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The Book Club Experiment: Engaging Boys of Color in Reading

There are ten boys in my eighth grade reading and writing classes who simply refuse to do much of any school work. They occasionally participate in class discussions, but they produce little quality work in class and complete virtually no assignments at home.

Their behavior?  Let's just say that if sabotaging the learning environment was a graded subject, some of these boys would be A and B students. Other boys just sit there quietly, pretending to read while hoping to blend in with the wall paint.

Parent conferences, suspensions, loss of privileges, sports, male mentorship programs—nothing has worked. Things may improve for a day or two, but these boys eventually fall back into their patterns of dysfunction. (Adults all know how hard it is to break a bad habit, and the same is true for children.)

No matter how hard I've tried, I have not found a way to crack their ill-defined code of manhood. And now that they are on their way to high school—if they pass the grade—I'm afraid that the consequences of their irresponsibility will increase exponentially.  

I recently drew inspiration from a talk I had with Felicia Bailey-Carr, a teacher in Stockton, California who supports my nonprofit organization Teachers Who Pray.  She runs a Reading Warriors all-boys book club at her school and has seen slow but steady improvements in her students.  Her boys begin the program in the fourth grade and stay in it until they graduate from eighth grade.

She finds texts that are highly engaging and relevant to boys—stories about sports greats like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali; books by Christopher Paul Curtis like Bud, Not Buddy; and memoirs about overcoming obstacles like Ben Carson's Healing Hands.

Her program also comes with lots of rewards—trips to play paintball, books, dinners, etc. She said she tried to make the program purely intrinsically rewarding but that just didn't work.

I was enthralled. I started mapping out how such a program could look at my school. I had my class list of the about 15 mostly Black and Latino boys before I hung up the phone.  

At the parent conferences yesterday, one mom told me that her son cried sorrowfully on the way home from school the other day because he realized that his chances of graduating were slim.  This, the boy who has mastered the art of defiance and indifference. This, the boy whose family has just become homeless. This, the boy who has experienced a lifetime of trauma by the time I met him in the fourth grade.

If I had one super-teacher power, I'd transform myself into a tall, strong, articulate Black Latino man who speaks both English and Spanish and understands fully what it's like to walk in these boys' shoes. (That would be a bit awkward for my husband, but I'd make sure to return to my Black sexy female self before I got home). 

These boys need more consistent male role models, not just mentors who show up for a good talking to, or a game of hoops, or bite to eat for a couple of hours a month.  These boys need more men, good men who love them, all the time.

They are often called FATHERS.

As a woman, I cannot be a father figure, but, with the help of my literacy manager, I can pilot my version of Reading Warriors Boys Book Club.  I lobbied for this opportunity because traditional reading class, with its mandated texts and rigid structures, was not meeting the needs of this high-risk group of boys. My colleagues were gracious enough to accept more students in their reading classes so that I could take the ten most challenging boys as my own.

I will have these boys for one hour every day, and I hope to give them a taste of what it's like to be a successful student.  I want to give them a taste of the joys that come with being a reader. They only have one more trimester of middle school left, so why not take some risks to try to finally get it right?

Sure, it will test every ounce of my classroom management skills, but it will be worth it.

It will also be the ultimate instructional challenge. I want the Reading Warriors class to be "like a room without a roof," to quote the singer Pharrell Williams. I want every text we read to be written by a man.  That's my self-imposed fail-safe mechanism to help me keep my girly-girl nature in check.  

I want the boys to read biographies of their sports heroes, watch documentary clips like "Style Wars" about graffiti art, and analyze Tupac Shakur rap songs.  I want them to read and critique highly academic text like "The Mis-Education of the Nego" by Carter G. Woodson and essays by Frederick Douglas. I want them to READ and WRITE about things that interest them so that they will have the stamina to read and write about topics they don't like.

I just read a very helpful blog post by author Mike Hays who tells me that the key to teaching boys to love reading is patience.  Hays shared his reluctant reading journey as a child and gave a helpful list of short stories with which I can start.

I also have a fresh copy of Alfred W. Tatum's book Reading for Their Life: Rebuilding the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males. I am going to devour this text on my spring break!

I can't guarantee that the Reading Warriors Boys Book Club is going to produce transformational results, after all there's only ten weeks of school left.  But it can guarantee that it will be one middle school reading class that neither the boys nor I will ever forget!

I'll keep you posted...

*post was last updated on 4/4/14 for minor additions and corrections.

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