There is No Such Thing as a Reading Level: A middle school teacher's foreword to her students' new book "Broken Keys Don't Unlock Doors"

"Ms. Clay teach too fast. Don't she know we the dumb class?," she wrote in her life-book journal. The prompt was to recall your biggest take-aways from what was explored in Humanities that week, which also happened to be my first week of teaching them.

Whenever I notice students beginning to struggle with identifying their biggest takeaways, I usually ask questions like, "Five years from now, what will you remember about what you learned?" Not five years from now, not ten years, not ever, will I forget her last four words, "we the dumb class."

Before I go any further, it is vital to note: This book was developed by the youth, for the youth, but this foreword is by their teacher, for other teachers, parents, and any adults who live to serve children.

Over the past nine years of teaching, I have led 36 groups of sixth-eighth grade classes; each always divided, based on a single common denominator: the students with and without disabilities. In each grade, children have to be split in a way that will allow the special educator to follow one set group of students. If students were mixed in a more inclusive way, the school would risk being out of compliance with the state's guidelines of each child's Individual Education Program (IEP).

In no school that I have ever worked in, can I say that the class divisions were maliciously developed on the part of the administrative staff that prepared the schedules. It was always about how many special educators the fiscal budget could afford to hire. At best we may have had one to two per content area but at worst we may only have had one for two grade levels. This is never in our control. But in the eyes of the students, it appears that they are separated based on who is "smart" and who is "dumb." This year, I realized that there was no way of getting around their feelings. They were too vocal to ignore. The only solution I could come up with was to teach them about the foundational systems that control their classrooms and schools. It is not enough to treat all of our students with parity. We have to communicate the cloaked reasons that cause the overt differences that have the most influence over their motivation, or lack thereof, to learn beyond the realms of their limitless potential.

It has never been easy for me to follow a set curriculum of scripted lessons because there are always curveballs in the form of unexpected questions and comments. I attempted to begin my unit with the story of the Little Rock Nine. "Why they hate us?," "Why they ain't wanna go to school with us?," and "Why was we slaves, why us?" were questions that could only be answered by going deeper than Plessy v. Ferguson, even before Ida B. Wells, and earlier than the Civil War.

My students had a limited perspective of the Black narrative and I believe it is criminal to start with slavery as the beginning of the history of Black Americans in this country. I had to go back to Africa, where it all started. I had to do the work of teaching them that before slavery, there were no such terms as race or racism. Then, I worked my way back up to 2017 to show them that even though racism is still very prevalent today, scientifically, race is (and has always been) pseudonymous. Unfortunately, in a social context, race is used as a social construct to distribute power. A white person could genetically have more in common with a Black person. This is a study that has been proven by research. Yet, because of stereotypes, it may be hard for the average Baltimore child to believe that such a notion could hold any validity. I had to teach my students that there is only one race, the human race. This gave them the perspective they were going to need in order to do their research from an unbiased and objective viewpoint.

Once they had an understanding of Black history, starting from pre-colonial Africa to Brown v. Board of Education, they were assigned the task of writing argumentative essays. I laid out a timeline of the most recent education-reform topics and prompted the students to choose their own issue. Their next task was to do the research. I provided two articles to each group but it was their responsibility to find at least two more. This is where the heavy lifting began.

When you look at the reading list the students gathered their information from, you may automatically assume that I had four classes of over-achievers. That is not exactly how I would describe the majority of my students and surely not how their standardized test scores depicted them. But through the process of watching them grapple with difficult texts, I learned that there is no such thing as a reading level. Almost any child can read anything that is put in front of them, as long as they are taught how to self-monitor their own comprehension. The hard part is not teaching them the reading strategies, the hard part is getting them to recognize and admit when they need to use them. Worse than them circumventing the use of the self-monitoring tools, they would do anything to avoid asking for help. They truly believe it makes them appear "slow" as a result of self-stigmatizing each other as the dumb and smart class. The "good readers" skim over the text and pretend they understand when they know they don't. The "low readers" fake read all together. Both sets of readers portray a too-cool, nonchalant attitude when they can't respond to the text in order to hide the fact that they did not understand what they read. With this in mind, I knew it was going to be vital that I provided multiple opportunities for them to interact with their readings. Prompting them to find evidence of the author's purpose, bias opinions, subjective language, and explicit motives was one way but the most effective way was when I had them develop their own critical-thinking questions for each article.

The harder the text, the higher their motivation grew. Even the few students who gave up after so many days of grappling and still not understanding eventually came back to their reading, and found themselves successful after trying again.

The perseverance they showed when reading did not match their writing. They wanted to be one and done after the first typed draft of their essays. Constructive criticism such as: Your claim is unclear, your evidence does not support your claim, and you have to paraphrase your evidence into your own words, frustrated them to the point where they were willing to quit writing and "take" their grade. How did I get them back in the game? It was not me; it was the reminder that our final product was going to be a published book, which proves my theory that when students are given a task that allows them to transfer their knowledge onto others, outside of the classroom, the execute accordingly.

The second was the untimely deaths of Terence Crutcher and Jordan Edwards. When they learned that Crutcher's assassin, Officer Betty Shelby, was acquitted of all charges they were fuming. When they learned that Edwards was the same age as they are, they were visibly torn. At that moment, they knew that these essays were a necessary act of resistance.

Some of the essays are informative, while others are subjective. This compilation is an expose of the courage and self-expression of first time published writers. These essays should drive the reader to look beyond the students who wrote them and focus their attention on the systems and structures that are being discussed.

Access to education, freedom, and power has been consistently denied to the underprivileged youth in this country, in order to maintain the current power structure. These essays explain how landmark decisions such as Brown v. Board, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the privatization of public schools are broken keys to the locked doors that keep the urban child from advancing. None of these essays offers solutions. They offer truth. "How come nobody else don't know about this?" is a question I will always answer with, "Because you haven't told them, yet." The solution is to educate. After we educate, we organize. After organizing we attack.

"Broken Keys Don't Unlock Doors," a book of essays, poems, and personal narratives from Valencia Clay's middle school humanities classes at Southwest Baltimore Charter School, will be on sale at an event at Southwest Baltimore Charter School on June 8 at 6 p.m. The following photographs shot by Reginald Thomas II show Clay and her students at work.

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