Building Bridges to Literacy for African-American Male Youth: A Summit Follow Up (Pt. 1)
I’ve been home now for about a week and a half and I am still reeling from the amazing summit that I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the gorgeous University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill campus.
The topic, as many of you know after reading my initial post, is extremely near and dear to my heart so being placed in a room with close to 100 passionate librarians, professors, authors, library science students, and advocates of African-American male literacy was a dream come true.
Immediately I bonded with some amazing people and almost immediately, we were split up into groups put to work. No rest for me at this summit! We were welcomed by Dr. Sandra Hughes-Hassell, the UNC professor who spearheaded this project and subsequent IMLS grant that made the summit possible, and you could feel the buzz of synergy fill the room. Dr. Ernest Morrell was our keynote speaker and spoke with us about how institutionalized the public school system has become, comparing it to a sweat shop with students practically chained to their desks, and that while we should be engaging students in critical thinking, instead we are pushing them to quickly swallow concepts shoved down their throats so that they can pass the upcoming test.
It made me stop and appreciate being a public librarian serving teens because luckily, I can just let the teens relax when they come to the library and work on engaging them by letting them move freely through the department. My expectation is for a love of the library and a love of the book. I want them to enjoy the worlds that I have to offer through literature and to enter an environment that is judgement free.
One thing I did take from this is that we need to constantly evaluate our teen departments or our school libraries and make sure that they are reflective of a type of space that engages teens and allows their creative energy to flow freely. Coming back to my department and walking through reminded me that I needed to have more seating space with teens facing each other, along with seating space that allows for them to be apart. I want them to have a space that they can sit and hang out with friends but also chill out and do homework.
The next day, we heard from Dr. Alfred Tatum, and if you haven’t had a chance to hear him speak and see what he is doing with the students in Chicago, Google him. I demand it. In fact, here. Several things that he said really stood out to me. The first is that he stated that his human development began at the library because every text belonged to him there. Seriously? How powerful of a statement. Every text belongs to you. It is yours. And the library is where his development as a human began. And for many of our teens, this same statement rings true. If you think about your library as that place, you realize that you are giving your teens so much more than just books or a fun time. You are, to use a horrible cliche, taking the training wheels off the bike and watching them ride down the street like a proud parent. How amazing is that feeling?
Another thing that I took for Dr. Tatum’s presentation was a concept that he presented to us called his ‘textual lineage’. The key pieces of literature that influenced him and made him into the man he is today. It started at the top with the first book that he can remember reading and the book spoke to him, which was Nigger by Dick Gregory. This was the book that taught him that words have power and that we give power to words. And because of this book, he was influenced to work with African-American male youth on various writing projects, giving them a voice and allowing them to speak from their hearts via a pen and paper. Some of the writing projects from his teens can been seen on the various blogs here, here, here, and here.
So of course, I began to really think about my textual lineage, not only as Stephanie but also as Stephanie the Librarian. And this is what I came up with, mirroring Dr. Tatum’s layout of a lineage:
- The Realm of Possiblity by David Levithan – First time I remembered following a reader and gobbling up all of the books that were written by said author
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck – First HUGE book that I read for pleasure and even called in sick to work so I could read in a 12 hour reading frenzy because I was so taken by the book
- the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – First time that I felt I wasn’t alone in my reading experience and that I felt united with a group of readers
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – Again, a connection to a group of passionate people and basically the most recent book to encapsulate all of my happy reading experiences
I encourage you to write your textual lineage and feel free to share it with us in the comments. It is very empowering and really just creates a warm fuzzy feeling of why you love to read so much and remembering all of your book experiences is completely powerful and reaffirming. One thing I learned from writing my textual lineage is that it doesn’t necessarily define me but it opened my eyes to the world around me. I define who I am as a member of the world and to identify with that helps me identify with others.
More summit follow up to come…but for now? I need coffee. =)
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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