Shifting My Thinking/ Shifting Their Achievement: An Asset Approach to Supporting African American Male Readers
Last year, I knew I wanted my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry to focus on something that mattered to me both as an educator and a human being. A couple of weeks before our first inquiry session, the Instructional Leadership Team at my school engaged in a deep dive analysis of our reading data. Our Fountas & Pinnell scores told us what many nationwide statistics have been saying: our African American males were underperforming compared to our other students. The fact that this data was not unique to our school only intensified my frustration.
I was tired, and continue to be tired, of discussions around African American boys from a deficit lens. And I’ve grown tired of the excuses that are spouted off in response to these statistics:
They have tough homes.
They just won’t listen.
They can’t stay in the classroom.
They just can’t focus.
They don’t like reading.
Nationwide, people are wondering why our African American boys are underperforming. But many of these conversations promote others’ [false] assumptions of African American boys, rather than discussing what our African American boys are doing, or what we, as educators, can do to support their success.
So when it was time to think about what I wanted to look at more closely through inquiry, I chose to examine the reading achievement gap among my African American boys. By using the approach we use as Teacher Scholars, I knew I’d be guided away from deficit thinking, and would use an asset-based approach. Instead of thinking “Why aren’t my AA boys responding to literature?”, the Mills Teacher Scholars structure prompted me to ask, “How are my African American boys responding to literature through writing?”[callout template=”default” border_top= “10px #83ab3f solid” border_bottom=”10px #83ab3f solid” font_style=”italic”]Instead of thinking “Why aren’t my African American boys responding to literature?”, the Mills Teacher Scholars structure prompted me to ask, “How are my African American boys responding to literature through writing?” [/callout]
I focused on three of my African American male students in my fifth grade classroom. Two of my focal students– we’ll call them Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes for their love for writing– were engaged learners, loved reading, and were critical thinkers, but were reading one year below grade level at the beginning of the year. The third student– we’ll call him Alvin Ailey for his passion for dance– enjoyed listening to stories, supporting his peers with their interpersonal relationships, and school activities. He was strong at reciting the details of a story he listened to, but when asked to read independently, he wasn’t shy about communicating his annoyance. Alvin Ailey started the year reading three years below grade level.
The Assessment: Readers’ Response
One of the elements of the Lucy Calkin’s Readers Workshop model I was implementing in my classroom is the Readers’ Response, in this case, a three paragraph letter that students wrote to me every week on their assigned day. Calkins asks that the teacher respond to every letter. I love this element of the assignment, but was only able to respond to letters when time allowed for such a luxury. Each student’s letter needed to include the following:
- First Paragraph: Title, author, genre, succinct summary of the book.
- Second Paragraph: Students “interact” with the text: When did you feel happy for a character? What do you wonder about a character? Compare two characters and discuss their similarities and differences. Students are expected to use text evidence to back up their thinking.
- Third Paragraph: Students include their opinion: Do you like this book? Would you recommend this book to someone else? Why or Why or not?
The weekly letters were helpful for multiple reasons: students were held accountable for their reading, it allowed me to keep track of their reading and writing, they practiced their writing skills, and I could respond by providing quick interventions for skills I wanted them to work on. The most valuable part of the activity, however, was reading about how students interacted with their books.
Interacting with a book is imperative to students’ reading development, because it goes beyond summarizing. It forces the reader to think critically and to analyze characters. It’s a sophisticated skill that is difficult for students and a hurdle for some who can easily flop into shallow questions or connections.
There were times when an interaction would read: “I wonder why the main character is mean,” and I would feel frustrated that my students weren’t thinking or analyzing more deeply. In these moments, I had to remind myself of what my students were doing.
Because of other structures I had in place (Book Clubs, daily read alouds where I modeled interacting with books, a classroom culture of reading, etc…), Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes were not only reading any free chance they had, they were writing me long summaries in their Reading Responses. They were engaged and enthralled in their books about The Black Panther Party, migrant workers in the 30s, baseball players and The Holocaust.
During class and Book Club discussions they were also showing me they had the ability to “interact” with the book in sophisticated ways, but struggled with transferring those skills into writing. In response to what was lacking, I focused on planning strong mini-lessons addressing this gap, and also used the time I met with them in book clubs as an opportunity to strategically follow up on their specific need. If I saw them slacking in this skill building, I informed their parents, and we devised a plan on how to get them back on track. By January, both boys reached my highest reading group. They were reading on grade level, and my goal was no longer that they would end the year at grade level, but that they would graduate elementary school reading at a middle school reading level.
Moving Beyond Deficit Thinking
While I was seeing success with Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes, I was frustrated with Alvin Ailey– the student who’d rather dance than read. His enthusiasm for reading wasn’t quite at the level of my other two focal students, and writing a Readers’ Response was met with a side-eye. I knew he was experiencing struggles at home, and wondered if I could reach him. But during my Teacher Scholars inquiry sessions, I realized I was falling into that deficit thinking that I was trying to rebel against. I knew I needed to shift my thinking, starting with noticing what Alvin Ailey was doing well.
Alvin was reading independently without prompting. He loved his book club and was enthusiastic about meeting with them, with or without my guidance. When discussing his book, he used emotion, text evidence, and interacted with the texts at a sophisticated level! Readers’ Responses were a struggle for Alvin Ailey in regards to following my three-paragraph structure, so I used a scaffold where he was prompted to answer similar prompts, but didn’t have to write them in paragraph form..This adjustment worked to some extent, but I needed to look more closely at Alvin’s skills.
Reading and then writing about the reading was not a fluid process for Alvin, but, in general, talking was one of Alvin’s strengths. Keeping this strength in mind, I realized he needed to read and then discuss his reading before writing down his interpretations. Meeting with his Book Club was an incentive for him to not only read for understanding, but to also interact with the book by thinking thoroughly about the questions while interacting with his peers. By observing recorded and live book club discussions, I realized that although Alvin Ailey struggled with writing down his answers, he was successful in discussing his answers with me and his book clubs.
Once I realized this, I ensured he had focused conversations with either a member from his book club or with me, before writing his three paragraph Reader’s Response. My initial process of how I wanted my students to write a Readers’ Response worked fine for Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes, but for, Alvin Ailey (and a few other scholars), I needed to shift that process so that it aligned with both their needs, their skills and their strengths.
It was not a coincidence that one of my most social students needed to interact with others about the book before I asked him to interact with the book on paper!
By the end of the year, Langston Hughes was reading at a beginning sixth grade level, while Amiri Baraka was reading a level above a beginning 6th grade level, as measured by Fountas & Pinnell. Both boys had begun the year reading at a fourth grade level and made two years of growth in one year.
Alvin Ailey started the year reading at a mid-second grade level, and ended the year reading and understanding books at a mid-fourth grade level. There is still a lot of work he needs to do, but, through our work together, he began to see himself as not only a dancer, but also a reader and a thinker.
All three boys made huge shifts in their reading levels, their reading abilities, and their approach to reading and saw themselves as students who weren’t fixed in their intelligence. I attribute this to a few core instructional moves that I made during the course of the year:
- I was very intentional with the books I chose for them and I tried to make sure there were elements of the stories that spoke to their interests. Sometimes my judgment failed, but, most of the time, they were excited about the books they were reading.
- Leveled book clubs allowed for them to have appropriate discussions with peers at their level.
- Through our continuous check-ins and conversations, I reinforced the idea that they could grow academically and build skills to support academic achievement.
It was a powerful process to watch these boys’ shift in how they approached reading and their own strengthened self-identity as readers. Equally powerful, was my own shift in how I approached my instruction with this focus group. Because I was intentional about focusing on what my students could do, rather than what they weren’t doing, I was able to highlight their strengths for myself, and reflect them back onto my students. As educators, we focus so much on how we need to transform our students, when, sometimes, we’re the ones in need of a transformation.
Kirsti Jewel Peters-Hoyte is a former 5th grade teacher and Mills Teacher Scholar Leader at RISE Community School in the Oakland Unified School District. She is spending her first year out of the classroom, and is now the Director of School Culture at Richmond College Prep in Richmond. In her new position, she ensures that RCP maintains a healthy, rigorous, safe school culture that continues to foster scholars who are exemplary academically and socially. Her favorite part of her job is supporting teachers and staff with culturally responsive teaching practices to ensure that RCP’s culture is one that reflects and empowers the multiple cultures of RCP’s students. When she’s not working, she’s reading or writing, or spending time with her Jack Russell and husband.