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Ninety-eight percent of the people who work in my occupation are different than me: I fall in the less than 2 percent of teachers who are black males. I am from Mississippi, a state perpetually plagued by its scholastic underperformance, where I recently graduated from the University of Mississippi and was accepted into Teach For America. My number one choice of placement was the Mississippi Delta, because I felt a unique obligation to my home state and to the young students who look like me. I was hired by West Tallahatchie High School, in Webb, MS, to teach United States history. According to the 2010 US Census data, the population of Webb is 565, and more than two-thirds of the men there have never attended college. It is for that reason that I think my students need someone like me teaching them – a young, college-educated black male.

Mississippi education
Timothy Abrams

Last. Week. I. Wrote. A. Blog. About. One. Of. My. Students. This blog highlighted the extraordinary character exemplified by one of my students. Fellow classmates constantly ridicule this student. However, one day I noticed that he was writing down the birthdays of some of his classmates, including some of the same kids who taunt him. After I had written it, I let my other classes read it and ultimately I showed it to the student who served as the inspiration. My student read every single word in the blog, then he asked, “Is that true, Mr. Abram?”

I was immediately befuddled. I asked myself, “How could he not know that this story was about him?” I then realized what happened. My student read each of the words individually, yet he did not get a holistic comprehension of what he had read.

I do not claim to be an expert in literacy. In fact, I am far from that. However, it struck me that the problem some of my students have in school is not that they can’t understand the words they read, but that they aren’t able to synthesize them and critically interpret articles and books assigned in class. This revelation put into context some of the struggles that my students encounter as we struggle through new section of the history textbook each day.

Related: In Mississippi, generations still fighting illiteracy

My biggest fear is that it may be too late for me sufficiently help my students attain a reading level needed to be successful in college.

History certainly is not segmented. If my kids are going to pass my quizzes and ultimately the end-of-year standardized test they need to graduate, they must be able to grasp more than just the meaning of individual words. They need to be able to understand and critique long passages. That they’re not able to do this has implications far beyond my classroom (and Mississippi’s U.S. History Subject Area Test, which they need to pass in order to earn a diploma). According to a National Endowment for the Arts study, “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” 63 percent of employers rated reading comprehension as a “very important” basic skill for high school graduates. Additionally, the study noted, “44 percent of Basic readers lack a full-time or part-time job — twice the percentage of Proficient readers in that category.” Though I have not administered any type of literacy test on my students, it is clear to me that the five minutes it takes them to read a few paragraphs from the history textbook is far too long.

This is not an indictment against my students, but rather an indictment against the circumstances that allowed them to reach 11th grade without the ability to understand what they read. According to the most recent U.S. Census Data, only 8.4 percent of persons 25 years of age and older have a bachelor’s degree in Tallahatchie County, meaning very few of my students have parents – or other role models — who went to college and were successful.

Related: Poorest states cut what experts say could help the most: higher ed

But I also believe my classroom is a microcosm of the nation as a whole, where people simply are not reading as much as they did in the past. The more a person reads, the better their literacy becomes. This simply is not happening in American homes. According to the National Endowment for the Arts study, people age 15 to 24 only read seven minutes per day on weekdays and 10 minutes per day reading on weekends and holidays.

My biggest fear is that it may be too late for me sufficiently help my students attain a reading level needed to be successful in college.

Still, I promote and encourage independent reading whenever possible. Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are formidable adversaries to the classic novels and online articles I assign. But the To Read or Not to Read report concluded, “reading frequently is a behavior to be cultivated with the same zeal as academic achievement, financial or job performance, and global competitiveness.” My goal is to not only equip my students with the necessary content to pass the state mandated test, but to cultivate a love for reading which will be tied to any future success that they wish to have.

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11 Letters

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  1. Thanks Mr. Adams for speaking on this it’s not only in MS it’s nationwide I’m a 38 year old single mom with three boys and the younger two are having the hardest time with reading. I watched the three of them going through school. I’ve learned that majority of the teachers are not concerned with our kids education anymore. From 1990 until present I’ve seen the difference in the school system. Especially in the African American they want to tell us our kids are ADHD and all this bull about them having a learning disability I think everyone does no one learn the same. I want to thank you for speaking up for my State as well MS those kids there need more African-American men like yourself to speak up for our future.

  2. Thank you for caring enough to give back. My son attends WTHS and it is disheartening to say that you adequately described the plight of him and a lot of his peers. Tallahatchie County has always been known for negativity-from slavery to poverty. I am a proud graduate of WTHS with a Master’s Degree and slowly pursuing my Doctorate. It has been over 25 years since I graduated and even then I felt the effects from the disadvantages I had compared to other college students. The sad reality is, unlike you, most of the teachers who come to our district now do so because of the privileges of teaching at such a low level performing school. They don’t care about our children. Most of them get that experience under their belts, that student loan forgiveness, and leave our children uneducated as they were before they came. I am in no way downplaying my role as a parent in my son’s education because the learning shouldn’t stop when the last bell rings. But, it definitely should start when the first one does.

  3. I knew a registered nurse who grew up in Iowa who also read/reads every word separately. She worked hard to overcome this handicap and earned her degree. I always thought of her situation as a learning disability. I grew up in Mississippi, attended school and university there. Reading was always important at our school and also at home.

  4. Four of my six children are diagnosed as autistic, and we’re suspicious about the other two. Reading about your student is very much like reading about one of my homeschooled children. He is eight years old, both parents college-educated, but. he. reads. like. this. and doesn’t understand, either.

    I know that autism is under-diagnosed in the black community and thought I would throw that out for what it’s worth. People and their problems can sometimes be complex and multi-faceted.

  5. Thanks so much for this article! Reading comprehension in critical for school and life success and I appreciate that you have chosen to teach. Sometimes the difference among students is in the number and type of words heard at home, as well as whether parents read to their children and encourage them to read. Libraries provide excellent resources and Excel by 5 is a great program that helps the student holistically, with emphasis on educating parents to help prepare their children for school.

  6. Thank you for your commitment to education. Your story is so insightful and, unfortunately, is one that is familiar to many teachers. Stay encouraged and continue to inspire our children!

  7. Very well stated. As an elementary teacher in a MS Delta school district, I can sympathize with your frustration and concern. Mandatory early childhood education programs are on of the keys to eradicating these disparities. When our students enter kindergarten programs never having been formally exposed to any form of numeracy or literacy, they remain behind. It is a radical stretch, but if schools did away with traditional grade assignments based on age and moved to a promotion and assignment system based on levels of literacy and numeracy that is qualitative versus quantitative, I think we would see a decline in students are severely ilprepared for standardized tests.

  8. I’ve seen this first hand when i lived in Mississippi over the last four years… the type of disregard for competency of literature is a direct reason for the school system to be reformed from top to bottom… i commend your efforts to help the students in your hometown…

  9. As a reading specialist who works with high school students who “don’t read at grade level”, your observations ring true! Many teachers and administrators at the secondary level don’t truly understand what reading proficiency is, it is so much more than being able to correctly call out the words…being able to read fluently and with comprehension is the right of all students! Mr. Abrams, I applaud you for wanting to help these students, it is not too late. ANY oral reading practice they are able to do in the classroom, out loud, to each other, to you, is valuable. Summarizing what they have read, sharing it, then writing it down on an exit slip helps with comprehension. Keep up the good fight.

  10. Just skimming this article, my initial reaction is that a lot of students in the Delta could seriously benefit from Special Education services. I don’t know the details of education funding in MS but I know I taught there in Quitman County and was paid a pittance to work in a rundown school with few resources. While there, there were more than a few students who were far below grade level academically and socially, and just as many suffered from emotional disturbances. Needless to say, the school was lacking in the special education services department. A well-run school district, especially one with more resources, would have served such students much better. I know West Tallahatchie probably better than QC, and its the same thing there. You’ve got your work cut out for you sir, but it can be done. The good news is that they all want to be successful. You’re stating the obvious when you note that our kids are behind grade level, that they come from poor neighborhoods, etc. I’d love to work with you in figuring out what to do about it.

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