Something Needs to Change In Regard to How Literacy is Taught in U.S. Schools

Kirkland & Johnson’s article “‘We Real Cool’: Toward a Theory of Black Masculine Literacies” about the literacy practices of Black young men was simply fascinating.

The line on page 294, “To this point, Young (2004) has described Black male uniqueness as characterized through “a difference between Black boys and white boys”. For him, “Black boys not only feel coerced to give up their masculinity if they do well in school, but they also feel forced to abandon their race” (p. 700). This pressure that young Black men face to choose between a mainstream and fringe world, between race and educational rights, we argue, is the force motivating Black masculine literacies–literacy as practiced by the cool kids” really impacted me, I had to go back and read it over and over to really let that sink in.

A blog post released on March 1st explained functional illiteracy and how it affects people in their day-to-day lives.

I think that in the context of the Kirkland & Johnson article, that post is especially relevant. In our society, the ability to read and write is how our worth as humans is judged. And as I discussed in my past blog post about how literacy is used as a way to disadvantage minority groups, functional illiteracy is a huge factor in inner-city Black male lives.

And as Kirkland & Johnson show, a counter-culture has risen around literacy among young Black men. It has become a sort-of villain, a way for “The Man” to force them into a racist, unjust society. So in rebellion to “The Man”, young Black men have found themselves exploring literacy through clothing, music, and speech.

For speech specifically, African American Language (AAL) is an academically recognized dialect of English, yet it is seen by a lot of people as a way to determine someone’s education level. And I think that truth speaks to how our education system (de)values AAL speakers, specifically Black children/young adults.

There is a documentary series called “Talking Black in America” that I watched in my Folklore class, and it does a fantastic job of diving into Black speak and how it represents the broader Black culture in the US. One part of it, linked here, discusses how rap is a highly prized artistic expression of AAL within the Black community.

Kirkland & Johnson express in their piece that young Black men don’t reject literacy, they reject it’s traditional form. Literacy is found all over their culture, but that culture is a uniquely Black culture.

And in my opinion, it has been warped by a lot of people and media to portray Black literacy in negative light.

Something needs to change. I do believe that the U.S. education system values Standard American English above all other forms of English and systematically devalues other forms of English. The School-To-Prison pipeline is very real, and I think it at least partially a consequence of how we view SAE.

And I think that the conversation about how to adjust the school system is pretty overrun by people who don’t actually know much about other cultures.

So, something needs to change, and that change needs to begin with listening to the voices of other cultures in this country. We need to listen to people who have grown up in inner-city schools, and figure out how to connect with those children in a meaningful, impactful way.

Likewise, we need to give these children a voice and let them join the discussion in how to make a classroom more inviting and influential.

It is time to listen to what causes these problems, and make sure everyone is heard.


Denial by Design

In December 1948, the United Nations drafted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights to establish fundamental rights and freedoms all nations should protect for their citizens. The document lays the groundwork for human rights laws on the basis that all people are born free and equal in dignity.

Article 26 of the declaration outlays the right to education. To summarize, the right to education involves free and compulsory elementary education, equal access to higher education, and a parent’s right to choose the kind of education given to their children.

But this week’s reading from Winn and Behizadeh puts on a lens on how U.S. schooling systematically denies children, particularly children of color, their right to literacy and education.

Winn and Behizadeh point to evidence that Black students significantly trail behind white students in standardized testing, and predominately white schools can sometimes spend over twice as much per student than schools with larger populations of Black and Latinx students.

How did this happen?

Map of Columbus, Ohio from 1936. Neighborhoods are assigned levels of "mortgage security," and lines are drawn around different levels of security.

Map of Columbus, Ohio from 1936 via Mapping Inequality. Neighborhoods are assigned levels of “mortgage security.”

For one thing, racial inequities continue to be affected by the legacy of redlining.

We can look back historically and see that in the 1930s the federal government began segregating neighborhoods based on race, diverting money and resources away from minority communities.

Because we fund public schools through property taxes, neighborhoods with lower property values have lower-funded schools and lower graduation rates still to this day.

Redlining is technically illegal now, but the country is still affected by its original mapping system.

So, how can we fix it?

Much like the work of Winn and Behizadeh, we need to take a closer look at policies that limit access to education.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has since been replaced by Every Student Succeeds in 2015. Although Every Student Succeeds responds to many of the criticisms of NCLB, it’s still worth keeping a critical eye on standardized tests and proficiency targets.

I’m particularly drawn to S. Green’s assertion that “social justice is about understanding education and access to literacy as civil rights” (Winn and Behizadeh 147).

The Importance of Prison Libraries

“The United States is not a country with a prison system, but a prison system with a country”

We as a nation currently live in the age of mass incarceration, our prisons overflow with prisoners and teens are funneled from schools into prisons (to such an extent that high school graduation rates are measurably affected). Said school-prison nexus is so prolific and problematic that it has been given a specific label — the “school-to-prison pipeline” — and been made the subject of numerous academic studies.

Newspaper comic which features a child being put into the prison system over low-level offenders.

School-to-prison Pipeline Comic

Thankfully within these overpopulated prison systems exists a trojan horse of sorts which helps victims of this pipeline escape from its long-term effects — the prison library.

Malcom X in his paper Learning to Read discusses how a major component in his transformation from a poorly educated street hustler to articulate leader for Black America was his access to his prison’s library during a seven year long prison sentence. In order to initially improve his reading and writing literacies, he took the route of learning the fundamentals through reading and copying a dictionary (sourced from his prison’s library) from front to back. He states that after teaching himself said fundamentals that for the rest of prison sentence that “in every free moment [he] had, if [he] was not reading in the library, [he] was reading on [his] bunk.”

The results of this self-education process speaks for itself through the renown he still holds for how he progressed the Civil Rights Movement through his effective speeches and intelligent writings.

Image of Malcom X (Civil Rights leader)

Malcom X

Merging Malcom X’s experience with Maisha T. Winn and Nadia Behizadeh’s paper The Right to Be Literate: Literacy, Education, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline reveals the importance of prison libraries in the reduction of the school-to-prison pipeline’s negative long-term effects. In that, Winn and Behizadeh’s work concludes that the development of critical literacy in youths is of major importance in helping them escape from being sucked up by the pipeline. Thus, drawing from both Winn and Malcom X, it seems intuitive to equally declare that the development of critical literacy after one was unable to break free of the school-prison nexus earlier in life still affords the ability for one to prevent themselves from getting stuck in cycle of reincarceration for the rest of their life.

A sad fact worth noting is that the prison-industrial complex has seemed to caught onto this trojan horse within their system and have taken steps to restrict prisoner access to the valuable tools stored by prison libraries.

Three Ben & Jerry's tubs of ice-cream advertising a campaign for justice system reform

Ben & Jerry’s Justice Remix’d Campaign

If even Ben & Jerry’s is attempting to combat the pipeline issue, then so too should you through speaking out and making book donations to the prison nearest to you. Your donations could directly help someone gain the critical literacies necessary for them to escape the system which has possibly entrapped them since they were a teenager.

Too Poor to Have Your Incredible Movement Make Millions? No Longer!

From shells and clay to “Reddit” and GameStop, writing has become cheaper and increasing democratizing. Systems of writing have progressed through an incredible number of technologies that have made writing more affordable throughout history.

A system of shells and clay indentations surely was an expensive system of writing, reserved for those who stood to make money in Susa. It seems unlikely that any political activists of Susa could have afforded to copy their essay on thousands of clay tablets.

Fast forward to the Printing Press of 1440. Suddenly ideas worth sharing like the Bible are no longer for those who can afford handwritten copies. It did not take long in human history, for activists to realize how writings like the Bible can catch fire at an affordable price.

Benjamin Franklin and many other enlightenment activists, although wealthy, now can actually spread their ideas such as revolting against unfair taxation. If the founding fathers wrote on clay tablets, it is likely that America would have remained a British colony.


The 20th century is where writing became about as cheap as it is today. Your average person could still afford to print their own pamphlets, and books had become cheaper than ever. But only large conglomerations like newspapers possessed the wealth and power to insight national change from writing.

Truly, all important speeches, announcements, etc. came filtered through the individual agendas of newspaper cooperation. Perhaps the phrasing “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats” found on the front page of the Washington Post on Oct 10, 1972, could sway readers against Nixon before even understanding the situation.

Despite how cheap printing had become, newspaper companies remained in control of what was written and read by their massive audiences of voters. In other words, the proletariat was still being told what to think by those who could afford to tell them.

Fast forward to Jan 25, 2021. Extremely cheap online writing and communication have finally hit their stride. Communicating and writing on the forum “Reddit” if you look in the correct places is nearly entirely free, for example, a library computer. There the proletariat can finally discuss ideas to audiences of millions in a manner they can afford. This free passage of writing has brought greater coordination of free people than Ben Franklin could have ever imagined.  A subsection of Reddit, called “r/wallstreetbets,” created a proposition to topple the ability of the wealthy to control written narratives. Their success has once and for all proven that accessibility to writing can take power from the rich and give it to the poor.

Many articles have been written about the “wallstreetbets” GameStop short squeeze. But this will summarize the impact it has had on democracy through writing. Large firms and wealthy people were the only ones knowledgeable and rich enough to make significant money off of failing businesses in the past. “Wallstreetbets” was able to effectively counter these billionaires’ trade strategies and make even more from those billionaires. But “Wallstreetbets” is a group of millions of less wealthy people. So, the only way to effectively counter, as proposed before, is through cheap and mass communication. Only by being brought together through this communication could the proletariat have taken money, and control of what is perceived as possible from the rich and coordinate their movement. That is something that could never have been accomplished without technological and economic advancements on the clay tablet.