First Person

First Person: What 100 ninth graders told me about why they don’t read

PHOTO: Jarred Amato
Independent reading time in the author's classroom.

As an English teacher, I believe there is tremendous power in having students reflect on their own reading habits. So after our 20 minutes of independent reading, I asked my ninth graders a few questions.

How often do you read? Do you enjoy reading more now than you did in the past? What challenges do you face as a reader? What can Mr. Amato do to help you succeed?

Their answers were honest and illuminating. They also made me realize how important it is for teachers to understand why many students aren’t reading as much as we (or they) would like so that we can work with them to find solutions.

Here are the top seven challenges students face as readers, according to a survey of approximately 100 ninth-graders at Maplewood High School, a high-poverty school in Nashville, Tenn.

1. Cell phone addiction.

This should come as no surprise. One student told me, “I stay on my phone 24/7.” Another added, “Whenever I see a message on my phone, I have to answer it.”

If students keep their phones in sight while reading, it’s virtually impossible for them to finish a page without feeling the urge to check for a text message, Instagram like, or Snapchat.

2. A short attention span.

Several students reported that they have trouble staying focused for a long period of time. For example, one student said, “I get off task easily and get into something else,” while another said simply, “My attention span is kind of low.”

There is no question that cell phone addiction contributes to their lack of focus, and my students certainly aren’t alone. A recent report said the average attention span of a human is down to just eight seconds — one second less than that of a goldfish. (That number may not be fully accurate, but it certainly feels like it is.)

3. Responsibilities at home.

I am constantly amazed by the strength and maturity of my students. One student said, “I have to help my little brother do his work, and help my mom around the house,” and several others also mentioned that they are on babysitting duty after school.

I was really impressed with one student who came up with a solution to her problem. “I have to babysit, so I’ve started to let my niece read while I read also,” she said. How awesome is that?

4. No quiet places to read at home.

Several students mentioned the fact that their home isn’t conducive for reading. One student said, “There’s not a lot of quiet places to read at home, so I can’t read as much as I’d like.” Another cited the “loudness at my house,” while a third said, “I never have time and when I do I never have a quiet place to read.”

5. Extracurricular activities.

From sports to band practice to work, a lot of our students are extremely busy after school, which affects their ability to read as often as they’d like.

“When I come from practice, I usually eat dinner and go to bed,” said one student-athlete. “During track season, I can’t read as much,” said another. “I’ll catch up over the summer, though.”

6. Lack of interest.

If students are going to put away their smartphone and take out a book, they certainly want to read something that they enjoy. Unfortunately, some students reported that they have a hard time finding books that interest them.

7. Lack of motivation.

I appreciated how honest a few students were about their lack of motivation to read. In fact, one student wrote, “The only obstacle I have is me wanting to read.” Another stated, “I don’t push myself to pick up a book and start reading.”

My biggest takeaway from these reflections? As English teachers, we can help students overcome several of these challenges.

We can create quiet and comfortable reading environments in our classrooms for students who don’t have other calm places. We can also give our students consistent time to read, when they know their cell phones must be put away and that nobody will be talking. That consistent practice can help students get into a reading routine, boosting attention spans, reading stamina, and attitudes toward reading.

Finally, in order to address those last two obstacles — students’ lack of interest and lack of motivation — English teachers have to be motivators. We also have to be avid readers ourselves in order to make recommendations and prove to our reluctant readers that not all books are boring. They just haven’t found the right one yet.

This piece first appeared on A Look Inside Mr. Amato’s Classroom.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.