My Survival Tip #11 referred to the BED label which encompassed a wide range of behavioral issues. The most obvious characteristic of my kids was their race and gender. Black boys. Had their behavior in a “regular” classroom been outrageous? Yes. Had they bitten and kicked and punched their way to placement in my room? Some of them. Had many of them been physically and sexually abused? Yes. Were they the worst behaved kids in their class? Often, but during my pre-placement observations, I saw white kids with some of the same behaviors. Did they have parents who were strong advocates for them? No. Did they “see” themselves or their culture reflected in school? Yes, by custodians, cooks, and some assistants. One of my kids was the son of our custodian. Did they have significant reading and writing problems? Yes. All of them.
OK, that was “back in the day,” but you can see the same issues now. As I have mentioned before, my local district has made it more difficult for black boys to be placed in self-contained settings, but these kids are still struggling. A black student I’ve mentored for 10 years told me that he would rather act up than appear “retarded.” He is not mentally handicapped, but he has not been well educated, either. In sixth grade, he was reading at a third grade level. In Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Students, Gloria Ladson-Billings quotes one of her culturally proficient teachers: “There is a curious phenomena occurring in schools today. Teachers expect students to come to school reading, and they resent those children who don’t. If that’s the case, what do they need a teacher for?”
I don’t think all teachers resent non-readers, but the scope, sequence, and pace of reading instruction, especially if it lacks systematic phonics instruction, may ensure that kids who can’t master letter-sound associations in the first reporting period are already on the road to non-proficiency. This puts black kids (as well as many special needs and non-English speaking kids) at a real disadvantage. Teachers may chalk up another failure to the “culture” of black families, who obviously haven’t prepared their children for school.
Here’s another anecdote from Ladson-Billings’ book, which researched teachers who effectively taught literacy to black kids. She describes a 40 year old Italian American teacher, Ann Lewis, who was so effective that she got students no one else wanted. (She was also considered a troublemaker; sadly, giving her these students was a form of “payback.”) In her class of mostly black kids, Ms. Lewis created an environment where her male students were outstanding leaders. One of them was already well-known by teachers in the school as “an accident waiting to happen.” He was 13 years old, in a class of 11 year olds, having been retained a couple of times. He had undergone severe trauma in a drive-by shooting. After a year with Ms. Lewis, this kid was president of the sixth grade class and earned all A’s and B’s. He is one of MANY kids who was on the road to failure until a teacher intervened by drawing upon his strengths, using culturally relevant material, making connections with him and his family, and teaching effectively by linking skills to broader objectives. Ms. Lewis believed that he could outperform his peers, despite his desperate circumstances.
Ladson-Billings describes the following 6 tenets that characterize effective literacy programs for black kids (pages 126-128):
- Students whose educational, economic, social, political, and cultural futures are most tenuous are helped to become intellectual leaders in the classroom.
- Students are apprenticed in a learning community rather than taught in an isolated and unrelated way.
- Students’ real-life experiences are legitimized as they become part of the “official” curriculum.
- Teachers and students participate in a broad conception of literacy that incorporates both literature and oratory.
- Teachers and students engage in a collective struggle against the status quo.
- Teachers are cognizant of themselves as political beings.
Judging by our nation’s current achievement gap in reading, teachers still have much work to do. But we are more than up for the challenge. Educate yourself on culturally proficient teaching. Examine your belief systems and expectations. Translate your passion for teaching into instruction that meets the needs of ALL students.