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Boys, books and summer: UIC’s new literacy program

A group of 9-year-old boys learned about biology on Wednesday during their second day of the UIC Boys College Summer Literacy Institute. | Natalie Watts/Sun-Times

No one expects a class of 9-year-old boys will sit perfectly still through an entire lesson — especially on a bright summer day.

One boy played with a small rubber ball, while some classmates preferred to kneel, rather than sit, on their seats. “Can we take a walk outside?” was a popular question during their half-hour lunch.

Nevertheless, all of the boys eagerly answered teacher Alfred Tatum’s questions and helped each other with the reading passages.

The boys are taking part in a new summer literacy program by the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“After just one little class, it increased his vocabulary,” said Raymellia Ellis, 9-year-old Andrew Lee’s aunt. “I think this ‘men’s only’ class gives them some kind of stability to learn.”

Ellis said Andrew was excited to tell relatives all about the first day of class. “It made the whole family come together,” she said.

Boys will meet three days a week for three weeks. | Natalie Watts/Sun-Times
Boys will meet three days a week for three weeks. | Natalie Watts/Sun-Times

The first session of the Boys College Summer Literacy Institute got underway last week on the UIC campus. The boys will meet from 11 a.m to 1:30 p.m. three days a week for three weeks.

“This literacy initiative is designed to move African-American boys to read and write at advanced levels, while also providing a foundation across 10 disciplines not taught in elementary schools,” said Tatum, dean of UIC’s College of Education.

The disciplines span from scientific subjects such as engineering and biology to philosophy and the humanities. The boys have two lessons in a particular subject each day, Tatum said.

Admission is free, and there is no reading level required for acceptance to the program. The institute received so many applications that a second session will begin July 18, Tatum said.

The lessons are all structured around a few short reading passages, in-class writing activities, and intermittent class discussions to keep the kids focused and to ensure they’re following the material.

“They’re reading and writing across two texts, one narrative and one informational,” said Shawndra Allen, a doctoral student working on the program. “It’s really important to work on these simultaneous skills considering the demands of Common Core today.”

Tatum said this literacy program is part of a larger project. Eventually, the institute hopes to implement its work in Chicago Public Schools.

“We’re working on finding what texts resonate with black students,” said Mellissa Gyimah, another doctoral student with the program. “If literature doesn’t focus on their identity, they don’t pay as much attention.”