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February 1, 2020

Freedom for Literacy

Educators need to give black students opportunities to cultivate their own strong reading identities.
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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: Credit: Katie Edwards / Alamy Stock Photo
I grew up working class on a farm in Kentucky, raised by my grandparents, who always found money for books and time to take me to the local library or used bookstore. We were a house of readers, with my grandfather and uncles reading for their work on the farm and beyond, while my grandmother had a penchant for large-print mysteries, her Bible, and the steady stream of magazines she brought home from her job in healthcare. I was free to read as much as I wanted, whenever I wanted, grounded in the literary traditions of black folks.
As a new high school teacher, I found that many of my black students did not have similar experiences. Maybe they'd read one book by an author of color, or maybe not. Consistently, what emerged was that the young people with whom I shared a classroom were not reading mainly because their past literacy struggles resulted in a general dislike of reading. They did not self-identify as readers.
At the time, I thought it would be easy to build a literacy community with my students; because I loved reading, I thought I could ignite a magical love of reading in them. But now, nearly 20 years later, I understand that optimism was some combination of new teacher naiveté and the beginnings of what is now a more nuanced, continually evolving belief in the right for young people to practice all their literacies in classrooms.
Many of my students read below grade level. Before I could build community, I had to explicitly teach them reading strategies that were vital to comprehension. I had to assure that foundational grounding and fill in those gaps first, then work to build an intentional literacy community that helped connect them to their reading identities.
Part of building that connection to their reading identities was cultivating their ability to see themselves as deserving of literacy and the freedom that being literate brings. As educators, we must insist on the right of black youth to their reading lives. Here, I offer a few practices that can both reconnect them to texts and help a school community provide the necessary supports to keep them reading.

Understanding Our Reading Identities

First, we as educators must understand our own reader identity. I am constantly reflecting on how my past school-based literacy experiences influenced my curricular and personal reading choices. While, during my youth, I read a number of books at home written by African American writers, in school I read all white, canonical texts. In college I read more texts by BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) authors, but for too many years, my teaching centered on whiteness.
Currently, one resource I use to make sure I'm featuring inclusive texts in my personal reading life, in my work with preservice educators, and in my continued work with young people is Tricia Ebarvia's "How Inclusive Is Your Literacy Classroom Really?" (2017). As Ebarvia states in a tweet: "You cannot understand how systems of oppression work until you come to terms with how they have worked on you."
Working toward representation and inclusion is an everyday, ongoing practice. However, it's malpractice if I—an educator whom young people are entrusting with their reading lives—don't first model the life of a reader authentically, and don't then foreground my own biases and blind spots. For instance, my past reading life did not include nearly enough LGBTQ+ BIPOC voices, especially young adult voices. This blind spot was silencing and erasing many of the young people I taught. So, I started intentionally finding, featuring, and focusing on LGBTQ+ BIPOC literature in my classrooms. Then I started doing regular audits to account for other groups I might be overlooking in my reading practices. This critical excavation of my own reading life enabled me to think about how books have influenced me, and the decisions I make about text selection and implementation.
The logical next step is to get to know the readers with whom we hope to develop a literacy community. We must learn about their past reading encounters—good and bad—to determine what conversations we need to have with them and what questions we need to ask to elicit interest in texts. One sophomore, for example, explained to me how a teacher spent weeks on a whole-class novel that was above the student's level of reading comprehension and "old and boring." The student was required to complete nightly reading logs, which pushed her further away from the text, leaving a lasting impression that reading was neither enjoyable nor something she felt proficient in doing.
Simply because I love a text, and maybe even enjoy teaching it, does not mean that the young people showing up daily in my classroom will, too. For that reason, I talk about texts in my classes all the time—young adult, nonfiction, graphic novels, historical fiction, poetry, and many other genres. If a text doesn't resonate with a reader, that's OK. As I explain to my classes, many texts I read don't always resonate with me, and readers have the right to decide what to read and to stop reading something if it's not working for them (a right that is generally not exercised with assigned reading). The only hard and fast rule I have is that not reading anything is impermissible.
Sharing aspects of our own reading lives is important for black youth, who are often hungry for clues and resources about what those with robust reading lives do. As they add more of these understandings to their reading repertoires, they build their capacity and ability to become lifelong readers.

Mirrors, Windows, and Doors

Once you understand the reading experiences that shape your students' perspectives, make sure you know your history, particularly as related to African Americans and literacy in the United States. A fantastic primer is Young, Gifted, and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African-American Students (Perry, Steele, & Hilliard III, 2003). Perry's chapter, specifically, details the African American ethos of "freedom for literacy and literacy for freedom" and provides examples of African Americans who have pursued literacy, even under the threat of death. As Perry writes, "Education was how you claimed your humanity, struck a blow for freedom, worked for racial uplift, and prepared yourself for leadership" (p. 25).
Thus, we must connect our own thinking about black students and literacy to the importance that being black and literate has always had in this country—and we must work diligently to help black youth understand that importance. There is power in sharing narratives of black people who've spoken about their literacy experiences, like Malcom X, Jacqueline Woodson, Jason Reynolds, and Darnell Moore.
Such narratives can help students take pride in and extend their literacy identities. I'm grateful for the work of Professor Rudine Sims Bishop, whose essay "Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors" (1990) provides the language for centering literary texts that both reflect and extend the experiences of BIPOC young people. Bishop asserts that all children, and especially children of color, need to see themselves reflected in a range of texts. Current statistics from the Cooperative Children's Book Center (2019) remind us that this is generally not the case, however, as most of the books published for children and youth feature white youth or animals rather than BIPOC youth.
Personally, I am moved by reading texts written by an author who shares my own cultural background. Similarly, we need to open windows for our black youth, beyond Black History Month or the additive "multicultural texts." They need consistent, ongoing exposure to a range of stories that affirm who they are, that extend their possibilities, and that open up to them worlds which they have not yet imagined.
Fortunately, we are gifted with an abundance of writers of African descent whose perspectives challenge and complicate notions of blackness in important ways. Black youth are complex and multifaceted; they deserve literature and literary experiences that are equally complex. I've found that if black students can see themselves depicted in a range of texts they read, they are generally more likely to read. Black youth I've worked with have consistently been moved by Angie Thomas, Renee Watson, Sharon Draper, and Jason Reynolds. Recently, the work of Ben Philippe, Ibi Zoboi, Maika and Maritza Moulite, and many others has provided diasporic representation that invites affirmation, discussion, and understanding of ethnicity and also conversations about anti-blackness. The works of these authors should be featured in classrooms, used for read-alouds, whole-class texts, independent reading, mentor texts—and centered in ways these voices often are not in secondary classrooms.
Black youth need texts that help them unpack the complexity of blackness. Fortunately, black writers and #ownvoices—a hashtag movement started by Corinne Duyvis to denote texts written by authors and illustrators who share the same identities as their characters—provide rich possibilities, as does the work of #DisruptTexts, a group I cofounded that aims to push educators toward more intentional, inclusive, and anti-racist literacy practices.
Students also need the freedom and resources to shape their own literary pathways. Often, black youth, especially those regarded as in need of remediation, have the least amount of choice in text selection. They are given regimented reading instruction, an abundance of standardized test preparation, and little, if any, time to read works that resonate with them (Allington, 2013). We know, however, that choice drives reading engagement (Kittle, 2013), and black youth need to be able to choose what they want to read. I always insist on having a classroom library that reflects young people's interests, and I work with our school librarians to provide even more options. Once young people have a text they want to read, a regular time to read it, and a teacher to assist and guide their growth, they are able to develop their reading identities. This understanding—of the need for choice, time, and a competent teacher—has been the case in my own research and practice. With few exceptions, nearly every student I've taught concludes our time together with positive associations with reading.
Committing to a daily reading practice of at least 20 minutes in our classrooms is important; young people, especially ones we are concerned about because they read below grade level, need time to practice. They are much more likely to do this reading work if we give them a choice about what they read.

A Collaborative Practice

As a new teacher, I also underestimated the importance of building a team of educators to extend the literary trajectories of BIPOC young people and keep them reading. My students would see me months after leaving my classroom and report not having read anything since our class. Their ELA teachers either didn't incorporate independent reading or taught canonical, core texts for what seemed like months on end. If schools are serious about connecting black students to reading beyond one teacher and one semester or school year, educators must have time to work together to examine their own understandings of literacy and to build a continuity of practices to reinforce and develop students' abilities. That work has to be done by teachers and administrators together. If educator teams focus on the high-leverage practices of reading conferences, book talks, and dedicated time for reading—and eliminate barriers like reading logs—they can build the continuity black youth need.
Reading conferences, in particular, have changed my practice (Miller, 2009). These regular, informal conversations during daily independent reading time allow me to determine what reading experience a young person is having, what supports they need (which varies from a new book recommendation to affirming their reader identity), and what steps we both need to take next. I've learned that young people who are reconnecting to their reading lives are fragile: They need nurturing in the form of regular text suggestions to keep making progress.
In addition to the conferences, I conduct daily book talks. These quick presentations provide just enough information about a text to entice readers: an overview of the plot, juicy moments, characters that share traits with students, and a culminating cliffhanger. Because the expectation in my classroom is that everyone has something to share as part of the literacy community, students eventually assume responsibility for the book talks, a strategy that increases interest even more because the recommendations come from peers rather than the teacher. This shared responsibility communicates that, in our classroom, we are all responsible for making sure options abound for what to read next.

The Reading Lives They Deserve

Black youth do read. The problem is that they often read in ways not validated in schools. As the National Council of Teachers of English (2018) reminds us, "Their texts range from digital texts to classic literature including gaming endeavors, interactions with popular music, and social media."
We can no longer choose to ignore the multiliteracies black youth bring with them into our classrooms; we must leverage their knowledge in ways that support their ongoing literacy development. For far too long, we've simply made choices for young people that were not in their best interests. In this moment, though, we can make a different choice. We can ask black youth what they want to read, we can get those texts into their hands, and we can carve out—daily—dedicated time for that reading to happen. We can choose to be the person working in community with them to reconnect black youth to the reading lives they deserve.

Allington, R. (2013). What really matters when working with struggling readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520–530.

Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives, 6(3).

Cooperative Children's Book Center. (2019, October 8). Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children's Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. [Webpage]. Retrieved from

Ebarvia, T. (2017, December 12). Tricia Ebarvia: How inclusive is your literacy classroom really?" [Blog post] Heinemann Blog.

Ebarvia, T. [@TriciaEbarvia]. (2019, November 9). Yes, slides aren't public though, but here … [Tweet]. Retrieved from

Kittle, P. (2013). Book love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Miller, D. (2009). The book whisperer: Awakening the inner child in every reader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2018). A call to action: What we know about adolescent literacy instruction. [Position statement].

Perry, T., Steele, C., & Hilliard, A. (2003). Young, gifted, and black: Promoting high achievement among African-American students. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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