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Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap

reviewed by Louis B Gallien, Jr. - 2006

coverTitle: Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap
Author(s): Alfred Tatum
Publisher: Stenhouse Publishers, Portland, ME
ISBN: 1571103937, Pages: 165, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

In reading Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, I am reminded of Joyce King's recent book titled Black Education: A Transformative Research and Action Agenda for the New Century, in which she states that in relationship to the effective education of African Americans “research informs practice and practice informs research in the production and utilization of knowledge; therefore, context is essential in research” (King, 2005, p. 21). In examining the ten vital principles of black education and socialization for this relatively new millennium in King’s book, I found it encouraging to read a text that is emblematic of culturally responsive teaching methods mixed with a healthy dose of “street” reality.

It did not surprise me that Professor Alfred Tatum would follow in the tradition of such scholars as Dr. King, but I was not prepared for the transparent journey that he so vividly recounts as a black man growing up in the streets and public schools of Chicago. Rarely are we given such a glimpse into the contextualized life of a black male scholar who brings himself literally naked (as you will read in the Introduction of the text) to the reader as both pathological victim and emergent doctor in the same person. In fact the raw nature of his narrative had me reexamining both the title and the author, as I realized that so much of my research into black men has derived from the lenses of the “other,” especially as it relates to academic performance and achievement. Sure, there are the contemporary vivid exceptions of black authors immersing the reader in their own personal journeys and touching on their academic experiences in their narratives (e.g., Dyson, 2001; Boykin, 2005; McCall, 1994; Cose, 2002), but rarely do you find their experiences in a text for improving the reading levels of young African American males. And this is where the journey begins.

Tatum writes with conviction, force, and transparency in the beginning of his text as he shares with the reader how he became a bibliophile. As one can imagine, it was an escape from the reality of his existence in the streets of Chicago.   At the same time, his story is reminiscent of many precocious children who discover the magic of stories. Tatum explains, “Fortunately for me, reading became my saving grace. My growing interest in reading was supported both at home and in school. . . . As a result, I believe in the promising possibilities associated with reading. . . . ” (p. 10).  In the same chapter, he also nuances the gendered position of contemporary African American males when he writes about the importance of “flow” taken from the works of Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and of stories that speak of lived experiences that can be transported to gender-specific everyday realities. Flow is defined by Tatum as including (a) a feeling of control, (b) activities that provide an appropriate level of challenge, (c) clear goals and feedback, and (d) a focus on the immediate (p. 11). Tatum’s main critique of most reading programs that he has examined center on their lack of contextualization and immediacy to the reality of black male’s lives. Such programs, therefore, are basically DOA in the hands of such young men at a very vulnerable adolescent stage of their school and social development. Another poignant observation made by Tatum that has been echoed in my own research (Gallien, 1990) and that of others (e.g., Hale, 2001; Irvine, 2002; Kunjufu, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Gay, 2000; and Delpit, 1995) is the overwhelming perception among young black men that their teachers care more about them as academic products than about their personal processes. Or, put another way, young black men need to know that their teachers care about them on a personal basis—rather than as an object, a test score, or a social problem to be solved.

Tatum begins his clinical approach to the improvement of reading skills among black males by enumerating four main systemic obstacles: (a) there is no clear strategy on closing the reading gap between black males and other racial groups, (b) there is no lexicon for the specific role of black literacy instruction, (c) educators disagree on effective reading methods, particularly for those past elementary grades, and (d) educators tend to ignore the importance of curricular choices and pedagogical approaches for this cohort (p. 24). Again, in the tradition of culturally responsive pedagogues, Tatum finds the key to breaking these systemic barriers by introducing the idea of multiple literacies based on the cultural, social, emotional, and academic realities of African Americans.

Tatum utilizes three strands: theoretical, instructional, and professional development and proffers a developmental reading framework for young black men titled “the nesting ground.” The theoretical rests on a culturally responsive approach to literacy teaching. The instructional provides the students an opportunity to choose the literature (within academic guidelines) and strengthen a personal assessment profile; and the professional development strand encourages the engineering of professional communities and teacher inquiry, which is explained in more detail at the end of the text. Taken as a whole, this framework represents a reasonable working arrangement among teachers, students, and texts.

The last portion of the text offers specific instructional techniques for use by either a middle school teacher or a university professor whose major area is literacy development. Since I am not trained as a reading specialist, I must leave it to those who are steeped in the literature and practice of literacy instruction to ascertain the effectiveness of each suggested technique.

There is a continuing conundrum for me in effective culturally responsive texts such as Tatum’s: How can we effectively prepare teachers for this “endangered cohort” of students? Or, put another way, how can we prepare the “typical” reading teacher (i.e., white and female) for their culturally responsive roles, given the fact that few teacher education programs provide the curriculum, teaching methods, or, more importantly, placement sites for obtaining the skills that Tatum and others believe are essential for teaching these young men how to read? This is not the result of a lack of resources but rather a lack of will and conviction on the part of our policy makers. Until we believe that the methods, attitudes, and dispositions needed to make a real difference in black males’ lives are critical to their success as citizens, we will continue to muddle through much of their literacy development and, thus, in the end, replicate another institutional failure in their all too brief lives.


Boykin, K. (2005). Beyond the low down: Sex, lies and denial in Black America. New York: Carroll and Graf.

Cose, E..(2002). The envy of the world: On being a Black man in America. New York: Washington Square Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.

Dyson, M. E. (2001). Holler if you hear me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Hale, J. (2001). Learning while Black: Creating educational excellence for African American children. Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins Press.

Gallien, L. (1990). Lost voices: Reflections on education from an imperiled generation in Mississippi. New York: Eric Digest.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally-responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New YorK: Teachers College Press.

Irvine, J. (2002). In search of wholeness: African American teachers and their culturally-specific classroom practices. New YorK: Pelgrave.

King, J. (2005). Black education: A transformative research and action agenda for the new century. Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum.

Kunjufu, J. (1995). Countering the conspiracy to destroy Black boys. Chicago: Third World Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McCall, N. (1994).  Makes me wanna holler: A young Black man in America. New York:  Vintage Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 5, 2006, p. 923-926
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12184, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:04:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Louis Gallien, Jr.
    Regent University
    E-mail Author
    LOUIS B GALLIEN, Jr, is University Professor of Education at Regent University. Recent publications include: Instructing and mentoring the African American College Student: Strategies for Success in Higher Education, published by Allyn and Bacon Press in 2004, and Closing the Academic Achievement Gap of African American College Students, Teachers College Press, forthcoming. In addition, he has published several recent articles in the Journal of Negro Education, the Journal of College and Character.
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