Helping Black Students find their Voice in School

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Helping Black Students Find Their Voice in School

Helping black boys find their voice: The Power of Thematic Teaching in High School English Classrooms

What we know:

I’ve taught High School English for over 15 years, and I’ve fought the notion that the classics are “clientele specific.” In more forward terms, you can’t teach the classics if you have a room comprised of mostly black teenage boys. You shouldn’t, because as we know, black boys don’t like to read.

The statistics show this to be true. According to the US Department of Education 85% of black boys are not reading on grade level. Three out of four students not on grade level by grade three are likely to drop out of high school, thus furthering the school to prison pipeline. I don’t want to go down the convoluted rabbit hole of why this happens, rather; I would like to offer some solutions to the problem.

I hope you'll step out of your comfort zone and start these talks. The potential impact can be life changing. Click To Tweet

Texts that reach:

As an instructional coach, I always tell my colleagues to “pull out your best stuff” for your most challenging students. As it concerns young black boys, if the text doesn’t “speak” to them, they more than likely won’t read it and do the corresponding work.

Listen, we know two things about the classroom; you need work, and they need grades. As we do this we need to pick texts that resonate with our black boys. Some scholars and fellow colleagues believe these texts need to be ethnic. This is inaccurate. Theme can speak to a reader as loud as race or ethnicity can.

It is important that black boys read black texts, but black boys shouldn’t read only black texts. The text needs to move beyond academia and into the reality that many young black boys are familiar with. Even if the theme you’ve selected resonates well, you still have to deal with the fact that some of the boys you have aren’t reading on grade level, yet they have to be able to deal with grade level text complexity.

How do you do this? You begin with choosing texts that aren’t complex to understand, but have deep thematic implications.

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“Fences,” “The Other Wes Moore,” and “A Raisin in the Sun”:

These texts—among others—resonate so deeply because the authors deal with the DuBoisian (I just made that word up) idea of living behind the veil of being black and American simultaneously. In addition, they add the idea of being male with being black and American.

  • Fences” deals with a father raising boys while reconciling his own personal trauma wrought by his father and life in post –reconstruction America.
  • The Other Wes Moore” looks at two black men with the same name; raised in close proximity to one another in Baltimore, Maryland, and how the choices they made landed one with a Rhodes Scholarship and the other in prison for the rest of his life.
  • A Raisin in the Sun” deals with a husband and father still living with his mother desiring to be more than what he is, and how this ambition blinds him into making poor decisions.

These are just examples of straight forward, easy to understand texts that have deep thematic implications.

Forming the essential question and moving toward the classics

…and by classics, I mean Shakespeare

I would often tell my students at the beginning of the school year, “I love Shakespeare, so we are going to read it.” Most students are intimidated by the language, so they never reach the rich thematic implications of his plays. No fear Shakespeare was a game changer for me in that regard. So much so, students would want to give the original text a try!

Shakespeare attacks so many different topics like:

  • Fate v. Free will
  • Absolute Power
  • Race and White Supremacy
  • Justice

Introduced in the right way, Shakespeare can be a powerful tool for young black boys to see the world.

Hooking boys in:

The essential question to begin a unit is so powerful in this regard. They don’t have to be complex either.

  • Who has issues with their dad?
  • What are your views on race?
  • Does absolute power corrupt absolutely?

Once again, examples of how to hook boys into their reading.

If you are prepared for uncomfortable conversations; these can help your black boys find their voice in your classroom. I hope you’ll step out of your comfort zone and start these talks. The potential impact can be life changing.

About Dante Pryor

Dante Pryor was born and raised in Gary, Indiana. He graduated from Lew Wallace High School in 1997, and Wabash College in 2001. Dante began his teaching career at Gary Urban Enterprise Association, a non-profit organization that specializes in Adult Basic Education. After he completed his Master’s Degree in Secondary Education, he began his secondary teaching career at 21st Century Charter School in Gary, Indiana. Dante moved on from 21st Century in 2006 and began his work in School City of Hammond at Clark High School. Not only did he teach English, but he coached boys’ tennis, and forensics (speech and debate). He spent 10 years in Hammond at both Clark and Eggers Middle School.
Currently, Dante is an Instructional Coach at Neighbor’s New Vistas High School in Portage, Indiana. He is married with two children, speaks frequently at educational conferences during the summer with aspirations of being a conference speaker and writer.

Twitter: RamblinRickyRhodes/@pastorddp

Blog image photo by Claudia on Unsplash.