If You’re Not Talking About Black Literacy, Then You Are Talking About The Wrong Stuff

There are many phrases used in education circles; the phrase reading is fundamental must be one of the most used. I used to scoff at the phrase as a child. Sadly, it wasn’t until college where I actually believed it. 

Where I attended school, we didn’t read stories and histories about people who looked like me, written by people who looked like me. We read stories written by, about and, in my estimation, for white people. I honestly had little to no interest in reading those stories. It remained this way throughout my K-12 experience. 

I didn’t like to read. I could read, but I took no pleasure in it, nor did I understand the power I could unlock. No one told me. What I was told was that I had to read to get a good grade; that I had to read in order to pass a test, make my folks happy, and to get into college. It was explained that without reading, I wouldn’t be self-sufficient. There is something to that messaging.

However, I suspect that if my introduction to literacy centered on my identity and experience as a young Black male, Black history in the context of history overall, and purpose — in addition to skills building — my trajectory as a reader wouldn’t be what it was. I suspect the same for many Black children.

As an adult, I am an avid reader. But what if I were an avid reader as a K-12 student? Educators look to solve the riddle of how to make Black children stronger readers (because of what test scores say), however, Black children aren’t a riddle to be solved. Rather, our methods as educators must meet all children where they are and not expect them to learn (how to read or otherwise) contrary to their identity, their history, and their purpose. 

In 2019, the Nation’s Report Card from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that just 15% of Black 8th graders were at or above reading “proficiency.” In my state of New Jersey, only 39% Black students throughout grades 3rd to 11th tested proficient in literacy; the lowest proficiency rate in the state amongst students. 

The often asked question is how we improve Black student literacy proficiency. However, the correct question we should be asking is how do we improve Black student literacy?

A focus on improving a child’s proficiency is outcome-oriented or outcome-centered. But a focus on improving the literacy of a child is child-oriented or child-centered. It’s not that I don’t want Black students to be proficient in reading, because I do. (Dr. Al Tatum teaches that our goals should be nothing less than advanced reading levels for all Black children.) But how we get there, in my estimation, is teaching Black children how to read in the context of their identity and a purpose; when we teach the why, young people will be eager to learn how.

In her work, Emily Hanford spoke of the disconnection between what we teach and what we test:

The challenge with reading comprehension tests is that, at the end of the day, they are tests of knowledge, and in the United States we don’t have a canon of knowledge we’ve decided every child needs to master. We have common standards, which are essentially lists of things students should be able to do, such as “determine the main idea” and “describe characters in a story.” We don’t have agreed upon curriculum. It’s up to states, to schools — sometimes to individual teachers — to decide what to teach. They choose the books, the materials, the content.

Scary. Many new teachers feel unprepared to teach in our communities and they don’t know how to teach reading. And, then we blame children and the communities that send them to us.

Hanford speaks of the importance of language comprehension; teacher must recognize the importance of cultural comprehension and how culture serves as the foundation for all new learning.

It’s important that more attention is given to the importance of Black student literacy, but attention must be followed with action; efforts to create purpose-driven literacy instruction steeped in culturally relevant education by practitioners and policymakers. 

Purpose-driven literacy instruction is culturally relevant and responsive; it is identity affirming, skills building, and student-centered. It applies the work of scholars, including Geneva Gay, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, Alfred Tatum, and Gholnecsar Muhammad. There are immediate steps teachers can take in the classroom to support purpose-driven literacy instruction. Teachers must leverage literacy instruction in a way that supports Black students (and all students) to find the following: their history, their identity, their voice and their communities. Leveraged in that way, students will find their purpose. 

An understanding of one’s history and history of experiences will help them understand who they are. Understanding one’s identity, one’s community and how history played a part in the formation thereof will help a person find their voice. Literary pieces, whether essays, poems or books, can help Black students connect all those pieces to gain an understanding of who they are and the path for their lives. 

Follow that up with allowing students to challenge each other, and themselves, with oral and written debate. Allow students to carve a literary niche for themselves through creation and innovation; a book club that functions more as a literary society or a school/community digital newsletter or newspaper.

While this is going on, they’re learning literacy skills i.e. the science of reading, critical thinking, and reading comprehension. But these skills are framed as the means to an end – identity formation, purpose formation, and career exploration – rather than framed as the end, which is without substance. Skills building without the opportunity to apply those skills (on something other than a test) is wasteful. Believing that “proficiency” is the best indicator for knowledge and skills attainment is shortsighted.

What isn’t needed is more indicators, more programs and more rhetoric. Culturally relevant education can’t be a gimmick implemented during one-off professional development sessions. 

What it will take is for educators and policymakers alike to strongly encourage (if not mandate) purpose-driven literacy instruction based on the science of reading and using culturally relevant education principles in literacy curriculum plans and materials while aligning those to statewide assessments that assess “proficiency” differently than the current method. Assessments must measure skills-knowledge in the context of task performance tied to culture and purpose. 

That is measuring student knowledge via project or performance-based skills application connect to their identity and/or purpose.

Maybe, had that happened for me, it wouldn’t have taken until college for me to connect reading with my identity and purpose. It was Dr. Wayne Glasker, my first Black male teacher, who introduced me to the works of Henry Highland Garnett, Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois that helped me make these connections. It was Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, only my second Black woman to teach me, who introduced me to the works of John Blassingame, Harold Cruse, Amiri Baraka, and Kimberle Crenshaw, works that helped me understand my purpose in a society that told me my purpose was miniscule. 

Those professors and their literacy instruction helped me forge my own path as an educator. They introduced me to texts and a history that was withheld from me prior to college. In their classrooms, I found my purpose as an educator; to bring justice to students who were like me. 

Dr. Muhammad, in Cultivating Genius, said that “students need spaces to name and critique injustice to help them ultimately develop the agency to build a better world. As long as oppression is present in the world, young people need pedagogy that nurtures critically.” Educators must ask themselves what they are nurturing. Are we nurturing young people, or outcomes?

If our work is about outcomes, then we’ve failed children. But if our work is about young people, we’re ensuring students are highly literate, which means they can not only save the world; they can save themselves – and us.

What do you think?

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Rann Miller

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