Maybe a bit less. Maybe even more. As we approach the November elections, these “One Third Can’t Read” signs are popping up across the Triangle area (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in North Carolina). Who is putting up these signs? Is it true? The Bootstraps PAC is a local group concerned about the miserable reading performance of economically disadvantaged children. Here are two snippets from their stats section. This first clip compares those who failed to read at third grade in three districts and what percentage are poor kids. In case you can’t tell, 68% to 71% of kids failing the test are economically disadvantaged.The following snippet shows the percent of kids who failed the 3rd through 8th grade reading tests and the percent of those who are poor. Same pattern as above. Check out the resource-rich Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system’s achievement gap. We are talking about racially predictable test scores, folks.
Literacy is a vital door to future economic success, but our poorest students are left behind. Do we really believe all kids can learn to read? Do we provide the kind of reading instruction that does not penalize kids with relatively weaker language skills? Are we willing to mentor kids? Are we willing to volunteer?
“Helping the last become the first” is a nugget of wisdom from Dr. Don Leu, Professor of Education at UConn. I recently watched his podcast in my online class on disciplinary literacy. I love his suggestion that when new technology is added to the classroom, teachers train the “weakest” or most marginalized students first, so they can teach their peers. This is a concept similar to my mentoring suggestions, which take advantage of our students’ special interests and abilities, but Dr. Leu is suggesting an even broader scope of supporting our “weakest” students. His podcast includes an overview of skills needed to read online effectively. He also summarizes a research study which comes as no surprise: kids from higher income levels have better online reading and research skills. Dr. Leu states, “in terms of equal opportunity… we [must] begin to aggressively support students’ acquisition of these online reading skills to acquire new information and to learn new things.” Since we know that race and income are also correlated, here’s yet another area in which our black and Hispanic students need equity.
In a previous post, I shared information about the unique mnemonic strategies developed by Alan Walker of Multiplication.com. I purchased the materials for use with a fourth grader who has been unsuccessful in memorizing any addition facts, much less multiplication. Due to holidays and other scheduling issues, the student has only had three sessions of about 20 minutes each using this approach. In that time, he has memorized the mnemonics for each numeral from 1 to 9 and knows FOUR facts! Khalil and I are obviously really pleased! I think he was amazed that he really only had to memorize 36 facts (excluding ones, zeros and repeats; with all the practice on multiplication.com for his two’s times tables, Khalil no longer struggles with 1s and 0s! ). His confidence has improved, the stories for each fact are appealing to him, and if we didn’t have the tyranny of inappropriate homework, he could be a lot farther along.
The back story: I am still unhappy about his homework. I do know there’s no easy solution for kids who are years below grade level. However, I think that if he could work on underlying skills, Khalil has a chance at catching up. He did move up to grade level when we focused on reading for two years; he shot forward when I taught him basic phonological and phonics skills. But I suspect that Khalil has a math disability, based upon how intervention-resistant he is. He is now being considered for a Tier 3 intervention in the Response to Instruction program. As I feared, all these school frustrations have led to some significant behavior problems in the regular classroom. Khalil is adorable but is getting a reputation as aggressive and defiant.
I’ll keep you posted!
Can black students successfully navigate the current academic maze? In a previous post, I referenced the dismal achievement gap between black and white students. But fortunately, that’s not the final word on educating all students successfully. As long ago as 1994, Gloria Ladson-Billings was countering the despair of this academic failure by researching teachers who were able to “keep the dream alive.” She presented her findings in The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, inspiring and detailed findings of eight classroom teachers who made a huge difference in the achievement of their students. In her second edition of Dreamkeepers, Ladson-Billings identifies three central features of their success and also highlights 15 other “dreamkeepers” she has met since the first edition of the book.
What characterized successful education of black kids? It’s what characterizes successful education of all kids, actually. First, their teachers had a strong focus on student learning. They communicated high expectations. They recognized that their students were already learners. Rather than teaching skills in isolation, they embedded instruction in broader contexts. They recognized that tests alone do not provide sufficient opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery and encouraged students to use writing, speaking, and exhibitions/ performances as well. They looked at teaching as “drawing out” knowledge as well as providing opportunities to explore information. They TRULY believed that all kids can learn. Second, students were a part of a learning community which was culturally relevant. Ladson-Billings described this as “We are family,” where teachers and students developed close relationships, where teachers and students alike were well-grounded in their own culture (and the mainstream culture, if those were different). These exemplary teachers were connected to their kids both in and out of school. Third, teachers required students to understand the “sociopolitical underpinnings” of their education. They challenged students to question assumptions and focus on ways to improve their world. In fact, Ladson-Billings met another exemplary teacher who had actually been taught by two women in her research study and who was inspired to become a teacher herself.
I can’t possibly summarize the vibrancy, the joy, and the refreshing taste of success that the author captures in her study of these teachers. They had different teaching styles but each accomplished the same goal: success for all students. Ladson-Billings’ research is well-organized, thorough, and uplifting. To answer my initial question: Yes, black kids can excel! If teachers are looking for a perfect read for their “book club” or professional development, this is a winner.