Joseph Derrick Nelson
For over a decade, single-sex schools for boys of color have increased in popularity among urban school districts in the United States. Growing interest in this school model, particularly from education professionals and community leaders, has been rooted in its perceived ability to mitigate hardships that low-income boys of color typically navigate in order to be successful students. A direct impetus for these single-sex learning contexts were a set of alarming social and academic outcomes associated with boys and men of color (e.g., high rates of homicide, suicide, and incarceration, and low rates of high school and college completion). While the establishment of these intervention-based schools reflects a genuine desire to reverse these trends, there is limited empirical evidence of their efficacy for boys’ of color social development and academic success. My research to date has explored the potential and constraints of single-sex learning environments for Black boys specifically, especially for middle and elementary school age Black boys living in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty.
In the low-income neighborhood where I grew-up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I began my professional career in education as a first-grade teacher in a single-sex class of Black and Latino boys—a group of boys considered “at-risk” of school failure by my well-meaning principal. Such a single-sex configuration for six-year-old boys of color, along with my being a Black male elementary school teacher from the local neighborhood, constituted a school-based intervention to address their emerging academic struggles and behavioral issues. While teaching these boys, I learned very early on that if I was going to be a successful schoolteacher and mentor, I needed to thoughtfully cultivate boys’ school and life aspirations, strive to foster positive learning relationships with each boy in the class, and among the boys’ themselves, and most importantly, account for and directly challenge how race and gender stereotypes of Black males in the U.S. (e.g., hyper-aggression, anti-intellectualism, and hyper-sexuality) negatively influenced their identities during childhood.
Given the urgency to “turn these boys around” by third grade—the grade-level at which the school district mandated clear evidence of academic growth and improved school conduct—I was hard-pressed to locate curricula, instructional strategies, and relationship-building approaches that effectively supported Black boys’ school success and identity development in single-sex settings, and my feverish search was to little or no avail. To contribute to this critical knowledge-based, during my doctoral studies in urban education, I was a research assistant for a 3-year study of seven newly formed single-sex middle and high schools for boys of color in New York, Chicago, Houston, and Atlanta, with the fundamental goal to explore their academic and social merits. This project later became a book entitled, "Schooling For Resilience: Improving the life trajectories of Black and Latino boys." (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014)
With research support through postdoctoral fellowships with the Ford Foundation and the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, my forthcoming book entitled, "Never Give Up: Portraits of Resilience, Academic Success, and Black Boys in Middle School" (Harvard Education Press) provides chapter-length portraits of high-achieving Black boys’ resilience to be successful students at a single-sex middle school for boys of color in New York City. In this book, I intended to vividly demonstrate how boys’ extraordinary resilience, while navigating structural racism and urban poverty in the U.S., led to remarkable academic success, and positive race and gender identities during early-adolescence—a critical developmental period for Black boys’ success in later years of school and life.
In the educational studies department, I teach courses that explore: (a) how gender norms, stereotypes, and expectations shape everyday life in urban schools and classrooms (EDUC 061: Gender and Education), explicitly in relation to racial bias and class background; (b) how sociocultural and psychological forces influence adolescent identity development processes, within and across the critical social contexts of home, neighborhood, and school (EDUC 023: Adolescence); and (c) how structural racism and poverty contribute to educational inequality, and race and class-based social stratification in American society (EDUC 062: Sociology of Education). Across all courses that I teach, students consider how school environments, and the training of school professionals can be adapted to better serve diverse student populations.
My partnerships with Swarthmore students have taken the form of faculty-student research collaborations over the summer months, and directed readings and/or independent studies during the academic year. In 2016, I partnered with a psychology and educational studies student to analyze focus groups, interviews, and observation data from a 10-month case study I conducted at a single-sex boarding school for 2nd and 3rd-grade boys of color in Trenton, New Jersey, which eventually led to conference presentations at the Society for Research on Child Development, and the American Educational Research Association, and a forthcoming publication with the Journal of Boyhood Studies.
In the Spring of 2018, I will teach a honors seminar entitled, Black Childhoods, Intersectionality, and Education (EDUC 133), where students will examine the lives of Black children in U.S. schools from a socio-historical and political perspective. Race, class, and gender through the lens of intersectionality theory will be taken up to investigate the distinct marginalization of Black children, particular Black boys. Interviews and observations from my current research project, (Re)Imagining Black Boyhood with my colleague Dr. Michael Dumas at Berkeley, will be analyzed through key concepts, perspectives, and theories in the seminar, along with fieldwork at a preschool and/or community-based organization with a child-centered mission to improve Black children’s school and life outcomes.
Ph.D., The Graduate Center, City University of New York (Urban Education)
Department of Educational Studies
Black Studies Program
Gender & Sexuality Studies Program
Areas of Expertise
Participatory Action Research
Race and Teacher Education
Qualitative Research Methods
Nelson, J.D. (2018). Never Give Up: Portraits of resilience, academic success, and Black boys in middle school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Stahl, G., Nelson, J.D., & Wallace, D. (2017). Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International perspectives. (Eds.). New York: Routledge.
Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles
Nelson, J.D., Maloney, T., & Hodges, Z. (2017). Engaging Diversity and Marginalization through Participatory Action Research: A model for independent school reform. Berkeley Review Education. 6(2). pp. 155-172.
Dumas, M., & Nelson, J.D. (2016). (Re)Imagining Black Boyhood: Toward a critical framework for educational research. Harvard Educational Review. 86(1). p. 27-47.
Nelson, J.D. (2016). Relational Teaching with Black Boys: Strategies for learning at a single-sex middle school for boys of color in New York City. Teachers College Record. 118(6). p. 1-30.
Nelson, J.D., Stahl, G., & Wallace, D. (2015). Race, Class, and Gender in Boys' Education: Repositioning Intersectionality theory. Culture, Society, and Masculinities. 7(2). p. 12-32.
Pupik-Dean, C., & Nelson, J.D. (2015). Sociocultural Learning and the Hope for School Change: Participatory Action Research at a public elementary school. Theory, Research, and Action in Urban Education. 4(1). http://www.traue.gc.cuny.edu.
Way, N., Cressen, J., Bodian, S., Preston, J., Nelson, J.D., & Hughes, D. (2014). "It might be nice to be a girl... Then you wouldn't have to be emotionless:" Boys' resistance to norms of masculinity during adolescence. Psychology of Men and Masculinity. 15(3). p. 241-252.
Reichert, M., & Nelson, J.D. (2012). Reproduction, Resistance, and Hope: The promise of schooling for boys. Journal of Boyhood Studies. 6(1), p. 4-15.
Reichert, M., Nelson, J.D., Heed, J. Yang, R., & Benson, W. (2012). “A Place To Be Myself:” The critical role of schools in helping boys be boys. Journal of Boyhood Studies. 6(1), p. 54-75.
Nelson, J.D., & Vidale, D. (2012). Helping Boys Take Flight: A peer-mentoring program for boys of color at the Riverdale Country School. Journal of Boyhood Studies. 6(2), p. 219-223.
Epstein, T., Mayorga, E., & Nelson, J. (2011). Teaching about Race in an Urban History Class: The effects of culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Social Studies Research. 35(1), p. 2-21.
Nelson, J.D. (2017). Teaching Black Boys During Childhood: A counter-narrative and considerations in Michael, A. (Eds). A Guide For White Women Teaching Black Boys. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications (Corwin).
Way, N., & Nelson, J.D., (2017). The Listening Project: Fostering connection and curiosity in middle school classrooms (Chapter 10) in Way, N., Ali, A., Gilligan, C., Noguera, P. (Eds.). The Crisis of Connection: Causes, consequences, and solutions. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Reichert, M., & Nelson, J.D. (2017). I Want To Learn From You: Relational strategies to engage boys in school (Chapter 13) in Way, N., Ali, A., Gilligan, C., Noguera, P. (Eds.). The Crisis of Connection: Causes, consequences, and solutions. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Nelson, J.D. (2016). “I Want To Be A Soccer Player Or A Mathematician:” Fifth-grade boys of color aspirations at a "neoliberal" single-sex school in Stahl, G., Nelson, J.D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.) Masculinity and Aspiration in the Era of Neoliberal Education: International perspectives. New York: Routledge.
Fergus, E., w/ Nelson, J. (2014). Assumptions and Strategies: A model for "saving" boys of color. In Fergus, F., Noguera, P., & Martin, M. Schooling for Resilience: Improving the life trajectories of Black and Latino boys. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
EDUC 014 – Pedagogy and Power: Introduction to Education
EDUC 023 – Adolescence
EDUC 061 – Gender and Education
EDUC 062 – Sociology of Education
EDUC 133 – Black Childhoods, Intersectionality, and Education
Honors and Awards
National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow 2015
Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow 2014