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Using Power of the Pen, Teen Author Hopes to Narrow Memphis’ “Reading Gap”

Using Power of the Pen, Teen Author Hopes to Narrow Memphis’ “Reading Gap”

This story was produced in partnership with the WKNO.

She’s an honors student at Germantown High School, an actress in her school musicals, a reporter for her campus TV station, a photographer and…oh yeah, Alexa Morris is also a published author.

From A Black Girl to All Black Girls Volume 1 is a collection of poems, monologs and personal affirmations meant to inspire children of color
From A Black Girl to All Black Girls Volume 1 is a collection of poems, monologs and personal affirmations meant to inspire children of color

Under her nom de plume Alexa Christian, Morris wrote her first book at age 17. From A Black Girl to All Black Girls Volume 1 is a collection of poems, monologs and personal affirmations meant to inspire children of color. Volume 2 came out this year.

“I just want to give them that inspiration and that allowance,” Morris says. “Letting young people, and especially young girls know, at a very small age that they can write and be something great to be powerful in academics.”

Last year, she launched her own literacy campaign after learning about the country’s so-called reading gap. Less than half of America’s students are reading at proficient levels in the 4th and 8th grades. Those numbers are even worse for Black students. 

One 2019 report by the National Assessment of Educational Processing found that only 18 percent of Black 4th graders and 15 percent of Black 8th Graders were reading proficiently. 

“The whole campaign is to really get the attention of school systems, the directors of education and the directors of curriculum to say, ‘Let’s change,'” Morris says. “Let’s change what young people are learning now, so that when they are older, they will be more equipped with tools.”

You people could also use a push in the right direction, says Elizabeth Lee, Director of Education for Literacy Mid-South. She says a teenager like Morris sets a good example for younger children. 

“What we see is a lot of kids who are defeated at very early ages,” Lee said. “We see a big reluctance to read because of their insecurity in their skills. It’s so sad to see a seven-year-old completely defeated, much less a 10-year-old.”

But the problem isn’t just a lack of motivation. Lee said students of color have always needed more access to books, quality learning resources and technology, especially now in a virtual learning environment. Lee said that teachers, also, need improvement. 

“It’s incredible how many teachers don’t understand the concepts and foundations of literacy and, therefore, don’t know how to instruct in them,” Lee said. “And that’s not a knock to teachers. They simply weren’t taught it when they got their license.”

Kayla Johnson works for the Peer Power Foundation, a Memphis non-profit that trains high-achieving University of Memphis students to be tutors and mentors for public school kids. She said young readers could really benefit from a more diverse range of stories.

“If we’re reading these books about people who don’t look like you, who don’t talk like you, who are experiencing things that you will never have experienced and never will experience, it’s really hard to get into those stories, and really appreciate them,” Johnson says. “The same applies in high school. We’re reading these books written in the 1800s–at a time that we were not even appreciated. We were not seen as human.”

And that’s where Alexa Morris comes in. Through her poetry, she writes directly to the audience that needs more words in their lives. 

“It was just a love letter to black girls saying, you know, you can write poetry,” Morris says. “Poetry is a good way to express yourself and just showing how I express myself.”

An expression that could inspire others to crack open a book and write their own stories.

To learn more about Alexa Morris and the “From A Black Girl Literacy,” visit https://www.alexachristian.com/ or @fromablackgirlliteracy on Instagram.

Written By

An intern at The Institute and a senior at the University of Memphis, Caleb is double-majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Film & Video Production. He’s worked with a variety of media outlets at the U of M, including WUMR 91.7 FM, The Daily Helmsman, and Tiger News, where he currently serves as executive producer. Caleb has won several awards, including the Lurene Kelly Video Story Award, a Hearst Television I – Features award, and various Tennessee AP Broadcasters & Media Editors awards.

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