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John Henry as an Educational Tool

A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry Cover

Steve Sanfield’s A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry not only makes for a fun afternoon read—it’s also quite effective as a teaching tool. The story of John Henry is an excellent introduction to the form and structure commonly used in folktales. Natural Man playfully infers facts without adding mystical explanations of John Henry’s strength, helping children identify the story of John Henry as a folktale and distinguishing it from fairy tales, and classic narratives.

Additionally, Sanfield’s Natural Man can help teachers attract young African-American boys to read literature with African-American heroes who are brave, educated and strong. Currently, “only 14% of African-American eighth graders score at or above the proficient [reading] level” (PBS, “Outcomes for Young, Black Men”). To close this gap, a number of studies repeatedly indicate that connections to characters with similar backgrounds and cultures help children sustain interest in reading. African-American boys desperately need books, such as Sanfield’s Natural Man, that positively feature cultures and characters that they can relate to and apply as role models in their lives.

Below are a few more reading resources for helping African-American students develop a love of reading. Enjoy!


Discover titles about African-American culture and by August House's African-American authors and illustrators.

2. Encouraging African-American Students with African American Stories

A number of practical recommendations that can be easily implemented in the classroom, after school, at home in the evening and on weekends to encourage and motivate young children of color (especially boys) to spend more time reading each week.

When it comes to diversity, children's books are sorely lacking; instead of presenting a representative range of faces, they're overwhelmingly white. How bad is the disconnect?

In order to achieve success in the classroom with African American and Latino students, the educator must understand the population that he/she teaches, as well as consistently analyze if his/her teaching practices are effective.

The latest government data, analyzed recently by Howard Witt in an article in the Chicago Tribune, shows that black students are getting a raw deal in American schools when it comes to discipline.

The Brown Bookshelf is designed to push awareness of the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers. Run in part by August House's Don Tate.

Since the early 1990s, the number of African-American 4th graders with basic reading skills has doubled. But an alarming 60 percent of black 4th graders still cannot read at grade level.


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