Will black students read better if they read stories by black authors? Students show higher reading comprehension if they read stories that are “culturally relevant,” says a study. And schools now have access to much more literature by non-white authors.
Michael Lopez predicts “relevance” will backfire.
Let me make a prediction here: the more we segregate education, the more we implicitly tell “black” kids that they should only be getting excited about “relevant” books, the more we’re going to intellectually ghettoize said children, and the less they will be able to achieve. Reading is supposed to expand — not reinforce — your horizons.
I’ve seen working-class Mexican-American students enthralled by Harry Potter’s adventures. They also like to read about Mexican-Americans, of course. But the ones who lack basic reading skills don’t enjoy reading anything.
Update: In Rhode Island, disadvantaged students are turned on to reading dead white males like Shakespeare through drama, writes Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.
When Kurt Wootton was fresh out of graduate school and brimming with idealism, he took a job here teaching English at Hope High School. He was white, his students were black, and so he assumed the best way to reach them was through relevancy. He assigned Richard Wright’s autobiography, “Black Boy,” and he put on jazz CD’s by John Coltrane.
Few pupils, as it turned out, saw many parallels between their lives and young Wright’s. After Coltrane blew his last note, one boy asked, “Why don’t you play some of our music?” Hope High, so improbably named, recorded a dropout rate in the vicinity of 50 percent.
Almost a decade later, Mr. Wootton remains every bit as convinced of education’s power to transform stunted lives. He has changed his tool of choice, however, from a mirror in which students see only reflections of themselves to a window that opens onto the rest of the world. The program he devised and directs, ArtsLit, teaches literacy to children in some of Rhode Island’s most troubled schools though performances of texts, many of them classics of the Western literary canon.
“Mr. Wootton sees high culture not as the oppressor of the lowly but as an agent of their liberation,” writes Freedman.