21 December 2012

(Part 3 of 3): Making Literacy Connections Via Street Lit: One Scholar's Incredible Work

In this last installment of Dr. Richardson's interview, he discusses his work with pairing incarcerated teen boys with college attending males. Dr. Richardson also shares his ideas on how librarians can be reach out and serve inner-city teens, particularly low-income boys.

StreetLiterature.com: Your research pairs incarcerated males with college attending males. In what ways have you observed reading serving as a bridge of personal, social, and/or cultural understanding and/or edification between the young men? In other words, what have been the most salient outcomes from your work thus far? Any outcomes related to public and/or school libraries?

The most salient outcomes have been increasing the critical thinking skills of the young brothers we work with. Far too many children and adults lack critical thinking skills. The schools have basically destroyed the critical thinking skills of children because the curriculum is geared towards improving scores on standardized tests.

That kind of curriculum encourages and reinforces rote thinking. The kids become almost robotic in their thought process. They’re merely expected to regurgitate what they have memorized and I emphasize memorized. We give youth the tools to deconstruct the world around them.

Once our kids leave from under our tutelage we expect them to be critical thinkers. They should be asking why? How? Then we expect them to do the analysis and provide a solution. We have some really deep conversations about the dumbing down of hip hop. They totally get it.

They know what music is garbage and what music provides mental nourishment. When we have ciphers and they get to spit their lyrics, their word play epitomizes that they are critical thinkers. Our children are street scholars. They can break the street and society down better than most sociologists, they just need the tools. Their brains are the toolbox. We just need to give them the tools to fill it.

StreetLiterature.com: How do you see libraries best serving lower income city children and teens (particularly boys) in their authentic, original ways of reading, writing, and multimedia?

Libraries have to find innovative ways to become cool to low-income boys. That can happen in several ways. One way is libraries can partner with organized youth sports leagues where study halls at the local library become a mandatory part of whether they kids play.

For example, I coached in a youth basketball league in East New York, Brooklyn, where we had a mandatory study hall. There were plenty of Saturdays that I had to monitor the study halls. Boys could not play in the games if they did not participate in the study hall. I also observed this approach used in other youth basketball leagues in New York City. The leagues would require that each player attend study hall once a week at the local library and the coaches were required to monitor it. Coaches I worked with definitely participated.

To expand on this approach to involve the library, one day of the week could be reserved for study hall at the library where coaches replace practice with a study hall. Once kids get into the routine of going to the library and know that they won’t be able to play unless they attend the library study hall, kids will eventually become accustomed to going to the library.

A story I'd like to share: when I was younger I played football for the Northwest Bantams in Philadelphia, and there was a library directly across the street from the field where we practiced. If the coaches had had study hall there or lectures we were required to attend, I would have probably been more interested in the library. The saddest part of this story is that I have never been in that library and it was no less than 50 feet from where I played football for two years.

There is a certain perception of librarians that they are not cool, but that’s not true. However the onus is on librarians to change that stereotype. Librarians have to step outside of their comfort zone and silos. Times have changed. Librarians have to get out there on the ground and get their hands dirty. Get out into the community and see what’s going on. Find out what boys like and don’t like. You have to meet them where they are, that is the first principal in providing any social service.

Once the kids make it to the library, the librarian has to make it an engaging place for them to want to come back. Now that approach could include inviting guest speakers such as popular rappers. I’m from Philadelphia, so to bring a rapper, such as a Meek Mill, Freeway, or Cassidy (all native Philadelphians) to the library to discuss how reading is instrumental in the way they create their rhymes would be very relatable to the kids in the community from which I come.

I believe that Cassidy attended Central High (note from StreetLiterature.com: Central High School is a nationally ranked high-achieving magnet school) which is one of the top schools in Philadelphia. Just by listening to Cassidy's lyrics, particularly his metaphors, you can tell that he is a critical thinker. To invite home-grown artists and performers to the local libraries: Libraries can be hip hop.

Librarians have to step into the 21st century. Kids have Facebook, Twitter and 2 Chainz. They are not just going to show up at the doorstep of the library. Whatever the method is for getting them there, I believe it has to be incentivized. Dr. Roland Fryer, a young Black male Professor at Harvard, has shown that providing low-income youth with incentives can improve academic performance. So if a library wants to reach out to boys, provide incentives such as free tickets to professional basketball or football games, and for those who come consistently, they can be made eligible to be in a raffle for prizes. Creative librarians are effective librarians.

StreetLiterature.com: Thank you Dr. Richardson for sharing your research and insights with us. While this blog appears quiet on the surface, I am sure that you have given many subscribers fresh ideas about the possibilities for working with lower-income teen boys in order to enhance their reading interests and tastes. Thank you so much!


This is the last installment for Dr. Richardson's interview. Feel free to comment and ask questions. We'd really like to get a meaningful discussion started about serving city teens in libraries.

19 December 2012

VIDEO: "Young and Homeless" (2012)

NYT video screenshot


New York Times: "Young and Homeless" DECEMBER 10, 2012 By Sean Patrick Farrell The Times’s Susan Saulny reports from Seattle where she talks with young adults who are struggling with homelessness as a result of the recession.

The New York Times is not willing to share this video as an embedded object. So please click picture above, or the following link, to access the video: http://www.nytimes.com/video/2012/12/10/us/100000001943161/young-and-homeless.html

14 December 2012

(Part 2 of 3) Making Literacy Connections Via Street Lit: One Scholar's Incredible Work

In last week's installment of Dr. Joseph Richardson's interview he talked about the need for educators to support the reading public with literacy practices from early ages. This week, Dr. Richardson discusses actual titles that his teens have requested and read. He advocates for educators to (re)perceive children as "scholars in their own right". Read on:

StreetLiterature.com: Have your young adults suggested any authors / titles / themes for the reading program in your research study? If so, what are they? If not, why do you think this is so?


The kids actually suggested The Autobiography of Malcolm X probably because they saw the film and have heard a lot about the book on the street. We cannot forget that the streets talk. You have older guys or old heads within their families and their neighborhoods that have done time. They will pass down in conversation books they read during their bid. So surely Malcolm’s book will come up as well as other books, like The 48 Laws of Power and Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

I also found that films and videos were a better medium to introduce youth to books, and not vice versa. For example, many kids were introduced to Malcolm X via the movie and not the book. The movie tie-in of a book often opens the door for them to be interested in reading the actual book. The kids suggested films as well. For example, they wanted to watch the 1971 Italian pseudo-documentary, "Goodbye Uncle Tom", which was crazy to me, because I had no idea they even knew that film. Once when I screened the film to a group of juvenile inmates, as I reached to take the movie with me when I was packing to leave, they pleaded with me to leave the movie, so they could show the film to some of their friends who were on lock down. That was amazing!

The majority of the kids are really sharp and scholars in their own right. They are victims to a dysfunctional world and set of circumstances which by no choice of their own, adults have created and brought them into. That may sound cliché, but it’s true. Some of the young brothers in my group were far more insightful and perceptive than some college students I have encountered.

StreetLiterature.com: In what ways has Urban / Street Literature impacted your teens’ reading tastes and habits?

Once they get the information and are able to digest what is relevant to their lives, they want more information. Again, these young brothers spend the majority of their days doing absolutely nothing so they are hungry for knowledge. Now some will not be interested, of course you have those who do not want to read, probably because they can’t read, so they are going to try to disrupt the energy of the group. 

But I’m realistic, I’m not there to save everybody, some will not want the information and that’s cool, maybe someday in the future they will have an epiphany and a moment of clarity where they realize how much they missed. I cannot worry about those kids because that small minority can impact the larger majority of those who want to learn. I’m not going to force anyone to participate in our group, participation is voluntary, you have to want it or else if you’re forced to do it, more than likely that kid is going to be a detriment to every else and I cannot afford that. 

We’re only in the jail for a couple of hours once a week so we have to make the most of our time. Anybody who has ever worked in this setting can understand what I am saying. I think we often set the bar too low, coming in with preconceived ideas about what they can’t read or don’t want to read. 

You have to understand that all people whether they are children or adults have multiple intelligences, and as an educator you have to tap into those strengths. You have to deal with the strengths first if you want to improve their self-esteem.  In short for those who love reading I believe that my mentorship has increased their breadth and range of what they will read and that’s a good thing. For others, they may be more visual, actually I respect that because I am more visual. That kid may be the next Cle Bone Sloan. So I have to tap into his strengths as well. That young brother may be more inclined now to make a film that documents his hood and how structural violence has caused the direct violence he witnesses around him.

--- Please post your questions and comments to this interview, below. We'd love to get a meaningful discussion started about Dr. Richardson's work. Next week's final installment for this interview series concludes with Dr. Richardson's discussion of the scholarly thinking of inner-city youth (yes, you read that correctly). --- 

13 December 2012

VIDEO: YA Urban Fiction Featured on FOX News in Chicago


Urban Fiction gets African American teens excited about reading
: The story and characters don't have to be familiar for a reader to get lost in a good book, but everyone likes to see their experiences in a story.

07 December 2012

(Part 1 of 3) Making Literacy Connections Via Street Lit: One Scholar's Incredible Work

Meet Joseph B. Richardson, Jr., Ph.D., who is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland - College Park. Dr. Richardson is a Philadelphia native whose research focuses on learning the various effects of urban poverty on inner-city teen boys' lives. In one aspect of his research, Dr. Richardson made literary connections with the boys he was working with: he gave them books to read and in turn, they told him what they wanted to read in books, and see in films. Their reading interests illustrated that they were more engaged with reading and improving their literacy practices when they had access to reading stories they could relate to. 

StreetLiterature.com interviewed Dr. Richardson so that we all can be introduced to his work and how reading urban-based stories can become a major component for literacy engagement and improvements among inner-city youth. This interview will be presented as a three-part series. Below is Part I. Parts II and III will be released each Friday, December 2012.

StreetLiterature.com: Could you please share a short biography of your personal background and professional work with adolescent city young adult males. Basically, who are you to do the work that you do?

I was born and raised in Philadelphia in the Germantown and Mt. Airy neighborhoods of Philadelphia. I received by BA in African-American Studies from the University of Virginia and my MA and PhD in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Rutgers University (NJ). 

As a Black male growing up in Philadelphia, although I lived in a relatively safe neighborhood, as the rapper Common mentioned in an interview, the hood was all around me. I lived in what sociologists would call a buffer neighborhood, which is defined as a neighborhood which buffers impoverished neighborhoods from middle class and affluent neighborhoods. I think that my infatuation with crime and the criminal mind, started from living in a neighborhood with a lot of guys that were criminals. They were always really fascinating to me - the way they thought, they were so real, funny and human, but incredibly complex.

StreetLiterature.com: How did your research involve inner-city youth? 

In my first research study of adolescent inner-city youth in Harlem, some of the boys in my study were members of the Bloods and Crips gangs and were involved in violence, beatings, stabbings and shootings. How the boys and girls (there were auxiliary gangs for girls called the Bloodettes and Crippettes) negotiated violence in this context framed my study. I had formed really tight relationships with three boys who were members of gangs, one was a Blood (Slyvester), another was a Crip (Manny), and another (Ali) was in a gang affiliated with his projects. His gang, the Valley, had an on-going feud with both Blood and Crip sets. In fact, he was involved in a shootout with the Bloods. His best friend shot a Blood. Because Ali was best friends with this kid, he was guilty by association. 

At his school, the principal allowed Ali to leave school early every day, because the Bloods had a contract to kill him. They would wait for him every day after-school, but they had no idea that he would leave before dismissal, this strategy probably saved his life. I would drive him from school to his home so he would not have to walk through the neighborhood. Every time he exited my car, I would always wonder whether I would ever see him again alive because kids were dying every day due to gang violence.

StreetLiterature.com: In your research, you work with incarcerated young adult males to enact positive change in their identities and approach to education. How does your research affect the literacy practices of teen readers?

First, I want to make sure we address them as children because we are really quick to call Black boys ‘young men’ or ‘young adults’ and they are not. These are children who have been adjudicated as adults but they are still children nonetheless. The great work of Dr.Lawrence Steinberg at Temple University indicates that the criminal justice system should not treat children as adults because their brains are still forming and not fully developed which impacts their decision-making capability and culpability.

Many of these children live in governmentally neglected communities, attend under-resourced schools and are products of really unstable households. Many adolescents in adult jails read on a 4th grade reading level. Fourth grade reading levels are predictive of school dropout and school dropout is predictive of criminal justice involvement. So if we really want to address criminal justice involvement among young black males, we need to start with literacy practices, very early on, well before the 4th grade.

We need to be addressing literacy practices pre-K, even while a child is in his mother’s womb, a mother should be reading to her child. But that also means we must address the educational needs and parenting practices of parents as well. 

StreetLiterature.com: How does literature play a role in your research?

To engage the boys in establishing consistent reading practices, I try to introduce street literature that adolescent males may be interested in. For example, I use Monster: The Autobiographyof an LA Gang Member as one of my texts. This book was a NY Times bestseller and it was written by a Crip, Sanyika Shakur aka Monster, who had minimal formal education. Much of the book was written while he was incarcerated. The kids were really interested in this book. 

I’ve also used texts such as Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley. What I’ve found is that if the book is interesting, kids will work their way through it whether they are proficient readers or not because in adult jail, kids have a lot of solitary time on their hands where they often sit in their cells for 23 hours a day. So reading often becomes a form of entertainment for them and a way for them to pass the time. Some kids are voracious readers. For example, I had one kid, Miguel, who had almost thirty books in his cell; I mean all kinds of books too, like The Hobbit. Miguel had books that most people would not think a kid in jail would be interested in reading - but he was. 

--- Stay tuned for next week's installment in this interview series with Dr. Joseph B. Richardson, Jr., where he discusses ways in which Street Lit/Urban Fiction has impacted the reading practices of the youth he works with. --