Let's Get More Kids of Color Excited About Reading

African American boy reading book on sofa
African American boy reading book on sofa

The lack of diversity in texts students read has a profound effect on low-income communities. We all know literacy is an essential skill for college-bound students. Many from these communities read below grade level and lack interest in reading in general. It's challenging to get them to care about literature they can't relate to. As a high school teacher, I've seen this problem play out in my school.

For five years, I taught Native Spanish to Mexican and Central American students in South Central LA. To help improve their reading and writing skills in their native language, I incorporated literature into my course. At first, I wasn't very thoughtful about what I had students read. To me, as long as it was in Spanish, it was good practice. Unfortunately, when I assigned chapters for homework, only a handful would actually read. This was most apparent during class discussions when I asked basic questions about the plot but no one could answer.

So, I decided to switch things up and adopt the memoir, Always Running, by Luis J. Rodriguez, as a class text. In his personal story, Rodriguez recounts his childhood in an LA gang and explains how he got out of that lifestyle. My students could definitely connect with the text. Many of them were in some way affected by gang warfare in their neighborhood. Some even had family members or friends who had been killed in gunfights or incarcerated. Finally something they could relate to. Class discussions suddenly became vibrant and empowering. Students would read well ahead of the assigned chapters. Some shared the book with siblings and friends. Others bought their own copy to keep once we moved on to other readings.

I started seeing students carrying around other books by the author and similar authors. When we moved on to other texts that were less culturally relevant, such as Zorro, which takes places during the Spanish colonization, students remained engaged because the first book had sparked their interest in reading in Spanish. Plus, I also found ways to relate each text to their personal experiences. A mini literary revolution started and it may not have happened if it didn't begin with something they could relate to.

I can understand why so many students don't want to read for school. I confess that I myself, as a teenager, didn't read the required texts in high school. Great Gatsby? The Catcher and the Rye? Lord of the Flies? None of it. Instead, I consulted SparkNotes, CliffsNotes and other online summaries to get by in class discussions and on quizzes and tests. Like my students, I couldn't see how those timeless classics reflected the universal truths about humanity.

How can I expect my Latino students who have never ventured outside of South Central LA to care about a wealthy Caucasian New Yorker in the 1920's? I can and I should. The same way a history teacher expects students to list the causes and effects of the American Civil War. The classics just need to be combined with high-interest reading. Students won't be able to discuss a novel's themes, character development or main ideas if they don't read. Being unable to grasp the vocabulary of a difficult text makes it that much harder for students to care. They need to be invested in order to put in the work.

It was easy for me to have students read whatever I wanted. Without state exams, there's much more freedom in a Spanish class. I get that there's a list of books and standards that core subject teachers must get through, but there's some room to work in readings that are culturally relevant. For instance, one of my colleagues, an English teacher, convinced her principal that she could still cover many of the Common Core standards with the high-interest novel she wanted her kids to read. There are a number of novels by authors of color that meet those standards. Other teachers supplement the required texts with chapters or passages of texts that students can relate to, all with similar themes.

Reading fiction develops empathy and provides perspectives readers normally wouldn't have access to. In a school setting, where students are required to read a number of texts, they could read books both by and about people of color, especially if they share the background of the author. Developing a love of reading is a skill that will serve students well in college and in life. It is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow but it requires a passion and dedication that these students deserve.