Summer program aims to improve literacy skills of black male teens

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Nurturing the next generation of Black Writers

On a steamy Chicago summer morning, 11 teenage boys sit quietly in a college classroom listening to 17-year-old Aaron Knight read his short story, titled “Red Light.” Next up is Brandon Wilson, who reads his untitled story, which builds on a family’s mealtime discussion. 

After each young author finishes reading, the attentive audience offers up comments about the stories’ timing, dialogue and structure. One teen says, “I like the play on words.” Another calls what he just heard “intriguing, authentic.” 

This kind of feedback is a key part of the African American Adolescent Male Summer Literacy Institute, now in its fourth year at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Alfred Tatum, director of the UIC Reading Clinic, conceived the Institute to “nurture the next generation of black male writers” so that they become not just the voice for the next generation but the “voice for themselves.” 

For five weeks, the dozen boys, called Brother Authors, write poems, short stories, broadsides and the beginnings of a novel. They also critique each other and read the works of various published authors. By the session’s end, they’ll go home with a dozen books toward building a library of their own. 

On the whole, there are few books aimed at young black male readers. Of the 5,000 children’s books published every year, no more than 5 percent are written by or about blacks, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which studies and compiles data about books for kids. 

The notion of improving the literacy skills of all teens—not just African American males—is a pressing issue in the education world, given the need to prepare students for college and a globally competitive workforce. In its 2010 report “Time to Act,” the Carnegie Corporation of New York’ Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy said that goal should be “an overarching national priority. 

Lifting confidence, improving academics 

Tatum, an associate professor at UIC who trains reading specialists, knows that many urban black male students aren’t performing at the academic levels they should — and could. He believes that helping them find their own voices and giving them a chance to express themselves through the written word will lift their confidence and empower them to do better socially and academically. 

When he decided to make it a mission to nurture a new generation of black male writers, Tatum says he started asking young black boys in middle and high school who was their “brother author.” His question was often met with silence. “It was striking that we have a generation of young boys who do not have authors speaking to them,” he says. “On the other side of this conversation, as I travel across the nation, I hear so many narratives about black boys, [but] their voices are silent.” 

Tatum saw the Institute as one step toward redefining who black boys are. “We need to put [their] voices and [their] visions on record,” says Tatum, who initially started the Institute for Chicago Public Schools students. 

Since then, the publishing company Scholastic has become  a major sponsor of the Institute. In addition to the funding it donates, Scholastic published “ID: Voice: Vision: Identity,” a book of writings and literary resources for teachers and high school students based on Tatum’s research. An online component includes video interviews with Tatum and a former Institute student. 

Once word about the Institute spread, parents from other communities outside of Chicago began telling Tatum that their sons weren’t being served by their schools, and he opened eligibility to boys from outside the city, some coming from schools such as Oak Park- River Forest High School. One boy in this year’s group lives in the southern suburbs and attends Crete-Monee High School, while another lives in Chicago but attends North Shore Country Day School. 

Interest in the Institute comes from “parents, community, probation officers, clergy, aunts, teachers,” Tatum says. “Somehow they believe something is missing in schools.” 

Applications have risen too. In its first year, Tatum had difficulty recruiting, and ended up with 14 boys. This year, 108 applications came in, and 15 boys were selected.  (Three did not show up for various reasons, Tatum says.) Boys in the program receive transportation assistance and a stipend upon completing the program. 

Kristoffer Kizer, who’s in this summer’s Institute, wrote in his application essay that black boys end up being marginalized by school districts and teachers who don’t understand them. 

In some cases, teachers are afraid to offer black boys constructive criticism, believing the boys’ ego can’t handle it, Tatum says. 

Kizer, 16, a verbally gifted and socially poised high school sophomore, applied to the Institute because he wanted to see if he could take his writing “to the next level.” Prodded by his aunt to apply, he was shocked to be accepted.  After several weeks of penning poems and short stories, he says, “I’m loving this. Man, who knew writing was so powerful?” 

To get some measure of the Institute’s value, Tatum did research on its social and cultural benefits. He published what he found in a paper titled The Sociocultural Benefits of Writing for African American Adolescent Males. He expressed concern “about the dearth of research on teaching writing to culturally diverse students, particularly African American male adolescent writers from urban communities…. Many educators are failing to increase these young males engagement with text, and subsequently their writing achievement.” 

The Institute’s strategy is to honor African American adolescent males’ existence, then push “the heck out of these guys,” Tatum said following a recent session. 

Meeting three days a week for three hours each, the Brothers Authors spend most of that time writing, with about an hour each session devoted to reading and critiquing. Tatum encourages the boys to be honest and constructive in their comments to each other.  

Preston Davis, a former Institute student who attended two previous sessions and is now a freshman at Northern Illinois University, returned this summer as a paid literary adviser. He “looks out for the guys” and gives them feedback. “Sometimes I have to be harsh,” he says, adding that it’s all done in the spirit of helping them improve their writing. 

Doctoral student Gholdy Muhammad helped run this summer’s session and acts as an intellectual sounding board, Tatum says. A former middle school teacher and administrator, she also brings critical insights about literacy issues. As part of her doctoral seminar, “The Archeology and Anthropology of Literacy Development in Black Males” (taught by Tatum, her academic adviser) she researched black male literary societies from the 1800s. The Institute is a modern-day example of those, she says. 

To that, Tatum adds: “I really believe we have to rebuild what we call the reading and writing lineages of black boys as early markers of manhood. And literacy really allows them not only to protect themselves, but protect future generations. If they go away with that, that’s very powerful.”