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.
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.
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.
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.