First Person

First Person: Black boys in ‘book deserts’ don’t get inspiring literary experiences. Let’s do better.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Nashville first-grader John Little reads a story at the kickoff of Tennessee's "Read to be Ready" initiative.

Black boys are unarguably the most vulnerable population in our school system.

They are suspended and pushed out of schools at a higher rate than any other student population. They are disproportionately likely to find themselves labeled as needing special education services. They are more likely to drop out of school, are incarcerated at a higher rate than their teenage peers, and are less likely to have post-secondary learning experiences.

It should be no surprise to see educators pursuing drastic reforms, including establishing single-sex schools, to counteract these effects. These initiatives are great. But it is also up to educators to come up with solutions for the thousands of black males in urban public schools who do not have access to these initiatives.

I’m suggesting we take the pressure off of individual teachers and parents and focus on advocating for — and building partnerships to create — more literate communities.

Too often, black males students’ schools and communities give them access only to uninspired, rote literacy experiences. The students are less likely to have access to literary field trips and experiences like plays, poetry slams, library visits, author visits, and drama clubs.

Many black males live in communities where most black-owned bookstores with specialty titles have closed. They are less likely to find either larger chain or indie bookstores within a close distance of their communities. They do not have access to book festivals, large or small.

In schools, the “book deserts” can be even worse. Additionally, school-level policies, like rules restricting students to checking out one book per week, can reduce students’ opportunities to develop vocabulary and explore different genres.

Black males in urban settings are also more likely to find themselves in financially strapped schools where leaders have scrapped Reading Recovery services or the reading specialist. Their teachers may not have access to training focused on on motivating children to read.

Ironically, literacy is not always the focus or specialty area of school leaders. This can lead to buying “teacher-proof” materials, instead of using funds to inundate the school with books, magazines, and nonfiction audio, print, and electronic materials.

We know all of these issues exist. But as report cards roll around every year, black males are made to pay for this inequality.

They are made to pay with comments related to their “grit.” They are made to pay with frustration about their lack of progress expressed by teachers, parents, and administrators. They are made to pay with behavior referrals as pressured teachers lose patience. They are made to pay when school administrators eliminate recess or when schools limit recess to 20 minutes instead of a full hour. They are made to pay by being forced to do rote tasks instead of having interesting, inspiring literacy experiences.

The real issues here are inequality and the fact that many black males live in book deserts.

Literacy professionals like me see that the lack of authentic literacy experiences eliminates the motivation for black boys to read. Those issues lead black boys to get bored, and then they are pushed out of school through suspensions. The emotional toll that this takes on many black males who fail at literacy should not be ignored.

It is time to reclaim authentic literacy that inspires and motivates black males. Black males need access to books which reflect their experiences and motivation in the form of purposeful and leisure reading. We know leisure reading, and the freedom to exercise choice in reading, are what inspire children to read when no one is looking. These opportunities can also inspire black males to read and recite their favorite poems and make up their own.

There are so many ways to inspire black males to read. Equally important are:

  • the social justice framework, or using news stories, essays, speeches, and biographies focused on real community issues that need to change
  • debates and town hall meetings, where black males can use critical thinking and discuss topics such as police brutality, sports, friendship, family issues, and tragedies
  • the ethnic studies approach, in which black males learn black history narratives and events, which allow them to develop a passion for learning who they are in relation to the greater world.

As we embark on a new school year, we must do so with the idea that we have the power to change this reality. Book deserts in urban communities can be eliminated as easily as they were made in the first place. Our advocacy efforts must be community wide, district wide, school wide, as well as in local classrooms.

We must do our part to forge community partnerships to change this reality — or black males will continue to be treated as both victims and perpetrators of their own reality, and punished for being both.

This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.

First Person

How I navigated New York City’s high school admissions maze in a wheelchair

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Students at the citywide high school fair at Brooklyn Technical High School.

Public school was something I had been thinking about for years. It seemed like an impossibility when I was younger. Reliant on a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, I was too disabled. So many didn’t have an elevator. How could I keep up?

So for the last eight years, I have been at the Henry Viscardi School. It is a private school for kids with severe disabilities. The majority of the students are in wheelchairs and many use assistive technology to communicate, as I do. I am nonverbal, which means I cannot speak, so I use computers and switches to write.

While Henry Viscardi is a good school, as I went through middle school, I felt like I had plateaued in what I was learning. I was bored in school and it wasn’t fun. So I approached my parents about going to a public high school. My mom has been very involved in the educational world, serving on different committees throughout my life. She could also tell it was time for me to go to public school, but she knew it would be a difficult road.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Abraham Weitzman
The technology Weitzman uses to communicate

Most kids start to look at high schools by picking up the big book of high schools the Department of Education gives out. That wouldn’t work for me. Probably 80 percent of those schools couldn’t work based solely on accessibility.

I wanted a small school, a shorter bus ride, and academics that would prepare me for an Ivy League college. My siblings wanted a safe school because I am vulnerable. My dad said we needed the right principal. My mom used the School Finder app and found about five schools that might work.

I went to the high school fair with my brother, Izzy, and my best friend, Oriana. It was a maddening experience. We needed to go in the back entrance because it had the ramp. The specialized high schools were down a few steps, but we found another ramp. I wasn’t going to take the SHSAT [specialized high school admissions test], but Izzy and Ori were interested, and we always stay together. We found our friend Mav there too.

After we had our fill of the crowd, we got on line for the elevator to the Queens floor. We were welcomed wherever we went.

Everybody said I could go to their school. It felt good, but I knew they didn’t all have what I needed or what I wanted. Tired, we visited the Manhattan floor but gave up before we hit the other boroughs. My mom had a cocktail at lunch.

After the fair, I visited School of the Future with my parents and my assistant, and I thought it was perfect. The kids seemed nice. They didn’t stare and they made room on the ramp. I met the teachers and the principal. The classes and clubs sounded interesting. Bathroom? Fail! My wheelchair didn’t fit and my mom had to carry me into the stall. Clearly this was a problem.

I was disappointed, but my parents had another plan. They wanted me to apply for Bard High School Early College Queens. I don’t like standardized tests because my disability makes me tired before I can finish, so I never do well. My mom worked with Bard to make sure the test was printed large with one question per page. Bard gave me quadruple time over two days. I was able to finish all of the test parts. I cannot speak, so I interviewed by email. Bathroom? Awesome! Plenty of room and privacy. I ranked Bard first and waited.

This week my letter came. I’ll be going to Bard in September. It is exciting to think of all the people I’ll meet and the courses I’ll take. I know the workload will be much greater and I will be the only nonverbal person in the building. Mom, I’m ready.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.