First Person

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

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
John Little reads a story at the 2016 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

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.