Last year, Karanja Crews was face to face with a teacher's worst nightmare: Most of his students lacked basic literacy skills, and to top it off, they didn't have any motivation to learn. The future of the Young Men's Academy was in question, and Crews was also turning 30.
"I had to shed the burden of these kids not wanting to learn," he said.
So he took a sabbatical during his winter break. He ate a cleansing diet of fruits and vegetables. He relaxed. He wracked his brain for answers. He read Alfred Tatum's "Teaching Reading to Black Adolescents."
And when he returned, he tried something radically different to motivate them.
"I put them through a slavery simulation," he says. "They had to sit on the floor … they had to eat grits."
In order to win their "rights" back they had to learn to read. He taught them the power that literate slaves had and the value of an education when it came to survival.
"It encouraged them to read and get better at it," he said.
Once they had mastered the reading activities, Crews encouraged them to mentor others, and he set up a program to allow his students to tutor Humboldt Elementary students to read.
With the foundation in place, Crews set out to expand on this literacy program. With the help of a graphic designer and his own resources, he created "Journey to Freedom: The Power to Read and Write," a board game that follows the story of a Southern slave on his quest to freedom. The game takes nearly three months to complete – hardly your typical weeknight game of Monopoly.
"I'm using literacy and speech to make a difference," he says. "I'm connecting education to freedom … it's not just about facts and learning. I'm teaching them that no one can ever take that education away from them."
Essentially, the game is a curriculum. Students start out reading the book "Night John" – the story of a slave who escaped and learned to read, only to return to his plantation to teach other slaves to be literate. The board game begins in the 1700s to learn the basics of phonics, and along the way learn about the lives of known and unknown African Americans who had an impact on history. As the gamer progresses, so does their knowledge of history, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.
"Each century focuses on a particular reading awareness," he said.
Crews has recruited a class of about 30 seventh and eighth grade leaders from the Jefferson feeder schools that will be meeting every week to complete the game. Not just for African Americans, Crews was able to recruit several White and Hispanic students into the after-school program.
"We want kids who are reluctant readers," he said. "This history is for all cultures."
Like the students in the slavery simulation before them, these students will be expected to use their newfound knowledge of history and language to tutor younger readers.
"We turn reluctant readers into motivated readers and motivated readers to leaders," he said, which is the catchphrase of the program.
Crews says he hopes to expand access to the game, selling it to teachers and districts nationwide. While the Academy for Young Men faces an uncertain future next year – Crews will have to recruit a handful more students in order to keep the students he currently teaches – Crews said he's not worried. He has a plan for the future.
"I want to start my own private school and still serve these kids in the neighborhood," he said. "I want to take this vision that the district failed and start my own school."
Crews will be holding game nights for the public to take part. Throughout the month of February, games will be held at the following:
Feb. 12, Peninsula Community Center, 5-7 p.m.
Feb. 14, Champions Barber Shop, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Feb. 14, Reflections Café, 3-5 p.m.
Feb. 19, Peninsula Community Center, tbd
Feb. 20, Matt Dishman Community Center, tbd
Feb. 21, Champions Barbershop, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.
Feb. 21, Reflections Café, 3-5 p.m.
Feb. 26, Curious Comedy, 5225 NE MLK Blvd., Black History Month Community Party, 6:30 p.m.-midnight.