Can black students successfully navigate the current academic maze? In a previous post, I referenced the dismal achievement gap between black and white students. But fortunately, that’s not the final word on educating all students successfully. As long ago as 1994, Gloria Ladson-Billings was countering the despair of this academic failure by researching teachers who were able to “keep the dream alive.” She presented her findings in The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, inspiring and detailed findings of eight classroom teachers who made a huge difference in the achievement of their students. In her second edition of Dreamkeepers, Ladson-Billings identifies three central features of their success and also highlights 15 other “dreamkeepers” she has met since the first edition of the book.
What characterized successful education of black kids? It’s what characterizes successful education of all kids, actually. First, their teachers had a strong focus on student learning. They communicated high expectations. They recognized that their students were already learners. Rather than teaching skills in isolation, they embedded instruction in broader contexts. They recognized that tests alone do not provide sufficient opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery and encouraged students to use writing, speaking, and exhibitions/ performances as well. They looked at teaching as “drawing out” knowledge as well as providing opportunities to explore information. They TRULY believed that all kids can learn. Second, students were a part of a learning community which was culturally relevant. Ladson-Billings described this as “We are family,” where teachers and students developed close relationships, where teachers and students alike were well-grounded in their own culture (and the mainstream culture, if those were different). These exemplary teachers were connected to their kids both in and out of school. Third, teachers required students to understand the “sociopolitical underpinnings” of their education. They challenged students to question assumptions and focus on ways to improve their world. In fact, Ladson-Billings met another exemplary teacher who had actually been taught by two women in her research study and who was inspired to become a teacher herself.
I can’t possibly summarize the vibrancy, the joy, and the refreshing taste of success that the author captures in her study of these teachers. They had different teaching styles but each accomplished the same goal: success for all students. Ladson-Billings’ research is well-organized, thorough, and uplifting. To answer my initial question: Yes, black kids can excel! If teachers are looking for a perfect read for their “book club” or professional development, this is a winner.