Thursday, June 1, 2017

Connecting with students: Clayton Byrd Goes Underground (ages 9-12)

As an educator committed to culturally relevant teaching, I constantly seek out a diverse range of books. Today, I'd like to share with you how Clayton Byrd Goes Underground, by Rita Williams-Garcia, connected with one of my students, Shondrick, an African-American 4th grader. Earlier this week, I shared my full review of this outstanding new novel and some videos that can help students learn about the blues.

Shondrick is a thoughtful, perceptive reader and a young man I admire. School is not always easy for him, but he works hard and is a dedicated scholar. Shondrick told me that it was "interesting that Clayton Byrd never did anything bad in his life before" he ran away from home.
He could tell that Clayton was very upset after his grandfather died. On the subway, Clayton was so worried about getting his grandfather's hat back from the older boy that he would do anything. "It was all he had left of his grandfather," Shondrick explained.

I noticed how clearly Shondrick expressed the powerful emotions that Clayton was experiencing. He could see the inner conflict Clayton felt -- should he go along with pack of boys, even though he knew they were up to no good? What was the right thing to do? Williams-Garcia skillfully develops the characters so that readers develop a sense of their nuanced emotions.

Shondrick especially liked the way Rita Williams-Garcia incorporates both blues and hip-hop music. He told me,
"Even though most rap songs have cuss words, some have life stories in them and they tell you what to do and not to do."
Rita Williams-Garcia discusses these ideas further in her author's note, and I think she would agree that both blues and hip-hop capture people's life stories, lessons and struggles. Shondrick has listened to some blues and knows about blues singers who sing about life's struggles, but he prefers rap music.

The audiobook, read by Adam Lazarre-White, effectively captured the deeper black man's voice, in Shondrick's view. "The voices added drama and emotion to the dialogue," he told me. Listen to this sample of the audiobook to hear how Lazarre-White embodies Cool Papa Byrd, with a raspy, smooth voice.

Culturally relevant teaching describes an approach to education that "that empowers students to maintain cultural integrity, while succeeding academically"(Ladson-Billings, 1995). It is grounded in understanding students' cultures and incorporating this into our teaching. As Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, we must
"develop in all students cultural competence. What I mean by that is you help kids understand assets that are part of their own culture, while simultaneously helping them become fluent in at least one more culture. So it would mean youngsters of color have to learn the mainstream culture, but at the same moment youngsters in the mainstream need to learn some other cultures. Youngsters of color also need to value the culture they have."
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground helps me do exactly this. It gives value and respect to the blues and to hip-hop, building black students' knowledge of the assets that black culture brings to our society. At the same time, it helps students of different cultural backgrounds have a greater understanding of black culture. Best of all, it does this in a compelling, dynamic, heart-felt story.

As a librarian, I love sharing books--but really, what I love most, is discovering what books connect to different readers and how different readers seek out stories that mean something to them. Each person is different; my goal as a school librarian is to help each child discover they way reading can help them find themselves and see other people.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, HarperCollins, and I have already purchased several more copies. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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