UIC Associate Professor Alfred Tatum is confronting conventional approaches to reducing illiteracy among African American adolescent males—and meeting with success
By Steve Hendershot
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane
Terrick is an eighth grader who is reading at perhaps a third-grade level, and he’s been sent to the UIC Reading Clinic for remedial instruction. But during his first session, he refuses to participate, slumping back in his chair. Kelly Maline, the UIC graduate student assigned to work with him, is trying to get him to compose a short story. She’s not making any progress, though, so she turns to the clinic’s director for help.
Good move. Students such as Terrick are familiar territory for UIC Associate Professor Alfred Tatum, med ’96, phd ’03 ed, who specializes in the reading difficulties of African American adolescent males.
He sits down with Terrick and asks him how he would describe himself to someone different—a teacher, perhaps, or a white girl of the same age. Soon Terrick is talking about his life growing up in Chicago’s housing projects, including being displaced when the city’s Cabrini Green projects were demolished.
The following week, Terrick is writing his story with Maline at his side. His work is halting, but he’s leaning in toward the screen, typing intently. His first effort at one particular phrase reads, “you no the hsotyouing,” but eventually “hsot” becomes “shot,” which becomes “shoting,” and eventually it reads, “shooting young black men.”
Maline asks Terrick what he needs to put at the end of his phrase in order to mark the conclusion of the sentence. He thinks for a minute, then proclaims, “I got this!” Leaning in again, he edits his work, then turns to Maline for approval—but instead of inserting a period, he’s added the word “the.”
Progress, in other words, still leaves plenty of work yet to be done. Considering the stark change in Terrick’s demeanor, though, that’s okay with both Maline and Tatum. Indeed, they might consider the one-week change in Terrick’s attitude to be astonishing, except that it’s something Tatum has seen again and again in his classroom and clinic.
Challenge the reader
The journey to literacy is a little like an adventure video game. You begin as a wide-eyed novice, but gradually you acquire skills and tools to help you on your way. You progress until you’ve completed your metamorphosis into a full-blown action hero—in this case, someone capable of processing and communicating complex ideas via the written word.
Before you begin to play, however, you’ll likely question whether the payoff will be worth the effort required to learn. Literacy educators have traditionally focused on minimizing that effort, and making the path to mastery as standardized and user-friendly as possible.
That’s missing the point, according to Tatum. “It’s about finding ways to get kids access to knowledge that will challenge them and nurture their resilience,” he says. “Maybe the first consideration is, ‘Can I use a text to help kids become better readers?’ But the second is, ‘Can I use these texts to help kids become smart about something?’”
“If we level texts, we level lives,” says Alfred Tatum.
Tatum figures that if you want kids to learn how to read, you first have to convince them that reading will pay extraordinary dividends. So at the clinic, struggling grade-school readers such as Terrick encounter stories and ideas that are so compelling they become motivated to keep up. Considering that the clinic’s students often arrive as remedial readers who are several grade levels behind their age groups, this can be a daunting task, and certainly Tatum must work to identify strategies that will make texts accessible to his students. But he has no interest in giving his students grade-level-appropriate texts, because he figures the subject matter won’t engage them.
“If we level texts, we level lives,” Tatum says. In contrast, by challenging readers with relatable, relevant, provocative texts, he’s seen remedial readers improve their reading skills as much as three grade levels in a single year.
The educational establishment has taken notice of his methods and his success. Tatum’s research into the literacy struggles of young African American males has generated two acclaimed books, a national reading curriculum from publisher Scholastic Inc., and even a PBS special.
“He’s on fire right now. Nationally, it seems like everyone wants to work with him,” says Victoria Chou, dean of UIC’s College of Education. “He is saying that we need a radical paradigm shift in literacy education, and that little upticks in achievement are just not going to do it.”
Tatum focuses on introducing students to narratives that will change the way they see themselves and their world. He calls these formative books “textual lineages” and reasons that once readers have connected with a text in this way, they will be hooked on finding other books that will provide similar stimulation.
This approach “adds a lot of meaning, context and purpose, which motivates young people, and [that] is what education should be about anyway,” says Karen Proctor ’89 uiuc, who funded a summer writing institute that Tatum ran at UIC while she was vice president at Scholastic.
Texts that transform
Keith, like Terrick, is a Chicago eighth-grader who has been sent to the UIC Reading Clinic because of his struggles in school. Unlike Terrick, however, Keith appears to be an advanced reader and writer; his tutor, UIC master’s student Sherri Feagins ’10 uiuc, is confused about why he is struggling in school. Her best guess is that he just hasn’t been interested in the coursework there.
He’s obviously interested now, though. What his story lacks in grammar, it makes up for in impact. “The story is basically about a girl whose father is an alcoholic, and who gets drunk all the time and beats her,” he explains. Feagins convinces him to add a verb to a sentence that reads, “Sharon crying, kicking and punching.”
Keith is sufficiently advanced that they don’t just work on grammar, though. He says Feagins “gives me helpful tips to make people visualize things and make the story more interesting,” and to that end he adds the word “Crash!” to a scene in which the father breaks into a house where the heroine has been hiding.
Feagins smiles at that, not only because it makes the scene stronger, but because it makes Tatum happy.
Tatum “gets very enthusiastic when the students get that sensory detail in there,” she says.
Feagins completed her master’s degree in education from UIC this spring, and while she had plenty of reading to do for her classes, she found time to cruise through young-adult fiction such as Sharon M. Draper’s The Battle of Jericho. That’s because Tatum encourages his students to find texts that they love, then pass them on to their students; he thinks the odds of students assimilating those stories into their textual lineages are greater that way.
Tatum’s own textual lineage includes the Declaration of Independence, as well as books by James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Eldridge Cleaver.
His most powerful early experience with literature came after reading one of Gregory’s books. “I was never the same,” says Tatum. “It released me from the stigmatic traps that can ensnare people in inner-city communities, and reading it was a pivotal moment in my life.”
That experience provides the template for the children he now tries to reach. “We’re trying to introduce young folks to books that will become part of their textual lineages and resonate with them long after they finish school.”
The love of words
Tatum grew up in a public housing project in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, named appropriately for a path-breaking African American writer, Ida B. Wells. It was a poor and dangerous environment, but also a positive one, academically. Tatum’s teachers gave him the idea that he could excel—and not just by “kid-from-the-projects” standards. As a result, he and his friends began competing to see who could read the most books.
“We loved words, we loved competing with ideas, and we were always trying to see who could use the most eloquent language or sound the most brilliant,” Tatum says. “Today, we don’t afford kids the opportunity to be brilliant, particularly if they are struggling readers and writers. We have to shatter that—teachers who respond to kids’ struggles by turning down the volume have the wrong perception. We can’t do that.”
After high school, Tatum left Chicago to attend Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he was a finance major until he read a newspaper article chronicling the failure of black male students in Chicago’s public schools. Just like that, Tatum changed majors and soon was teaching eighth grade at Mayo Elementary, a public school in Chicago. He enrolled in a UIC graduate program in order to learn additional teaching strategies, but soon discovered that there was no silver-bullet solution to the problems he was encountering. He interviewed some of the boys in his class about why they struggled with reading, and their answers formed the impetus for his career in research, which includes receiving a doctorate from UIC in curriculum and instruction.
As Tatum recounts in his book, Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap, he was attending graduate school at UIC and contemplating a career devoted to aiding the literacy efforts of African American men when he and his family were victims of a home invasion in which he was forced to strip naked in front of his wife and children while the intruders plundered his home. The incident made Tatum reconsider his path, but ultimately reinforced his commitment. His family moved back to DeKalb, but Tatum decided to stick with UIC.
“UIC is very unapologetic about addressing the needs of African American and Latino children, and about paying attention to the needs of children in urban environments,” Tatum says. At UIC, “we’re attracting students who pay attention to these issues, and who are heeding the call for paying attention to the least among us.”
“We’re trying to introduce young folks to books that will...resonate with them long after they finish school.”
Some of those students even choose UIC because of Tatum.
Marcus Croom decided to pursue his Ph.D. at UIC after a chance meeting with Tatum last fall in Croom’s home state of North Carolina. Croom was completing a master’s degree and planning to attend divinity school; he had never even heard of a Ph.D. program in literacy.
“For me, the most influential thing is to see the level of commitment he has to solving the issue, not just working on it, that there will come a day when African American boys will not languish in illiteracy and thus in their lives,” says Croom. “I have no doubt that he believes this is something that can be fixed. So it’s not, ‘Let me do the best I can and try to make a dent.’ He sees a vision of this being completed.”
Tatum also recruited third-year Ph.D. student Gholdy Muhammad, whose research is similar to Tatum’s but is focused on African American girls. She learned quickly that Tatum isn’t interested in having his students regurgitate well-worn ideas about literacy. After reviewing one of Muhammad’s first papers, Tatum advised her, “Don’t be a punk with your pen,” she recalls. “As an emerging researcher, your pen is very powerful… Push boundaries. Write to get people to shift their paradigms.”
One boundary that Tatum often crosses is the one between researcher and practitioner. He is working on two additional books, but he likes to center his work on classroom experiences, such as a summer writing institute for young black male writers, and a new program in which he plans to train high school juniors to teach reading to elementary school students. Another goal is to establish a center for reading achievement among African American males at UIC—an idea that interests Dean Chou and already has some momentum among potential donors.
Tatum knows that initiatives like that can be difficult to pull off. But if there’s one thing his career has demonstrated, it’s that he’s not afraid of a challenge.