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Developing a Scholar Identity: Let’s See More Boys and Color

Each year a large, nationwide cadre of AVID scholars graduate ready to enter college. They are ready to learn, ready to face the demands of their professors, and ready to navigate a somewhat daunting system. We believe our graduates meet the standards set forth by David Conley in his four dimensions of college readiness. They possess the cognitive strategies, key content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills (or “college knowledge”) necessary to persist and attain a degree.  A recent release on over 20,000 AVID graduates shows that they take tough courses (over 70% are in AP or IB), complete four-year college requirements, apply to four-year colleges, and the vast majority (over 90%) plan to go to a college or university. All this in spite of the fact that nearly 70% are low-income and most will be the first in their families to attend college.

Although we have reduced the gap for our African American males, Hispanic and Black boys are still not represented in the AVID cohort to the extent we’d like to see. They are underrepresented when compared to White and Asian boys, and represent a significantly lower percentage of AVID graduates than the girls.   When we can recruit boys of color into AVID and retain them, they perform as well as or better than all other groups, including the girls. We believe this has a lot to do with them developing their identity as scholars.

What are the obstacles to developing a scholar identity in our boys of color? Gender alone may play an inhibiting role, as do differences in brain development between boys and girls, and their classroom interactions with their teachers. Then there is that omnipresent factor…the peer group.  

Pedro Noguera has focused on peer group influence in students, as have Donna Ford and Gilman Whiting, both from Vanderbilt University's Peabody College. In a 2007 interview Ford noted a study by Dornbush and Brown that showed the peer influence as strong for all groups, but especially strong for African Americans and then for Hispanics. “Both of these groups are very people-, family-, and group-oriented,” she said. “They are often communal or socially interdependent. Thus they have a harder time separating their identity from their peers.”

Tapping into these characteristics as a strength will be at the core of some of the presentations at AVID’s National Conference this December, at which Ford will also appear on a panel. For further reading on accessing the strengths of the Black community, see the conference proceedings paper from our first Up Where We Belong Conference.

In her ACCESS interview, Ford, who has written extensively on African American students and gifted education, went on to discuss the “demonization” of Black males, and how they receive negative messages so that they don’t see themselves as AVID or AP material, and are therefore identified for gifted education programs at a lower rate than Black girls. Ford also remarked that one of the challenges Black students, especially boys, face is being told they are “acting White” if they are in AP or gifted classes.  Ford also pointed out that the majority of our teachers are white females (70 percent nationally) and that “female teachers are less tolerant in general of the male student who is active and lively. Without an understanding of how boys learn, teachers suffer and students suffer.”

The culture of a school can reinforce negative stereotypes or can provide a positive emphasis on academics. In his letter “What Do We Celebrate?” Patrick Briggs, AVID Center’s Texas State Assistant Director, discusses the emphasis high schools place on athletics as opposed to academics, especially for African American males.  In reflecting on a campus he visited where 100 percent of the basketball players were Black and yet a very small percentage of the AP student were Black boys, Briggs notes that administrators should look carefully at the composition of the AP classes and be intentional in scheduling Black boys into AP in groups. Briggs recalls what it felt like to be the only Black boy in his AP classes, continually teased for “acting White.” “Please believe me that peer pressure was important to me,” he writes. “I wanted to fit in and not be teased. AVID would have helped me by helping the demographics of my honors courses look like the demographics of my school. As an administrator, I made sure that happened and AVID was my vehicle. I started by making sure that every Black boy had at least three other Black boys in his honors classes.”

The culture of low-expectations in our school systems is explored by Gilman Whiting in his 2006 article for Gifted Child Today, “Enhancing Culturally Diverse Males’ Scholar Identity.” Whiting proposes that the underachievement and the underrepresentation of Black and Hispanic males in gifted education (and I would add in AVID) is influenced by their identity as a student and more specifically as a scholar. Creating a “scholar identity,” Whiting says will increase their achievement so they are more likely to be seen as gifted. Whiting stresses the importance of self-efficacy for culturally diverse males, which fosters resilience, self-confidence, and self-control. “They like who they are,” he writes, “and they believe that they are stellar students.” Whiting, like Briggs, reminds us that Black and Hispanic males often find their identities on the athletic field or in the entertainment industry.

With a scholar identity, diverse males, according to Whiting, view themselves “as academicians, as studious, as competent and capable, and intelligent or talented in school settings.”  Developing aspirations is critical, he says, which helps with focus and long-term goals. Diverse males thrive academically with mentorships, activities that stress racial pride, and when they associate academics with masculinity and don’t view being a scholar as “feminine.”

Creating a scholar identity is precisely the phenomenon that occurred for the first group of AVID students whom Mary Catherine Swanson recruited into her revolutionary course in 1980. Swanson, who will open AVID’s National Conference, developed behaviors in her students that branded them as scholars. She had her students learn to:

  1. Sit in the front and come to class prepared with books and materials.
  2. Take systematic notes and process and summarize those notes. (These notes were also graded weekly.)
  3. Develop high-level questioning skills.
  4. Use organizational and study skills techniques, including planners and binders. (Binders were also graded weekly.)
  5. Interact effectively with their teachers (we call it SLANT.)
  6. Collaborate in study groups called tutorials (also graded on participation.)

In AVID, we have asked our sites and districts to be more intentional about recruiting male students, especially males of color. We have also asked them to recruit more male tutors. Some of the sites involved in our African American Male Initiative have created single-gender classes for Black males, with Black male teachers who loop with them. Other sites have started clubs for their males of color to reinforce their pride and strengthen their scholar identity.

Using AVID and other approaches to create a scholar identity can combat what Joshua Aronson and Claude Steele describe as “stereotype threat.” In an interview, Aronson, then an Associate Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU’s Steinhardt School, described for us the phenomenon as well as what we can do to mitigate it. Stereotypes about intelligence still prevail, he says, but are just part of the list. “We all know them,” he said. “Girls can’t do math, Asians can do math, Jews are generally smart, and Black and Latino students are generally slower academically. So when a black student walks into a classroom or interacts with a white teacher, he has reason to wonder if his teacher believes he lacks intellectual ability.” Stereotype threat manifests itself as a fear of making a mistake, saying something wrong, confirming the long-held beliefs about students of color. Worse, he says, this results in students tensing up and performing poorly on standardized tests, public speaking, and other academic efforts. The good news, according to Aronson, is that stereotype threat is partly the results of relationships and situations, “so there is a lot we can do to limit its negative effects.”

At Vanderbilt, Donna Ford and Gilman Whiting have introduced a summer program for local students, The Scholar Identity Institute. Watch this video to see the concepts they deliver and the reaction of the students.

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Reader Comments (1)

This article is packed with the tools and research that we, as educators, need to begin the discussions as we reflect on our respective schools. It is a perfect kickoff for a site team meeting and/or Socratic seminar. I envision an AVID Site Team pairing this article with their site's own data, and then engaging in the dialogue that will begin powerful change within a school.

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWendy Cooley

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