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Not Just Playing the Game: A New Vision for Black Gifted Children to Flourish in Learning and in Life

By Colin Seale.


I am not a fan of the humble brag. Whenever people post on social media about being “so humbled” to receive an accolade I always want to respond, “Wow, look how humble you are, posting your accomplishment for clicks and comments…maybe I should give you an award for your outstanding humility!” 


But being asked to contribute a piece for SENG’s library pertaining to the social and emotional needs of Black gifted students is sincerely humbling for me. As the grown-up version of a gifted child who overcame the all-too-common challenges of being Black and gifted at the same time, the opportunity to bring light to my negative experiences so other children don’t have to deal with them is a privilege. And as the father of two Black children who were identified as gifted (I make it a point to name them as “identified as gifted” as a reminder of how many Black gifted children remain unidentified), this is even more of an honor. My mother never had access to resources to help her understand my social-emotional struggles as a gifted learner, especially my issues with selective achievement (discussed in the preface I wrote to Dr. Kristina Collins and Dr. Javetta Robertson’s book: Underachievement in Gifted Education: Perspectives, Practices and Possibilities).  


Lastly, as a Black child who was identified gifted as a 7-year-old, but diagnosed with ADHD at 37 years old, it’s a great privilege to bring to light the legendary scholar-practitioner Dr. Joy Lawson-Davis’ realities of being a 3e child: a child who is twice-exceptional and part of a historically underrepresented racial group in gifted education.  


I often reflect on where I am today as a math teacher-turned-attorney-turned critical thinking evangelist who has been leading thinkLaw for 9 years, helping school systems create a world where critical thinking is no longer a luxury good. The point of my reflection is to guide a bolder vision going forward. Growing up as a student on free and reduced lunch with immigrant parents and an incarcerated father means that my story is an “exception to the rule”.  But what would have to be true to give Black gifted children growing up like I did a true opportunity to flourish in learning and in life? To give all children a true shot at being exceptional? This is a bold and strategic vision, because if we had a system that worked effectively to provide transformational educational opportunities for Black children, this system would benefit all students. 

 

To realize this new vision, we must shift the approach we’ve typically used for educating Black gifted children: shifting from “Playing the Game” to “Playing the Game AND Slaying the Game”.  


As Black women immigrants, my grandmother and mother came up under a set of conditions that forced them to work twice as hard to get half as far. As a Black boy growing up in Brooklyn, I received the same conditioning. But when I think about my Black identified gifted children, I refuse to teach them this lesson. Helping them understand that unfair barriers to their success exist is still an important part of their social-emotional development. It would be neglectful, for instance, to not have “the talk” with my children about how to handle themselves when, not if, they face what they believe is an unfair encounter with law enforcement.  But when I think about the vision for my children and all Black identified gifted children, I think it is important to give our kids the social-emotional tools of knowing how to navigate through these unfair systems and how to tactfully challenge and dismantle them.  


Acknowledging that the game exists is important. But acknowledging that the game needs to be changed and giving our children the tools to change the game is much more important.  For example, I once saw a meme on the topic of “Things Black people take seriously”.  It included gems like who made the potato salad/mac & cheese, knowing “Who all gonna be there,” and wearing street clothes on the bed. Made me smile, but there was one item on the list that made me cringe: being offered a bag after a purchase. 


I didn’t realize that this was “a Black thing”. But I asked around and realized that just about every Black person I knew, including myself, was conditioned to ask for a bag even when we bought a small item like a pack of gum. Why? Because if I had a store-issued bag, it would be less likely that I would be considered a potential thief. And why would I be considered a potential thief? Because that’s just the way it is.  


But is it the way it ought to be? 


When I think about the social-emotional development of Black identified gifted children, I consider the consequences of training them to walk on eggshells. When I am in stores with my children, I actively fight the urge to say, “Don’t touch anything”. Why shouldn’t they be able to experience the full extent of their curiosity through all of the senses? The reality is that they are being carefully watched throughout these stores and I don’t want them to face any unnecessary accusations. But if I’m honest, this isn’t the way it ought to be. My children should not have to walk on eggshells to soothe a retail employee’s racist suspicions. Imagine what Black identified gifted children would be able to accomplish if they were explicitly taught to challenge the gap between “the way it is” and the way things ought to be? 


I care so deeply about creating systems designed to unlock the brilliance of all children. But if this is a true goal for Black identified gifted children, we have to be very intentional about creating the psychological safety for these children to actually be brilliant. This requires a higher standard, a bolder vision. When we explicitly equip our children with the tools to not just play the game, but to play AND slay the game, we create the conditions that will ensure we no longer leave their brilliance on the table. 

_________________________________________________

Colin Seale was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, where struggles in his upbringing gave birth to his passion for educational equity. Tracked early into gifted and talented programs, Colin was afforded opportunities his neighborhood peers were not. Using lessons from his experience as a math teacher, later as an attorney, and now as a keynote speaker, contributor to Forbes, The 74, Edutopia and Education Post and author of Thinking Like a Lawyer: A Framework for Teaching Critical Thinking to All Students (Prufrock Press, 2020) and Tangible Equity: A Guide for Leveraging Student Identity, Culture, and Power to Unlock Excellence In and Beyond the Classroom.  (Routledge, 2022), Colin founded thinkLaw, a multi-award-winning organization to help educators leverage inquiry-based instructional strategies to close the critical thinking gap and ensure they teach and reach all students, regardless of race, zip code or what side of the poverty line they are born into. 


When he’s not serving as the world’s most fervent critical thinking advocate or tweeting from @ColinESeale, Colin proudly serves as the world’s greatest entertainer to his two young children.

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