I made a reference in class the other day to an article I read called "Books Like Clothes: Engaging Young Black Men with Reading." This article was featured in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy late last year. I think the article is interesting because of a comment one of my professors made this year. She told us a story about how she went into an inner city school where the children were "rough," "beat up a teacher," and were uninterested in learning. They came to class daily with snacks, put their feet up on their desks, and basically said to her "I dare you to teach me."
And what was her response?
"Pass the popcorn."
Now, I love this teacher very much and she is phenomenal (I'm sure that this story was a joke), but this is the message that many aspiring teachers get about inner city schools. They are deterred by the location of the school or the salary or the students themselves. Nevertheless, it is our responsibilities as teachers to engage learners of different socioeconomic statuses, learners of diverse races and ethnicities, and learners of an infinite number of backgrounds and experiences.
As the article states, one shirt does not fit every student properly. This is especially true with black male students. They have been, for many years, one of the lowest achieving groups in reading and writing. The boy in the article comments that Beowulf just doesn't fit him right.
Does this mean that you shouldn't teach Beowulf to black males? No. This just means you try harder. You wash that shirt a couple of times until it shrinks to fit him better. This means you take that shirt to the tailor and have it hemmed. This means that you patch it up, add some detail, or make a collar. Whatever you have to do to make that shirt fit better, you do it.
No, that shirt won't ever fit every student perfectly but what do you have to lose by trying? Pair the story with another, talk about it in a way that the students can relate to it personally, or even connect it to the news or television. Beowulf and the other classics have lasted because there is some universal message that we, as humans, can utilize. I believe that this message can trump all differences.
All we have to do is try :)
Here's the link to the article! Check it out.