Students at the Center - Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents

Published apr. 25, 2012

Alfred Tatum, author of a paper entitled Literacy Practices for African-American Male Adolescents


, begins with two heartbreaking quotes from young black males he spoke with: “All my grades are bad and nobody can help me,” said one. “I am a lost soul,” said the other. While Tatum gives credit to this decade’s research advances both in adolescent literacy and in understanding conditions supporting African-American male achievement, he argues that “most school literacy practices continue to miss the mark and suffer from an underestimation of the depths of student needs.” The result: Far too many African-American adolescent males are locked out of the American mainstream.

This paper is one of nine by distinguished researchers featured in Jobs for the Future's national convening being held today and tomorrow in Boston: “Teaching and Learning in the Era of the Common Core: The Students at the Center Symposium.” Over 150 researchers, thought leaders, policymakers, philanthropists, and practitioners are joining together to expand our understanding of what is known about key components of student-centered approaches to learning, while strengthening and focusing our collective voice in support of it. Their discussions are grounded in these paper topics in addition to Tatum’s: brain research, motivation and engagement, teaching, math, universal curriculum design, personalization, system-wide change, and assessment. All nine research papers and the introduction to the series, along with executive summaries and other resources, are available for download at

In his paper, Tatum argues for an approach to literacy that builds and strengthens black male identity, just as reading did historically in the service of dignity for black male readers. Autobiographies by Benjamin Mays and John Hope Franklin, for example, demonstrate that “literacy was embraced as a pipeline for personal engagement and transformation as African-American males struggled for political, economic, and cultural equality and citizenship.” Tatum proposes “an alternative framework of literacy curriculum and instruction for African-American males, based on four ‘vital signs of literacy development.’” He begins with developing student identities, “rather the goal of raising test scores.” As a sign of the future, the cover of Tatum’s paper features a compelling photograph of a ninth- or tenth-grade African-American student, his book open before him, as he stands in the fiction section of a library.

The headline from the papers taken together is something like this: The U.S. education community is poised to put in place a much more demanding set of content standards, and better assessments are promised to support them. Figuring out how students should demonstrate their mastery of the new standards is a huge task, but the conversation must simultaneously address how students are to develop the required learning dispositions. The sine qua non is to support teachers and other educators in developing learning strategies that engage students in all their individuality.

The knowledge base assembled through the Students at the Center project speaks directly to the level of intellectual engagement, as well as the social and emotional development, that will be required if all students are to reach the promised outcomes of college and career readiness. Especially with adolescents, teachers must convince their students that the day’s lessons are worth their attention and hard work; that can only happen when students are motivated to achieve. Otherwise, surrounded by distractions, young people all too easily tune out.

This week’s symposium concludes with a “town hall meeting.” The participants will consider remarks from Deborah Jewell-Sherman, professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and former superintendent of Richmond (Virginia) Public Schools; and Susan Patrick, president and CEO of International Association for K-12 Online Learning. They will focus on two key topics: the challenge of scaling up student-centered approaches across districts, and the promise that technology holds to support student-centered learning both in classrooms and beyond.

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards appear to be inspiring much-needed attention to what makes for effective teaching and strong curricula. That, in turn, is stimulating the development and testing of technological tools that can aid teachers and students in personalizing learning and supporting higher achievement. We believe these Students at the Center papers will contribute to these efforts.

Students at the Center is supported with funds from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Photograph courtesy of Greet van Belle, 2012