Monday, August 27, 2012

A Song for the Genius Child

This is a song for the genius child,
Sing it softly for the song is wild
Sing it softly as ever you can
lest the song get out of hand
Nobody loves a genius child........

This first stanza of an insightful, yet painful poem written by one if our nation's most prolific writers, the great Langston Hughes, tells the day-to-day experience of millions of gifted children and youth sitting in classrooms everyday unloved, unnoticed, and misunderstood. These young scholars, inventors, creators, and artists attend schools with the expectation that they will be stimulated, challenged, and valued for their ideas, motivation, courage, and creativity.

For far too many, they meet adults who turn a deaf ear, leaving them to feel unloved and under appreciated, and worse who misinterpret their strengths for weaknesses, or deficits. For many gifted learners, being true to themselves leaves them open to criticism, taunting, bullying, disrespect, not only from their age peers, but also from adults : teachers, community members, others who should feel an obligation to help and to nurture their strengths.  

When they express their giftedness they are called crazy, too talkative, too busy, too smart, quirky.  If their intense behavior is manifested in quiet, more subtle behaviors and they crave more isolation, they are criticized for not speaking up, being too sad, being anti-social, or too sensitive. Some have even reported teachers and other adults being threatened by the intelligence and wisdom of the gifted, and responding as though the child or teen was a 'danger' to others in the academic environment.

Research about the characteristics of gifted learners in particular, the intensities and 'overexcitabilities' of gifted people and first hand accounts of what it means to be gifted, has provided more than sufficient evidence of the great needs that gifted or genius children have for support and understanding.

Hughes' poem uses the metaphor of the eagle to express the ability of these young people to 'soar' when given the support and understanding they need. Without this support, understanding and love, the very spirit, the core of what makes them who they are will be destroyed.  

So, for those of you who committed to nurturing the 'genius child'
  • I encourage you during this school year, to do your part to show all children, including ALL gifted children in your environment that you appreciate them, value their strengths, and are available to do what you can to help them 'soar',

  • I encourage you to look among ALL populations to seek out giftedness, appreciate them, and ensure that they have every opportunity to reach their highest potential, and

  • I encourage you to actively show your children and your students through your attention to their intellectual and affective needs that you love the 'genius child' within. Anything less would be a travesty.

..can you love an eagle, tame or wild?
Wild or tame, can you love a monster of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child,
Kill him and let his soul run wild.
 -Langston Hughes, 1947

For more information:

Piechowski, M. (2006) Mellow out-they say, If I only could: Intensities and sensitivities of the young and bright. Madison,WI:Yunasa books

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Teaching our Children & Youth to Survive & Thrive

Success is the process of learning and growing. It requires that the individual step out of line, away from the pack, and march to the beat of a different, sometimes distant, drummer.
~Dr. Dennis Kimbro, motivational speaker and author
(This post is a modified excerpt from my book: 'Bright, Talented & Black: A guide for Families of African American gifted learners' )
Every day, our children are bombarded with messages about what it means to be successful in contemporary society. The media usually displays success from a financial viewpoint, showing off the lives of wealthy, high-profile athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians. These people live in enormous houses, drive expensive cars, and only wear the latest fashions. Legitimately, many of these individuals have worked hard to accomplish their level of fame and accomplishment, and some of them regularly share their financial success with others through foundations, special schools, and other programs that they have developed.
Monetary wealth, however, is not necessarily the only definition of success that we want to pass on to our children & youth. Certainly, there is a satisfaction that comes from economic stability and monetary wealth, but there are other meanings of success that are perhaps more important. Dr. Dennis Kimbro, motivational speaker and author, defines success as follows:
      Success is born by the pursuit of a goal or an ideal which will benefit others as easily as the dreamer.
      Success can only be earned through individual initiative.
      Succeeding means risk taking, courage, faith, and commitment.
       Success demands the use of whatever abilities and talents are available.

                        Perhaps the great Frederick Douglass said it best- success is born of struggle. As a parent, you must help your child define success in ways that will be socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually beneficial to him. You want to challenge your child to develop a “success mentality” that will enable him to make the most of the experiences that he will have as he works toward a successful life in a career that holds meaning for him, as well as one that allows him to use his exceptional abilities for the benefit of others. Fortunately, gifted children have a strong ability to see success on a broader scale—how it can be attained in many different ways and then used to contribute to the greater good.
Talk to your child about her unique strengths and how focusing on those strengths can assist in the development of her plans for the future. You can also help your child develop a broader framework for success by exposing her to stories of individuals who are like her, who have the same kinds of interests, and who have been successful across many different fields. As a parent of a gifted student, you will witness your child moving through many different life stages and events which will challenge him in one way or another. Whether your child will emerge from these experiences successfully will depend not only on how he responds to them, but also on the type of support he has from family and friends.

Navigating through Multiple Worlds
In their quest to be successful, sometimes gifted minorities do what others may call “sacrificing their race,” becoming more like the dominant race in order to succeed. Some African Americans (and other minorities) who want to succeed in a predominately White society feel that they must learn how to “talk White,” “act White,” and use White social customs rather than their own. There are plenty of biographical accounts, dating back well over a century, of successful African Americans who have struggled with the challenge of “living between two races.”
Many African American gifted students report similar feelings today when they participate in gifted programs in which they are a minority—sometimes so much so that may be the only Black student identified as gifted within their class or program. The notion of “acting White” in order to succeed in their academic and intellectual endeavors is difficult for some high-achieving Black students to swallow, and they may underachieve to avoid these kinds of accusations from their peers. Not all high achieving Black students share this sentiment. Many Black gifted students enjoy success in their gifted programs, despite allegations that they may be 'acting white' and in spite of the fact that they may be only one of a few African Americans in the class or program.
“Acting White” is a concept that derogatorily refers to Blacks who use proper English when speaking, dress in a way that is different from what is currently popular in the youth culture of the day,  do well in school and attain high grades, and demonstrate other characteristics that some people attribute solely to academically-oriented White students. In a revealing study, Dr. Signithia Fordham and Dr. John Ogbu found that Black students who were given high-level coursework or placed in programs for bright students expressed fear of harassment for “not being Black enough” from others in their communities, especially from other students their age.
Although these kinds of negative stereotypes are sometimes associated with African American students who perform well in school, not all high-achieving Black students dislike being “the smart one.” As a matter of fact, many take pride in their academic achievements, describing how schoolmates and community members admire them and support them in their intellectual and academic efforts.  More recent studies share comments from black students who indicate a ‘scholar mentality’ and who are proud of their achievements. Despite how students may feel, whether negatively or positively about their achievements, the reality is that in the larger culture, high achieving Black students still face discrimination and bias at a higher rate than other students.
A sad commentary on the wider culture’s lack of acceptance of scholarly black students is read in the testimonials of graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who give evidence of having to ‘change their names’, disassociate from black fraternities, and even change their voices on the phone during the job hunting process. These young black men are bright, talented and black  (BTB) have graduated from one of the nation’s premier institutions, yet are still forced to disown a significant part of who they are- their names, their fraternities and even the tone of their voice. This is still America. Navigating multiple worlds is a reality for BTB students one that our society has not yet eradicated. Conversations and support from parents, extended family members, mentors, and caring educators are crucial for many students to attain careers that they are fully qualified for yet may suffer bias in the career hunting process.
Yet, we survive and thrive…
            Black students can still survive and thrive in America when they are ‘shored up’ by a strong circle of support made up of parents, extended family members, religious leaders who understand their exceptional capacities, intense emotions, perfectionistic tendencies and need for academically challenging schooling. These students can also survive when they have opportunities to engage in conversations and problem solving with their intellectual peers. Thriving is also enhanced when they are accepted and valued for being the exceptional individual they are without fear of bias and discrimination exacted towards them just because of the color of their skin.        
            Bright, Talented and Black students have a better chance of thriving when we advocate for them and encourage them to be the exceptional individuals they are. Our history as a people in this country provides countless biographical accounts of exemplary African Americans, male and female, who have made great contributions to their communities, this nation and the world. Most of these individuals came from very humble beginnings and faced unbelievable odds and yet, accomplished their goals – thus, they survived and thrived. They beat the odds, they dispelled the myths, and disproved the stereotypes. In a study of achieving high school students, one student responded to a question her environment by saying this: ‘When people see my home and the surroundings, they’d expect me to be of low education or incapable of educational success, because let’s face it, that’s the unavoidable stereotype. Therefore, for me to be doing so well in school is an extreme achievement. My environment encourages me to be successful in school in order to prove the stereotypes wrong’.
            Our children have within them everything they need to be successful, be satisfied with their accomplishments, and contribute to society in unique and meaningful ways. They have the gifts and talents that will enable them to achieve great things. They are depending on us to support them, listen to their needs, accept them, and help them become the exceptional individuals they were born to be. They are counting on us to advocate for them by ensuring that all resources that should be made available are where they need them, when they need them. They believe in us and expect us to believe in them. Surviving and thriving in American society is what they have the potential to do—together we can make sure that happens for each of them.
Joy Lawson Davis, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. For permission to reprint, please contact me:
For further reading:
Grantham, T.C., Ford, D.Y., Henfield, M.S., Scott, M.T., Harmon, D.A., Porcher, S., & Price, C. (Eds.) (2011). Gifted and Advanced Black Students in School: An Anthology of Critical Works. Waco, TX: Prufrock Press.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

On the Outside Looking In:Making a place for ALL gifted learners in Gifted Education

I've had a very, very exciting summer!! Shared some wonderful, restful times at home relaxing in the 'country' with family, slept late, hosted a birthday cookout, traveled up north, had time to rest and renew my mind, body & spirit.  Earlier this summer I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the  luncheon keynote speech at the Annual SENG Conference in Milwaukee. I was so moved by my experiences at SENG! The group was warm and very receptive to my message regarding our need to advocate more for African American and other diverse groups of gifted learners and to empower their families to learn more about gifted education and the needs of their gifted children. A few weeks ago, I received word that I won the election for an at-large seat on the NAGC Board of Directors...I'm so humbled and pleased to be able to serve. In particular, I look forward to bringing the needs of diverse gifted learners to the center of our conversations at NAGC during my tenure on the board. I also visited Duke University to work w/ a very special advocate of diverse learners and tireless scholar, Dr. Margaret Gayle. At Duke, I presented to educators and families- it was a great experience.

Just this weekend I visited Garland, Texas to work with educators helping them learn more about the challenges of Bright, Talented & Black students and empowering the families of these students. The highlight of my day in Garland was the evening session when  entire families: mothers, fathers, grandparents, young children and teens alike poured into the Curtis Culwell Arena to hear the research and practical advice designed to enhance the lives of their BRIGHT, TALENTED AND BLACK children. After the session, parents and children swarmed around me to express their gratitude and share their individual stories. The students were bright-eyed and enthusiastic, even on a Friday evening in a lecture hall..they were just as engaged as their parents. Some parents told me that it was as if I was right in their home with them and 'knew' their children and their experience personally...Children came to have their books signed and others to have me sign their 'save the date' notes sent by the district earlier this year. They had held on to them and brought the notes with them to the evening session.  I share all of this not to boast but to inform, empower and enlighten.
There are countless numbers of gifted learners in communities all across America who know that they are intelligent, creative, humorous, intense, quirky, compassionate, and special in many ways. Some of these children are already in specialized schools and classes for gifted learners- but many are not. (Unfortunately, national data indicates that African American, Hispanic American, Native American and low income learners across ethnic groups are usually NOT served at the same level as their Anglo American peers). Those students who are not in these gifted education classes and schools know who they are, they're just waiting for someone to recognize their 'uniqueness', speak up, and advocate for them to have access to the specialized 'gifted education and advanced academic' services.

Some of these children and youth - through no fault of their own, live in the most challenging of life circumstances with limited resources. They live in settings where adults are so pre-occupied with day-to-day existence concerns they have little or no time, energy, or heart left at the end of it all to inquire as to why their 'bright' child is having to repetitiously go through materials, is bored in school, may be getting into trouble, or seems to have no outlet in the school day for their brilliance. Others may come from families with fewer day-to-day concerns, but may still find it hard to be fairly evaluated and provided access to gifted services. These children and teens have the same inclinations, desires to learn, are just as curious, have as many questions, and have dreams to soar just as their peers IN those special programs do. Unfortunately for too many of these students- they remain on the OUTSIDE LOOKING IN. 

There's so much work to be done to make gifted education services equitable and accessible to students from all backgrounds who deserve to be IN special classes with culturally responsive gifted education-trained teachers, special schools, academies, summer programs,  and early college/university settings. 

As we begin this new academic year, I  challenge each reader, whether you are a parent, community member, or educator, to please do your part to speak up and increase your advocacy students who should have access to gifted education services that allow them to explore, question, create, demonstrate their special empathy, learn at their own level, and be self-fulfilled.

Please join me and others as we increase our advocacy efforts on behalf of those yet to be identified gifted learners who for too long have been 'on the outside looking in'. They deserve the same opportunities as others, don't you agree?

"It starts with the premise that talent lies in every American community..and then, puts that talent in the way of opportunity. It's as simple and as powerful as that"
-The Honorable Governor Deval L. Patrick, 71st Gov. of Massachusetts