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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
November 14, 2006
DeKalb — Schools pressured to meet “adequate yearly progress” in accordance with federal No Child Left Behind legislation can become guilty of “overlooking young people” in the process, according to a Northern Illinois University professor of literacy education.
Alfred Tatum, a national authority on literacy and the achievement of African-American adolescent males, says the current “era of accountability” is mistakenly putting a greater focus on reading scores over “scoring with reading.”
The sad result: Books or essays or poems or magazine articles that might make an indelible stamp on a young man’s life are bypassed for standard reading assignments that prepare students for achievement testing.
It’s frightening to Tatum, who wonders why the nation’s schools choose such readings over the multitude of other works that are rich in detail, provocative in thought and personally meaningful to adolescents living in troubled communities.
“There should be no way students can go through the U.S. school system and not find texts they find significant to their lives,” says Tatum, an assistant professor in the College of Education. “Text can be enabling. Enabling text moves students to do, be and act differently. Instruction devoid of meaningful text is low-quality instruction.”
Since the May 2005 publication of his book, “Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap,” Tatum has visited 39 states as an invited speaker and has been asked to write four book chapters.
His travels have taken him from New York to California and from the Midwest to the South. He’s been interviewed by National Public Radio and Harlem Community Radio. He is a consultant for Scholastic Books’ Muhammad Ali Project.
Tatum’s book, meanwhile, is the winner of the 2006 James N. Britton Award, sponsored by the Conference on English Education of the National Council of Teachers of English.
Tatum will receive the award Friday, Nov. 17, at the annual NCTE convention in Nashville. The Britton Award is given to encourage the development of English teachers by promoting reflective inquiry in which teachers raise questions about teaching and learning in their own teaching and learning settings.
“I’m humbled by the award, and that people found my words insightful and timely for the education of African-American adolescent males,” Tatum says. “I’m really pleased to know that people are beginning to recognize the gravity of these issues. People are really rethinking the way they’re educating these young boys.”
Tatum also will make a presentation on the role of text in the lives of African-American adolescent males. Too much of what they are given to read is “disabling,” he says, in that it means nothing to their lives or simply reinforces their perceptions as struggling readers.
His award-amplified message comes at a time of urgency, he says.
Poor literacy instruction leaves the nation’s population of African-American adolescent males “vulnerable.”
A “triple threat” also exists that finds students, parents and teachers equally “tired of trying” and growingly pessimistic, he adds. “They don’t believe success is possible,” Tatum says.
Educators “handicapped” by policies and curriculum need to seek out ideal texts for their students, he says. But they also must accept some culpability in the problem, he says, and “realize all of the problems do not reside in the students.”
Students are eager for reading that reflects their lives, he says, and want their teachers to guide them as they shape their own identities. “Rich, meaningful, provocative text will thrust them forward in positive ways,” he says, “and help them discover the power latent within them.”
Tatum’s words are giving teachers “a new sense of power.”
One says her students have “read more text this year than in the five years previous.” Another wrote in late October to say she is “very much inspired to teach your findings in my class.”
“I have proven to my colleagues that it works. My lowest IEP (individualized education program) children were getting top grades without any accommodations because they could connect to these real-life lessons,” the teacher writes. “Every lesson I teach in reading, language arts and social studies must have a real-life personal connection to my students. Otherwise, I have no business teaching it to them.”
Teachers soon will have another tool. Tatum is writing his second book, one that will focus on building the textual lineage of African-American adolescent males.
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