“Books are dying”/”Books are dead” is a pretty common mantra nowadays, but how true is it really? While there has been a decline in the number of young people reading for pleasure, that might have more to do with the type of stories assigned to kids than the act of reading itself.
Put a book that kids actually want to read in front of them and you might just have yourself a reader, as the Truesdell Education Campus in Washington D.C. has proven.
It all started with a fifth grade boy complained about his reading test scores.
When a fifth grade student got the results back for his citywide English exam, he was both angry and confused. He complained to the principal, Mary Ann Stinson, that the score he received did not reflect his true abilities as a reader.
Knowing that the boy was capable of doing better on reading assignments, Stinson grabbed one of the books she had lying around—“Bad Boy: A Memoir,” by Walter Dean Myers—and instructed him to read it.
Seeing this, Assistant Principal Michael Redmond didn’t want the boy to feel like he was being punished, so he had a plan to make it a group exercise. He called two more of the boy’s classmates into his office and gave both of them copies of “Bad Boy” and asked all three boys to read the book together.
Tests had shown that black male students were the worst performing in the district. Yet Redmond hoped to reverse this by giving black boys books about people just like them.
This worked out better than they could have ever expected. The three boys loved the book and, by the end of the day, the assistant principal’s office was swarmed with students asking for “Bad Boy”.
All of this enthusiasm prompted 10 fifth-graders to start an all-male book club at their school.
It didn’t take long for the club to take off, now serving as the most popular club at Truesdell.
“The books that we read here, we can relate to,” 11-year-old Devon Wesley, one of the founding members, told The Washington Post.
These books have fostered some great discussions between students and faculty alike.
“There’s a line in ‘Bad Boy’ where he says, ‘I prefer not to be seen as black,’ and he didn’t want his accomplishments to be viewed as ‘Negro accomplishments,’” Redmond started off one discussion. “He wrote that line not because he was ashamed of being black, but why?”
“Because you can be smart, not because you’re black, but because you’re smart, period,” 10-year-old Kemari Starks replied.
The club has since moved on from “Bad Boy” and has just started their second book, “Monster”, by the same author. Yet, when I say that they’ve “just started” what I really mean is that the discussion around the book has started. Many club members have already completed the nearly 300-page book.
“In our classes, there are way less interesting books, and these books are way more interesting,” Kemari said. “These books are about people.”
The stereotype about boys of color being uninterested in reading is something Redmond remembers from his childhood—and he doesn’t want this next generation to experience the same thing, he said.
“What a beautiful thing, for teachers to be able to see boys who look like this be so into reading,” Redmond said. “We did not imagine that kids would be this serious about reading and about doing something that we didn’t ask them to do.”
While the club has only been around since December and it’s impossible to say what long-term effects it will have on the children’s performance, it’s definitely changed the culture around reading at the school. The books that kids are reading aren’t simple books either but material aimed at an older middle school audience.
While all of this has been well and good, there has been a bit of an issue with the book club: the library is struggling to keep up! Still, Redmond sees this as a net positive.
“It’s a blessing to be in this predicament, to have kids who are becoming ravenous readers,” he said. “We’re disrupting the notion of what public education can be and what little black boys can do and be.”
The success of the club has prompted an all-girls book club at Truesdell as well.
The two book clubs plan to join forces in the spring for a trip to Harlem, where “Bad Boy” takes place.
For now though, the group is having fascinating discussions about their experiences with race, identity, and adolescence. “Monster”, about a black teen on trial for murder, has also prompted discussions about justice and peer pressure.
Fifth-grader Romeo Amaya weighed in on following popular kids even when they cause trouble: “You’re trying to impress them to fit in,” he insightfuly observed.
“They are now seeing that reading is amazing and, through reading, you can find people to relate to,” vice principal, Steve Aupperle told The Washington Post. “That’s what reading is.”