The week that it was Black History Month, I grabbed two assignments. One from a district that was serving mostly white kids, and they were reading the Letter from Birmingham Jail and they were, as you might imagine, engaged in rigorous debate. The Black kids in the classroom serving mostly Black boys were told to read that same letter and draw a picture because neatness counts. You can only imagine what that assignment looked like when completed. It was a Black man in jail.–excerpt from Black Boys
As Americans continue to grapple with the numerous unjustified murders of African American males (including Jacob Blake, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery), academic leaders must dig deeper to understand how to better engage African American males in the classroom. Educators must accomplish this while fully supporting Black boys’ social, emotional and behavioral health, as well as their need to reconcile with the American systems unfolding on social media and news feeds daily.
As beautifully expressed in Malcolm Jenkins’ new movie, Black Boys, African American males often have a great many concerns about their own physical safety and worth; to help them avoid the hopelessness that could so easily overwhelm them, educators need to cultivate agency within this unique student group. Inside high school and middle school classrooms, educators must develop curricula and incorporate teaching practices that can help these students comprehend how legislation impacts the descendants of America’s system of chattel slavery, and how it is imperative to use their voice and vote to improve those policies.
As the former principal of a small urban, high-needs, extremely trauma-impacted high school, and later a comprehensive, majority Black and Brown suburban high school, I have witnessed firsthand the power of classroom-level debates on controversial current events to heal wounds, while simultaneously engaging African American males in rigorous academic instruction that prepares them for college, career and civic life.
Debate is natural for boys
Throughout any high school or middle school cafeteria, vigorous debate about the best sports team, the best dancer, the best player, the best musician, etc., can be heard echoing throughout the halls. Thus, integrating this discourse into the classroom should be a no-brainer. By acknowledging that boys don’t learn in the same manner as girls, middle- and high school-level educators can foster boys’ love of competition, movement and interactive discussions to build their literacy skills, which is critical for authentic civic engagement and college readiness.
Having experience as an academic leader of two high schools, I had the pleasure of introducing students and staff to a schoolwide focus on argumentative literacy: the ability to make and understand arguments. To facilitate this, I engaged the teaching faculty in a comprehensive review of data and facilitated protocols to support the identification of the strengths and weaknesses of each school’s instructional focus.
In both schools, we noted low levels of literacy achievement, especially for African American males. Upon further examination, both faculties reached a similar conclusion: Classroom instructional practices should be revamped to improve student engagement in rigorous work that pushed students’ academic thinking and encouraged productive academic struggle. Faculty members also considered strategies to improve students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
School-wide Focus on Argument and Debate
By reading articles such as Lasting Impressions: Targeted Learning Plan Has a Maximum Impact on Teacher Practice by Jeff Nelson and Amalia Cudeiro and Leading With Inquiry and Action: How Principals Improve Teaching and Learning by Matthew Militello, Sharon F. Rallis and Ellen B. Goldring, our instructional leaders led their departments to facilitate a school-wide focus on classroom argument and debate.
Naturally, the social studies departments flourished within the debate realm; consequently, after less than eighteen months of adult learning and preparation, I witnessed students, male and female, African American and Latinx, fully engaging in controversial debate questions, such as “Should the United States Pay Reparations for Slavery and the History of Anti-Black Racism?” and “Should Public College in the United States Be Tuition-Free?”
How did this engagement look?
- Classrooms filled with dialogue and collaborative movement without a single student opting out of lively discussions.
- Students closely reviewing multiple resources on their debate topics.
- Teachers circulating throughout the classroom to provide feedback on written responses.
- Students strengthening their literacy skills and everyone experiencing flow.
The students and teachers hated when the classes ended. In response to the death of George Floyd, the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the historic protests that have engulfed numerous cities around the world, I fully expect my former schools in the coming months to embrace the most recent controversial questions: “Should American Cities Divest Funds From Their Police Forces?” and “Should Monuments to the Confederacy Be Removed?” These topics not only engage Black boys in the classroom, they strengthen their agency in the fight against systemic racism and provide answers to the myriad questions they may have.
Across this country, African American males are not flourishing at the same academic levels as their white counterparts; argumentative literacy could be the salve to heal their wounds and diminish the literacy achievement gap over time.