest in school because they do not grasp the practical application. Connecting literature to students’ lives ultimately empowers them.
His goal is to reconceptualize both reading and writing to change the outcomes of Black students’ life trajectories.
The educator notes that outside factors such as environment, poverty, culture and other social forces contribute to a student’s interest. According to Tatum, teachers who do not understand their students’ cultural background often struggle to capture the minds of young Black males, because they do not understand where Black students are coming from. As a result, Black children fall behind.
“When we have kids who are not engaged, what they’re really telling us is that we are missing the mark,” Tatum said.
Eighty-five educators in the Los Angeles County have decided to take on Tatum’s challenge and stretch themselves to ensure the success of their Black students. Shervaughnna Demiraz, curriculum and instructional services consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, has created a Professional Learning Community (PLC), specifically to engage in a process of improving instruction for African American boys.
While cultural assessments and training are ideal approaches to addressing the teacher/ Black student relationship, Demiraz has decided instead to use Tatum’s book as a tool to transform teaching styles and improve the achievement of students in a more practical way.
“I think giving kids material to read that’s going to make them want to change something in their lives is really what the history of reading has done for our society,” Demiraz said. “Reading for some students is an opportunity to see roads that they may not have known they could travel down. As a Black American for me it’s my hope that these texts would help our future generations see the changes that were originally promised, that their ancestors dreamed about and that they can really put into action.”
Through the PLC, teachers are again recognizing the power of written word. Demiraz says many cultural veils have been lifted through discussion and understanding what text can do for students.
Ultimately, Tatum suggests if Black male students are given useful texts and are able to develop a textual lineage, they will have a greater chance of succeeding and moving on to college.
Demiraz believes kindergarten is the where college begins for all students. If effective reading materials and textual lineages are established in the early years, he will have a broader outlook on life and the possibilities will be endless. But the trick is making the literature relative to students.
She also suggests teachers need to hold high standards for all of their students, including Black males. She says in an attempt to respect the values and culture of some students, some educators lower the bar. Instead, “rigor and relevance” is a critical component for the success of the Black male.
Finally, parent involvement has also shown to be effective in a child’s development. Tatum says parents also need to be active participants in their child’s education whether that is visiting the school or simply showing interest.
As they say, reading is achieving. With the help of Tatum and efforts of educators, Black males may have a chance to reach new heights. Understanding the role of reading and the importance of literature in the lives of young Black men can be the beginning of closing the achievement gap.