Writing Workshop for Young Black Males Spawns National Curricula

A summer writing institute for adolescent black males based at the University of Illinois at Chicago is advancing literacy around the country through two curricula based on it.

Scholastic, Inc. recently launched “On the Record,” a middle-school school curriculum by Alfred Tatum, director of the UIC Reading Clinic. Last year, Scholastic published Tatum’s “ID,” a writing curriculum for high school.

Tatum based both curricula on the principles of his African American Adolescent Male Summer Literacy Institute, featured last fall in a PBS special, “Too Important to Fail,” by journalist Tavis Smiley.

Each summer, Tatum identifies 15 students aged 12 through 17 for the month-long workshop. He chooses students of varying achievement levels for their love of writing and empowers them to mentor each other as “brother authors.” Now in its fifth year, the institute has another mentor in Preston Davis, a 2009 alumnus of the institute who now is majoring in illustration at Northern Illinois University.

Tatum gives each student 15 books that “demonstrate the range of writings by African American males who shaped America’s imagination of itself and broadened the roles of black males across the landscape,” he said. In recent years, his choices have included “Black Boy” by Richard Wright, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” by Alex Haley, and “Homeboyz” by Alan Lawrence Sitomer.

“I use the texts to show the power of writing prudently and unapologetically to mark one’s life and times. Students are then challenged to write for the benefit of others and themselves,” Tatum said.

“Violence turns up in their writing, but I want to nurture resilience. I recognized the destructive power of violence while growing up in Chicago.

“We ground our writing on four platforms: defining self, nurturing resilience, engaging others and building capacity,” he said.

Writings by Tatum and current students can be read online.

Previous classes have traveled to Harlem, where young-adult novelist Walter Dean Myers critiqued their work. They have learned from visitors like Derrick Barnes, popular children’s book author, and Clinton Smith, spoken word poet.

Excerpts from Tatum’s appearance on “Tavis Smiley Reports: Too Important to Fail.”

Support for the institute comes from Scholastic, Inc.

The institute runs through July 27, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the UIC Reading Clinic, Room L268, 1040 W. Harrison St.

UIC ranks among the nation’s leading research universities and is Chicago’s largest university with 27,500 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state’s major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.