by York Williams
In the film Akeelah and the Bee (2006), directed by Doug Atchison, the complex character named Akeelah, played by Keke Palmer, provides an eloquent portrayal of a gifted student who is from a culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) background (Ford, Grantham & Whiting, 2008) and presents with an extraordinary amount of talent overall. There are some simplistic, but at the same time uncritical characteristics of Akeelah that represent aspects of a traditional gifted student who has also overcome obstacles across race, class, gender and environment. Akeelah is a symbol of resilience and self-determination which plays a significant factor in her overall gifted identity and development (Goings and Ford, 2018).
Akeelah lives in South Central Los Angeles with her single mother and her three siblings, where all of them experience a difficult journey together; especially since their mother is overwhelmed by grief after their father’s death. As a result of this grief and loss, Akeelah begins to miss school on numerous occasions and the principal intends to give her a detention but instead decides to put her in for a spelling bee that she wins because of her exceptional spelling ability. Akeelah is expected to request Dr. Larabee, the new English instructor at their school to coach her as she anticipates participating in higher level spelling bees. Thus begins the relationship between mentee and mentor.
Dr. Larabee, a distinguished teacher and language scholar begins to evaluate Akeelah’s potential. Eleven-year-old Akeelah is a stand out and quickly draws wide applause as she champions over her spelling bee competitors and continues to demonstrate strength, ingenuity and resilience throughout her training and competition, while at the same time developing empathy for her classmates. However, Akeelah’s tenacity wanes a bit as she begins to skip classes in order to lessen her reputation as a “brainiac.”
There are some simplistic, but at the same time uncritical characteristics of Akeelah that represent aspects of a traditional gifted student who has also overcome obstacles across race, class, gender and environment.
When Akeelah begins to question who she is and explore her own self-determination, she quotes Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” This dualistic view of how she sees herself in the midst of others who do not see her true talent is revealing and allows the audience to learn a bit about Akeelah’s giftedness, introspection, and gifts with words. Later, in a discussion with her mentor Dr. Larabee, played by Laurence Fishburn, she notes, “I’m naturally inquisitive,” to which Dr. Larabee confirms that sometimes this is synonymous with being considered obnoxious, again demonstrating Akeelah’s critical thinking abilities, in addition to her natural capacity for exploration and depth.
Eventually, as one might expect, Akeelah makes it to the spelling bee finals where her tenacity, endurance, and resilience come to a head with her opponents. Akeelah has already garnered some great exposure in her school and community, including making new friends that cross racial and social economic boundaries once laid concrete in South Central LA. But in spite of her adolescent developmental milestones and realization that she is fit to raise her own standards even if her mother cannot assist her right now, Akeelah has the whole community rooting for her and assisting her, propelling her to win the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC.
In the end, Dr. Larabee goes back to work after a long sabbatical and Akeelah’s mother who is played by Angela Basset, reconsiders pursuing the college degree she abandoned after feeling she couldn’t make it after all of her losses. Additionally, her newfound friend named Dylan intentionally misspells a contest-winning word when he realizes Akeelah has thrown the contest in his favor. shift from a flat character to a more complex one allows us to see the intellectual growth and curiosity often synonymous with gifted students and eligibility for same. In the end, we are able to see Akeelah’s more emotionally sophisticated self as evidenced in one quote: “You know that feeling where everything feels right? Where you don’t have to worry about tomorrow or yesterday, where you feel safe and know you’re doing the best you can? There’s a word for that, it’s called love. L-O-V-E.”
Unfortunately, in today’s gifted eligibility standards, Akeelah would be hard pressed to be discovered for giftedness, since in PA, under chapter 16 Gifted Regulations (2000), students have to meet criteria listed in a typical counselor and teacher made rubric before even being considered for gifted and talented programming. Such criterion referenced rubrics are typically bias and exclusive, leaving CLD students at a disadvantage (Ford, 2010). Afterwards, if students like Akeelah make it through the first prong, with trained and qualified teachers who can locate gifted students, she would also have to possess a Full Scale Intelligent Quotient (FSIQ) around 128-130, in addition to if whether or not the school or Local Education Agency (LEA) utilize additional eligibility criteria, perhaps even a Naglieri, a more diverse cognitive assessment instrument to consider her social, linguistic and resilient qualities exhibited in this movie (2003).
Finally, Akeelah might meet with resistance in PA since CLD gifted students are often under-represented in addition to under-taught where one would find similar schools like hers in urban school districts (Ford and Moore, 2013). As such, Akeelah would not be found to be a student in need of gifted enrichment, or accelerated curricula (Goings & Ford, 2018).
Psychological, Social and Behavior Challenges
Hébert (2011) cites to Kazimierz Dabrowski’s (1902-1980) five levels of adult development: self-interest, group values, transformative growth, self-actualization and the attainment of personality ideal (p. 14). Hébert maintains that these five levels of development represent the stages of human personality and emotional development along a continuum.
Individuals may present with skills sets at various levels of the continuum and some may overlap. For example, older adolescents (18-21) may be at the level of self-actualization while also experiencing self-interests. It is important for educators of the gifted to understand the various stages of psycho-social development in order to better support their students. Relatedly, for Akeelah, one can see the psychological development take shape as she realizes that she has talent and presents with some exceptional skills to allow her to win the school and regional spelling bee competitions, in which she has to demonstrate moderate effort.
It is important for educators of the gifted to understand the various stages of psycho-social development in order to better support their students.
Hébert also discusses Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (p. 29). Gardner identified seven separate human capacities: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. These play out in Akeelah’s social intelligence. Hébert notes that years later Gardner added naturalist to his list. Gardner examined the development of personality and cognition and maintained that there are two distinct personal intelligences that may assist us here in further understanding the psycho-social developmental needs of gifted students. Intrapersonal intelligence involves the capacity to understand oneself and Interpersonal Intelligence denotes a person’s capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of others (p. 31).
Akeelah demonstrates both verbal linguistic with her ability to utilize and memorize words, letters in phonemic sequence and understand how and in what way the meaning of these words takes shape in speech and expression. Akeelah also demonstrates inter- and intra-personal intelligence as she identifies her personal deficits that can potentially slow her down and her personal relationships with her mentor and Dylan that transform her into a more empathetic and sensitive young scholar.
Behaviorally, Akeelah demonstrated significant growth across Erik Erickson’s (1902-1994) domains of identity development. According to Herbert, gifted students encounter Erickson’s psychosocial stages of gifted development across the following plateaus: (a) trust vs mistrust; (b) autonomy vs shame; (c) initiative vs guilt; (d) industry vs inferiority; (e) identity vs identity confusion; (f) intimacy vs isolation; (g) generativity vs stagnation and; (h) integrity vs despair (pp. 148-149). Hébert notes that Erickson thought of these crises as not problematic catastrophes, but rather significant turning points in life that make individuals more valuable than usual and therefore these allow the individual to enhance their life potential with possibilities for growth (p. 148).
Relatedly, in Erickson’s theory of identity development he maintained that a coherent personality allowed one to maintain the sameness and continuity of one’s own existence and that is the personality that is consistently observed by others (p. 149). Akeelah wrestled with poverty, living in a high-crime and residentially segregated community and practically raised and empowered herself since her mother was not able to provide her with emotional supports. To this end, behaviorally, Akeelah represented aspects of all of the stages of development in the film, but most was industry vs. inferiority as she made sense of who she was: a black girl from South Central LA, and then a regional spelling bee scholar within the same continuum of adolescent growth.
Culturally diverse identity formation may be more complex since along with identity issues, many youngsters also encounter challenges across race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, language and sexual orientation (p. 158). For some young people of color, they may experience more significant challenges with respect their gifted identity and engagement partly based on cultural experiences that also carry with them subtle race-based realities that can be interpreted as offensive, troubling and more nuanced than their typical white gifted peers. Joseph Ponterotto and Paul Pederson (Hébert, 2011) recommended five identity models with four emergent themes that captured these students’ experiences; (a) identification with the white majority; (b) awareness, encounter, and search; (c) identification and immersion and; (d) integration and internalization (p. 159).
For some young people of color, they may experience more significant challenges with respect their gifted identity and engagement partly based on cultural experiences that also carry with them subtle race-based realities that can be interpreted as offensive, troubling and more nuanced than their typical white gifted peers.
These youth may also be more emotionally impacted by the trauma that they experienced as these relate to race. Akeelah made sense of whiteness and blackness and what was considered white and black, when she simply maligned Terrances’s comment: “Man, that’s a white word if I ever heard one. It’s a trick. Stop playing!”
Overall, Akeelah’s demonstrated what Hébert discussed, which are all of these salient social and emotional qualities of gifted students, in particular those of CLD students who attend high-needs and residentially segregated schools. To this end, the Akeelah, as a CLD student to developed a bicultural identity that confronted these adverse and sometimes hostile realities that oftentimes cause CLD gifted and high performing students to stay away from gifted education altogether. This becomes problematic if the field is presented as so monolithic, as CLD gifted students may feel at a disadvantage because of their own social and cultural differences until they avoid demonstrating their brilliance and resilience. As such, biculturalism becomes a concomitant survival mechanism in many respects, but educators must be careful not to paint with broad strokes since some CLD students only know how to function within a majority culture, whatever that culture is.
There are a number of strategies that Akeelah could access as she grappled with identity as a CLD student now participating in a setting with national attention that was less than diverse compared to where she came from. But, more importantly, as a child in middle school, there are strategies that her teacher(s) and her own principal would want to put into place, since society expects educators to understand how to meet the social and emotional needs of gifted students (Hébert, 2011).
Some general strategies include becoming a gifted advocate as an educator across educational spaces by including diversity initiatives within the classroom; utilizing biographies of heroes and heroines; using films; support groups and taking advantage of community resources are all a part of what it means to design an inclusive and culturally relevant gifted classroom and program. Akeelah is a child, and in this way, she could be open to difference and tolerant of others that want to harness her giftedness.
To this end, educators could do as Dr. Larabee suggested and use gifted inclusion interventions while taking the time to know the student.
Some additional recommendations that can support Akeelah’s identity challenges lay within others’ ability to locate her giftedness. To this end, educators could do as Dr. Larabee suggested and use gifted inclusion interventions while taking the time to know the student. A few culturally responsive recruitment interventions include: Type III Investigations, enrichment opportunities, counseling, female mentors, Rimm’s Tri-Focal Model and the Achievement Orientation Model (Hébert, 2011; pp. 256-267). These are a few recommendations with specific focused intervention methods that would benefit both those who work with students like Akeelah and others, since there are a number of salient issues with respect to CLD students and achievement that fall across home, community and social circles.
In conclusion, I think that both Akeelah and others within her social circle can achieve a more nuanced understanding through the seminal work of Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (1977). Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory has wide use and applicability in psychology. Bronfenbrenner maintained that environment influences and shapes an individual’s development over time. Bronfenbrenner maintains that the child’s interactions with environmental forces taken together with biological influences shape the development and perspectives. Bronfenbrenner calls this the bioecological theory of development (Hébert, 2011; pp. 122-123).
The four systems that shape the development include: a. microsystem; b. mesosystem; c. exosystem and; d. macrosystem. If we see how Akeelah’s relationships between her siblings and single parent, loss of her father, neighborhood effects and schooling impact her identity and development, we can help her to see the same and offer tangible interventions to build her intellectual capacity up to where it can be.
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York Williams is a graduate student in the Master of Education in Gifted Education program.