National statistics on literacy are discouraging, but Justin Perry, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education, says that he is encouraged by recent news of local efforts to combat those daunting statistics.
However, there is still a lot of work to do, especially for advancing the literacy development of African-American boys, a subject that Alfred Tatum, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has researched and written about for nearly 25 years — a topic about which nearly 400 elementary and secondary educators and administrators, community members and even children flocked to the UMKC Student Union to hear.
The UMKC School of Education’s eighth annual Urban Education and Community Forum on April 3 featured Tatum as the keynote speaker. Tatum discussed ways to unbind the narrative suffocating the literacy development of so many of our nation’s children. He also presented a model aimed to advance the literacy development of low- and high-performing readers and writers, specifically black males in grades three through 12.
“Literacy is about decoding text, decoding the universe,” Tatum said. “It improves our lives and the public good.”
His presentation, “Text as a Tool of Protection,” paralleled the lack of writing and reading skills to “muzzles on mouths,” indicating that literacy is a restoration of identity. Tatum said that there is power in the ability to read and write and suggested that educators challenge children to understand, become knowledgeable about and write about advanced texts.
However, Tatum acknowledged that mediocracy and the creation of reading levels have taken over America’s schools.
Schools, according to Tatum, are now focused more on teaching to the test and teaching grade-level texts. But, Tatum said, “When you level text, you level lives.” Tatum says it is just a matter of children’s literacy, because “powerful texts, in tandem with powerful reading and writing instruction, can have a significant influence on the lives of all students.”
He challenged the audience to be conscientious of how they speak to and about children, explaining that how society talks about black boys impacts their literacy development. He warned against labeling low-performing readers as “at risk” and implying that they are destined for failure if they do not know the alphabet by the time they begin kindergarten.
Following his presentation, Tatum engaged in a Q & A session with audience members, both children and educators. Topics of discussion included how to challenge black boys to recognize their individual value, incorporating differentiation into the classroom without crippling students, presenting advanced texts despite the curriculum of required reading and, for one adolescent boy, how to launch a book club with his peers.