“Underexposure to Texts”: A Post from Dr. Beverly Tatum

Dr Beverly Tatum, psychologist and author of the already classic “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and the new “Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of Resegregation” as well as the piece in our edited anthology, commented on our blog today. Instead of approving it as a comment, I am posting it on the main page of the blog to emphasize its importance. Please read and respond.

Thanks Ray for eliciting Dr. Tatum’s interest. Wow!! KES

from…Dr. Tatum | sundar96@verizon.net | IP:

We need to take an honest position with regard to the literacy development African American boys. Neither effective reading strategies nor literacy reform efforts will close the achievement gap in a class-based society unless meaningful texts are at the core of the curriculum; unless teachers and administrators accept culpability for their failures; and unless the failure of economically disadvantaged African American boys in majority minority schools becomes a priority in our nation’s educational agenda as evidenced through greater financial investments for resources and placing more highly, qualified teachers in classrooms. To date, the solution has been creating new standards while old educational inequities exist (Darling-Hammond, 2007).

First, it must be dissolved that young African American males do not want to be educated. These young men experience pain when they struggle with reading, pain that cannot be quantified. Yet, they often mask their pain at their peril to protect their identity. A young male high school student who participated in a focus group discussion I led informed us, “If I did not have a mentor outside of North East High School I would probably find myself dropping out. It’s scary not knowing how to read. I don’t want to be in school anymore…. I am tired of being made fun of.” Clearly, limited reading skills caused this young male internal anguish.

Second, it must dissolved that African American males should accept any form of instruction. In many cases, they have legitimate reasons to resist instructional practices that will leave them underprepared in a competitive society. I observed such a lesson in a high school reading classroom near the end of the students’ freshman year. The students, predominantly African American males, were asked to identify misspelled words in a sentence written on the board. One of the misspelled words was laff (laugh). This lesson did not provide a cognitive challenge and was not developmentally appropriate for high school students. Yet, the students participated in this lesson extrapolated from an elementary school orientation. In the same high school at the beginning of the following school year I observed a teacher telling the students which letter to capitalize while completing a worksheet page of capitalization of proper nouns. Valuable instructional time was lost with both such lessons and the students were no closer to being proficient or advanced readers. At some point, they will reject text and the education they are being offered if they assess they lack significance and meaning.

Third, it must be dissolved that African American adolescent males need saviors, before they need quality education. Quality education allows African American males to know and save themselves. Quality teaching matters. Teachers have the power to reshape the lives of African American adolescent males and move them beyond some of the limitations outside of schools that retard their reading achievement.

Many African American adolescent males feel loathed before they are loved, feel rejected before they are respected, and feel alienated before they are educated. These feelings make it easier for them to perform poorly in school. These sentiments are captured by a young man who shared, “The majority of the world don’t think we are worthy enough to take control and handle what we need to do.” This feeling serves as a stressor for African American adolescent males who feel a lack of psychosocial membership in the classroom (Price, 2000; Spencer, 1999).

As I think about the welfare and literacy development of African American males from impoverished communities, I am challenged by the following questions: How are teachers conceptualizing literacy instruction for them? How are they teaching the black males how to read and write? How are they helping to nurture the identities of these young men? How are teachers helping these young men believe in themselves as academic, cultural, economic, human and social beings? How are teachers helping these young men enjoy school? In essence, what is “schooling” doing for African American males?

The nation has sounded the siren for educational change. This siren has the effect of moving many educators to remedy the underperformance in reading of African American males by focusing on skills and strategies aligned to new standards, holding teachers accountable, and mandating more testing. Educators are struggling to find ways to address the needs of poor African American males. As a nation, we are challenged to answer the question, how do we improve the reading achievement of African American males in elementary, middle school and high school classrooms?

Many black males are trapped behind the rhetorical curtain of No Child Left Behind legislation. No Child Left Behind is idealistic in a society with a history and interest in economic and political exploitation, racism, and oppression. A nation like the United States does not function without distinct classes. The “good society”, by design, needs to leave some behind (Galbraith, 1997). In the United States, however, the arc of being left behind bends towards those who live in poverty, those being raised by single mothers, those attending low-achieving majority-minority schools, and those who live in largely segregated urban and rural communities, and those who are male. These variables affect quality of life indicators that markedly impact African American males in the United States. Although the volume of disadvantage becomes louder for these young men during adolescence, there are signs early in their lives of a growing negative life outcome trajectory.

Teachers and administrators are challenged to reach their African American male student population who fall into the typical pattern as stated by one administrator. Typical pattern was used to describe low performance on reading-related tasks. Many black males continue to be left behind in school as they wait for educators to “get it right.” Time to reshape the life outcome through literacy development is running out earlier and earlier for many of these young men as they opt for deleterious pathways that cement a recycling of failure.

Continue to wrestle with the complexities. By the way, all adolescents benefit from texts that connects to their multiple backgrounds – personal, cultural, economic, national, and social, cultural, and gender. Many students are suffering from an underexposure to texs in America’s middle school and high schools. The stakes are higher for some.




Filed under Class Notes

4 responses to ““Underexposure to Texts”: A Post from Dr. Beverly Tatum

  1. jmdegan

    I have a few things to say, but I would first like to thank Dr. Tatum for participating in our discussion.

    Second, I would like to thank her for pointing out that at risk students are not a homogeneous group. I think that we all too easily fall into the trap of seeing inner-city, predominately African-American/Latino/a schools as the only at-risk sites, a view that is supported by cultural images of teachers from Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers. As a product of rural schooling who is working with rural students, I am pleased to see that this at-risk population periodically gets the attention it deserves.

    Speaking of cultural images of education, did anyone think of the Gruwell memoir when Dr. Tate stated that “it must be dissolved that African-American males need saviors before they need quality education.” How do we think of her construction of a teacher identity (which I think was the point of that reading) in light of this statement?

    I think Dr. Tatum is suggesting that education is a series of interventions, directing and redirecting student encounters with texts. Reading, in the sense that a critical literacy pedagogy would define it, is an act of intervention. Our unit plans/sequences of instruction/text sets are structures for intervention (in part because they complicate what would seem to be a simple answer for a seemingly simple question)

    I wonder if Dr. Tatum would be willing to answer a question I have. What would be the most appropriate approach for at-risk students, such as African-American males? Do you think we should be directing our students to a more general career preparation, like focusing on decoding/comprehension skills, or should we engage in more complex pedagogies, like critical literacy? How do we begin (and complete) the intervention you call for?

    Thank you again for your interest and contribution to our discussion.

    J. Degan

  2. rayhedrick

    Yes, I would also like to thank Dr. Tatum for participating on our class blog.

    The one paragraph that Dr. Tatum writes that resonates with me is the last one. There was one question that followed me throughout this elaborate comment. Wouldn’t ALL students benefit from multicultural texts? Then, at the end, she says it herself. I’m glad to have read that.

    I have another totally unrelated question, though:

    I wanted to branch off of the one question that Jerry asks because I have a similar question. Is there a “happy medium” between teaching students advanced critical literacy (as Jerry writes) and teaching them general comprehension skills? Is this the same thing? Won’t critical literacy teach them to “read the world?” Does there have to be extremes?

    This was a compelling comment, Dr. Tatum. Thank you.

  3. traverse02

    Jerry’s right. In light of Dr. Tatum’s comment about the need for saviors, I think that Gruwell’s construction of a teacher identity makes perfect sense. As stated in the Wiggins/McTighe reading, we must fill the Expert/Novice Gap and become experts ourselves, “we must know the subject well enough to get beyond inert textbook and curriculum framework language” (p. 21). This is how we engage students, and even though I still don’t like Gruwell (this is strictly personal), I respect what she did. In a sense she became their savior.

    I also agree with Dr. Tatum and Jerry’s suggestion that education is a series of interventions. This goes right along with my reading of Plato’s Meno and Wiggins/McTighe’s description of questions as doorways to understanding. Our unit questions should be an intervention, they should “complicate what would seem to be a simple answer for a seemingly simple question,” as Jerry says. Our goal should be to challenge the prescribed nonsense that most students have been taught from the very beginning. I think this might be the trigger needed to ensure student engagement.

  4. canadawr5

    I agree that African American males need proper education but they do not need saviors. Why? Because there is no such thing and the only way we can be saved is to save ourselves. The problem is, how do you get a group of people to understand this when most know nothing about Black America? You really don’t need to know since blacks create little to no business revenue or jobs and have little to no political power. Who needs to listen?

    Many African American males in the urban communities are faced with more day-to-day problems as kids than the average adult will ever encounter in their lifetime. On the other hand, many caucasions who reside in the suburbs and rurul communities may never get a chance to meet a black until they go off to the military or college! I was in the military with this second class petty officer who was from one of these communities. He said that he had never met a Black American until he joined the navy. I believe him, I mean seriously, many blacks are from big urban communities. They often times have to reside in these communities because of employment opportunities. These small “predominantly white” communities are not quick to hire blacks.

    On the contrary, blacks always have to encounter whites regardless of where they live in the U.S. So these worlds are so far apart yet so close together, and the ones who are “powerless” know more about the ones in power when it should be the other way around.

    What most people don’t understand is that the reason why black males get more attention when it comes to poverty is because poverty is not the only problem they face.

    Blacks face racism as well as classism in this country. Where a white person can get the benifit of the doubt (at least until he or she opens their mouth) at a job interview, a qualified black males or females can get stopped at the door. They can an often times do because of that beautiful thing called “skin tone.”

    In order for America to “move on” we must come to grips with the complete puzzle and not just part of it.

    However, I don’t totally blame America. Just because they set the stage and create the images does not mean we have to personify the characters.

    Ray C.

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