Teacher question: I am a Reading Coach at a Title I middle school serving a student population of 95% African American. Less than 40% of our students read at/or above grade level. My goal is to increase the amount of individual time that our students spend reading novels. My suggestion has been to add more classroom novels that are about African Americans, and African American culture. I feel that if we adopt a culturally responsive approach to literature, then our students may become more motivated to read. I am convinced that if minority students continue to read and learn outside of their culture, they will never understand how reading and learning can improve their lives and sustain their community. My question to you is do you believe that it is important for African American children to read African American literature? And how do I convince my administrators?
I do think it’s important for African Americans to read African American literature, but frankly I think that’s important for other Americans, too.
This is not so much a reading instruction issue. What I mean by that is that there is no evidence that I am aware of that shows that reading such materials is especially powerful in making anyone a better reader, despite the compelling logic of the case.
My position is based solely on the belief that some of our great books and poetry have been written by African Americans and I’m a big fan of reading such books in the Western Canon (that position can be fraught: some supporters of great books wouldn’t include Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, et al. in the Canon, and some big fans of those writers reject the idea of a Canon altogether; it can get lonely out here). I support having kids read African American writers mainly because of the value of that writing, rather than because I see special motivational qualities in such materials. (In other words, I don’t ask kids to read the Odyssey because the writer was Greek, but because the ideas raised in that book are worth reading.)
Many of my closest colleagues believe as you do, that such readings would be powerful inducements to literacy. I’m for it, but I’d sure like to see some research support for it. I feel the same way about all of the notions of “culturally responsive” teaching. The ideas sound good, but after all this time it seems reasonable that someone would test the efficacy of the approach.
I was curious what a real expert on this issue would have to say, so I contacted Alfred Tatum, author of Engaging African American Males in Reading and Reading for their Life, to see what he thought. Here is his response:
As we both know, the presence of African American literature alone is not sufficient to advance students’ literacy development or improve reading and writing achievement. It is the combination of powerful responsive instruction and powerful texts, including African American literature, that are needed to engage students and improve their reading achievement while making them smarter. It is more important that African American literature is included among a wide range of texts that honor students’ multiple identities — cultural, personal, community, economic, national/international — with the aim to help students define who they are and nurture their academic and personal resiliency inside and outside of schools.
Including African American literature as a part of the curriculum is more difficult to do if it is not available. This may be the argument needed to convince administrators. However, it is more important to examine the curriculum overall to determine its utility for improving reading and writing achievement while simultaneously auditing instructional practices and school policies (e.g., quality of instruction, the amount of time students are actually reading and writing, adherence to school mandates that may be interrupting good reading and writing instruction). Both may yield information for providing or seeking professional development support, shaping instructional and assessment practices, allocating resources, or rethinking curricular practices for African American children.
While the historical record about African American literature demonstrates that students receive cultural and personal benefits when they see images that reflect who they are and read fictional and nonfictional accounts about their history, the record is less clear if the presence of literature alone reverses underperformance in reading and writing The goals of the presence of the literature need to be clear. Otherwise, we will continue to miss the mark, both culturally and academically.
While I strongly favor the presence of African American literature, I equally favor excellent teaching, strong instructional support and environmental contexts that make it difficult for African American students to fail in our presence. The presence of African American literature alone cannot compensate for the absence of these other critical components.