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Change Is Gonna Come: Transforming Literacy Education for African American Students

reviewed by Amanda Godley - October 12, 2010

coverTitle: Change Is Gonna Come: Transforming Literacy Education for African American Students
Author(s): Patrica A. Edwards, Gwendolyn Thompson McMillon, and Jennifer D. Turner
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807750840, Pages: 202, Year: 2010
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Change is Gonna Come: Transforming Literacy Education for African American Students addresses the question of how to provide high-quality, equitable, and culturally-appropriate literacy education to African American students. To answer this question, Patricia Edwards, Gwendolyn Thompson McMillon, and Jennifer Turner weave together multiple perspectives and various sources, including reviews of current research, excerpts from the authors’ collected data, the authors’ own educational and literacy memoirs, pointed questions directed at the reader, suggestions for teachers and teacher educators, and calls to action. The book builds from the authors’ beliefs that education is the key to success and that responsibility for improving the literacy education of African American students “must be shared across the policy, research, community, family, and classroom levels” (p. xvii).

The book is organized around four debates surrounding African American students’ literacy learning: (a) African Americans’ struggle to gain access to literacy, (b) the multiple meanings, routes, and roadblocks to academic, community, and life success, (c) successful approaches to teaching literacy to African American students, and (d) the role of African American families. In each chapter, the book provides a comprehensive historical and theoretical overview of research on African American students’ literacy learning and educational experiences, but also a strong orientation toward the future and toward productive change in our educational system and classroom instruction. The authors evoke this theme of “looking back to look forward” (p. 130) throughout the book. It was this look forward, emphasized in the title Change is Gonna Come and throughout the book, that I found particularly original, insightful, and inspiring. The authors call readers’ attention to the systemic racism and discrimination that has faced African American students, particularly those who are poor, but without suggesting a static, reproductionist model of schooling or lack of agency on the part of teachers, African American students, or their families.

Chapter 1 provides a historical overview of African Americans’ struggle to gain access to literacy, including not only information on segregated schools and integration, but also troubling statistics about how current policies surrounding special education, gifted education, and school discipline negatively affect the educational opportunities provided to African American students, particularly boys. Chapter 2 discusses the multiple meanings of success in African American communities and lingering issues surrounding African American students’ academic success, such as the perception among some African American youth that being academically successful is “acting White” (p. 47) and the need for teachers to build productive relationships with African American students. In Chapter 3, the authors present their most focused discussion of literacy instruction for African American students. The chapter covers debates both in elementary education, such as the benefits of Whole Language or phonics instruction, and secondary education, such as using hip-hop texts as pedagogical tools. In Chapter 4, readers will learn about the many ways in which African American families practice literacy outside of schools and how schools can build productive relationships with families. Theories of identity, resilience, caring, and double consciousness permeate all the chapters.

As I was reading Change is Gonna Come, I kept imagining how wonderful it would be for a group of teachers in the same school to read this book together and discuss how their school might provide better literacy education, and a better education overall, to its African American students. One of the book’s great strengths is that it does not simplify the research or the issues related to literacy education for African American students, calling readers’ attention to the interrelatedness of literacy learning, teacher-student relationships, teacher-parent relationships, home literacy, motivation, identity, racism, and poverty. For preservice teachers, I think the book might emphasize breadth over depth too much to be of use in a literacy methods course. At times, I felt that the book did not provide as much detail or emphasis on productive literacy pedagogy as I had hoped for. However, I can imagine the book leading to very fruitful discussions among preservice teachers in a Foundations of Education class. In some places, the authors directly address African American parents who may be reading the book (cf. p. 130). Though I am not African American, as the parent of young children attending schools in a large urban school district, I could see how the book would provide a useful and affirming guide to African American parents who want to support and advocate for their children’s education.

One of my favorite facets of the book was the authors’ and their family members’ autobiographies about education and literacy. The autobiographies are detailed enough to vividly and poignantly illustrate many of the points the authors want to make about family support, resilience, role models, and excellent teachers. The autobiographies are nicely balanced in terms of historical context, kinds of educational experiences in and out of school, and both stories of success and good teachers and stories of racism, roadblocks to literacy learning, and teachers with low expectations. In a rhetorical move that many authors try but few pull off, the memoirs are used at the beginning of chapters and sections to skillfully and smoothly illustrate the specific concepts, research findings, and theories the authors explain.

One aspect of the book I would have liked to see developed further was its understanding of the term culture. Especially in the second chapter where tensions between peer group and academic identities were explored and later in the book where the term “African American culture” (cf. p. 139) was used multiple times, I got the sense that African American culture was being presented a bit too monolithically. As Lee (2003), Pollock (2006), O’Connor, Lewis and Mueller (2007) and others have pointed out, to assume that all African Americans, or all members of any racial or ethnic group, share the same culture and identity can be problematic. Instead, current theories of culture and identity suggest that there is great value in considering culture as shifting over time and in examining variations of culture and identity within racial and ethnic groups (Gutierrez & Rogoff, 2003). The autobiographical narratives presented in the book, however, nicely reflect the kind of diversity of experiences that aligns with current conceptions of culture and ethnicity.

The book ends with a powerful chapter that weaves together descriptions of the authors’ own collaborations with and support of each other as African American scholars, compelling quotes from current African American public figures such as Marian Wright Edelman and Jay Z, and suggestions for policymakers, universities, teacher education programs, schools, teachers, and educational researchers. Overall, Change is Gonna Come offers a comprehensive, research-based, realistic, and hopeful understanding of how to improve literacy education for African American students. It will inspire readers to take action to transform literacy education for African American students in specific, evidence-based ways. In the words of its authors, “No more excuses, no more delays. Come on, people!” (p. 163).


Gutiérrez, K. D. & Rogoff, B. (2003). Cultural ways of learning: Individual traits or repertoires of practice. Educational Researcher, 32(5), 19-25.

Lee, C. D. (2003). Why we need to re-think race and ethnicity in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(5), 3-5.

O’Connor, C., Lewis, A. & Mueller, J. (2007). Researching “Black” educational experiences and outcomes: Theoretical and methodological considerations. Educational Researcher, 36, 541-552.

Pollock, M. (2006). Race wrestling: Struggling strategically with race in educational research. In Spindler, G. & Hammond, L. (Eds.) Innovations in educational ethnography: Theory, methods, and results. (pp. 83-126). Lawrence Erlbaum: Matwah, NJ.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16197, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 6:02:29 PM

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About the Author
  • Amanda Godley
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    AMANDA GODLEY is an associate professor of English Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on critical language pedagogy, especially with African American students.
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