Teaching Opinion

The Boys Book Club Experiment: Day One

By Marilyn Rhames — April 23, 2014 4 min read
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Anyone who knows me knows that I love a challenge. They also know that my zeal for saving the world inevitably creates more work than I can handle.

I got wind of the Reading Warrior boys book club at a school in Stockton, California, and I decided that it MUST happen at my school, too. There are a significant number of middle school boys who desperately need an innovative intervention that will help them become more successful in school. So I purposed to spend my two-and-a-half week spring break planning for the club.

Never mind that I have three kids at home, including a four-month-old baby. Nevermind that I needed to do a massive amount of cleaning around the house. Nevermind that I had a trip to California scheduled right in the middle of my break. Nevermind that the professional development book that I’m using as an anchor is written for African American boys, and 9.5 out of ten of my book club boys are Latino. Nevermind that two-and-a-half weeks seemed like a long time, but, in reality, it wasn’t.

Yesterday was my first day back in class with students. I had given all ten of my book club boys a card congratulating them on their selection to this “elite group of learners.” The group that showed up was mixed with kids holding their announcement cards and kids who had been in my “high” reading class last trimester. (Not every Advisor had the chance to announce the new reading rosters.) Needless to say, there was confusion at my door: students upset that I had “abandoned” them and students suspicious of their new enrollment into my class.

When my ten boys realized that they were all in class together, the first things they said were, “You think you can handle us?"; “Why did you put all the bad kids in one class?"; “This class is going to be out of control.”

My ‘Do Now’ assignment came directly from Alfred Tatum’s book Reading for Their Life: Rebuilding the Textual Lineages of African American Adolescent Males: “Write three pressing issues that are affecting young men in today’s society. Explain.” One English Language Learner asked me what the word “pressing” meant. Their responses made me realize how much of what I had learned from Tatum about literacy instruction for black boys would not directly apply to these Hispanic boys.

One half-black, half-Mexican boy said, “African American boys keep killing each other.” He is the only boy in the class that identifies as Black--but only when it’s convenient for him to do so. Then other boys chimed saying, “Yea, Blacks are mostly the one’s killing each other. Hispanics only a little.”

I asked the whole group to stand up if they had a friend who was murdered in street violence. All but two kids stood up. I asked them how old those friends were when they were killed. They called out 14, 15, 16, 17. I asked them if those fallen friends were African American or Latino. They all said Latino. Then I asked them if it was fair to say that the murder problem in society is only an African American problem. They said, “No. Latinos are shooting and killing each other, too.”

I should have seen it coming. While I see the plight of underprivileged African American and Latino students as largely one in the same, kids don’t see it that way. In fact, racism is a major problem among students at my school, so I should not have been surprised that these Hispanic boys see Blacks as “others” and harbor negative stereotypes about Black people in general.

So, my initial idea of using what Tatum calls “enabling text” from Frederick Douglass and Carter G. Woodson would have to be re-thought. As much as I admired these authors’ works, I fear they will not necessarily speak to the culture and identity of the students in my boys club.

I was slipping deeper into uncharted waters ... I admittedly know very little about empowering, historic texts written by Latino male authors that specifically address issues of male identity. Man, I need that super-teacher power right about now (inside joke... read Part 1 of the blog)!

Thankfully, I had prepared an activity that centered on a quote from legendary rapper Tupac Shakur. Almost all of the boys either listen to Tupac or respect his music. Tupac once said, “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened ... or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the f--- on.”

I made myself get over the profanity in the quote (though I forbade my students from actually saying it), and asked them to reflect on it. With their dialogue and my questioning, I hoped to get them to see this Reading Warriors Book Club as a new starting point, an opportunity for them to move beyond their largely unsuccessful school history.

Six students seemed to get the point. Two students just sat there and said nothing. Then there were two boys who laughed and goofed around on and off during the entire class, despite having just been told by multiple teachers and administrators that they will not graduate if they don’t pass their classes.

I ended the class with the reading of Tatum’s poem “The Failure Dance,” which he writes in the voice of an African American male teenager who bitterly lemants that he has been failed by his teachers, the school system, and himself. Students must annotate the poem and write a reflection for homework.

Clearly, I have homework of my own.

I’m open to text suggestions, so please drop them in my comment section or email at msrhames@gmail.com. Thanks!

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