Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Boys Book Club Experiment: The Conclusion

By Marilyn Rhames — June 18, 2014 5 min read
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The Warriors Boys Book Club abruptly ended a week sooner than I expected. The eighth grade class is spending this week in Washington D.C., and the powers that be decided that I had to teach a larger reading class than just the seven remaining Warriors. I came to work on Monday and was handed a class list of 18 seventh and eighth grade students. With school ending on June 30, all the kids cared about was if the assignment I was giving them would be scored and put in the grade book.

Though the boys book club ended early, it ended well. Gregory Michie’s Holler If You Hear Me was an engaging text, but I decided to abandon it halfway through. My boys were losing interest in the parts that focused on the intricacies of Michie’s teaching practice, details best appreciated by educators, not 14-year-old boys.

With only 13 days left, I picked up copies of Geoffery Canada’s Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence in America. I felt this text, though not written a Mexican American male, could prove to be enabling to the Latino boys because 1) it was at their reading level, 2) it was an engaging read, and 3) it provided a historical context for the out-of-control gun violence the boys witness everyday on the streets of Chicago.

The boys had to annotate everything they read. I gave them a minimum of five annotations per page. The only problem was that the books belonged to the school so they couldn’t write directly onto the page. They had to take notes on a separate sheet of paper, which, even for me, felt unnatural and excessively disruptive.

Still, the boys were annotating--a lot. That meant they were reading--closely and critically. Well, okay, not all the boys--but most.

Canada spends the first part of the book recalling his early encounters with street violence, when boys fought with their fists (and occasionally a stick or a knife) to protect their block and gain street credit. He ever so slowly takes the reader on a journey of how boys in the South Bronx (and other urban centers across the country) became increasingly trigger happy. More intriguingly, Canada explains the pathology behind the new rules of the game.

I watched my boys go from interested to enthralled. They wrote reflections about times when they had guns pulled on them. They dialogued about the time they were almost jumped by gang members. They shared about that uncle, that aunt who got locked up for having a gun in the car, for doing a bad drug deal. They didn’t seem to care that Canada was a black man, as they had been during Day One. They understood his language--the language of the streets.

I went a step further by showing them this YouTube video about Latin gangs in Chicago. Most of the video focused on the gangs that run Pilsen, a popular Hispanic community that the boys knew well. They took notes on the video and we discussed it. The guidance counselor, Mr. Avila, was also on hand to co-facilitate a thought-provoking discussion about how kids are lured into gang life and ways they can avoid those traps altogether.

We made a hard stop after chapter 10 of Fist Stick Knife Gun. I had planned to spend this week getting further into Part II of the book. The boys were disappointed.

One of my last lessons was about America’s most controversial pipelines. No, not a natural gas or water pipeline, but the schools-to-prison pipeline. The boys had not heard of it.

I told the boys last week that there’s an invisible pipeline that funnels struggling students--especially black and brown boys like them--from school to prison. When students disengage in middle school and barely pass on to high school, they are at high risk of eventually dropping out. And when a student drops out of high school, chances are high that they will not find a job that pays a living wage. And when a person cannot find a legitimate way to pay for food, clothing and shelter, he may be inclined to find an illegal way to do so. Illegal activities like selling drugs, robbing people, burglery or prostituting, almost always leads to imprisonment or worse.

When kids get involved in criminal behavior while attending high school, they often go directly to jail.

This pipeline, I told them, is big money for the management firms operate the state prisons. In Illinois, for example, taxpayers pay nearly $40,000 per year to keep one inmate in prison, while spending about $11,600 per year to educate one child their age.

I told my boys that three or four of the original ten Warriors are statistically inclined to drop out of high school, and that half of those who dropouts will eventually get locked up. It was a sobering moment watching each boy looking around at each other.

The good news is that they had already beaten the odds, I said. Eight* of the ten of them were passing reading with grades ranging from C- to B+. These are students who had grown accostumed to earning Ds and Fs.

My boys worked hard. Some started out strong and weakened; some started out weak and got stronger. They had 63 graded assignments in the nine weeks we were together. They had homework every night, even on Memorial Day weekend. They proved to me, their parents, their classmates, and, most importantly, to themselves that they had what it takes to be successful in school.

But don’t take my word for it. Yesterday, the boys took a survey to rate the effectiveness of the class.

When asked what he liked most about the Warriors Boys Book Club, the boy who had smashed the cookie in my face on Day 26 wrote, “The patience level of Ms. Rhames.”

When asked what he liked least about the book club, a boy who said once told me he absolutely hated school wrote, “that we did not get to finish.”

When asked to rate the boys book club overall, the boy who has earned a reputation of being at the bottom of every class gave the boys book club a perfect 10. He wrote, “Ms. Rhames helped me a lot. She was a good teacher.” He ended up earning a respectable 75 percent average. When asked what he would suggest to improve WBBC for a future class of boys, he wrote that I should “be less strict.”

Maybe I don’t need that super teacher power I’ve always dreamed of: to be able to change, on demand, into a tall, strong Afro Latino male teacher who speaks fluent Spanish and English, highly skilled in basketball and soccer, with the street swag that would make the most hardened male student sit up straight and listen.

I guess all I ever really needed was to be me, with a healthy does patience, strictness, competence, and love. Possessing the right mix of all of those virtues each and every day, is hard--really hard. Maybe that’s the super teacher power should hoping for.

*NOTE: Before I could pat myself on the back for too long, something unexpected happened. One week after my book club ended, two of my 8th grade boys--including “0.4,” who had smashed a cookie in my face--were l led out of the school in handcuffs by the police. They were arrested for inappropriate actions toward an attractive young woman who had just joined the staff. Also arrested was a 7th grade boy who regularly heckled me as I taught my writing lessons and eventually had to be removed from my class.

**This blog post last updated on 7/10/14

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.