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.


  1. Dr. Richardson, I totally agree with your view on librarians must step up into the 21st century. Librarians must remain current with new trends and things that are of interest to the patrons they service.

    1. ... and what I think is really good about his suggestions is that they are cost effective. Librarians are always conscious of program budgeting. His ideas call for in-house creativity and commitment on the part of librarians themselves, which can have meaningful impacts on readers.


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