A newly formed book club for young minority boys at Washington, D.C.’s Truesdell Education Campus is changing the dynamic at the struggling school, where a mere 18% of students met expectations on the English portion of standardized tests in 2016.
The change stems from a student who complained in December that his results on city English tests don’t accurately reflect his reading abilities, which prompted principal Mary Ann Stinson to suggest the boy read Walter Dean Meyers’ Bad Boy: A Memoir, The Washington Post reports.
Vice-principal Michael Redmond assigned the same book—about Meyers’ childhood growing up in Harlem—to two other students, as well, and he was soon flooded with student requests for more copies.
Redmond, a doctoral student working on educational advancement of minority boys, used the enthusiasm about the book to form an all-male book club with 10 students, who now meet for a half-hour before school twice a week to discuss themes like race, identity, and adolescence, the Post reports.
“There is 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 told students at a recent meeting. “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 said.
Students have already moved on to a second book, another Meyers novel titled Monster, about a teenager facing a murder charge. Truesdell resides in a neighborhood of mostly black and Hispanic students, and engaging students in stories that reflect their reality has been a key to shattering stereotypes about minority students, Redmond 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.”
The club has also inspired a girl’s book club, as well, and both groups plan to visit Meyers’ Harlem neighborhood on an upcoming field trip.
“The books that we read here, we can relate to,” Devon Wesley, 11, told the Post.
“In our classes, there are way less interesting books, and these books are way more interesting,” said Kemari, who read the 200-page Bad Boy in two days. “These books are about people.”
Literature plays a unique and important role in presenting plots, heroes, and villains to whom students can relate. The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture led the School Cultures and Student Formation Research Project to examine the role that schools play in forming character.
Editors James Davison Hunter and Ryan S. Olson write in the The Content of Their Character, which summarizes the research findings: “Citizenship may be taught in a civics or social science class; character may be incorporated into a religion or ethics class, and moral questions may be included across the curriculum, as we found in English literature classes.”
The Truesdell book club provides a magic recipe: substantive stories that are so good that these boys are reading in all their spare time, and eagerly showing up early for school.
Walter Dean Myers’ personal life story is compelling, and Bad Boy is a creative way of inspiring young readers, who are in turn drawing in their classmates. For educators who want to use literature to build a coherent focus on character in any classroom, the Jubilee Center for Character & Virtues offers Knightly Virtues lesson plans.
And while the impact of the reading club on Truesdell’s English test results remains unclear, things seem to be trending in the right direction with 33% of students meeting or exceeding national expectations in 2017.