Advancing literacy for Black boys with Dr. Alfred Tatum and Joey Hassell
Emily Freitag, Instruction Partners CEO, spoke to Dr. Alfred Tatum, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Metropolitan State University of Denver (CO), about his research on advancing literacy for Black adolescent males.
Dr. Jabari Sims, executive director of district partnerships at Instruction Partners, then interviewed our partner Joey Hassell, superintendent of Haywood County Schools in Tennessee, about literacy work in Haywood County.
Watch the conversation or read the abbreviated Q&A below.
EF: Dr. Tatum, your book Reading for Their Life focuses on textual lineages and dives deeply into how to engage in textual lineages with students. It also includes a lot of original poetry, including the poem “Brother Author.” Would you mind telling us a little bit about this poem and how it connects to your work and your findings?
AT: “Brother authors” was coinage from the 1960s. You had Black males engaged in struggle, and they were reading Stokely Carmichael, they were reading Before the Mayflower, they were reading a whole range of texts across the international landscape. But what I found when I started teaching was that young boys were absent of these brother authors. It dawned on me that we have a lot of students across the academic continuum who are being underserved by text, and effectively, as we were focusing on reading skills and strategies, we were severing their relationships with texts in the social sciences and the natural sciences. I think one of the greatest miscarriages of teaching is when we sever students’ relationships with text, because texts are tools of protection in both the social and the natural disciplines. That’s a grave injustice in education.
EF: You have recently voiced concern about how much focus is placed on basic and proficient reading, and how little attention we’re bringing to advanced reading. Can you say more about that?
AT: We have this ongoing reporting of basic and proficient levels, and they’re very low. But we do not report data on advanced levels. So, as a nation, we’ve surrendered the idea that we could move our students towards advanced levels of reading, writing, and intellectual development. It’s not in our school improvement plans. It’s not in district-wide plans. It’s almost taboo to talk about advanced levels of reading and writing in this nation. And I’m not necessarily locking it into a reading score per se. If we look at the histories of writing among all ethnic groups and say, “This was evidence of excellent reading and writing, and how do we transport that into our classrooms today?” We are grossly missing the mark. We have authorized slow growth. We have authorized underperformance. That really interrupts the intellectual development of our nation’s children writ large.
EF: You do not mince words in your book about what you think about reading strategy instruction. What have you found? And what effects do you think it has?
AT: Skills and strategies are absolutely foundational. You can’t teach reading with good intentions, you have to know how to teach reading. But that’s only foundational. If we want to move to exponential growth in reading, the question is not, “How do we teach skills and strategies?” but, “How do we think about high-quality instruction and high-quality text to shape positive life outcome trajectories?” Our Black boys surrender their life chances before they get to know their life choices. If I enter an environment, and there’s an imbalance between how I’m living and what we’re teaching, we become inadvertent accomplices to students’ underperformance, and, for some students, they’re deleterious outcomes.
EF: Across the last 20 years of your work, what has surprised you?
AT: The most glaring omission has been the small amount of research that has been conducted with Black boys. There’s been a grand narrative about, “This is a state of emergency.” But when I looked across the nation, in the last 20 years there were only 49 studies conducted solely focused on Black boys. Very few studies are conducted in rural areas. Very few studies are conducted in the primary grades. And very few studies are conducted with high-performing boys. Most of these studies involve less than 40 participants. So, we’re making assumptions and decisions about advancing the literacy development of Black boys on a very small research base. If we’re in search of truth, we don’t have a robust research infrastructure that focuses on Black boys. That’s why I always take caution, or I talk about a specific research study that I’ve conducted without overgeneralizing until we create a more robust research base.
EF: In your research, is there anything you’ve confirmed in terms of what works with literacy instruction for Black boys?
AT: The first thing I will confirm is that there is no such thing as a “Black male reading strategy.” The strategies are the same for all students. I’ve also found that when you teach reading in powerful ways coupled with writing, that makes a profound difference in their lives. Reading texts puts Black boys in contact with other people, and writing text puts them in contact with themselves.
I have also found that this whole notion of putting text in front of boys that’s “relevant” is a gross form of neglect. You don’t know what’s relevant to you unless you’ve experienced it. And so, what we do is turn down the volume of text and expose them to a limited frame. I found Black boys who are as equally engaged with designer jeans, from an engineering perspective, boogers from a biological perspective, Black holes, and algorithms. If you go to a Black boy and say, “What are you interested in reading?”, he’s not going to say, “algorithms” if he’s never experienced them.
We have to widen or move beyond the narrow lens of scholarship and search for truth that may be different from seeking cultural comfort. How do we build agendas for Black boys and make sure that they have text across all the academic disciplines, without subscribing to a narrow scholarship? I’ve said this before: “All texts belong to all Black boys.” And sometimes that’s not taken up forcefully enough in our nation’s classrooms.
EF: How do you think about the concept of a common knowledge base or canon?
AT: If I think about pillars of text, canonical text fits there. When I studied the textual lineage of Black males, and I’ll go back 300 years, you had many who had their lives transformed by traditional, canonical texts. If I’m teaching canonical texts to nurture the next generation of writers of canonical texts, that’s very different. We have to ask the question, “To what end do we want to use these texts?” Not to celebrate our generations passed, but are we lighting a new pathway forward? If you’re reading canonical text, but it’s also complemented by a wide range of texts across the disciplines, you get a new appreciation for those texts. If we’re reading text in isolation, we missed the mark. How do we start thinking about text from a universal perspective, so that I can travel in and out of text? It’s not our responsibility to deny our students text.
JS: Mr. Hassell, can you share context on Haywood County Schools?
JH: We are a district of about 2800 students. 66% of our population is African American, a little over 1800 of our statements, and of that, 934 are Black males. So, 33% of our total student population are Black males. It’s never lost on me that the majority of our students don’t look like me—I’m a white male. So, it’s important that we explore and understand the root of an educational environment where all students are safe, seen, respected and valued, and we really create opportunity and access. We’re doing that work with Instruction Partners through building affirming relationships, but also through our work with high-quality instructional materials. We’ve really focused on curricula that create the opportunity and access to multiple texts across the unit, not just a novel that they read, or a nonfiction piece, but actually a unit that includes literary and informational text, and that really tells the complete story with varying views.
JS: As you think more about the work that Dr. Tatum is discussing, where have you seen progress in your district? And where are some areas that you want to work on?
JH: One area where we have seen progress is in implementing high-quality literacy materials in K–12. We have opportunity and access for all students. We don’t level texts anymore, all kids have access. I remember the Knowledge Matters group came in and did a tour, and they spoke to a Black male eighth-grader who told them, “Kids are showing up every day just because they want to be involved in the conversation about the texts we’re reading.” The engagement with our students across the board has been substantial.
An area where I think we need to continue to work is writing. I hear the words of Dr. Tatum and I know what we need to be doing. We know that in our classrooms, especially third grade on, our students are writing more than they ever have. And if you go into a third-grade classroom, you may have 18 students, and you’re going to see 18 different experiences with writing. By the time they get to 8th, 9th, 10th grade, we should expect more. The writing should be more meaningful and should be coherent. We have to really build on that foundation.
Another area where we’ve seen improvement outside of the high-quality materials is engaging with Facing History and Ourselves. Part of our work with Instruction Partners has been to look at those Facing History protocols, and set an environment at school where we know staff members know every student by name, they know their strengths and their needs. And also that the students are safe, seen, respected, and valued, and they’re growing into lifelong learners, not only through the high-quality content we’re providing, but also through the relationships we’re building so they have a safe space to talk to someone at school.
EF: Director Hassel, what questions do you have for Dr. Tatum?
JH: What you said about thinking of texts as “a tool of protection” really resonated with me. What does that mean for our students in front of us every day?
AT: I’ll put it along a trajectory. Text can be a tool of psychological protection—I know who I am, that’s my identity. Text can be a tool of personal protection—I’m protecting my right to have access to higher levels of thought. Text can be a sense of community protection—I start looking at what’s happening in my community in different ways. That’s the immediacy.
I’ll talk about it from my perspective as a university administrator. When I look across the academic disciplines, I see the erasure of Black males. I don’t see them in francophone studies, I don’t see them in philosophy, I don’t see them in a lot of areas. But all of the disciplines are needed for a community to protect themselves. And that’s really connected to the role of literacy. One more example—there was a New York Times article that was written recently. In New York City, if Black men were dying from chokeholds, they were attributing it to sickle cell anemia. They said the cause of death was sickle cell anemia. Well, if you’re not studying sickle cell anemia, as a young Black man or young Black woman, you have no way to protect yourself in the sciences. We heard about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. If you’re not studying water, you have to wait for someone outside of the community. Why weren’t they positioned to protect themselves against the water crisis? So that’s what I mean by a “tool of protection” in both the sciences. You also have to understand laws and voting rights. So it’s not just the natural sciences, it’s the social sciences. So how do you ensure that our students develop both social and scientific consciousness as a result of the texts they’re reading, so they can protect themselves immediately, protect their posterity, and protect their future trajectories? Hopefully those were illustrative examples.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say this: Our students must be able to protect themselves at the word level; they must be able to code. They must be able to protect themselves at the sentence and the paragraph level; they must be able to read fluently, They must be able to protect themselves at a text level; they must be able to comprehend the text. So, I was talking about the grand forms of protection. When you couple that with protecting yourself at the word level, the sentence level, the text in the paragraph level? Then the possibilities are endless for our students.
JH: I think what we know through cognitive research is that the decoding and encoding that’s necessary for our kids to be able to do, that’s very much about us creating those opportunities for students. A large part of our work is to get that right in K–2. That’s my literacy love language.
AT: I was talking mainly about reading there, but writing is deeply powerful as a tool of protection. When I looked at the archives, Black boys and Black men wrote for four primary reasons: to define self, to nurture resilience, to engage others, and to build capacity. And that’s what I wrote about in my book, Fearless Voices. When we think about, “What are the roles of writing?” To go back to those four purposes of writing, are we equipping students to do those four things across the social and natural sciences? We never wrote for the state. We never wrote for a rubric. Our aims of writing were connected to those four literacy platforms.
EF: Dr. Tatum, you talk in the book about those cherished books where you find identity, the books that are tattered because you’ve read them so many times. I don’t think we often explore the work to connect kids with the books that are going to change the way they feel about themselves. Can you speak a little bit to anything you have found?
AT: That is critical. Being able to find comfort and cozy up to a book, there’s nothing better than that. It’s just something very comforting to find residence in a text. That’s why early literacy is really important. Once we give them access to print, they’ll fall in love with most of the texts that we place in front of them. It’s a sense of accomplishment. I mean, I have characters I remember—Nancy Drew, the Hardy boys, I could go on and on. Literacy doesn’t always have to be deep and meaningful, sometimes it can be strictly personal and powerful. I want to see kids become able to protect themselves, but I also want to see kids smile.
EF: Dr. Tatum, how do you think about addressing unfinished learning in reading that has been compounded by the pandemic?
AT: How do we start thinking about an exponential growth of reading? Do away with the slow-growth orientation. Focus on exponential-growth orientation, because what we’re really talking about is increasing the volume of the text. If you increase the volume of the text in both reading and writing, we’re not trying to catch up with the loss of the pandemic, we’re trying to catch up with the text. Once students catch up with the text, It doesn’t matter what happened the year prior. Don’t think about “learning loss.” Ask the question, “How do we catch students up with the text that we want them to read that gives us evidence they’re becoming better readers and better writers?” It has nothing to do with the pandemic.
EF: Joey, is there anything that you are excited about in the coming year that you think has the promise of really supporting Black boys in literacy?
JH: There are several things I’m excited about. One thing I think can have the largest impact is our reader-writer project that we’re doing in kindergarten, first, and second grade. It’s rooted in our EL Education, and it’s specifically focused on the skills block where our students are getting those foundational skills with frequent assessments, and then we’re informing the small group instruction for that. All students have access to that content knowledge during that time, we’re reading texts that are above grade level to kids to create that knowledge base.
With the whole “learning loss” thing, I appreciated Dr. Tatum’s comments. What I’ve told our folks is that it’s really just a lost opportunity to learn. Let’s think about it in terms of opportunity. What I’m going to say to our teachers is, “Dive into the units, create those opportunities, and just work on improving reading.”
I was talking to our middle school principal yesterday, and just based on some universal screening data and iReady data, we’re seeing improvement in literacy in upper grades. I think some of that’s because we’ve created more opportunities for kids to read. There’s meaningful dialogue, they’re building knowledge, and the curiosity is coming from what they’re talking about. Hearing from Dr. Tatum today tells me that while we’ve got a lot of work to do, we are going to stay the course because the opportunities that our students have are going to pay off. We’re going to stay with our units, do the things that work, and move forward.