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.

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