Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson

Aaron Johnson

Alumnus authors book on the schooling of young Black males

Everyone has had a mentor that made a significant impact on them, that equipped them with the proper tools in the classroom to tackle the real world on the outside, right? Unfortunately, great mentorship in school isn’t a given and it isn’t equally accessible to all students—but it should be.

Dr. Aaron Johnson, BSED ’00, MED ’03, PhD ’16, an adjunct instructor in the Reading, Language, and Literature Program in WSU’s College of Education and author of a new book titled A Walk in Their Kicks, is working to change that for Black males in American schools.

“The institution of school has failed students of color by not providing culturally relevant reading materials, by promoting racist and bias discipline practices, and by funneling generations of students into remedial and special education classes,” he says. “My book seeks to encourage teachers, administrators, and districts to pay back the ‘education debt’ to mitigate what is referred to as the academic achievement gap.”

Getting to know students as people who come from different backgrounds is the first step educators can take to being intentional about breaking this systemic mold.

“When I go to schools and talk to young men about what they want from their teachers, they overwhelmingly tell me they just want their teachers to know who they are as human beings.”

Speaking from experience, Johnson fondly recalls two educators who had a positive impact on him.

“One was my eighth grade ELA teacher, Mrs. Willie Bell Gibson at Bates Academy in Detroit. Mrs. Gibson taught me to love words, to love books, and to love writing.” The other was Mignon Hayes (Oldham) at Renaissance High School in Detroit. “Ms. Hayes taught me how to refine my vocabulary, to analyze texts, and to broaden my reading cache.”

Both prioritized literacy, something Johnson says is the gateway to understanding and participating in democratic processes.

“Without literacy, one does not have the requisite tools to understand their rights, interpret and hold the nation accountable to the ideals presented in the U.S. Constitution,” he says. “The institution of school is set up to ensure that all U.S. citizens are involved in the process of developing literacy. When a whole section of the population is not engaged in that process, they are being denied their civil rights to participate in a democracy.”

While digital media is changing how we digest information, reading and introducing students to books with characters they recognize will forever be important for inclusivity and building up educated citizens.

When he was younger, no other book impacted Johnson quite like The Autobiography of Malcom X.

“This book was key to my understanding of who I was as a young black man growing up in America. … [Malcom] viewed literacy as one of the most important things in his life and he used it to influence generations of people.”

And, he may have never picked up that book if it wasn’t for invested educators like Gibson and Hayes; he may have never decided to be a teacher himself, to continue advocating for equal access to education.