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Relational Teaching With Black Boys: Strategies for Learning at a Single-Sex Middle School for Boys of Color


by Joseph Derrick Nelson — 2016

Background/Context: Positive teacher-student relationships are critical for Black boys’ learning across single-sex and coeducational environments. Limited attention to these relationships by school professionals is rooted in deficit-oriented conceptions of boyhood and Black masculinity. The popular message of deficiency and pathology is clear: Black boys and men are either dangerous or at-risk and need to be saved. Such narrow conceptions are destructive, operate unconsciously, skew teachers’ perceptions of who boys are, and distort teachers’ efforts to meet boys’ distinct learning needs. A “boy crisis” in U.S. education has been characterized by a set of distressing school outcomes in specific learning categories. Racial marginalization and poverty only serve to exacerbate these negative academic outcomes, whereby low-income Black boys remain in the bottom quartile across all achievement measures. Scholars have recently begun to partly attribute boys’ underachievement to a lack of emphasis on the relational dimension of schools.

Purpose/Focus of the Study: (1) Illustrate how a set of relational teaching strategies supported Black boys’ engagement and learning, and (2) further contribute boys’ “voice” to a counternarrative, which strives to complicate and dispel negative race and gender stereotypes associated with Black males in the United States.

Setting/Population/Participants: This study employs a relational teaching framework to examine the learning relationships among teachers and a full cohort of eighth-grade Black boys (N = 27) at a single-sex middle school for boys of color in New York City.

Research Design/Data Collection: In-depth interviews from a critical ethnography conducted at the school-site (2011–2012) culled boys’ narratives of their teacher-student relationships.

Findings/Discussion: Boys particularly expressed how teachers must foremost convey mastery of course content, with a lucid set of humane behavioral expectations. Narratives from the boys revealed how relationally effective teachers consistently enacted the following gestures: reaching out and go beyond; personal advocacy; establishing common ground; and accommodating opposition. Teachers demonstrated the capacity to acquire and refine relational gestures, but relationship struggles among the boys and their teachers were commonplace. Core findings include: (a) Boys illuminated how specific aspects of the school context facilitated successful enactment of the relational teaching strategies by teachers; (b) teachers’ use of the relational strategies was also facilitated by the social categories of race, gender, and class the boys embodied; (c) boys’ engagement and learning benefitted from positive teacher–student relationships, which ensued after effective use of the relational teaching strategies; and (d) relational teaching with Black boys is not limited to either single-sex or coeducational learning environments.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 6, 2016, p. 1-30
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19961, Date Accessed: 3/26/2017 3:04:49 PM

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About the Author
  • Joseph Nelson
    Swarthmore College, University of Pennsylvania
    E-mail Author
    Joseph Derrick Nelson is a visiting assistant professor of educational studies at Swarthmore College and a senior research fellow with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. Nelson is a sociologist of education, a school ethnographer, and a teacher educator who employs interdisciplinary frameworks to examine the interplay of identity, culture, and urban schooling. His scholarship to date has explored how school culture influences Black boys' identities; fostered their resistance to rigid gender norms; and interrogated how schools limit Black boys' learning and engagement during childhood and early-adolescence. These empirical projects led to publications with Harvard Educational Review, Culture, Society, and Masculinities, the Psychology of Men and Masculinity, and the guest co-editorship of a special issue on boys’ education with the Journal of Boyhood Studies. Nelson is currently on the executive committee for the MacArthur-funded Center for the Study of Men and Masculinity at Stony Brook University and serves as the education liaison for the NoVo-funded Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University. His research has been supported by the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the International Boys’ School Coalition. In his hometown of Milwaukee, Nelson taught first grade for two years in a single-sex classroom for Black and Latino boys.
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