Saturday, April 28, 2012

The legacy of Dr. Martin D. Jenkins: Being Black & Gifted is Nothing New

In the early years of the 20th century, in the midst of the furor about the intellectual inferiority of the ‘negro’ race, a young graduate student named Martin D. Jenkins began a mission. A mission to disprove theories being perpetuated that ‘Negro’ children were not as intelligent as their Caucasian counterparts and that they could not reach the levels of performance on traditional I.Q. tests that would classify them as ‘gifted’. In the early 1930s, Jenkins’ first research study written with his mentor, Dr. Paul Witty in 1934, was titled The educational achievement of a group of gifted Negro children and published when he was just a graduate student.
            Martin D. Jenkins grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana, the son of an engineer. His first high school experience was in a racially segregated high school in Terre Haute and later, in a larger integrated high school, where Martin was one of only a few Black students. He later graduated from  Indiana State and earned an engineering degree. After graduation, Martin returned home to help his father in the family’s road contracting business. Jenkins’ interest in education led him back to college to study in a graduate program at Northwestern University in Chicago. 

            In addition to his dissertation and other work co-published with his mentor, Paul Witty, Jenkins also published a separate study in 1943 of a little girl from Chicago with a measured IQ of 200 titled:  The case of B: the negro girl with an IQ of 200.  In examining the intelligence of Negro children, Jenkins used the same measures that white researchers had used to promote their theories of racial superiority (e.g., Weschler Intelligence Scale). Jenkins continued to pursue this interest, specifically looking for students through other contacts in Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, New York, and Chicago. His search resulted in case studies of 14 highly gifted Black students.

Today, African American and other culturally & linguistically diverse (CLD) students  are sitting in classrooms where they are considered less intelligent than others and not capable of performing in higher level instructional settings, much less scoring the perceived ‘gifted range’ on traditional tests. We have so much evidence to the contrary, from Jenkins’ early work to the present day stories that we see in the news media, on the internet, and in some very exemplary programs serving diverse populations of gifted students (though few and far between) across the nation.

There really are no excuses for the continuing state of ‘under-representation’ of cld students in gifted programs, except that some continue to perpetuate the myth that these children are less intelligent and should not be provided access to gifted and advanced learner programs. Bias, discrimination, stereotypical behaviors of educators, limited advocacy on the part of families and communities should not be accepted and allowed to limit students’ chances for a better future.  We cannot afford to lose the brilliance these students have. Like Martin D. Jenkins, we should be on a mission to ERADICATE UNDER-REPRESENTATION IN GIFTED PROGRAMS AND UNDERACHIEVEMENT OF CLD STUDENTS, in general. Won’t you join me?

To read more about Dr. Martin D. Jenkins, go to:

America is listening and reading Bright, Talented & Black: I was very humbled earlier this week, when a professor of education from the University of Alabama shared the results of a recent class assignment. His students in their Special Populations in Gifted Education course were required to read my book: Bright, Talented & Black for a course reading this semester. Rather than ask that they write a report, he asked that they create a ‘Book Trailer’. Please take a look at the Trailer and give her some feedback. I’m sure that she and her professor would appreciate it!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Exalting our Children: The Value & Impact of Praise on School Achievement

Just as gold is an ore with rich possibilities, so too is the presence
of culturally diverse gifted students in our midst. They
may be difficult to identify as gifted students and even harder
to convert through nurturing programs and services into creative
producers in our society, but the end result cannot be
denied. It is glorious to behold! Such students become the
exemplars for their culture and for ours.
—Joyce VanTassel-Baska

To exalt means to: praise, laud, acclaim, sing praises of, speak well of, extol.  The opposite of exalt is: denigrate, belittle, disparage, put down, malign, defame.
Today, our society spends an inordinate amount of time in different venues disparaging, maligning and denigrating culturally and linguistically diverse (cld) learners, their communities, and families. Today’s post will draw attention to the benefits of praising, lauding, speaking well of, and extolling these same children, youth and their families. This post is a modified excerpt of a chapter I wrote that was published in 2008. The chapter shares an extended literature review and findings of studies reflecting the value and use of praise in the very types of students and families that we often find ourselves doing everything but ‘praising’.  Please read, share and use this material as you make efforts to enrich the experiences of cld gifted learners in your work and community.
Talent development studies have consistently mentioned that one person; usually a parent, grandparent or mentor can be identified in the life of a successful gifted person to have had the greatest impact on their success.  When these individuals’ lives are examined more closely, there are expressions of encouragement and praise that the individual can remember as being of great support to them during their developmental years. Parents of gifted learner, in particular, those who are traditionally underrepresented in gifted programs nationwide, often believe that they may often be the child’s sole source of praise and encouragement. 
Many African Americans, Hispanic Americans and others who may be under-represented in gifted programs and those who originate from low income neighborhoods, often attest to the fact that it was parents, extended family members, and other adults in the neighborhood who encouraged them to do well in school so they could have a better life than previous generations. When they recognized a ‘spark’ of brilliance in these children, they would be encouraged to ‘go to school’; 'move on', 'do better', 'rise above the current circumstances'. These communities have always professed to believe that education was the ‘way out’ of oppressive life conditions. For generations students were also encouraged to believe that education was one of the most important mechanisms by which our people could be placed on a more equal footing with the dominant culture.  We admit, however, that there are scores of children and youth who don't receive this kind of nurturing, encouragement and praise from the home, however, there have been others just as instrumental in their success as the research synthesis notes below.


Five decades of research and theories examined reveal thematic concepts that have potential for expanding our understanding of the origins of learning and achievement of culturally diverse families and students. At a time when a 'deficit perspective' of the abilities, personal attributes, and home experiences of economically disadvantaged learners was pervasive in the field of gifted education, a select group of pioneers who believed differently about these learners and who set out to provide empirical evidence to the field that would enable the development of program models to more fully develop the gifts and talents of cld learners.
The research literature has provided evidence of positive characteristics of families, mentors, and extended family members, and programs  who use PRAISE and ENCOURAGEMENT  that positively impact  school achievement.
The following are characteristics that successful cld gifted students and their families have in common across cultural groups and studies:
o   Consistent encouragement from one single individual: mother, grandmother, teacher
o   Peers and cohorts of similar cultures, genders with similar ability levels
o   Extra support provided (socio-emotional and financial) from the extended family , including ‘church family’ and mentors
o   Parents/families who 'speak up' to access specialized programming for their high ability learners
o   Resilent behaviors (teaching how to 'bounce back' after failure or challenges) nurtured through ‘family stories’, and stories about same-culture/same-gender  leaders who ‘beat the odds’
o   Frequent conversations in the home about the value of education for the individual and the group’s upward mobility
The type of support mentioned here has  greatly contributed to the development of children’s internal strengths, resilience, and persistence in the midst of real-life, daily challenges that could inhibit their growth. Many cld gifted youngsters from challenging life backgrounds have succeeded because someone believed in them, praised them, spoke highly of them and continued to encourage them in a world where children like them are often denigrated, put down, and maligned.  One mother says it clearly in discussing how and why she supports her gifted African American male son’s school achievement:
There is much work yet to do in gifted education, children are emerging from difficult life settings each day, many hold the potential to lead this nation and our world in more ways that can be mentioned here. I encourage everyone reading this post to share it with others and be an encourager to a child who needs your support. While you’re at it, encourage their families and teachers, too.
Remember: We’re all in this together!!

Davis, J.L. (2008). Exalting our children: The role of family in the achievement of African American low income gifted learners. In T. Stambaugh & B. McFarlane, (Eds.), Leading Change in Gifted Education: The Festschrift of Dr. Joyce VanTassel Baska (pp. 161-168). Austin, TX: Prufrock Press.

Additional reading: 
‘I always want the best for him. I encourage him, I feel that if I don’t exalt him.. nobody else will’

Friday, April 20, 2012

Advocating Nationally for Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Gifted Learners

I have been a member of the National Association for  Gifted Children for a number of years and recently have become more active in the organization's leadership. After serving two terms as the chair of the Diversity & Equity Committee (now, share that role as co-chair with my friend and colleague, Dr. Margarita Bianco), I am increasingly concerned that the organization as well as other national leaders in education do all they can to 'pay attention to' the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse learners.

I'm fairly vocal and after many years on the 'front' in various roles in education, I don't mind speaking up and asking for what is needed. I'm too seasoned to 'dance around the issues' anymore.  I work feverishly in this cause because I know that there are so many high ability, gifted, highly gifted students all over this country who need vocal advocates. These children are counting on us to attend school board meetings, write editorials, join organizations, lobby, take on leadership roles, publish academic materials, develop new curriculum,  and share resources until we can ensure that every child who needs access to high end curriculum, challenging instruction, in the most rigorous and sensitive environment has what they need!

This seems to be a noble goal to some and maybe even 'utopia' to others. There are those who don't even believe that the cld gifted learner belongs in programs with others- that it's okay to identify and serve as long as they separated from the 'traditional gifted' crowd. Well, this brings to mind the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that 'separate is inherently unequal'. What we want for the cld gifted learner is access to program services that are characterized by excellence just as those services that others have access to. This is America. We want these students to go to the same quality programs as others, we want the 'playing field leveled'. To do this, we need strong national advocates to ask for funding, quality training in gifted education programs for culturally diverse teachers, and research dollars to continue learning more about 'best practice' in this field.

To maintain any national presence in  America, cld students can no longer be left out or be just an after-thought or be an issue addressed just to appease a few vocal advocates (hint, hint). CLD students are the face of America. ...

To help school districts, parents, advocates of CLD gifted students, the NAGC has posted a Position Paper on its website. You can access the paper here -

Read this paper, ponder over it, download it and share with others. The Diversity & Equity Committee members responsible for developing it believe that the paper will make a difference in school districts nationwide. We also believe that our international neighbors will draw from its wisdom for their students, as well. I'm pleased to be a part of the NAGC and to interact w/ the leadership and members who feel as passionately as I do about ensuring that all gifted learners have a chance at the American Dream~ They deserve it, don't you agree?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

'Mirror books' enrich the learning experience for culturally diverse gifted learners

I introduced the concept of 'mirror books vs window books' to my undergraduate students in our diversity education course this week in our discussion of CULTURALLY RELEVANT TEACHING (CRT). Many students remarked on their KWL (what do I know, what do I want to know, what have I learned) charts that they had never heard of the concept of 'MIRROR books vs. WINDOW books'. Several years ago, I read an  interview with Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a language arts specialist who later became a professor at The Ohio State University. As early as 1990, Dr. Bishop, began writing about the concept of 'mirror books' to emphasize the importance children having books that reflected their culture and experience. She also discussed window books as those books that provided children a glimpse of the world outside of their experience and noted that these were important as well. Some research has suggested that the use of mirror books contributes to increased reading comprehension scores for culturally diverse groups.

I want to remind educators and parents of the importance of students having access to literature that shares 'their story' and helps them see the possibilities inherent in life experiences through individuals who look like them, male and female, from every cultural group. Today, good bookstores and libraries are chock-filled with books that are written by and represent almost every cultural group in the world. It is the responsibility of educators, parents and other advocates to ensure that children and youth have access to books that represent their experience by authors who look like them as well as by other authors.

I am very pleased to note that authors of multicultural literature for young people are also publishing books that have gifted learners as the main characters and specifically identify the characters as such. One series that comes to mind is Walter Dean Myers' award winning 'The Cruisers' series.

The Cruisers is a three part series with parts 2 and 3 being released later this year. It tells a story of a group of gifted teens from a fictitious school for the gifted in Harlem, New York. To say that the storyline is well-done is an understatement. Each of the characters has their own strengths and special personality attributes. In 'The Cruisers' readers will see themselves and the daily struggles that diverse students have interacting in a school for the gifted with students from other groups. I highly recommend that teachers and parents also read this book.

Recently, I also came across another book by a new author. 'The Magic Pencil' by Karen Dabney is another good example of gifted black students interacting in school and life experiences with family and friends. What is so unique about 'The Magic Pencil' is that the main character actually discusses 'code switching' and the daily act of having to (and sometimes being forced to) speak 'standard' English and the colloquial language of some communities.

In this book, Dabney has done what no other author has done by having the main character actually talk about how he 'code switches' is why it is important to his daily functioning as a high ability student, who is also black. As one reviewer notes, the story of The Magic Pencil is 'brilliantly crafted'

Providing students a sense of all the possibilities through their reading materials by sharing stories and imagery of people (mirrors) who look like them and have their experiences AND opening new worlds (windows) through reading are equally important to the development as world-class readers, thinkers, and doers.
For more information about the importance of 'mirror' books-

Monday, April 16, 2012

Rural Area Gifted Learners

I was reminded this morning of the giftedness that dwells in the rural areas of this country by family and friends from home. I attended high school in a small rural community in Virginia. My high school graduating class had less than 55 students. My children also attended the same school. Over the years, many, many young people have attended my high school and have been nurtured either in their homes, or their churches or in the few special programs the school could provide with its limited economic resources.

Among the graduates that I know personally, there are many highly successful educators, bankers, artists, entrepreneurs, military officers, and even a few Phds who have distinguished themselves in their careers. These individuals had family support, or internal motivation to enable them to excel outside of their limited K-12 experience and reach the pinnacle of their careers or at least, become successful and provide well for themselves and their families.

So many others, however, without opportunities being made available through school programs languished and suffered. Without access to enriched school experiences and economic resources- rural area students- many who are also Black, Hispanic and Native American and come from low income families across the nation will never reach their full potential.

While we are considering the needs of gifted learners..this is just a brief appeal to NOT forget about the young scholars sitting in 'the country' in classrooms where they are bored, looking out of windows contemplating the solar system, the earth's ecology, designing a futuristic vehicle, writing the next classic novel in their minds, creating poetic verse, or developing a solution to world peace OR the cure to cancer.. these students need our attention too. Their schools need funding, highly trained teachers, and they need easier access to high end curriculum on a regular basis.

Let's keep this subset of gifted learners in mind as we continue to 'banter' about how best to serve gifted learners across the nation...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Launching WE ARE GIFTED 2!!

Join me as we discuss the needs of gifted learners from who are often overlooked, disregarded and cast to the side in the general stream of conversation about gifted children, youth and adults. Their needs are similar yet in many ways different, they originate from every community: inner cities, barrios, small & large neighborhoods, rural communities, reservations. These students come from every income level.

I want to help you have access to publicly-funded gifted education services that exist throughout this nation and to help you advocate alongside other educators and families for increased attention to the intellectual, affective and career needs of ALL high ability learners.
Here we will share resources- have conversations, and I will answer your questions. I'm committed to this cause and I want you to join me!

With all of the attention on standards, educational reform, accountability, we need every voice in America- parents, extended families, educators, community leaders, faith leaders, to ensure that students whose minds and energies we will depend on in the future are not overlooked!!

Join me!!