by Deborah Mersino
On October 7, 2011, Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, author of Bright, Talented, & Black: A Guide for Families of African American Learners, served as a Guest Expert on Global #gtchat. What transpired during that hour moved me immensely and also touched those participating in the chat.
Our discussion about identifying and serving gifted learners from Argentina to Somoa highlighted the fact that many of the challenges pertinent to African American gifted learners today mimic the issues faced by gifted and talented individuals of other races worldwide. We were extremely fortunate to have Dr. Davis with us, as she shared her perspectives on how educators, parents, caregivers, and advocates of Black gifted learners can foster more support for this critical population.
Whether you are a parent or grandparent looking to support your gifted learner or an educator or administrator who wants to better understand the specific needs of Black gifted learners, you will find this book and Dr. Davis’ Web site to be an essential guide chock full of relevant, timely information and resources.
It’s been a privilege getting to know Dr. Davis these past few months; I highly respect her work. Later this month, I will share a follow-up post, which will include a sampling of the online resources she shares in her book and a poignant poem by her daughter, entitled “I Am.” For now, though, please enjoy this Q&A with a true game changer, who is working tirelessly to ensure we support all gifted and talented learners worldwide.
1. What inspired you to write this book?
As a gifted education coordinator in local school districts and later as state department director I was in contact w/ many parents & educators who were concerned, as I was, that schools were not appropriately identifying and serving all gifted learners. Too many Black students, low income, and other diverse populations were attending schools wherein their strengths were going unrecognized and thus, the children were unchallenged and their gifts and talents wasted. I also realized after my interactions w/ so many parents over the years, that one of the reasons that more white students were being served was because of strong advocacy on the part of their parents. I knew that whenever I had a chance to write a book it would be for Black parents who needed to know more about gifted education so they too could become strong advocates and ‘push’ schools to do more for their high potential and gifted learners. The black community & educators also needed to know more about challenges these students face and how conditions could be improved in schools for the benefit of more students.
2. What are some of the most common challenges Black gifted learners face today?
There are three that always come to mind when this question is asked: 1) The first challenge is low expectations that many educators have for African American and other diverse populations simply because of their discriminatory behaviors/biases and lack of knowledge about the black culture. 2) The second challenge is related- teachers with minimal or no training about cultural diversity and how culture impacts the way students learn, how teachers lack understanding or experience with other groups and the strengths that culturally diverse populations can express in a culturally sensitive environment. 3) The third challenge is retention in gifted and advanced learner programs once identified and placed. Identifying students is a challenge, but without the right set of affective supports- many students will lose interest, feel out of place, and simply withdraw from services designed to prepare them for more challenging learning environments in high school and beyond. Supportive peer or cohort groupings of gifted learners from similar cultural groups have a strong impact on the retention of students in gifted and advanced learner programs. Engagement of parents & families also has a positive impact on student success and retention in gifted programs.
3. What do you hope parents will take away from reading “Bright, Talented, and Black: A Guide for Families of African American Gifted Learners”?
I hope that this book empowers parents to become Advocates and Champions for their children and others like them. When we do see a population of black students identified for gifted programs, these students are still under-represented as compared to the general population. Nationwide, while black students represent 17-18% of the general school-aged population, they still only represent 8% of the identified gifted population. When parents are empowered to speak up for their own children, my hope is that they will do the same for others. Far too many students are languishing in classrooms everyday because their teachers don’t recognize their gifts or refuse to and that parents don’t have the information they need to make good decisions about how to get schools to address their child’s strengths and provide the right services for them.
4. What can parents, educators, and community members of all races do to better ensure support for this critical population?
Becoming informed is the first step, the next is forming community-school task force groups to look into why schools and school districts are continuing to overlook or under-serve these students. Community-school task force groups can be VERY effective if they hold consistent meetings, with deliberate agendas to probe the school district and use information from Bright Talented & Black and other resources to inform their goals and objectives.
5. If a parent is concerned about their child or teen potentially underachieving, what can they do?
Underachievement is often difficult to spot. It is more than your seeing a ‘dip’ in school performance. Underachievement can have many causes, student-teacher relationship, school environment, the student’s own internal motivation, peer relationships and home issues are just some of the triggers. What is a bit tricky, however, is that some students may be getting ‘good grades’ and still underachieving, because the coursework lacks challenge and is too easy. Thus, those students may also be underachieving because of low level expectations and coursework.
When a parent realizes that a student who was once very satisfied and motivated by the school experience loses that motivation and satisfaction…the first step is to talk with your child. As a matter of fact, in research studies, high achieving Black students report that at home they talk frequently about school related matters, values, traditions and that their open honest conversations assist in keeping them focused in school. Accusations of the teacher, school, and student are not beneficial. But, a frank honest conversation about what is happening at school will usually reveal some clues. A meeting with the teacher(s) or counselor is also helpful. There are a number of excellent books to assist parents with tackling underachievement. I list many of those books in the Appendix of Bright, Talented & Black. Other resources can be found at the Social-Emotional Needs of the Gifted (SENG) organization’s website.
6. How have your own experiences influenced your insights and advice?
My experiences as a student, parent, and educator taken together have enabled me to look at the issue of under-representation of Black students in gifted programs from many viewpoints. While my schooling took place many years ago, I was accelerated and grade-skipped during elementary school and for the most part, challenged across content areas. Later, in high school, I was bored and unchallenged- It was through the arts and leadership experiences that I had opportunities to stretch and have a more enriched experience. As a parent, I went into parenting then as a strong advocate, but not only for my children, but for others as well. I took advantage of numerous opportunities to initiate new programs that would serve more students and provide enrichment as well as acceleration for them. Working at the state department and seeing gifted education from a broader perspective did the most to inform my insights. It was through my work at the state level that I came to understand more fully what disadvantages some children had simply because of their ethnicity, their geography/location, or their income. Clearly, more work had to be done and I committed myself to devote my career to opening access and opportunities for students whose needs were not being met in schools in varied settings.
7. Although the title says it’s a guide for families, “Bright, Talented, & Black” is highly relevant for educators as well. What do hope educators will take a away from this book?
I do hope that educators will use this book as a resource guide to help them become more familiar with the intellectual and affective needs of African American gifted learners. I also hope that the book will provide resources, strategies and programs they might utilize locally in developing improved services options for these children and others whose needs are currently not met in gifted programs. I believe that Bright, Talented & Black while written with the African American community in mind can serve to enhance understandings of the nature and needs of all gifted children. With that in mind- I think that educators will find this a useful tool that they want to be sure to have on their bookshelf and one that they will gladly refer to others.
8. Is there anything else you would like to share?
I would just like to say in another generation, I do hope that we can ERADICATE the whole notion of under-representation from our educational jargon. Identifying the gifts of learners from all ethnic groups is critical to our survival as a nation and as individuals. We can no longer afford to waste anyone’s gifts and talents. The cure to cancer, AIDS, the nation’s economic dilemma, development of an educational model that is efficient, effective & equitable, and the end to the energy and ecological crisis lie in the mind, heart and soul of a gifted learner somewhere right now. No one knows who that gifted learner may be, what neighborhood they may come from or what hue their skin may be, or how much money their family may have. But it is our shared obligation to seek them out, nurture them and provide options for the development of their ideas.
About Joy Lawson Davis, Ed.D.
Dr. Davis is an assistant Professor of Education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she teaches undergraduate & graduate courses in Diversity Education & Gifted Education, respectively. She began her career in gifted education as a local coordinator in Virginia and eventually served for five years as State Specialist for Gifted Programs, K-12 for the Commonwealth of VA. As a sought-out expert in the area of Diversity in Gifted Education, Dr. Davis has provided services to districts across the country, in the Caribbean and South Africa. She holds two degrees (Masters and Doctorate) in gifted education from The College of William & Mary in Virginia, and is currently serving Co- Chair of the National Association for Gifted Children’s Diversity & Equity Committee. Dr. Davis also writes a column for Teaching for High Potential, a publication of the NAGC and is co-editor of MOSAIC, the Special Populations Network newsletter for NAGC. Most recently, Dr. Davis was named to the Advisory Board of Gifted Child Today, a practitioner-oriented peer reviewed journal with the largest subscription base of any gifted education journal in the nation. Dr. Davis is married, has three adult children, and shares four grandchildren with her husband.