Wednesday, February 25, 2015

All You Need is Love: Solution Five for Engaging Black Boys in Reading

Solution Five: As a teacher, show love, compassion, interest and empathy for their lives outside of school

Love is one word with seemingly infinite meanings. Depending on whom you say it to you and who says it back, this grand four-letter word could mean practically anything.  At its essence, however, love is the most powerful action in the world. It is fitting then, that this ‘strategy’ concludes the five part series on engaging Black boys in reading.

Unlike earlier posts in this series, where I gave concrete steps to each strategy, I will outline five actions that are present when love pushes your pedagogy to reach every single Black boy in your classroom. Before I list the actions, I’ll start with a real life story that encapsulates the risk and reward of loving Black males.

My friend is the CEO of a music foundation geared toward helping children living on the margins of the inner city. His company uses the power of music to transfer empowering messages to students who desperately need it. A good number of the participants are Black boys and nearly all of them are working through some level of emotional or psychological pain. This pain became verbal and dangerous when one of his students reacted strongly to a direction in class. He was so angry that he stormed out of the classroom, into the street and almost two blocks down the road. That’s when my friend had to get involved.


Here are the five actions that are consistently seen in classrooms and schools where love is present:

You take time. Teachers, principals and the entire community of stakeholders supporting Black boys always make the chief investment of time. They take time to get to know every single Black boy’s story. They take time to research different educational practices that will help Black boys read, speak and write better. They even take the time to attend an extracurricular activity or two, just to show that special Black boy that they are there for the long haul. They see time as a means to an end for demonstrating how deeply they care about each boy’s success and life.

You show interest. Teachers who create a culture for Black boys to thrive always show interest. Whether the interest be in clothing choices or college decisions, teachers demonstrate their love for Black boys when they are interested in what they value, what they endure and what they can become. Dr. Cornel West once said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ To that end, interest is what love looks like under a microscope. I can believe that you want to teach me. I can believe that you want to see me do well in general. But I can only believe you love me if you take an active interest in who I am. 

Black boys come into class each day with three questions: Do you like me? Do you like that I am here? Do you affirm my existence to be anything I am gifted to be? To the extent that a teacher answers yes to all of those questions on most days, is the extent to which Black boys will feel your love.

You choose texts and assignments thoughtfully. Teachers that love young and eager African-American males take the time to understand their experience. They understand the history of under-service (and consequently, under-performance) of boys and men of color in the public school system. They take time to research and truly understand the terrible legacy of slavery that was visited on the psyche of Black men for centuries and how that still manifests itself in the structures that seek to control and subjugate them today. They critically analyze how media portrays Black men as hyper-sexual, hyper-aggressive and mostly dangerous. These educators take in all of that information and love Black boys fearlessly by putting texts and contexts around works that affirm their right to be human. To be boys. They choose texts that confront Black males with community and global issues that some of them were born to solve. There is no such thing to an educator of a Black boy as a throw-away text. Every text has a purpose. In fact, these educators never even allow substitute teachers give their Black boys texts stripped of power and meaning. The cost is simply too high.

You create spaces for Black boys to be free. If I had to make a book title that represents most of my experience in education as a reasonably bright African-American male, it would be: Keep Calm and Be Quiet. This title would be apt, because even with the great successes I have had, I have always had to make sure that I was acting in a way that did not overtly challenge or offend the people around me, both Black and White. This is not an uncommon experience for Black males in education, both as a student and as a professional, or in the corporate setting. We are always aware that our presence adds information to a setting. In a classroom run by a teacher who loves Black boys, their freedom is paramount. This love may manifest itself as daily free-writes that allow unfiltered expression, or as poetry/rap sessions in response to classroom assignments. It may even show up in the allowance of some boys, like me, to stand and walk rather than remain seated for 90 or more minutes. The teacher who loves Black boys is passionate about seeing them in their most authentic psychological spaces. This teacher thoughtfully combines established school rules and procedures with reasonably appropriate student autonomy to create an environment that is not only under control, but ready to launch.

You openly show affection. The fist-bump, the dap, the nod or the hand-shake hug. Whatever way there is to show affection physically or verbally, the teacher that loves Black boys displays it openly and often. Boys and men flourish in fields of praise and affection. Why do you think we participate in so many sports or dream of performing in concerts or winning the teacher of the year award (maybe not the last one, but you get my drift)? It is because the affection of praise waits on us in every situation. The teacher that loves Black males respects their boundaries (as outlined in Domain II. A. of this draft code of educator ethics) while showering them with verbal and physical affection. These teachers smile wide and bright at just the sight of an African-American male walking into their class.

And when one runs out of their classroom, they pursue him.

Seeing that the counselors could not stop the boy from leaving the building, my friend, the teacher, asked if he could help. Several yards later, he caught up to to the student. The student was trembling as he tried to re-tell all of the reasons he became so upset. After his words began to come together more smoothly and his shaking stopped, the teacher asked to pray with him. The boy consented. As my friend finished the prayer, he opened his eyes to see that the student had run out of his shoes. “May I carry you back,” he asked the Black boy. “Yes,” he nodded. As this teacher picked the student up in his arms, the boy began to sob almost uncontrollably. It was as if that act of affection released a deep reservoir of relief within him. At that moment, the teacher realized that instruments, lessons and assignments were just tools, but that love was the binding force that every child needed.


Editors Note: Each of the blog posts containing strategies about creating a culture for Black boys to thrive in reading is aimed at helping Black boys do well in the area of literacy. Although each blog post specifically and intentionally written for Black boys, the philosophy that supports each approach should help in any situation where teachers, principals and stakeholders seek to enhance the educational access for traditionally under-served populations.

The amazing foundation featured in the blog post is called ‘Beyond the Natural’ foundation and can be supported by clicking onto this link.

Josh Parker
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

2/26/15 - 1:25 a.m.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Teaching Children Well: A Sacrificial Commitment

Do you remember your first favorite teacher? I do. She made me feel like I could do anything and that I was destined to make a contribution to this world. She made me believe that the peculiar details about my life were enough by themselves to demand her full attention. I mattered in her class. It would be almost 20 years later that I would truly understand what made her great.

The first two and half months of my teaching career were days without nights. Each morning, I left my studio apartment in Baltimore city just after 5 o’clock, and returned 19 hours later. A bus would take me into downtown and then out again to the furthest part of my district. With freshly graded papers in hand, I managed to make it into class just before my students. Later, I would bundle a stack of newly gathered papers under my arm and wait in the summer heat for the bus. Once home, I would fully waken from the bus rides and begin grading papers in preparation for the next day.

I loved it.

To see light-bulbs go off in a student’s eyes after the sequence of a meticulously planned lesson works; is rapture! The ways students smiled when they entered my class (on good days), or vowed to be better (on challenging days), was what I lived for. But it was in the bus-rides and back-aches that I really understood my high school teacher. Every smile she gave was expensive. There is honor in that. Survey after survey ranks teaching as one of America’s most prestigious professions. But how many really know the sacrifice it takes to teach just one child well?

It takes a life.

If there’s any beauty to a story that contains two near-nervous breakdowns, a car accident on the way to work, two slashed tires and numerous shirt-grazing pencils, it’s that my story is not unique. Teachers who love children commit to it for life. Our commitment always goes beyond a day, a year and often-times a career (most teachers retire – to teach again). When we are at our best, we combine proven praxis with a desire for heart level connections with children, sincere interests in their lives and unyielding passion for their safety and success. This commitment, however, has always been on shaky ground.

Do you remember the most recent teacher scandal? Or your first worst teacher (it’s possible both are one and the same)? I do. It reflects poorly on all of us, every time. The prevailing notion is that the teacher you are thinking about now and the teacher from the beginning of this article are actually different teachers. However, without a set of guiding principles shared by all educators, the first teacher could very easily become the second.

We need a code of ethics.

Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont once said that "love ceases to be a demon only when he ceases to be a god." A code of ethics then, takes our passion, desire and commitment from lofty and ethereal realms to a plain and practical place where our diverse backgrounds and beliefs don’t pre-dominate the professional principles that should be common to us all. This code is an agreement that honors our sacrificial commitment by creating a common language and understanding of the promise we give to every single child and their family, the moment we assume the role of teacher. Within this framework, the under-service of black and brown children becomes more than immoral - it becomes unethical. By defining our norms, this code can guide a diverse teaching force through dilemmas and situations where boundaries can be blurred through the lens of upbringing and good intentions. The code is what could help our first favorite teacher, stay that way. In fact, if we are to consider ourselves a true profession on par with doctors and lawyers, we need a code of ethics.

Ten years later, my mind floats back to those early days. Do I still operate with that same commitment? I have listened to countless educators express that the increase in testing, over-reliance on student data and injection of politics has squeezed their commitment dry. We now listen to people who have never felt the joys and pains wrapped in the sacrificial commitment it takes to teach children well tell us how broken our life’s work is.

We are tired.

Despite these outside forces advancing upon this great calling, I believe there’s hope. We start taking back the conversation over our work by seeing ourselves as true fiduciaries in the field of learning and establishing a code of ethics that allows us the freedom to self-govern if necessary, but also collaborate on what is the least acceptable standard of excellence that will honor our life-long commitment.

Josh Parker
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

2/24/15 – 11:40 p.m.

Editors Note: The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) have written the first ever nation-wide Model Code of Educator Ethics. It is now available for public comment at this location:

Monday, February 23, 2015

The 'Glory' of Connection: Solution Four for Engaging Black Boys in Reading

“They gave tongue to interesting thoughts of my own soul, which had frequently flashed through my mind, and died away for want of utterance.” Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X was two days ago. In the midst of all the Twitter tributes and Facebook fanfare, I reflected on my own ‘Malcolm X’ phase which started during my undergraduate years at Towson University and still continues, in some form, to this day. Seeing a Black man whose speech was so articulate, so honest, so unflinching and so visceral was a powerful experience for me. In education, as in life, the qualitative comes before the quantitative - I have to see it before I can repeat it. This visual example of Black self-esteem pouring out through potent truth-telling was an object lesson for me.  But it was not the first time I had been connected to a powerful Black male orator.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to me in middle school through the screen of the Cosby Show. Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar had a coffee talk with me in high school. Richard Wright and Alex Haley left their words with me in college. Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison allowed me to give their words to others in college and post-graduate school life. Those historical writers provided a context for me that was then complemented by ‘contemporary’ Black male voices in hip-hop and late 20th century Black literature. These writers helped me (and still help me) develop my literate identity, which sprang out of my Black awareness:

Awareness of being Black is the most powerful and the most fertile single inspiration for Black writers in America. It is ironic that Blackness, for so long regarded as a handicap socially and culturally, should also be an artistic strength . . . . All writers arrive at a reconciliation of a sense of tradition and a sense of difference. For nearly all Black writers in America that sense of difference was the recognition of Blackness. For nearly all, but not all. Being Black was less important for Charles Chesnutt than it was for James Baldwin. But for most, Blackness was the spur, the barb, or the shirt of pain that moved the artist to achieve distinction. -Charles T. Davis and Daniel Walden

Below are four ways that you can connect  African-American male students with their historical (and contemporary) counterparts; thereby allowing them to have a template to express the thoughts of their mind, that could ‘die away for want of utterance.’

Start early. My son is only four years old at time of this writing, but my wife and I have been reading him books about Black males or with Black male characters since day one. It is never too early to show Black boys that they count by making books featuring them a regular part of instruction. Here is a list to get you started. 

Use poetry and story. In Daniel Pink’s book, ‘A Whole New Mind,’ he posits that being able to create a story will be the way jobs are created in the economy of the future. I can think of no better way to help Black males feel at home in a literate space then to invite story into the classroom from Pre-K through 12. Have your Black male students write their own stories as shown here. Also, use poetry to reflect the Black male experience and all of its iterations from dreams to love of Black women to a desire for home.  It’s about providing models of Black men expressing their thoughts and emotions for young Black boys yearning to do the same.

Supplant or supplemented the mandated curriculum as necessary. Anais Nin’s famous quote ‘We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are,’ is critical when it comes to the types of texts we put in front of our Black boys. These potential-rich boys may not relate to Shakespeare or Chaucer due to an intimate connection with their own milieu. To that end, maybe Richard Wright and August Wilson are better playwrights for Black boys. This does not mean to abandon works that are a part of American culture. Where would I be without this work? But, it’s about helping reify the themes and life experiences of Black Boys (‘If you can teach me how to cling to that which is real to me…’) while also informing their minds about the conventions of the language of wider communication, (‘while teaching me a way into the larger society…’), thereby allowing every Black boy to establish a text-to-self connection and a self-to-teacher connection (‘then will I drop my defenses and hostility, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit.Ralph Ellison).  

Show Black men shining. I love watching Black men powerfully tell the truth. I love seeing us speak with authority, like what happened last night. If we regularly feed images like these to our Black boys, it can serve as a counter-narrative to the many destructive images the media pumps out an alarming rate. Black boys should see Black males debating and winning, speaking from places of power and emoting with vulnerability and passion. Black male brilliance must be seen. Remember, it first must be qualitative before it can be quantitative.

Ending note:  Curriculum is so much more than course guides, syllabi, standards and worksheets. Curriculum is the classroom environment that is created by accepted words, actions and ideas both in texts and from students and teachers. This environment is created second-by-second, and has the power to affirm or ignore the existence of traditionally under-served students and their cultures. When the curriculum is malleable enough to put Black male students and their experiences at the center, we create a space for them to thrive!

Only one more strategy to go.

Give a Black boy an amazing literary experience the next class period,
Josh Parker

2/23/15 @ 9:10 p.m.