According to some NYC news reports Black History Month celebrations did not go well in some schools:
A poorly supervised and trained NYC teacher offers a lesson on slavery by asking Black students to lie down on the classroom floor, at which point she stepped on their backs to demonstrate to the class “what slavery felt like”… (Thank goodness she did not do a field trip to the New York Botanical Garden and have the Black students pick cotton!)
A student named Malcolm Xavier Combs, is not allowed by his high school to put (his own) and his namesake hero’s name: ‘Malcolm X’ on his senior sweater, school officials considered it “inappropriate”. (Could we feel confident in believing that if the young man was named after slave owner and rapist Thomas Jefferson, that a sweat shirt bearing that name would have also been banned?… Well no, not so confident.)
A middle school principal discourages and exacts penalties for the teaching and learning of Black History in an English Language Arts (ELA) class; and perhaps equally egregious, the principal being pedagogically unaware of the learning linkage between ELA (literature, speeches, plays, and poetry, journalism, public and personal documents) and students studying historiography (The methodological study of history).
All three events taking place in the ‘liberal’, ‘hip’, ‘progressive’, Democratic Party controlled, Northern, Blue city-state, New York City. We can only read these news articles as we cringe and weep…
I so desperately wish that I could say that these incidents were “isolated and rare”; but after so many years in public education as a teacher, principal and superintendent, I must admit that the public’s awareness of these types of horrible miseducation missteps is only limited by the small number of education reporters, interest and space in various news media outlets.
But these examples of Black History Celebrations ‘gone wrong’ are small compared to the vast number of Black (and Latino) students who won’t ever get a chance to make a positive contribution to ‘future history’; because they won’t get the chance to discover and display as adults, their natural gifts and talents. And I am speaking here of Black students who are on every point of the academic achievement level continuum. Including those who have parents with PhDs, and those with parents with no “D’s”! Parents who are unemployed and poor, as well as parents who are in the middle, upper levels, or far beyond middle class income levels. This “Lost, Stolen and Ignored” (LS&I) genius capacity is sadly equally distributed in the Black community, and compels us to redefine and expand the concept of “At Risk” to mean: Any Black child (particularly boys) who enters a public school building!
It is also important to note that this “At Risk” designation of not truly discovering and engaging Black student’s talents is not limited to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM); even as the destructive powers of the LS&I policies are the most dramatically displayed in the STEM areas of study. The reality is that Black students with a gifted and genius inclination for Music, Art, Dance, non-stereotypical sports (i.e. fencing, archery, swimming, gymnastics, gulf and speed-performance ice skating); the untapped talent to engage in intellectual-creative competitive activities such as creative writing contest, photography-film, debate, chess, etc. competitions; are also places where these students are under-unexposed, and their skills and interest chronically undiscovered.
It often boils down to a word I hate to hear and depend on in public education: ‘luck’! That is, having the luck of having a ‘pushy’ parent(s)* who will expose the child to a wide spectrum of human intellectual, knowledge and talent rich out-of-school activities; those parents who are sensitive to the child’s display of ‘budding’ giftedness and creative interest, and then actively responding to those early talent inclination signs, parents who are ‘inquisitive’, aggressive and willing to make the sacrifices to put the child into a position; outside of the public school system, and into the informal educational-school system, where the child can receive professional coaching and training. Finally, students will need to be ‘lucky’ to have parents who don’t “ghettoize” the talents, gifts, dreams and aspirations of their children. These parents are naturally and justifiably suspicious of the aims and goals that any US school/school system has for their child. They know, even if it is only in the most rudimentary and without research data way, that when it comes to American education, race is always “in play”! As you can imagine, this ‘luck’ approach to child development, is unable to create a ‘critical mass’ of Gifted and Talented (G&T) discovered and developed students of color who can bring a significant generational change/improvement to their communities.
*I devote an entire chapter in my book (Report To The Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership), to deconstructing and explaining the profiles and practices of these empowering parents!
For sure, beyond race, economic status is a huge factor, (along with a parent’s ability to access the wealth of out-of-school educational information) in a child’s ability to realize the full capacity of their gifts and talents. But Black parents who are financially in a good place, and who have advanced formal educational degrees, could get too comfortable, and dangerously fool themselves into thinking that their child is not “at risk” of not realizing their full learning potential. And to borrow from a popular song: Money (and college degrees) can’t buy you love from your child’s teacher, principal, school or school district.
Teachers and educational leaders (Including incompetent, scared and ‘unwoke’ Black educators), bring ‘themselves’ to the district-school-classroom every day; ‘themselves’ meaning their personal histories, prejudices, cultural preconceptions, expectations, and the experience of living in a nation with many still unresolved race prejudice and discrimination problems. And clearly these problems are not being helped when the chief executive officer of the nation is openly advocating bigoted and white supremacy ideas.
Any Black or Latino parental approach that wrongly assumes that they have an educational ‘temporary privilege pass’; or that schools, the classroom are just, fair and neutral places, where all gifts and talents are equally discovered and developed, are sadly in a state of delusion; and that delusional state moves their child from being “at risk” to seriously “in danger”! Ironically, these well-resourced and knowledgeable parents can best help their own children by advocating for children who don’t have parents with their same level of education, financial resources, or access to information. After all the ‘system’ does not really see a difference in Black students with or without, wealthy and highly degreed parents!
There are some very easy to accomplish small steps by which districts and schools can discover and cultivate the genius of all students in their care:
(1) In the same New York City, several Black and Latino elected officials have correctly called for the expansion of Gifted and Talented programs into the ‘G&T dessert sections’ of the city (Read: majority Black and Latino neighborhoods). There is no reason that their educationally sound and reasonable request can’t be met. The ‘cap’ on G&T programs (and admission criteria) in any school district, is completely invented, arbitrary and discretionary. There are no national statutes, regulations, professional agreement/understanding (standards), as to how we can determine and measure: ‘giftedness’, ‘intelligences’ and ‘natural talents’; to what extent these qualities are acquired genetically (at birth), or can be discovered and developed by way of schooling. As a NYC superintendent of Community School District 29 Queens (CSD 29Q) I utilized my discretion and without central office permission, expanded G&T programs in the district. And even in those schools without a G&T program; the district’s curriculum supervisors and staff along with a team of teachers created a G&T curriculum, and a companion professional development program that could be utilized by any teacher, in any grade in the district. My hypothesis (since there is no professionally unifying pedagogical theory on ‘giftedness’), is that we expose all children to as many intellectually stimulating activities, ideas and skills as possible, and then see what happens!
(2) We need School Based Leaders (SBL) who are conscious, courageous, caring and committed to finding and developing the Gifts and Talents of all of their students. Something I learned as a superintendent; that it is very difficult for even the best and most skilled instructional staff to overcome a poorly trained, scared, strategically weak and pedagogically inadequate principal. The SBL team along with the principal must establish a school building policy that males sure that teachers will receive the support, supplies and professional development they need to engage in rigorous, standards based instructional practices. That means not just ‘passing’, ‘moving along’ and ‘graduating’ students, when these students have not met the required course-grade level-graduation standards. Quality instruction brings out the best budding G&T qualities in children; poor instruction however poisons, hinders and eventually destroys those embryonic G&T qualities.
(3) Schools and districts must stop utilizing that ‘dirty little’ inside secret approach that translates the screening process for elementary G&T programs, into what is really a screening of the parents. We need to ‘discover’ the gifts and talents of those children who don’t come from entitled and privileged households; including homes where English may not be the primary language spoken in the house.
(4) Instructional Time on Task: We need good and effective quality instructional time, link to the task of quality learning. As a principal I was able to raise the level of instructional rigor, by creating a more productive and disciplined school learning environment. This is the only way that effective teaching and learning can actually exist. It’s very simple: If teachers are unable to teach, students can’t learn! The most gifted and talented Black students can be ‘zip coded’ out of a quality learning experience simply because their school environment/classroom produces too many negative lesson ‘stopping and interrupting’ experiences. The SBL team in many of these schools also can’t serve as effective instructional coaches because they are overwhelmed with functioning as ‘highly paid deans’. Student G&T discovery and enhancement is really all about high teacher expectations, efficacy, and the quality and quantity of good instructional practices!
(5) In CSD 29Q we established a district-wide “Readers-to-Leaders” (RTL) program that encouraged students to read books ‘for fun’ all year-round. As a young ‘latch-key’ child growing up in Brooklyn, NYC; my daily after-school “academic and safety childcare service’ visits to the Brooklyn Public Library, along with the books I borrowed for home reading, meant that I could through ‘mental magic’ travel and experience many areas and activities around the world, despite my families limited financial resources. Reading can open a window of intellectual opportunity for children who engage in its rich reservoir of knowledge and information. And beyond the ELA objectives of RTL, the CSD 29Q educators also wanted to expose students to the many inspirational and encouraging future career ideas that can emerge from reading books. Reading can help students to become aware of many different fields of study and possible future career options (i.e. Archeologist, Film director, Ethnomusicologist, Graphic artist, etc.), they might like, if only they knew that they like them!
(6) School Districts should create the opportunity to raise the career aspirational ceiling for students by providing the resources for schools to prepare students to enter Robotics, STEM, graphic and performing arts, dance, chess, etc. local and national competitions. These activities not only exercise and grow the known and displayed G&T’s of student participants; they could also stimulate the discovery and awareness of an unknown gift and talent inside of the student, one that perhaps even went undetected by educators or a parent.
(7) Design and support middle school mathematics: in, after, weekend, school breaks, and summer enrichment programs; in order to get as many students as possible into a position to take algebra, or at the very least completing a strong pre-algebra class by the end of middle school. Mastering pre-algebra (or algebra) concepts prior to attending high school is the single most critical factor in a student being able to effectively address a STEM gift, talent, aspiration, college major and career interest after high school.
(8) When it comes to STEM G&T–Go for it! As CSD 29Q was severely technologically crippled by the largest computer scandal in the history of NYC (the reason I was forced to take over the district in mid year); we decided to turn a problem into an opportunity by deciding to become the most STEM focused and equipped district in the city, including establishing state of the art STEM-Robotics labs, along with specially trained full-time teachers in an early childhood center, elementary schools, and all 5 middle schools. STEM cannot be seen by the students (and faculty) as something that is only limited to the culture of some Americans.
(9) Provide schools with the resources (courses, trips and in school exposures-experiences), so that they can become familiar with different hobbies, careers, sporting events beyond the ‘stereotypical’ sports activities (basketball-football). Insist as a principal that PE teachers actually teach the Physical Education curriculum; which if done properly will expose students to a very wide and diverse spectrum of athletic sporting events.
10) Organize a weekend-evening “Informal Education Fair” for parents where community programs that teach after-school and weekend courses in areas like: the martial arts, scouting, dance, music instrumental instruction, acting, gymnastics, chess, etc. can come to the school and set up information tables. The district and school leadership must raise the funds to offer their Title 1 students scholarships to attend these programs; as well as partnering with these creative community based organizations to hold these programs, classes and activities inside of schools, at the end of the school day and on weekends.
11) At CSD 29Q we also strengthen and expanded the Art, music, drama and dance programs in every K-8 school in the district, insisting that these programs not be sacrificed for less than effective mindless (endless-useless) ‘standardized test prep’ sessions. A lot of educators in and outside of the district (including a few principals) feared that standardized test scores would suffer if students spent so much time doing STEM and ART; but in fact the opposite occurred; throughout every school in the district standardized test scores went up dramatically, and the district as a whole posted some of the largest gains in the city!
These are just a few of the school system programmatic initiatives that can help schools to discover and cultivate student ‘smartness’, giftedness and talents. These are the ‘easy’ lift items; much more difficult is the politically challenging, but necessary effort to increase high expectations, empathy, efficacy and professional practices effectiveness on the part of teachers and school leaders.
Communities of color (COC) can also play an important complementary role in this effort. Many years ago a group of Brooklyn NY educators and STEM practitioners created a Saturday and After-School STEM program called the Science Skills Center, Inc. (SSC). This program’s uniqueness and isolation is the problem. COC need thousands of these SSC’s all over this nation; and unlike the request for G&T program expansion, the communities that set up these vital programs, don’t need to ask for permission or funding from folks who have no real interest or knowledge, in establishing G&T development programs for the disenfranchised. Further, these programs need not be limited to STEM careers, and could include activities like museum-cultural institutions trips, foreign language study, culinary arts, sculpture, instrumental music, creative writing, ‘non-stereotypical’ sports, etc. There should be an overflow of these programs and activities, funded by the huge financial resources led and generated by Black America; essentially we need to ‘tithe’ into the future of our children!
Nothing personal public educators (and as life-long professional public educator I never took it personally), no group of people in America that hopes to achieve ‘generational leap’* with their children, can rely solely on public schools to achieve that objective. Besides having a large number of these community based G&T incubator-nursery programs can also eliminate the ‘informal education gap’; that is driven not by the interest and skills of the child, but rather by the finances and access to information of the parents.
Finally, Black parents/communities need to avoid the anti-standardized testing movement; unless the call is to eliminate all standardized exams (i.e. G&T Admissions Screenings based on the parents, Specialized High School Admissions Exams-SHSAT, AP, SAT, ACT, LSAT, NTE, MCAT, etc.) completely; and/or introduce bias free, fair and authentic student assessments. But until ‘fairness-fairyland’ arrives, these parents and communities must invest in (real) after-school-weekend-summer standardized test preparation programs; as well as insisting that the schools their children attend are places where the learning standards and high conceptual-skills expectations found on these standardized exams, are taught and practiced as the normal-everyday teaching standards in every class.
The above efforts represent the only real way that the public education Black child genius can be fully recognized and developed. It’s the only step, in the only right direction; or we will instead find as we saw with our terrible Black History Month ‘slavery lesson’, educators denying and dismissing students by stepping on their backs, as well as their dreams.
*The ‘generational leap’ concept is: That the financial, social and emotional well-being of your children should be an improvement over, and even exceeding your own. Children should not engage in the same economic, educational, life-career limited options, challenges, false choices, and struggles you encountered as you grew into adulthood. They should realize better social, career-educational choices, options and opportunities then you faced. And if they ‘screw it up’, then that’s on them, you have done your part!
Michael A. Johnson is a former high school principal and superintendent. His book: Report To The Principal’s Office: Tools for building Successful High School Administrative Leadership will be released in Spring/2018. reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/