I recently read about the theory that African American students in certain areas perceive academic achievement as "giving up their Black identity and acting White." What can schools and teachers do to shift or counteract these norms and perceptions?

The article I read was in Scientific American


Vielka Cecilia Hoy, Founder/Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, Teacher, and Parent

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I can speak to this from my own school experiences as a child and as someone who has addressed this very thing directly in school settings. I somewhat agree with the above; I think many of those things are out of the control of schools, trainers, etc. especially as they deal with empathy and other sort of inherent characteristics of people. I mean that when we talk about hiring more Black faculty, including Black faculty who are from similar backgrounds is difficult as we consider pay, respect, and other things that make teaching less than appealing for most people, and especially those who did not grow up with money. And while I believe in mentoring programs, a common race does not automatically mean a common academic, ethnic, or class experience.

It is also difficult to train a person to address the social and emotional needs of a young person, especially in their nuances and when that person does not have similar experiences to ground themselves in. Often times it turns into pity, a feeling that is helpful to no one. Or it turns into making parallels where there are none, which ends up feeling dismissive. As a trainer, I have found that training adults to understand when it is appropriate to step back has been most valuable and while being most difficult.

Attacking one's identity is harsh and more so when that is all that one has. Using education to make that insult is even worse because for many of us, it is the one way to have more. So when I have encountered this issue, especially for high-achieving and/or highly motivated students of color, and it has been most effective, it is to first understand the intention behind criticizing one's identity in the context of school--it is to dissuade them from their goals/dreams, especially when one doesn't share or understand the same dream. In that sense, while not the same, we may all understand just that piece--someone has tried to dissuade you from reaching your goal and insulted you in the process. Then it is okay to say, "I don't understand what you are growing through right now, but I can talk to you about defending your goals."

Addressing it in that way is a lifelong tool. It is something that I still encounter in my day even from people who have supposed good intentions, and it's not from people who share my racial or ethnic identity. Learning to address micro-aggressions, regardless of who they come from, is most important.

Lastly, understanding it as a teachable moment for the person who is being insulted allows you to see how it is a teachable moment for the person doing the insulting. Has that person had the opportunity to articulate a goal? How can we support that person in pursuing the goal?

I hope that helps.

Dylan Ferniany, Gifted and Talented Education Program Administrator

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Unfortunately there can be a stigma about academic achievement in many communities, but among high poverty communities there may be social forces working against gifted students. In addition, an African American student who is in an predominately white gifted class may feel isolated or that they do not belong. There is something in education called the contagion effect, which means that students often perform at the level of their peers. You can sometimes see this even from class to class in the same school. If kids are around other kids who want to achieve at high levels, they will mostly try to achieve. If a student who wants to achieve is in a large group of underachievers, they may underachieve. So when you have a magnet program for students and you put all the high achievers together in one place, an underachiever may have a better chance of performing. Meanwhile if you have a high achieving student in an environment where many students are underachieving, the high achiever may not want to stand out and may norm to the rest of the crowd. This plays out in gifted programs as well. What can schools do?

1) Make sure low income students have mentors that are like them. African-American students need to see examples of African-American adults who have achieved academically. Programs like Growing Kings in Birmingham can go a long way to combat this problem.

2) Social-Emotional Curriculum. In gifted programs, especially those with high numbers of students from poverty there should be an emphasis on social-emotional needs such as perfectionism, anxiety, and underachievement. Teachers should be aware that minority students in predominately white gifted classes may have unique social-emotional needs.

3) Train teachers. Teachers need to understand this phenomenon and to recognize the symptoms of underachievement, as well as know how to address it. Underachieving students run the risk of being overlooked for gifted programs because of behavior or academic achievement. Teachers need to be reminded that these students have tremendous potential.

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