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

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.