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Cultivating and celebrating Black students’ strengths: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave”

Cultivating Black students’ strengths

By Jameela Conway-Turner and Kyle Fagan
June 27, 2019

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I Rise. I Rise. I Rise.” — Maya Angelou

On a cold, sunny day in February, some 300 educators and students from across Wisconsin gathered at Edgewood College in Madison for the state’s first Black History Education Conference. The two-day event, titled “Bringing the Gifts that My Ancestors Gave,” highlighted practices for celebrating and cultivating Black students’ strengths and supporting Black student success.

We’re proud to share that a catalyst for the event was a Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest research review, which identifies 20 promising practices associated with Black student achievement. The review was a project of the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance (MAGRA). Facilitated by REL Midwest, this partnership of Wisconsin educators, district leaders, and other stakeholders works to increase the use and understanding of research to improve education outcomes for the state’s Black students.

>> See the related REL Midwest infographic [347 KB PDF icon ] highlighting the research review’s key findings and a mini documentary showing how one district is implementing some of the practices.

MAGRA member Andreal Davis, a culturally responsive practices coordinator at the Wisconsin Response to Intervention Center, envisioned and organized the conference. Davis was eager to share the practices in the research review but wanted to do so in a way that would breathe life into the strategies and meaningfully engage educators. At the same time, she wanted to promote culturally responsive practices, the focus of her work.

Davis explained, “A conference offered a way for people to come and learn about these interventions [and] about [the] valuable practitioners that we have around the state and around the country that can help bring these interventions to life.”

Exploring promising practices for supporting Black student success

Davis timed the conference to coincide with Black History Month. Carolyn Stanford Taylor, Wisconsin’s state superintendent of public instruction, opened the event, stating, “By being here, you are celebrating Black History Month in a personal and powerful way… As you learn from presenters and from colleagues, I encourage you to reflect on your own learning and on how you could implement these interventions in your classroom and school.”

20 promising practices to increase the academic success of Black students

State level

1. District assistance and intervention teams

District level

2. Hiring certified teachers

School level

3. Elementary School Success Profile Model (data organizational tool)

4. Good Behavior Game with enhanced academic curriculum (behavioral intervention)

5. Benjamin E. Mays Institute Mentoring Program

6. Parental involvement at home

7. Parental involvement at school

8. Positive Action (social-emotional development)

9. Student Success Skills (staff professional development and coaching)

Classroom level

10. Development of student-teacher relationships

11. Formative assessments (to monitor learning)

12. Instructional reform practices in mathematics

13. Grade-specific instructional focus in mathematics

14. High expectations in mathematics

15. Time spent on homework

16. Time on task in mathematics

Supplemental interventions

17. Out-of-school-time programs

18. Self-affirmation in high stereotype-threat conditions

19. Summer reading program with free books

20. Urban debate leagues

Keynote speaker Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D., professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, invited attendees to lead with Black students’ strengths when applying the practices presented. She connected this approach to Sankofa, a word from the Twi language of Ghana meaning “reach back and get it.” Sankofa is associated with the proverb, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten,” and is often symbolized as a bird with its head turned backward, feet facing forward, and carrying an egg—representing the future—in its mouth.

“Student learning is part of our ancestral heritage,” Dr. Ladson-Billings noted. “Teaching and learning is deeply engrained in the African-American culture. Today we need teachers who are willing to see the gifts that our children bring from their ancestors. This is why Sankofa matters.”

Conference sessions invoked the concept of Sankofa and invited attendees to reframe the story of Black students by focusing on the gifts they bring. The goal was to draw on the research and highlight ways that educators can celebrate, cultivate, and build on Black students’ culture and strengths.

Attendees received copies of the MAGRA research review and supporting materials. In addition, REL Midwest screened the mini-documentary Supporting Black Students’ Excellence: Connecting Research to Practice, which shows how one district is using some of the practices highlighted in the research review.

Davis also presented a professional development program, Cultural Practices That Are Relevant, which she created to help educators build contextualized knowledge of the culture, community, and identity of Black children and families and then integrate that knowledge into practice. The program includes seven interrelated experiences: book studies, articles, guest speakers, coaching/modeling, conferences/workshops, school site visits, and community site visits.

Other sessions connected to the practices from the research review while sharing stories from the field. Topics included Black girls and computing, a summer reading and fitness initiative for male middle school students of color, building a culturally and linguistically responsive school library collection, and using the power of a drum circle to integrate social and emotional learning with academics. In all, the conference hosted 22 sessions, including a pre-conference and sessions for students.

In one of the event’s most powerful moments, Davis illustrated the promising practice of self-affirmation by taking the stage with her young grandson to recite an affirmation she wrote years ago:

I am somebody.
I am capable and loveable.
I am teachable;
And therefore I can learn.
I can do anything when I try.
I’ll be the best I can be.
Each day,
Each day,
Each day,
I will not waste time,
Because it’s too valuable.
And I am too precious & bright.
I am somebody.
I am somebody.
I am somebody.

— Andreal Davis

Davis and her grandson recite an affirmation
Davis and her grandson recite an affirmation

Moving beyond knowing to doing

As the conference drew to close, attendees were encouraged to sustain the learning by creating action plans that identified tasks and outcomes aligned with the shared practices. The plans have proved fruitful. Several administrators report they have already have begun applying some of the practices, including self-affirmation strategies. Attendees also report that they are building relationships through mentorships and partnerships to move the work forward. In addition, one conference presenter is now writing a culturally responsive children’s book that focuses on positive identity development.

Davis’s hope—and ours at REL Midwest—is that the event helped educators leverage research-based practices to “move beyond knowing to doing.” To apply the concepts in your context, consider the following:

  • What approaches are you currently using to cultivate Black students’ strengths? Which of the 20 promising practices [347 KB PDF icon ] in the REL Midwest research review could further support your students?
  • What systems do you have in place to continuously evaluate the progress of local efforts to support Black students and to identify areas for improvement?
  • Who can you engage as critical allies in this work? What opportunities exist for collaboration?


Keynote speaker Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

Keynote speaker Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings

MAGRA leads Dr. Kyle Fagan and Dr. Jameela Conway-Turner

MAGRA leads Dr. Kyle Fagan and Dr. Jameela Conway-Turner

Session on using the power of a drum circle to integrate social and emotional learning with academics

Session on using the power of a drum circle to integrate social and emotional learning with academics

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Author(s) Information

Jameela Conway-Turner Staff Picture

Jameela Conway-Turner, Ph.D.

MAGRA Research Liaison | REL Midwest

Kyle Fagan Staff Picture

Kyle Fagan, Ph.D.

MAGRA Partnership Facilitator | REL Midwest


Beating the odds (2)

Charter Schools (2)

College and Career Readiness (42)

Data Use (32)

Discipline (4)

Early Childhood (31)

Educator Effectiveness (36)

English Learners (10)

Literacy (11)

Math (1)

Online Courses (7)

Research Tools (2)

Rural (14)

Teacher Preparation (24)

Teacher Recruitment (2)

Teacher Retention (2)

Teacher Workforce (14)

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