By Ashley M. Blanco
Brilliance comes in all shades, can be found in all zip codes, and is displayed in all children regardless of disability. So why is Black Brilliance in the title of this article? Because many people are discussing the statistics around Black preschoolers being suspended from school at alarming rates, but little has been said of how we perpetuate oppression with our words and what we can do to change that. Sure the systems are severely fractured. But at the end of the day, we are all part of the system be it at the macro-level or micro-level. Instead of merely reiterating that our earliest learners are experiencing injustice at the entry level of their educational experience, I would like to provide some insight on how we as educators and influencers can close the achievement gap with reflecting on our words and our perspectives.
In my professional work with families and our earliest learners, I see the correlation between two factors: the manner in which adults respond to the abilities and behaviors of Black children and the number of instructional minutes that are lost for these students in particular. My work with program coordinating and case managing the interests and needs of Black girls ages 8 to 18 in the Bay View revealed that the achievement gap also has a debilitating effect on Black learners. Psychologically, they have to overcome a disproportionate amount of barriers when asking for help and trying to avoid negative attention, be it from adults or peers. We have indeed come to a critical point in education as a civil rights issue.
Recognizing that the blame we put on their inability to learn is often our unwillingness and incapacity to support their multiple intelligences and learning styles is one of the first steps. I strongly recommend Dr. Debra Ren-Etta Sullivan’s book titled Cultivating the Genius of Black Children. It, along with my work as a Family Support Specialist, has inspired the writing of this article.
My goal in writing this article is to remind us what we already know and may forget in times of trouble as we all do this equity work together. Our power to close the gap power rests in our language when approaching Black children. Here are five tips I offer in improving our language and approach to Black children, youth, and their families.
See the humanity of Black students.
Find out what their interests are, their needs, their expectations for themselves and the challenges in meeting those expectations. Black children are often seen as a problem or a set of points along a line of data. If we don’t see their humanity and their ability to think, create, discover, inquire, and construct, we are setting ourselves at a distance from helping them become agents in their academic journeys.
Check your heart when speaking to Black children and youth.
We all need to make sure our hearts in the position of kindness and generosity when working with any group of humans. When working with Black children in the academic or social setting, be it before, during, or after school, our hearts have to be in alignment with the mission of the work we’ve entered. If you’ve entered education with the hope of fixing Black children or simply closing the achievement gap, you’re in the wrong line of work. Also, if you plan to work with children but you are afraid to build a relationship with their families as chief facilitators in the educational experiences of their children, you have to interrogate your reason for working with Black children and youth. Black children progress and thrive in the context of their families – not outside of it. Approaching Black families beyond our perception of their struggle and engaging Black families at the level of their strengths are critical to closing the achievement gap.
Speak to children and youth with words that affirm their growth mindsets.
I share Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthew’s belief that all children can learn, want to learn, and our job as educators is to make that happened. In order for us to speak to the growth mindset of a child or youth, we have to believe that each child has a mindset that can grow and excel for the rigor of any project or task. I have heard teachers (Black ones included) talk to Black children like they’re not moving their trays fast enough down the counters in penitentiary cafeterias. “Stop. Get over here. What are you doing? Why did you do that? Keep moving.” It really saddens me. I encourage all of us to speak in a way that says I see you. I hear you. I see that you are growing. I hear that you are working through this process and I can tell because of the words you’re using. I appreciate you thinking aloud; now let’s take it a little further. What do you think about this? We are already creating the world we want to see. Let’s expand it and outdo one another in doing good.
Model the learner you want our Black children to be even when you’re agitated.
Choose to model the cognitive, social, and emotional skills that children need to succeed academically. Our modeling and our consistency along with partnering with families can close the academic achievement gap. Imagine the power of adults using words that scaffold the brilliance of children and youth in their presence when they’re frustrated? That’s called changing the world under pressure, one life at a time. Too often we break others down in our moment of frustration or disappointment. Yes, we can repair. The more we change our response, the more we can change our reality.
Ask yourself what type of identity you want to nurture in this child.
When I speak of identity in this context, I am referring to a set of internal characteristics that express themselves outwardly and help the child be an agent in his or her academic journey. These internal characteristics include the socioemotional qualities, cognitive abilities, approaches to learning, and communication styles of the child or youth. Ask families to share what they have observed in their children regarding approaches to learning, socioemotional qualities, and cognitive abilities. Some families may not know these exact terms but if you ask them in a way they understand, you can get your answer and be delightfully surprised by what you learn. Choosing to nurture a secure, confident learner means you ask the child or youth questions that affirms their growth mindset. These questions give them insight into their ability to persist in identifying solutions and seeing themselves as keys to their development. With your words, you create opportunities for them to grow.
When we partner with families to reinforce the greatness of their children, to see their children’s greatness especially when disabilities, for some, may block their view, we can close the achievement gap. We are not helping children and youth by talking to them in ways that “prepare them for the real world.” We are also not helping families when we put our goals for their child before their goals for their child. We have to find out what their goals are, look for overlaps between theirs and ours as educators and support specialist, and start the journey from there.
Closing the achievement gap amongst Black and Brown children is possible. It starts with interrogating our own hearts as we do this work. When we reflect on our attitudes and approaches to Black and Brown children, youth, and families, we will view them in light of the good they capable of doing and experiencing. Trauma is real. Post-traumatic transformation is also real. To close the academic achievement gap is to open true economic opportunities for the Black and Brown communities. When we are comfortable with the plight of a group of people and/or we are threatened by the success of a group of people who happen to be Black or Brown, we are simply gratifying ourselves with benevolent conversations around closing the gap. At the end of another 50 years, nothing would have changed for the better.
Happy living and happy giving as you do your heart’s work!