During the 2019-2020 school year, I took a special interest in working closely with the African-American males at my school. This work was led by organizing a team of teachers and staff members to help in create a mentorship group consisting of young in need of academic and social-emotional support. As a staff, we organized a series of events which included weekly mentorship meeting, field trips, community service projects, and a commitment to the day to day task of serving as advocates. Overall, our work yielded measureable outcomes in the areas of improved grades, reduction in school absenteeism, and students’ overall commitment to becoming college, career, and citizen ready. As advocates, we were excited and optimistic about the young men and the steps they were taking to change the narrative of negativity and write a story of success. COVID-19 hit the school community and closed school on March 13. I spent four months, sitting at my desk thinking … what could I do to actualize the popular phrase, “the school building is closed, but the learning continues.” Immediately, I began to envision creating an African American Male Summer Reading Program that would serve a two-fold purpose. First, it would foster literacy development of African-American males. The importance of this work was noted by Alfred Tatum (2015) in his article “Engaging African American Males in Reading” where he emphasized that it was essential to build a literacy bridge for African-American males because it was the key to overall academic and life success. Furthermore, this program would showcase the power of mentorship by providing the young men with the opportunity to make connections with male role models from the community along with developing networks with their peers. These partnerships serve as a support system for the young men on their journey and help empower them to become the leaders in their schools and community.
Taking into account the research around African-American males and literacy along with my desire to mentor African-American males, Boys Read Too Summer Reading Program was created and implemented. Highlighted below is a synopsis of the program and best practices that laid the foundation to ensure the young men who participated were able to have an enriching academic and social experience.
Boys Read Too Summer Reading Program: A Synopsis
Boys Read Too was a four-week program that placed an emphasis on having the young men read and discuss culturally relevant, male centered text which were aligned to themes such as civil rights, goal setting, passion, love, and gratitude. Each week, the young men were assigned text that embodied these themes, Dear Basketball (Kobe Bryant); Learning to Read (Malcolm X); I Too (Langston Hughes); and Your Life’s Blueprint (Dr. Martin Luther King). The reading was scaffold by reading reflection questions along with journal writing. One of the best aspects of the program was the weekly Zoom sessions which were facilitated by prominent male role models from the community in which each facilitator was responsible for engaging the young men in discussion and critical thinking about the core elements of each text. The results were profound despite limitations of being in a virtual environment. Each facilitator was able to encourage the young men to “speak up” and let their voice be heard. This was fostered by placing emphasis on elaboration of thinking, connecting the text to personal life experiences, and building community and setting high expectations. One of the key aspects of the program were the Sunday Fireside Chats in which best reading practices were shared along with additional readings about each facilitator and their impact on the community. At the end of the four-week program, the growth of the young men was remarkable in that a brotherhood of scholars was created consisting of participates from Newport News, VA, Baltimore, MD, Charlotte, NC, and Killeen, TX. Combining relationships, instructional best practices, relevant reading materials, and safe learning environment allowed for great teaching and learning to occur even in a virtual environment.
Boys Read Too: Lessons Learned
There were several lessons learned from these experiences. Most notable were the lessons centered around strong instructional practice that can serve as a blueprint for success when teaching African-American males. Highlighted below are three key instructional practices that I note from my work on this project.
Selecting Text That Enhances Rigor: Often the term rigor is associated with assigning students more and harder work, as well as a means of assigning work that is harsh and inflexible. However, I decided that rigor would be the converse for the participants. I took an intentional approach to select text that was ambiguous, provocative, social emotional challenging, and paradoxical. These various text allowed the young men to think for themselves and seek to larger connections. Allen (2012) noted that academic rigor should encourage students to create their own meaning out of what they read and allows student to integrate what they learned to new and novel situations. Therefore, the selection of text such as I Too (Langston Hughes), Dear Basketball (Kobe Bryant), Learning to Read (Malcolm X), and What Is Your Life’s Blueprint (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) required the young men to actively engage with the text through reading, writing, and critically thinking about the problems, ideas, and themes.
The Power Relationships and High Expectations: I approached this program looking at the glass half full. My optimism is based on the core belief that as an educator if we create a safe learning environment based on establishing positive relationships and setting high expectations then students will thrive. This philosophy was the foundation of the work and established through student centered instructional approach, consistent weekly sessions, Sunday night check-ins, daily affirmations, and team building activities. As well, the staff and participants rallied around the mantra “ALL IN”. This phrase established a collective consciousness and forged a bond that we all were committed to reading the text, actively participating in the sessions, and showcasing our best work.
Facilitator is the Key Variable to Success: The facilitators that lead the sessions were a perfect example of the transformative power of an effective teacher, one that established positive relationships, has an enthusiasm for teaching and learning, and inspires students to share their voice. The program featured a talented cohort of men that have an extraordinary track record of mentoring young men notably Tommy Reamon Jr., Owner City on My Chest Clothing Line; Antoine Bethea, NFL Professional Football Player (New York Giants); Dr. Marcellus Harris III, Newport News City Councilman; and Vernon Woodard, Educator Newport News Public Schools. Each of these men used their influence to meet students where they were and empowered them to achieve their full potential.
They helped to create a successful program that allowed us to touch the lives of 35 African-American male participants. Each of the young men expressed that the program allowed them to regain their love for reading, provided an opportunity to work collaboratively with peers to generate strategies and solutions to real word programs, and allowed them to believe that they have the skills and talents to be leaders and use their voice to make an impact. In the words of participant Jordan Moody, “Boys Read Too gave me the confidence to be a leader and use my voice as a tool that can impact the community.”
Several articles have been written about the negative impact that COVID-19 has had on the student achievement and a growing concern about the gap that will exist between high and low achieving students. As an educator, I wanted to take a lead role and provide a solution to these concerns. My model was a simple approach to see beyond the current reality of COVID-19 and create an opportunity that would provide students access to learning by connecting their interest with a student centered learning approach thus setting the stage for high impact learning. In retrospect, the program symbolized Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”