By Walter Davis
Every community is different and has its unique types of strengths and weaknesses. For teachers that are unfamiliar with my particular population of students, race, sadly, has everything to do with who and how I teach.
The Rising S.T.A.R.S. Male Academy is a gender-based program housed within the walls of North Clayton Middle School in metropolitan Atlanta. At North Clayton, the student body is comprised mostly of African American students— about 90 percent. The rest is of Asian and Hispanic ethnicity. Because I am responsible for teaching solely minority male students, my approach and methods have to differ from the “typical” middle school classroom. I have to teach the way boys learn, in addition to breaking down the cultural barriers that hinder learning.
One of the biggest misconceptions about my students is that they don’t desire an education. Sadly, when middle school black boys are all thrown into the same pot, people, both within and outside the culture of the school, think dumping ground or reform school. The guys do want to be taught, but they are faced with so many other issues they lack the foresight to see how a school house education benefits them. Seven out of 10 of my students don’t have a male in the house. Eight out of 10 of my students come into my class viewing success as being a superstar athlete or rap star. They idolize artists like Lil Wayne and ballers like Kobe Bryant. They see and desire the glory but none of the hard work that’s necessary to achieve it.
Because I’m a writer and avid reader, the power of the word is highly praised. My classroom walls are adorned with the words of poets, writers, musicians, and movie characters. I remind my students of the story of Frederick Douglass, a man who harnessed the power of language to free himself from the mental and physical chains of slavery. Every novel the guys read has been selected for the reluctant male reader. We just finished Sherman Alexie’s, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which they devoured. The themes and topics addressed are morally and socially relevant for them, from poverty, disenfranchisement, and racism, to tolerance and survival. In my classroom, literature is the path to understanding the world and oneself.
A few weeks ago, my eighth grade English class was reading, Be More Chill, a novel by Ned Vizzini, a book which they loved, by the way! While reading the novel, Tracy, who was having a bad day, blurted out, “How is all this reading going to help us?!” He was angry but his statement was sincere.
“Real talk,” as the kids say, is the only thing they can relate to.
So how do I deal with this resistance? How do I bring my students back to caring and commitment? By being blunt! I tell them “that’s one of the most ignorant things I’ve ever heard.” “Real talk,” as the kids say, is the only thing they can relate to. We talk about how knowing how to read and how to decipher information is the key to life because everywhere you go, you will be faced with reading. And, if you can’t decipher that information, you will be at best oblivious to what’s going on around you, and at worst, misled and deceived. I bring it back to Frederick Douglass. His story is the epitome of what an education can do for you. Of course everything is said with the utmost respect and love of the students. They have to know that you have their best interest at heart. When I’m upfront and honest about their futures, they understand and appreciate it.
I’ve also found that anytime I tell them a personal story, they listen. I come from the same circumstances. I talk about my experiences growing up and how I could use them as a crutch. That I have the right to be angry. That the world owes me something. I understand, but I don’t use my circumstances as an excuse. I use it as a motivation.
I like to have fun, too! I crack jokes all the time, keeping them on their toes. Because my students are reluctant learners and children of the 21st century, when I can’t make things entertaining, quick, and fun, I tend to lose them pretty quick. And when I lose them, I lose them. So, I use funny pictures of me to teach a lesson, like a photo of me with a rat. I have them design their own super hero when analyzing how authors bring characters to life on the page.
But it’s not all about academics. My students need to believe in themselves first. Then, they will be motivated to learn. Character education is at the heart of Rising S.T.A.R.S. We get them to understand that people will judge them straight out of the gate so they should be conscious of how they talk, look, walk. If you want a certain caliber of life, you need to learn how to greet someone, speak politely, and squash petty arguments. If you don’t, you’ll be confirming a negative perception of the black male. All that I teach I bridge to the real world so they’ll understand the importance.
The Rising S.T.A.R.S. creed sums up our purpose and goal:
We will Stay grounded in our beliefs.
We will be Thankful for our learning.
We will Achieve our goals.
We will Replenish our communities.
We will Succeed in this life;
For We are Rising S.T.A.R.S.
The unspoken rule of being a teacher—and nobody tells you when you’re training!— is that you have to be prepared to be many things for your students. For those days when a student stops me in the hallway and says, “Mr. Davis, we need to talk.” And he goes on to tell me he was awakened last night by his father screaming and pointing a gun because his dad was so angry at his sister for writing on the wall. So, I am a father, brother, role model, counselor, and friend. My students are powerful beyond measure, but in order to realize that power they need love and guidance. Even though my colleagues tell me I’m doing too much, I feel I must be all of these things.
According to the United States Census Bureau, African Americans and Hispanics combined make up about 27 percent of the total population, while they make up 62 percent of the total prison population. When the common history of these groups is viewed within the overall sphere of American imperialism, they share a common history as the oppressed and downtrodden of the “New World.” The actions and injustices of the past continue to echo into the present, which helps to create an entire category of students who suffer from disempowering and self-destructive thoughts and actions.
We are all responsible for these circumstances because we have not fully committed to true change. One of my favorite quotes by Audre Lorde sums this up perfectly: “The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.”
As we move towards a multiracial society, I hope and pray that my students find themselves and their place within the world while simultaneously finding and maintaining their own unique identities. Without an identity, without power, my students will continue to be the downtrodden of the “New World.” This is why I teach, why I love my family, my students.
Walter Davis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Walter currently teaches ninth grade and American literature at Oakwood High School in Marietta, GA. Outside of the classroom, he enjoys traveling throughout South America, camping, fishing, playing video games, and cheering on his Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints. Walter is currently working on his Master's degree and looks forward to participating in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program.
Illustration © Vincent Nguyen / Shannon Associates