By Martha Lopez, WATG Board Member
When you tune in to the news, it seems that most stories concerning Black and Latino males are overwhelming with bad news. In the United States, Black and Latino males lead the nation in many negative statistical categories, including incarceration, death, unemployment, and high school dropout rates (Davis, 2011). A large proportion of Black and Latino male children live in poverty, in high crime neighborhoods where they see little hope of pulling themselves out of the cycle of failure. For over a decade, I have worked closely with Black and Latino males as their teacher and advanced ELA teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools.
The first thing we need to know is the truth: 9.1% of Black male students are in special education compared with the national average of 6.5%. Meanwhile 14.5% of Black males are in honors classes compared with the national average of 25.6% of all students (Toldson, 2012). We can look at these figures and focus on the fact that Black males as a group lag behind other student groups. However, we can also look at the figures another way, celebrating that there are more Black males in honors classes than in special education. Black and Latino gifted male students can succeed—and they are succeeding every day. What about Black and Latino male students that are potentially gifted? How can we help them succeed also?
Bridging the Gap.
It’s a simple concept, but one that is too often overlooked. Building relationships with students is the key to their success. Our goal as educators should be to educate, activate, and motivate our students regardless of their background. Otherwise, we fail them.
How do we build healthy relationships with Black and Latino male students? We must know who they are, both in and out of school. We must take the time to explore not only their test scores, but also information like family dynamics (incarceration, homelessness, abuse, hunger), strengths and weaknesses, emotional well-being, speech problems, and other obstacles affecting their success. Next, to help bridge the gap, I will suggest additional recommendations that have worked for me.
Be an Active Listener
When your students express their thoughts, pains, or concerns, listen without distraction and without judgment. You may find that some kids are dealing with serious issues at home. Even when their concerns are minor, the empathy you display will go a long way in determining how they will perform in your class. By practicing active listening, you let students know that you really care about them, thereby gaining their trust and making them more eager to learn from you.
I have learned so much from my students by simply listening to them. Several years ago, one of my students approached me before our reading enrichment class. This youngster was broken and had low self-esteem. His perception of himself, especially as a student, was negative. I listened to him tell me about his family dysfunction, including an absent father and lack of support. I actively listened to him and after he was done talking, I told him his current situation wasn’t his final destination. He may not control other people’s decisions, but he has total control of the decisions he makes. After this conversation, he knew he could come talk to me anytime he was feeling down.
Be Fair and Consistent
Treat every student fairly. What does being fair look like? It means that you are impartial and you hold all students under your leadership to the same rules. It’s tough to build relationships with students who feel they’re being treated unjustly. When you and your students set rules, everyone must abide by them. For example, if you have a rule of no chewing gum, that rule should apply to all students. If you are ever in doubt about your discipline choices, ask yourself if you would treat your own child that way.
As a coordinator for our elementary ballet program, I had a close relationship with my young dancers, who trusted me enough to lean on me for guidance and advice. At the same time, I was known as a firm teacher with high expectations. At times, my young dancers would try to get away with irresponsible behaviors like claiming they were too tired to attend ballet class. They knew without a doctor or parent excuse, I had to hold them to the same high standard as I did with other students. At the time, it was tough for them to understand, but eventually they respected the fact that I held them accountable.
Healthy communication means connecting with trust and respect so that you know students and they know you. Let your students see that you’re not perfect. Let them know you made mistakes along the way, and tell them how you overcame those mistakes. You can’t teach students to learn from their mistakes if you never share your own. The more transparent you are, the more students will trust you. For example, one of my Latino students was having a tough day and said, “It’s not easy being the dumb one in math.” I shared with him that when I was in school, math was a tough subject for me too. Like him, I was a better reader and writer. I mentioned to him that I also felt frustrated and understood how he felt, but I was motivated to get help and work extra hard. We both came up with ideas and strategies he could use when he felt stuck in math. Number one on our list: Ask for help! His math scores began to increase and so did his self-efficacy.
Challenge Your Mental Models
When judging someone, we often fall back on mental models, which are thinking patterns established by past events, experiences, and messages we receive from the media. These models serve as filters through which we respond to the world. They shape what we see and hear, what we feel, and what we do. Unfortunately, mental models can give birth to stereotypes. We all respond to situations and people based on our mental models, which are often invisible to us.
That’s why it’s important to stop and ask ourselves, “Is there a possibility that I could be wrong?” If your unconscious mental model tells you that Black and Latino males aren’t capable of being successful students, it will affect how you respond to them and they will perceive your low expectations. We cannot lower our expectations for our students at any time. Every student has the potential to succeed. No matter what their home situation is or how they dress or look, we must view every student as a potential success. For example, one of my students had trouble reading at grade level. He would get upset because he was embarrassed that he struggled to sound out words. I stopped students from making fun of him when he read aloud. In private, I explained to him that if he wanted to compete with the rest of the world for his education and future employment, he would have to work on reading until he got it right. I shared about my dyslexia and my fear of reading aloud because I knew my classmates would laugh at me. Therefore, I had to spend extra time sounding out words until I got it right. I set high expectations for him instead of feeling sorry for him. I was not going to let him self-doubt or underestimate his potential—I was going to challenge him to do better. We continued to read aloud, and this young man became one of the best presenters in the class!
Discipline with Care
Discipline is essential for all students, but it has to be the right kind. Two mistakes are especially harmful to Black and Latino male students. The first is using sarcasm. Sarcasm is the last thing that a young person coming from a tough background needs to hear. A sarcastic remark may make the educator feel superior, but it can only make the target of the remark feel inadequate. Second, I’ve observed many educators showing anger when they have conflicts with students, and the results are never positive. There’s a difference between being angry and being firm. What our Black and Latino male students need is an understanding teacher who doesn’t take their behavior personally, but instead responds with empathy and calm during high-stress situations.
Whatever form of discipline you use, do it with care and concern for the student. Many students have serious emotional issues that are not being addressed. To build healthy relationships, you must let students know that even if they make a terrible mistake or decision, you still believe in them and their ability to bounce back and make better choices. That will go a long way toward building better relationships with them.
Hungry to Learn
Finally, some low-income Black and Latino males may feel under-appreciated, unimportant, and unequipped to succeed. They feel that educators not only don’t expect them to do well, but also don’t put forth effort to help them grow. But poverty doesn’t have to mean “at risk.” Many young people who grew up in poverty have become gifted doctors, lawyers, business owners—and teachers. Beneath their exterior, these young men want to be educated just like any other student. They are hungry to learn. They just need educators with empathy who care enough to build relationships with them.
If you have any questions or comments about this topic, please contact Martha López at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Martha Lopez, WATG Board Member
As a former classroom teacher of 12 years, I have had the great fortune of teaching incredibly exceptional bilingual students. Jessica Ojeda-Barojas is one of those students. In December of 2019, Wisconsin State Senator Tim Carpenter (3rd District), who sponsored her for this program, announced that Jessica was accepted to participate in the Wisconsin Senate Scholar Program. This program is an elite program designed to challenge Wisconsin's best students with an advanced government curriculum that includes classroom instruction, roundtable discussion sections, and a lab component. This highly competitive program only selects 33 students.
Allow me to share who Jessica is and why her acceptance is so important. She is currently a senior in the iForward Online Public Charter School where she is on track to becoming the class of 2020 valedictorian. But, my relationship with her began years ago. I met her eleven years ago when I was her 1st and 3rd grade teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools. Since she was very young, it was evident that she was a highly gifted learner, and she consistently demonstrated excellence throughout her educational career. Besides her intellectual capability, she has a strong desire for social justice issues and a passion to serve the Latino community. She offers a cultural perspective and representation that we desperately need in government. Jessica has an exceptional ability to understand logical connections that allow her to detect inconsistencies. As a result, she possesses the critical thinking skills necessary to effectively solve problems, regardless of their complexity. Jessica demonstrates the ability to solve a variety of problems in conventional and innovative ways. She has shown she can identify and ask the important questions which clarify conflicting views from either side to provide the best solutions. For example, I have seen Jessica engage in emotionally charged conversations, critically examine the issue, and consistently respond in a logical and constructive manner. She always offers an acceptable and appropriate solution, and is respectful of others’ ideas and opinions. These are all skills we expect our elected officials to possess and carry out on behalf of their constituents.
Why is her acceptance into this program so important? As of today, there are 36 Latinos in the House of Representatives (out of 435 representatives total), and four in the Senate (out of 100 senators), yet Latinos make up 17.8% of the US population. In recent years, there are more Latino politicians in congress than in prior elections. However, there is still a lack of matched representation. If we sought for perfect Latino representation, we would expect about 77 House members and 18 senators. Unfortunately, we are far from matched representation. As you can see, Jessica’s participation is important because she represents the 6% of Wisconsin’s Latino population. Thanks to the Senate Scholar Program, this opportunity creates a pathway for minority students to engage in politics and possibly help increase minority representation in the US government.
Jessica is one of the 33 exceptional young leaders that will participate in this program in 2020. Congratulations to all of the juniors and seniors that will be working with Senators, legislative staff and the University of Wisconsin faculty. The Wisconsin Association for Talented and Gifted applauds your accomplishments!
“The Senate Scholar Program is an intensive week-long educational program offered by the Wisconsin State Senate. Admission to the program is highly competitive and is limited to 33 academically exceptional high school juniors and seniors from around Wisconsin. Each Senate Scholar receives a hands-on, up-close view of the Legislature’s role in our democracy.” For more information, visit http://legis.wisconsin.gov/ssgt/senatescholar.
Maria Katsaros-Molzahn, Ed.D
Ever since Carol Dweck wrote Mindset: The New Psychology for Success (2006), the educational community has focused on the importance of teaching perseverance to all students. Dweck discovered that all people fall somewhere within the mindset range from fixed to growth. According to the research, 40% of all people fall within the growth mindset, another 40% the fixed, and 20% are somewhere down the middle.
People with a growth mindset understand that learning requires effort. Rather than having an idealistic outlook, these people tend to be pragmatists. They recognize that hard work does pay off. Conversely, people with a fixed mindset view traits and talents as bestowed, or fixed, at an early age. For fixed mindset personalities, practice might lead to a better outcome, but it is fraught with frustration. Most importantly, when a fixed mindset person fails at something, the fault is attributed to external variables, and not to the effort of the individual.
Interestingly, many gifted students tend to exhibit fixed mindset characteristics. Thinking about this population of children, this observation makes sense. Gifted children often possess a heightened awareness of perfection within a given domain. Further, their cognitive abilities usually mean their reasoning skills are at odds with their fine motor capabilities. They know how a product should appear, but may lack the appropriate skill set to ensure success. This can result in frustration and resignation... (“I just am not good at this.”)
Parenting (and teaching) gifted students is filled with joys and challenges. These kids have insights that go deep, and often beyond their years. However, when fixed mindset kicks in, they can lose sight of reason. Luckily, however, growth mindset thinking is teachable. With a bit of practice, students and parents can develop growth mindset thinking. Here are some tips to facilitate the process:
Tip #1: Talk about the brain as a muscle. All muscles need exercise, a healthy diet, and healthy habits to grow strong.
Tip #2: Model making mistakes! Children need to see adults in the process of cleaning up after mistakes. They need to hear phrases such as, “Oops, I just __________, this is frustrating. Now I have to______________.”
Tip #3: Differentiate between too easy, too hard, and just right. Growth mindset does not mean one can walk into an operating room and be the doctor. Instead, growth mindset means, if someone desires to work in the medical field, he/she sets forth the motions and extended effort to get accepted into the medical field, do the work, and continue to improve with practice.
Tip #4: Use real-life examples to teach about mindsets. Arguably, growth mindset existed long before Dwek named it. Reading books about real people from varying backgrounds allows children to view the inner lives of important people, and to vicariously experience the joys and challenges that they experienced as they learned to apply growth mindset practices. Some of my favorites include Carry On, Mr. Bowditch (Latham, 1955), Wilma Unlimited (Krull and Diaz, 2000), and Heart of A Samurai (Preus, 2012).
Tip #5: Take the mindset quiz (available online).
Remember, the growth mindset strategies do not guarantee success; instead, they make arriving at success easier.
Working for the Oregon School District, Maria has 25 years of experience in the field of gifted education. Ever since reading and teaching about Growth Mindset, Maria discovered students were more comfortable accepting challenges!
Published:February 28, 2006
Publisher:Random House Publishing Group
Author:Carol S. Dweck
When I joined the WATG Board, I promised my ten-year-old daughter that she would have an opportunity for her voice to be heard about what it was like to be gifted, and to give her perspective on what gifted children need from their teachers and schools. To this end, I interviewed my daughter. This is what she wants people to know about being gifted and in school:
As my final interview question, I asked her what she would do if she were “queen of education.” She said she would make a new law. If someone is identified as being potentially gifted, the school would test the student and accommodate the student’s learning needs. The school would have to help the student. She wanted to make it so that there was no way around the law to help gifted students.
In our gifted classrooms, it is important to keep pace with the students to avoid boredom as well as to balance their skill learning with emotional development and activities of interest. One way to allow gifted teens to dig deeper into the issues that they care about is to use technology to encourage creative problem solving and create social awareness.
On Friday, October 4, twenty-eight gifted teens from ten different school districts in WI participated in the WATG Teen Conference. It was truly fascinating to see these young researchers, artists, writers, programmers, and caring individuals team up to create online games and board games.
The creative process: Teams of students brainstormed a list of different issues that they cared about and voted for the top five topics. Then, each team worked to research one of the five topics. The goal was to design a video game that focused on building social awareness of their topic.To learn more about the rules and instructions of game play, the students played various board games. At the end, they presented their game idea to other participants. What a neat idea for students to build personal knowledge of their chosen topics and bring awareness through online games to change the world!
The five issues that the teens worked on are:
● Civilian Casualties in War
● Personal Safety and Bullying
● Pollution and Environment
● Distribution of Wealth
A big thank you to Stacy Read, Web and Software instructor at Waukesha County Technical College for sharing her knowledge with these students! You can check out their game creations at:
Student and Parent Voices
Hear from and about gifted and talented students and parents across the state Wisconsin.