NIU literacy professor works
to close reading achievement gap
for African-American adolescent males
DeKalb — As a young teen in the Chicago Public Schools, growing up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood a few yards from a federal housing project, Alfred Tatum became one of the fortunate ones.
He was blessed with empowering teachers who understood his surroundings. They cared about his life and not only his test scores. They encouraged him to read Dick Gregory's “Nigger” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
Such passion for teaching – “Harvard dreams for kids living in hellish conditions,” Tatum says – made a difference: Tatum is now an NIU professor of literacy education with a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
Yet his good fortune “is part of the problem,” Tatum says. “Children should not be fortunate to have quality teachers. We're not playing the lottery with lives.”
Tatum's book, “Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap,” released in May by Portland, Maine-based Stenhouse Publishers, is earning great attention among U.S. educators and netting several speaking engagements for the busy author.
Meanwhile, the mounting weight of the federal No Child Left Behind law and its focus on test scores is fueling Tatum's insistence that a successful school experience involves more than good grades.
“My phones have been lighting up since this book came out,” says Tatum, who also is an NIU alum. “Teachers want to know how to address these issues, but they feel handicapped by limited experience … or they feel powerless because they attribute it to factors they cannot control, such as parental involvement or poverty. They shift the responsibility.”
Tatum already has spoken to school teachers and administrators in Michigan , New York , New Jersey and Ohio .
In his home state, he has visited his alma mater Chicago Public Schools, where he began his career teaching eighth-grade for five years on the city's South Side. He also accepted an invitation to speak from the suburban Oswego school district, where “the other students” are succeeding.
He also has written a two-part article for Middle Level News, published by the California League of Middle Schools.
“It's a point of urgency. We cannot continue to stay the course we have been on for African-American adolescent males,” he said. “We need to rally people around the complexity of addressing the literacy needs, not only of African-American adolescent males, but of all students in the face of national legislation.”
Tatum's concerns are many.
No clear strategy has emerged for addressing the needs of African-American adolescent males, including the lack of a clear definition for the role of reading in their education.
Policy makers and educators focus more on instructional strategies and ignore other issues that affect learning, such as poverty or the cultural disconnect of the classroom.
Such a lapse makes for an “anatomically incomplete” body of teaching, he says, missing the head (the theoretical) and the legs (the professional development).
Many African-American adolescent males also experience an “out-of-school literacy overload and an in-school literacy under-load,” he says. They live amidst race- and class-based “turmoil” before and after school while their teachers fail to provide the texts that could “serve as road maps” to better life outcomes.
As a result, Tatum posits, the disengagement of these young minds and their disproportionate (and often inappropriate) referrals to special education services lead to their 50-percent high school dropout rate in some of the nation's largest urban school districts.
Their resistance to reading anything – whether to satisfy academic, culture, social or emotional needs – rises as they are assigned texts “that inadvertently contribute to their diminished status in schools and society.”
Rather, Tatum says, teachers should encourage interest in school through reading assignments that reflect their own situation and provide them hope to rise above their circumstances. “Young African-American men need to be reading more text,” he says, “not less.”
Teachers of African-American adolescent males need “the 4 Cs,” he says: compassion, competence, commitment and cultural responsiveness.
He urges these considerations in the selection and discussion of texts with African-American adolescent males:
- Establish a broader definition of literacy instruction that guides the selection of text. It must focus on skill and strategy knowledge, content knowledge and identity development. “It is imperative that these young men have the requisite skills to read text independently. It is also imperative that they become ‘smarter' as a result of their reading,” he says. “It is essential that literacy instruction helps these young men form an identity that allows them to resist some of the negative community forces that are part of their day-to-day realities.”
- Identify a core of “must-read” texts for African-American adolescent males. These include James Baldwin's “The Fire Next Time” and Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man.”
- Discuss texts in culturally responsive ways. “Students benefit when they can extend the ideas contained in texts into their own lives,” he says.
- Identify texts that balance the out-of-school literacy overload. “Most of the texts they should be exposed to are co-opted by schools' focus to improve reading scores,” he says. “Black males are not exposed to text that leads to academic, cultural, economic and social uplift.”
- Examine your disposition toward using texts with African-American adolescent males. Many teachers back down when they encounter resistance from their students to read beyond the required material, Tatum says. “However, no research currently shows that having students read less advances their academic and other literacy needs.”
In Tatum's case, reading the works of Dick Gregory, Richard Wright, Booker T. Washington and others “released me from a stigmatic trapping of poverty. My teachers connected text to my life,” he says. “It's really something I didn't forget.”
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