Meet the Visiting Faculty Fellow: Joseph D. Nelson, Ph.D.


Dr. Joseph Derrick Nelson is Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College, and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in the department of Education Policy and Social Analysis (EPSA) at Teachers College. He is also the 2018-2019 IUME Visiting Faculty Fellow. Recently, DL Moffitt, a IUME graduate student in EPSA’s Educational Policy program, interviewed Dr. Nelson:

Q: How did you begin your professional career in education?

A: I began my career in education as a First-Grade Teacher in my hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Located in the high-poverty neighborhood where I grew up, the co-ed elementary school where I taught had a single-sex intervention for a group of mostly Black boys—a group of 6-year-old boys that teachers and administrators at the public school had already labeled “at-risk” of academic failure and behavioral issues. The charge I was given by my well-meaning principal at the time was to “turn the boys around” by third-grade, or the special education referral process would be initiated. As a school publicly designated in need of improvement, the stakes were high from my principal’s perspective as a turnaround school leader. To circumvent a state takeover, my principal did not want the boys’ standardized test scores to negatively impact the school’s Annual Yearly Progress, and I became the embodiment of an early intervention for these young Black boys. Under the guise of offering support before I assumed this professional role, I was bombarded with narratives from school colleagues about the boys that were mired in negative race and gender stereotypes about Black boys and men, which I had to actively strive to ignore, in order to fully discover and learn about these boys for myself—boys who very much shared my own racial and class background. 

Q: You are currently co-leading a project on (Re)Imagining Black Boyhood, what do you think are the popular narratives that shape Black boys’ experiences in U.S. education?

A: My colleague Michael Dumas at Berkeley and I are co-leading the (Re)Imagining Black Boyhood Project, where we employ a three-year case study approach to examine how Black boys in public elementary schools explore their joys, intellectual curiosities, creative desires, and navigate the pursuit of learning, within public and scholarly discourses and narratives that have informed their lives as Black boys in-school and out-of-school. In this empirical project, we are particularly attentive to the intersections of gender, race, and class in the cultural production of Black boys’ childhoods. Dumas and I argue that Black boyhood has been essentially rendered “unimagined and unimaginable” in light of popular narratives that dehumanize Black boys, and rooted in a ‘crisis’ rhetoric that is associated with their negative school and life outcomes resulting from poverty (e.g., high rates of suspension and expulsion from school, low rates of high school and college completion, and high rates of homicide, suicide, and incarceration), as well as negative race and gender stereotypes linked to norms of Black masculinity (i.e., hyper-aggression, anti-intellectualism, and hyper-sexuality). In which case, Black boys during childhood are perceived by school adults to be older than their age, a ‘threat’ to be disciplined and controlled, rather than a child to be taught, and to help grow.

Q: What do you think teachers and administrators need to help them (re)imagine Black boys in their schools and classrooms? 

A: When I was a novice First-Grade Teacher, I was often handed empirically proven instructional strategies and curricula to effectively teach my young Black boys, but I quickly learned that these resources were going to be futile if I didn’t account for how the boys were thinking about their identities. Even at the age of six, boys were beginning to exhibit personas that reflected Black male stereotypes, largely in response to how they were being perceived and treated by teachers and other school adults as a “handful” or “troublemakers.” In my efforts to get to know the boys, I came to learn that relationships were a critical window into their identities apart from these pervasive stereotypes, not only for myself, but for the boys themselves. To counter the narratives I heard from colleagues, I learned that if I asked boys questions from a place of genuine curiosity and seeking to understand their perspectives, I would learn a great deal about who they are, and what they think about themselves, which could not be further from, and more varied and complex, than the negative stereotypes about Black boys and men might suggest. It wasn’t until I prioritized relationship-building, alongside their academic performance, that I became the most effective teacher of the boys—even against the mandate of my principal to “solely” focus on academic skills and their school conduct. Along with my colleague Michael Reichert at the University of Pennsylvania, I argue that relationships are the central medium through which learning and identity development occurs, and given their critical importance for Black boys in the U.S. context, I have presented in my own research a set of relational teaching strategies for Black boys that K-12 teachers can deploy, for the greater purpose of (re)imagining the Black boys in their classrooms, and in the world.