FORT WAYNE — At the beginning of his career as an educator, Alfred Tatum was given 23 standardized test booklets by his school’s principal. “Use these,” the principal told him. “I’m going to monitor your classroom and make sure you are.”
“I used them,” Tatum said. “I did a mock Lincoln-Douglas debate – Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. When I was Douglas, I stood on the ground. When I was Lincoln, well, I had to be taller, didn’t I? So I stood on that stack of booklets.”
Since then, Tatum, now an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of the UIC Reading Clinic, has eschewed educational standards and statistics in favor of “personalizing the percentages,” he says.
On Saturday, Tatum delivered the keynote speech at the NAACP Indiana State Education Summit at Ivy Tech Community College, in front of an audience that included Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson and Urban League Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Ray.
The speech, “Reading as a civil right: Expanding the lens of literacy in an era of reform,” focused on the racial achievement gap in literacy, particularly the literacy development of black males in the United States.
Using a combination of research, poetry and images of black men hanging from nooses, fitted with iron muzzles and crammed into slave ships, Tatum drew a stark comparison between failing to teach black adolescent males to read and symbolically lynching them.
“We’ve had 45 years of legislation on reading instruction and we’ve missed the mark for 45 years,” Tatum said. “We still have so many young people in this nation surrendering their life’s chances, even before they get to know their life’s choices. Low levels of literacy is a modern-day lynching. It chews up lives and we see the outcomes.”
Tatum, author of the book “Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap,” began his career teaching at a public school in Chicago where less then 15 percent of the students were reading at grade level.
That year, Tatum and his fellow educators were given a goal: teach 25 percent of the student body to read at or above grade level.
“I was admittedly naïve,” Tatum said. “And I raised my naïve hand and asked, ‘But doesn’t that mean that 75 percent of the kids still won’t be able to read?’ I was told 25 percent was significant growth. It didn’t make sense to me, so that’s when I started changing my teaching practices.”
Literacy, Tatum said, nurtures resiliency in people and protects against a bleak future. Growing up, Tatum’s teachers had “Harvard dreams for kids living in hellish conditions.” Teachers today need to do the same, he said.
“I read my way out of poverty,” he said. “So as an educator, I’m always wondering, ‘is my teaching wide and broad enough to interrupt the social, academic and economic hierarchy that finds some kids at the bottom?’ ”
During his speech, Tatum criticized programs such as No Child Left Behind and Race for the Top, describing them as an opportunity to slow-walk a student through school, based on where they rank on a standardized scale of achievement.
He called upon educators to avoid terms such as “at risk” and to be wary of academic research that blames categories such as culture, economics, language or home life as reasons for low levels of literacy.
“Poor parenting has never hurt my teaching, if they send kids to school 90 percent of the time,” he said, receiving a round of applause from the audience.
“Folks will tell me, ‘I can teach reading. I just can’t teach reading to certain students.’
“And we accept that and say, ‘Oh, just do the best you can.’ If we don’t thrust reading and writing on these young males as a way to protect their own lives and the lives of their sons and advance the quality of living in this nation, shame on us. This is happening on our watch.”