This past week two things crossed my desk that didn’t seem to have anything in common — a new study about the merits of self-affirmation for Latino students and an update on a recent episode of the game show Jeopardy.  I saw this blurb in EdWeek about the values-affirmation study and immediately made a connection to CLRP. The Jeopardy item caught my eye because it was about something that had happened on the show on Valentine’s Day, but people were still clearly buzzing about it. And like the moment someone accidently stuck his chocolate into someone else’s peanut butter, I had an ah-ha moment.

The first part first.  The EdWeek headline read, Interventions Help Latino Students Beat ‘Stereotype Threat,’ Study Says.

Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara had a group of students, both Latino and white, participate in “values-affirmation” classroom assignments throughout the school year. The students were asked to select values that are important to them and write about why and to reflect in a brief essay how those values would be important to them in the near future.

The upshot of the study: The Latino students who completed the exercises earned higher grades than their Latino peers in a control group who did not do the affirmation exercise.

What caught my attention was the impact:  The positive academic effects from this year-long experiment that took place in only one class out of six for these middle school students persisted for three years.  These students had identity safety.

As educators, we employ culturally responsive strategies so that we can build students’ sense of self and well-being as a foundation for learning.  The threat of being excluded, marginalized, rejected or silenced within a given community is not only a real physical threat, but more importantly, it undermines one’s psychological well-being.  We want them to be mentally unshakeable.

This is what identity safety is all about, creating a strong internal sense of self and feelings of belonging, competence and self-acceptance that aren’t threatened in the presence of others who appear to have more advantage, who look “smarter” because they reflect the dominant culture. The identity-safe person celebrates all aspects of himself — his racial identity, his cultural identity, and his unique brand of genius.

Which brings me to Jeopardy.

People were still talking about Leonard Cooper, the winner of the three-day Teen Jeopardy Tournament. Leonard is the self-confident 17 year old African American student from Little Rock, Arkansas who won the quiz show and walked away with $75,000.00 despite being in last place at the end of the first day of the tournament and not knowing the answer to the famous final Jeopardy question.

Click on the clip and watch his unique win.

Immediately after his win the buzz started. His Youtube clip got over 2 million hits in a just a few days. The Huffington Post’s headline read:  Teen ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestant Leonard Cooper Answers Final Question Like A Boss.  “Like a boss” is slang for doing something impressively, with finesse.  (Old schoolers translate it as “like a pro” but add some swag). Some were using words like “panache”  and “brazen” to describe his game play.  Others talked about how he  “dropped the mic” (urban slang for when a performer or speaker intentionally drops/throws the microphone on the floor after an awesome performance) with the way he answered final Jeopardy.

Then it hit me.  This is about identity safety. Most folks have not seen it up close and personal.  It wasn’t swag or bravado we saw. It was Leonard centered in himself. He knows who he is.

What did that look like?  Well, through his game play he displayed what they call an academic mindset.  Academic mindsets are the psycho-social attitudes or beliefs one has about oneself in relation to academic work, summarized in these statements:

  • I belong in this learning community
  • My ability and competence grow with my effort
  • I can succeed at this
  • This work has value to me

Jeopardy isn’t school, but it is the closest thing to an academic environment on T.V.  Most of us think Jeopardy is for brainiacs. And there was Leonard matched up with two boys dressed in blue prep-school blazers looking like brainiacs or what one reporter called “future hedge fund managers.” Instead of a blue blazer and neat hair, he chose to show up in an olive green, long sleeve shirt, with a big 70s style afro. Just on appearances, it looked like he was outmatched and the odds were against him.

But Leonard was confident in what he knew, even if he called the clavicle a neck bone, and then had to physically search for and touch his own clavicle before he corrected himself and called it a collarbone — just nanoseconds before the buzzer rang. Hell, Leonard was confident even when he didn’t know the answer to a question.

Here are three things we can take from Leonard Cooper’s example and the values-affirmation study to share with our students.

1.    Stay tethered to what has intrinsic value to you.

The values-affirmation study reminds us that it isn’t just any ole set of values that anchor our sense of self. It is that set of values that has personal meaning.  The researchers designed the affirmation exercises by first asking kids what their top values were.  They then turned those values into affirmation statements and daily writing exercises that reminded students of how those beliefs served them in reaching short term and long term goals.

2.   Write your counter-narrative.

Both the values-affirmation study and Leonard’s example remind us of the power of a counter narrative.  Some call it “explanatory style”. It’s that story you tell yourself about who you are, what you are capable of, and why things happen to you.  Our explanatory style guides our actions.  Our explanatory story becomes a counter-narrative when it builds reliseincy against the negative messages of the dominant culture. For example, some viewers might have looked at Leonard’s afro and chalked it up to him being ungroomed or not “cultured” enough for Jeopardy. Leonard explained his afro as having a unique purpose. In an interview a few days after his win, Leonard talked about how he stopped cutting his hair in 2008 and picked it out everyday, taking special care of it because it protected his brain.

3.   Cultivate a growth mindset and reframe failure. Identity safety requires a growth mindset.  An important aspect of growth mindset is the ability to see failure as information, not as a judgement on one’s ability. Leonard didn’t let his failure on Day One mess with his mind. Instead, he kept his head in the game and began to strategize differently going into the third day.

4.  Believe in the sacredness of your intelligence and its ability to grow. Leonard has carved out a strong identity is as a learner.  What the media didn’t tell us at first was that back home Leonard, a senior, has taken 10 advance placement courses in his academic career and scored over 2100 on his SAT. But intelligence is more than knowing trivia facts.

On the show, he demonstrated his ability to analyze his two opponents and strategize against them .  At one point he realized that one of his opponents wouldn’t know the answer to a history question because he was a freshman and probably hadn’t taken a particular history course yet. And Leonard was right.

Now your turn.

What do you notice about how your identity-safe students move through the world? How are you helping them integrate and affirm their racial, cultural, and linguistic identities with their academic identity.