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True Justice for Invisible Children:

A Dream Deferred and the Dreamkeepers of African American Children

School Invisibility of African American Children in Spaces for Other People’s Children

The Invisible Children: School Integration in American Society, Ray C. Rist’s case study of African American children in a recently-integrated school, argues that, after the African American children entered into the school environment, nothing in the instructional context changed to accommodate them even after they started underperforming. There was no attempt to understand their cultural perspectives and experiences; there were no cultural artifacts to make the new instructional context less alien for them. Their voices and agency were not acknowledged. Their families were not seen or heard as part of the equation. Communicating with parents to understand their children’s needs and home lives was not deemed necessary. None of these students’ funds of knowledge were integrated into the school environment to create a richer and more scaffolded learning experience. The expectation was that they leave everything they were familiar and identified with at the door in order to “assimilate”.

In a similar vein, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine in Black Students and School Failure discusses the use of culturally biased IQ tests in schools after Brown vs. Board of Education, a trend that has allowed segregation to persist to the present day. African American children were placed in dead-end tracks, receiving remedial, low level instruction from the least prepared of teachers. They were simply too invisible to receive additional interventions before being placed in low-quality tracks. So other people’s children ended up in other people’s spaces. Irvine describes the damaging effects of losing cultural synchronization when schools were integrated and African American children were placed in classes led by white teachers who did not share or understand African American culture. She also contends that white teachers have often offered less positive feedback to and have had lower expectations of African American children.

Placing African American children in Special Education programs has also helped perpetuate segregation. In Who Benefits from Special Education? Remediating (Fixing) Other People’s Children, Ellen Brantlinger describes the negative consequences of labeling students as “disabled” and separating them from their peers, the cultural biases inherent in the way that we assess and view children's learning difficulties, the social construction of disability, and the commercialization of special education. The testing practices often used to place African American children in Special Education and the impact of these practices on teacher perceptions have been condemned by Ronald F. Ferguson in “Teachers’ Perceptions and Expectations and the Black-White Test Score Gap”.

The Identity of African American Children: Involuntary Minority Status & The Dual Consciousness

The way in which African Americans were introduced to the United States may have an academic impact, as John Ogbu and Herbert Simmons argue in “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities”. They describe African Americans, who can attribute their presence in the country to slavery, as an involuntary minority. They also contend that students who identify as members of an involuntary minority may feel varying degrees of cynicism regarding the American educational experience. They may not believe in the American dream, or prioritize academic achievement, because of their community’s lack of social capital and its historical experience with discrimination. They may feel that, ultimately, hard work will not significantly improve their chances of leaving the margins of American society.

An issue raised by Herbert Gans in Ethnic and Racial Identity is the distinction between ethnic identity and racial identification. While ethnic identity may be personal and private, racial identification is imposed on an individual by society. Once racial minority children become aware of racial identification, color may become an important part of a newly complicated identity.

W. E. B. DuBois calls to mind this identity/identification distinction when he discusses the dual consciousness of African Americans. In The Souls of Black Folk he explains:

“After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness - an American, a Negro; two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife - this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self....” (p. 3)

In “If Justice Is Our Objective”, Joyce King states that,

“White supremacy racism idealizes ‘human beingness’ as a white middle-class ‘mode of being’. African American people (and others) who are subordinated to this dominant ‘paradigm of value and authority’ experience a ‘psychic disorder and cultural malaise’ that results from the sense of ‘nihilated identity’ this (racial) subordination produces. Derived from the French words ‘neant’ or ‘neantise,’ ‘nihilated’ means the total denial of one’s identity (as a human being).” (p. 346-7)

Prudence Carter writes about what racial minority students may do to avoid feeling like they have a nihilated identity. In Keepin’ It Real, she maintains that some choose to opt out of ‘acting white’ because, by sticking to their cultures of origin or ‘keepin’ it real’, they gain a sense of comfort and do not compromise their identities. Carter divides minority students into mainstreamers, straddlers, and noncompliant believers. Mainstreamers’ behavior reflects white middle-class values, described as acting white; straddlers cross the boundaries between both cultures; noncompliant believers abstain from using the codes of the mainstream. Carter concludes that students’ cultures of origin may give them needed resilience - that, whether they choose to straddle cultures or not, what is most familiar to them may be what helps them develop a resilient sense of identity in a world that may not fully value them.

Racial identification has also impacted African American children’s self-confidence when taking standardized performance assessments. As Ronald F. Ferguson contends, the threat of being stereotyped often has a deterrent effect on the test performance of African American children. More research on the negative effects of standardized math testing on African American children has been presented by Julius Davis and Danny Bernard Martin in “Racism, Assessment and Instructional Practices: Implications for Mathematics Teachers of African American Students”.

African-American identity also has a complex relationship with language. In contrast to immigrant groups who may have the option of preserving the language that connects them to their roots, most African Americans were stripped of the opportunity of knowing their ancestral languages. Many could, however, be technically called bi-lingual or bi-dialectical due to the dialect which is spoken in a large number of African American homes, which has been given such labels as Ebonics, Black English, African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and African American Language.

In “If Justice Is Our Objective”, Joyce King is emphatic in arguing that one of the ways that African American children were denied their humanity was through the denigration and dismissal of their dialects. Moreover, as Sylvia Winter expresses in “The ceremony must be found: After Humanism”: “At this level of Otherness the ‘negro’ was not even considered, since he was not imagined to have languages worth studying, not to partake in culture, so total was the mode of Nigger Chaos” (p. 36).

The Third Space

Joyce King writes about the need for the third space for African Americans in schools - a space for “co-constructing what is mutually meaningful”. She argues that schools must respect the importance that African Americans tend to place on communal values, extended family, social networks in churches, as well as appreciating their uses of language and culturally distinctive art forms. Schools must also consider the affective and spiritual dimensions that African American psychologists deem essential to a successful educational experience for African American children. King maintains that schools must be made aware of their own important socializing role.

The caring-in-schools expert Nell Noddings writes about the important role of the physical environment for demonstrating to students that they are valued in schools. In The Challenge To Care in Schools and her most recent Caring, she explains, “We need to learn how to care for the world of human-made objects and their arrangement. To appreciate the human-made world in which we live, we might pose a thought question for a class of students: What if we had to start from scratch? How much of the human-made world could we thirty people recreate? What would we have to know?” (p. 148). Ideally, schools’ physical space would include cultural artifacts that represent students’ varied backgrounds.

Another way of demonstrating to African American children that they are cared for is having high academic expectations for them. The topic of high expectations has been discussed by a number of researchers (Banks (2004); Boykin (1986); Boykin et al. (2005); Brantlinger (2006); Cuban (1989); Ferguson (2003); Jussion (1989); Jussion and Eccles (1992); Tyler and Bokin (2006) (see references below)). One of the most revealing studies is Ronald Ferguson’s exploration of one of the most important influences on a student’s life: the teacher. Ferguson examines the way racial biases may affect teachers’ expectations of and behavior towards African American children. One of the main reasons that teachers’ biases are so difficult to measure, Ferguson claims, is the lack of a clear benchmark against which to measure bias. He argues that teachers’ perceptions of their students’ performance at the beginning of the year may lead them to derive unfounded conclusions about their students’ potential. These assumptions will persist for the rest of the year and may become self-fulfilling prophecies, further widening the achievement gap. For a variety of reasons, Ferguson adds, African American children are generally outperformed by white students from the beginning of their schooling experiences. A child with enormous potential may have had his/her early academic performance reduced as a result of growing up in impoverished circumstances. Subsequently, teachers’ low expectations can increasingly delay the development of the low performing child’s abilities. Thus, it is not surprising that the achievement gap tends to increase through the years. If instead, these students were placed in programs where teachers go out of their way to find, reach, and develop the African American child’s potential, the achievement gap would begin to close.

Ferguson raises a number of additional issues: African American students tend to be more influenced by teacher perceptions than white students; they are likely to do better when the answer wait-time is longer; their misbehavior tends to increase their teachers’ negative feedback; and they tend to receive more negative feedback than their white counterparts. Another obstacle is the race-related anxiety effect that minority children may feel when they are assessed, a factor that exacerbates the teacher-expectations trap discussed above.

An important driver of the academic engagement of African American children is their sense of belonging, or lack thereof, in their classrooms and schools. According to Engaging Schools by National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, children in urban schools tend to be less engaged than children in suburban schools. This book discusses students’ different degrees of disengagement: from poor attendance and low grades to dropping out of school. So that children may feel valued as classroom participants, Engaging Schools (2006) recommends school practices that,

“address psychological variables related to motivation, such as competence and control, beliefs about the value of education, and a sense of belonging. In brief, engaging schools and teachers promote students’ confidence in their ability to learn and succeeding in school by providing challenging instruction and support for meeting high standards, and they clearly convey their own high expectations for their students’ success. They provide choices for students and they make the curriculum and instruction relevant to adolescents’ experiences, cultures, and long-term goals, so that students see some value in the high school curriculum.” (p. 3)

This report also recommends the elimination of tracking and the creation of smaller learning communities that foster more personal relationships between teachers and students.

Critical theorist Paulo Freire has significantly impacted modern pedagogy through his advocacy of greater student agency. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he makes a distinction between what he calls banking pedagogy and liberation pedagogy. Banking pedagogy is a more conventional approach in which teachers do not take into consideration their students’ agency. Teachers simply “narrate” their lessons, disregarding the invaluable input that students can bring to the learning experience. Genuine learning does not take place since students cannot relate to or engage with the lessons. The student’s “becoming” as a learner never takes off. What is more, students never really integrate into the classroom community since they are not invited to participate. While the teachers are the subjects, the students are the objects. Meanwhile, the teachers do not gain as much as they could from their vocation since they have not allowed the children to transform them.

On the other hand, in a class where liberation pedagogy is implemented, children’s agency is taken seriously. Students experience meaningful learning, with their interpretations and prior experiences becoming part of the pedagogical equation. In addition, students develop a sense of belonging in the school community since they have become full participants. The teachers are no longer the subjects; nor are the students the objects. They collaborate and interact in a rich dialogue in which the teachers learn as much as the students. Both teacher and student “become” more human and more connected. In Freire’s words,

“In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teacher’s existence—but, unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher” (p. 72).

Joyce King (2004), meanwhile, discusses the problem of teachers who do not understand their role as transformational agents for social justice. She argues that teachers must train their students to become critical thinkers who can understand unjust school structures. On the subject of language, she recommends bringing the student’s home dialect into the classroom, explaining that “[l]anguage is fundamental to culture, consciousness, and identity” (p. 27). King adds that teachers who do not understand this transformational role, and fail to inculcate critical thinking, practice what she calls “dysconscious racism” and help perpetuate injustice.

A powerful model of teacher research that emphasizes enhancing the agency of African American children is presented in Gary Anderson’s Studying Your Own School. In this model, African American students are encouraged to become critical of, and work to transform, the structural inequalities of their school.

In Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit maintains that teachers must also teach mainstream codes of success to their African American students. She argues that, while white middle-class children typically come to school with the advantage of already knowing these codes, African American children often lack this much-needed knowledge.

The Dreamkeepers: Culturally Relevant, Revolutionary, Humanist

An essential practice recommended by researchers is the implementation of culturally responsive pedagogy. Ladson-Billings, one of the strongest advocates of this practice, calls teachers who follow this approach dreamkeepers. The teachers profiled in her Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children impart to their students the codes of mainstream success without ever devaluing or neglecting their original cultures, home experiences, or dialects. Their students are never invisible in the classroom as they are given the tools to become more visible in mainstream society. Ladson-Billings explains that by claiming to not see any differences between their students, teachers neglect to acknowledge the importance of cultural responsiveness:

“My own experiences with white teachers, both preservice and veteran, indicate that many are uncomfortable acknowledging any student differences and particularly racial differences. Thus some teachers make such statements as ‘I don’t’ really see color, I just see children’ or ‘I don’t care if they are red, green or polka dot, I just treat them all like children.” (p. 31)

Ladson-Billings observes that the dreamkeepers she profiles have special personal qualities such as charisma and coach-like persistence. They also have high self-esteem and high regard for others, believing that all students can succeed. They view themselves as part of the school wide community. They see teaching as giving back to the community and encourage their students to do the same. Moreover, they perceive teaching as an art and themselves as artists. Culturally responsive teachers help students make connections among their community, national, and global identities. They expect their students to teach each other and take responsibility for each other. They conceive of knowledge as continuously recreated, recycled and shared by teachers and students; not static or unchanging. They see excellence as a complex standard which takes student diversity and individual differences into account.

Ladson-Billings proposes the following tenets of culturally relevant instruction: First, culturally relevant teachers strive to raise their less academically inclined students to a higher intellectual level. Second, their classrooms function as well-connected learning communities. Third, their students’ prior knowledge and experiences are integrated into the curriculum. Fourth, there is a broader understanding of literacy which includes the oral and written expressions of African American dialects. Fifth, students and teachers are critical about and work to transform social inequalities. Sixth, teachers understand their role as political beings.

Calling to mind the work of caring-in-schools expert Noddings, Deborak Stipek writes about the impact of caring relationships on children who are labeled “at-risk”. In “Relationships Matter”, Stipek claims that in an era of high-stakes testing, preoccupation with test scores may be undermining student learning.

“When tests become high-stakes, teachers naturally focus their attention on the knowledge and skills the tests measure-leaving less time to engage students in conversation about personal issues or make them feel valued and supported. […] Learning requires effort, and one of the best predictors of students’ effort and engagement in school is the relationships they have with their teachers. To promote high academic standards, teachers need to create supportive social contexts and develop positive relationships with students.” (p.46)

Lory Janelle Dance’s Tough Fronts: The Impact of Street Culture on Schooling also offers valuable insights. Her research illustrates the effects of caring on street-savvy urban African American and Latino/a students from low income communities. She proposes a typology of these students and their teachers: teachers are grouped into the categories of uncaring/unempathetic, caring/unempathetic, and caring/empathetic, while the students are classified as hard, hardcore wannabes, and hard enough. Her conclusion is that only the caring/empathetic teacher gains moderate to adequate support from the hard enough student. Dance adds that the minimum requirement for a teacher to reach street-savvy students is to be down which she defines as “to be hip or cool; to be included or a part of something; to understand someone or something; to be respected or accepted by someone or some group” (p. 10). Like Carter, Dance stresses the importance of keepin’ it real for children who lack mainstream cultural and social capital. A trusting connection with down teachers can make a great difference for these children.

John Baugh in “U.S. Implications of Brown v. Board of Education” expresses the following thoughts on how to draw from the African American linguistic experience to better reach students:

“When personal proclivities, peer pressure, and the emergence of the global impact of hip-hop are taken into account, there can be little doubt that educators will encounter considerable linguistic defiance in the classroom. Ironically, the global growth of hip-hop provides many traditional educational opportunities that can help close existing educational achievement gaps. Educators can tap into the existence of urban verbal battles or poetry slams that thrive on vernacular innovation. Most people find language to be a fascinating subject, and popular lyrics and other forms of non-profane language can be used for educational purposes by creative teachers who are willing to acknowledge the value of those languages that students bring with them from their home communities.” (p. 100)

Culturally engaging schools must include administrators, faculty and counselors who represent African Americans and other minority communities. These adults can serve as mentors or as cultural brokers, a term used by Suarez-Orozco, Suarez-Orozco, and Todorova in Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society and one that is arguably just as appropriate for African American as for immigrant children.

In “How White Teachers Construct Race”, Christine E. Sleeter draws on her own experience as a white teacher to stress the importance of the point of view of the minority educator. She describes a “gap between the cultures of the community and the classroom” (p. 163). By including the other point of view, schools can begin to reverse the effects of a racist society. Even if teachers care about their students and are not outwardly racist, their life experiences might be limited. The person who knows what it is like to be the other will have a stronger capacity to deconstruct racist structures and facilitate the construction of more equitable ones. Sleeter’s research fails to find a fundamental change in the understanding of race by white teachers who have undergone two years of racial-awareness staff development. She concludes that much more can be accomplished if the voices of African American educators are heard, a point also made by Lisa Delpit in The Silenced Dialogue.

The “At-Risk” Label

When one considers how the term at-risk tends to be associated with racial minority children, one wonders if our low expectations for these children actually endanger their success. The term may ultimately accomplish nothing constructive to help students escape their putatively “at-risk” status. It may be better to use the term “at-promise” for children who are not achieving their potential.

We must stop looking at African American children from a deficit perspective. We must become more effective at discovering their agency and drawing on their funds of knowledge. We must never expect children to be ashamed of their cultural identities or anything else that gives them resilience because we have decided to racialize them. Instead, we should help them appreciate the value of their cultural and linguistic heritage and develop a resilient sense of identity. Children must never be asked to hide an important part of themselves in order to become more visible in school.

If we listen to African American children with the approach of a down educator, we will access their funds of knowledge and enhance their agency; will help them keep it real while they become more academically engaged. If we avoid banking pedagogy and listen to what these children have to say; if we let them show us the world as they see it when we give them the tools to critique it; if we learn from their experiences; if we see them as if they could be our own children, we will contribute not only to their humanity, but to our own as well.

One of the books that has impacted me the most in my understanding and appreciation of the African American experience is Wilma King’s African American Childhoods (2005). Kings offers detailed portraits of African American children at various historical moments. In a review of the book, I described what I took away from these portraits:

“But what is most impressive is the courage of children who did nothing to deserve their dehumanizing conditions; who did anything to survive; who cared deeply for their siblings; who got beatings to protect their parents; who were treated like animals by their peers; who spent the civil rights era marching and struggling side by side with adults”.

As I read these words now, I notice how often I used the word who; it looks as if I did this on purpose, to grant well-deserved humanity to those children. Books like King’s remind us of the dignity of children whose experiences might otherwise have been forgotten. We must continue telling their stories because, as King explains, the path to a future of freedom for these children is to rediscover their pasts.


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